Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Elvis Finds God on Route 66

Robert Huber

This month marks forty years since Elvis Presley died. But the legendary singer and actor found God long before that…on Route 66 near Winslow, to be exact. Scott Thybony has more in his latest Canyon Commentary. 

Somewhere on Route 66 near Two Guns, or it might have been Twin Arrows, Elvis Presley found God. The singer who became an idol to millions had left Graceland on his way to Hollywood to star in a movie called Harum Scarum. It was 1965, and being behind schedule the crew members took turns driving the bus straight through. 

Despite his phenomenal success, Elvis had reached a point in his life where he felt hollowed out, empty inside. During the past year he had read a hundred books on religion, which left him desperate to experience God firsthand. His spiritual quest had reached a crisis point, and doubts were crowding in. For hundreds of miles, Elvis brooded, rarely talking to his crew. When they reached Amarillo, he took the wheel and continued driving west.

They crossed New Mexico and entered Arizona on a highway pointing deeper into the blank distance. Larry Geller, his hairdresser turned spiritual advisor, sat next to him. “Man” Elvis said, “I needed this to really shake the past and be alone like this with nature, away from everyone else.” As he drove beyond the Painted Desert, Elvis kept his thoughts to himself. 

“In the distance, mountains loomed in the fading light,” Geller recalled in his book, If I Can, Elvis’ Own Story. “An iridescent blue sky seemed to drape itself over the sacred mountains of the Hopi Indians and color everything in view with a peaceful, heavenly shade.” Without warning Elvis shouted, “Whoa!”

He was staring at a mass of clouds building over the San Francisco Peaks. “Do you see what I see?” he asked Geller, who looked up and instantly recognized the face of Joseph Stalin in the clouds. They watched it change shape and disappear, but Elvis continued to gaze upward. Suddenly he hit the brakes and pulled off the highway. Jumping out, he took off running into the desert and told the hairdresser to follow. 

“It’s God!  It’s God!” he cried with tears streaming down his face. “It’s love. God is love!” He hugged Geller, laughing and crying, overcome by what had happened. He explained how he initially feared the dictator’s face was a projection of his inner self, and if true he only wanted to die. But as he watched, the cloud transformed into the smiling face of Jesus, and Elvis knew God had finally revealed himself. 

“Can you imagine,” he asked Geller, “what the fans would think if they saw me like this?” 

The two of them walked back to the bus and resumed their journey. By the time they reached California, Elvis had decided to radically change his life and told Geller he wanted to become a monk. The hairdresser realized they could lose the entire brand if he followed through. So he had a long talk with his friend and convinced him his talent was a gift from God, one he couldn’t renounce. Elvis agreed to continue his career and soon slipped back into the celebrity scene.

The singer had come a long way from Tupelo, and I suppose his fate had been set long before. But I wonder how different things might have been if he had let the vision on Route 66 change his life. Instead of spending his final years as a lounge act in Vegas, Elvis might have ended up in a monk's robes singing Gregorian chants in a remote monastery.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.
Related Content