These past few weeks have certainly made up for all of the sitting around we did in October. I’m not sure there was a single dull moment in all of November, which I can hardly believe is already over. We’re just days away from concluding our first year on the road, but we’ve still got lots going on in the meantime!
I have to bring up the weather again because it has become the bane of my existence. I planned every stop on the tour pretty carefully, with the general climate predictions having a great deal of bearing on the places we planned to go. I expected it to be chilly in Tennessee and Virginia in November, of course. What I did NOT expect was to be facing temperatures in the low teens in North Carolina this time of year. It was sixteen degrees one night. Our fresh water pipes froze and I hardly slept then – we don’t have the battery capacity to run a big enough heater overnight, and I’m paranoid that if we leave the generator on while we sleep the exhaust will malfunction and we’ll die. So it’s been brutally cold most every night. South Carolina has been marginally warmer – we get highs in the mid-50’s, but nights dip down into the 30’s and 20’s often. Though it did snow while we were in the smoky mountains, it wasn’t much more than a dusting, and I unquestionably prefer this weather to a typical Buffalo early winter. But it’s far too close for comfort! In a van with sub-par insulation, this can still be far from tolerable. I’ve found that the weather has a tendency to permeate into a lot of other aspects of life and I’ll never make the mistake of being that far north at this time of year again. I, for one, hate getting up in the morning or doing much of anything when you can see your breath as soon as you stick your head out from under the covers.
Aside from all of that, the Carolina’s have been an adventure and then some; a little too much at times but mostly in the positive direction. We kicked things off down here with our very own “vansgiving”! We found a nice little KOA to camp out at for a few nights and made our very best attempt at recreating a real Thanksgiving dinner in our smallest-of-all-time kitchen. But I really feel like we pulled it off! Everything we made was the fastest, simplest version of the dish, but it came together in a way that made it feel like we were celebrating the holiday the way I was used to. We ended up with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, and an apple pie for dessert (and wine!). Now don’t get me wrong, it was weird not being home for the holiday and seeing family like I always have done for my entire life prior to this year. But I absolutely loved doing Thanksgiving exactly how we wanted to. There was no discussion of whose family we’d spend “Actual Thanksgiving” with and whose we’d see on a different night, no running around, no schedule to follow. Just us, in our little house on wheels, making as much food as we could handle whenever we felt like it. 10/10 holiday celebration, very much looking forward to doing that again next year.
Our string of Carolina shows started the day after Thanksgiving, and it’s kept us busier than we’ve been in quite a while. There’s nothing more welcome than a little bit of chaos after weeks of endless boredom as far as I’m concerned. Tonight will be our 7th show in two weeks, which is how I’d like our schedule to look year-round if I had my way (and it IS starting to look that way on the west coast – just wait til you see our schedule next spring). Of the 6 shows we’ve played so far, each one has been extraordinarily different from the last, but not a single one of them has been disappointing in the slightest. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve played great shows all over the country. But after this string of shows I’m left wondering why we spent any amount of our time in the Midwest and the Northeast… at our first show in North Carolina we made almost triple what we expected to make, and while that may have been our most financially lucrative show of the second half of 2018, every show following it has had a major redeeming quality in one way or another. We’re still here and I can’t wait to come back.
There’s something else to be said for the people of the south as well. Again, don’t think I’m knocking any other regions of this country when I say this, because we have met incredible people everywhere we’ve been time and time again. But from Chattanooga to Charleston, we’ve continually encountered some of the most attentive audiences, the most generous tippers, and the most genuine conversationalists. They pay us better here, they feed us better here, and they listen better here. We routinely have in depth discussions about our travels and adventures with strangers we meet after shows, not fueled by excessive alcohol consumption but because people are interested in our story. The old adage about southern hospitality is not exaggerated in the slightest. Living on the road can be a grind, especially on days when it feels like nobody in the bar is listening after you drove three hundred miles to get there. I don’t think I’ve ever once felt that way in the South. It’s really something special.
But unfortunately, as life often goes, when one things is going swimmingly, something less enjoyable is waiting to strike. We had our second real breakdown a week and a half ago just outside of Charlotte. This one was quite a bit scarier than our first problem when our battery died back in San Antonio. We were gearing up to leave a truck stop one afternoon, and when Greg turned the van on it didn’t appear to be charging our house batteries. Right away this raised some red flags, but I brushed them off as something that probably wasn’t immediately critical. We hit the road anyways and about five minutes after getting on the interstate, our radio shut off. Weird. I figured we had some kind of electrical issue, but we’ve had several of those in the past with a few non-critical ones left unresolved, so I was concerned but not too worried. I started Googling the symptoms, and that’s when things started to hit the fan. Our cigarette lighter outlet delivering power, which meant we had no speedometer. Our windshield wipers starting moving at a quarter of their normal speed. Random lights start illuminating on the dashboard. And then the engine started to sound funny. Keep in mind we’re doing 65 on the highway and all of this is happening within the span of a couple minutes. As this is going on, I come across an article about alternator failure, and it reads like someone is sitting in the van with us as they wrote the article; it’s textbook. And at the end of the article it describes how with no power left in your battery, your fuel injection system will cease to operate and the vehicle will die while you’re driving. This is where I start to panic. I tell Greg to take the next exit and do whatever he can to keep from coming to a full stop, as I wasn’t sure we’d have the battery power to get moving again. The auto gods had a moment of mercy and allowed us to essentially coast into a shopping plaza. We shut the van off and attempted to turn it back on with absolutely zero success – our alternator was clearly toast.
The the next 24 hours were much less frightening. We called Triple A first for battery service, just to make sure it was, in fact, our alternator causing the problem and hoping to avoid paying for the towing of an 8,000 pound van. Once the kindly technician was able to confirm that for us, he then sold us a new battery and installed it. He assured us that a fully charged battery would take us the five miles we needed to go, to the only mechanic open on the following morning, which was a Sunday – a Firestone. Fortunately it did, and we spent our first night ever sleeping in a mechanic’s parking lot (it was in a really nice part of High Point, NC – so it was actually a very quiet and peaceful place to park, which would have been awesome had I not been stressed out up to my eyeballs). I was also worried about leaving the van in the hands of a “chain” mechanic, but we were lucky enough to meet some supremely qualified guys working at this particular location. We were back on the road before noon – the whole thing lasted less than a full day. No gigs were missed or even remotely effected, which is a miracle in itself (a day later we were way up in the Smokies west of Asheville – a breakdown out there could have been a three day ordeal). But we drive a vehicle that was built in 1995, we drive it every day, and we put a lot of miles on this thing (we’re well over 60k miles now). Only two serious issues in twelve entire months of this still feels like a winning ratio to me.
But that brings us to my other (and often sole) source of stress – money. I don’t like to talk financials too much, because at the end of the day we’re making plenty of money to be comfortable in this lifestyle. But the long and short of it is that because of my digital marketing background I’ve been able to find more remote work, and Greg has not been so lucky. So I pay for 95% of the things that we do or need or want, and Greg pays for his student loans and saves what’s left over, and as a trade off handles things like driving, making dinner, and calling people because I hate talking on the phone. That’s been the status quo since about day one, and Greg and I are both comfortable with that arrangement because it makes the most sense. That is, until I picked up this new job. Part of the plan was to be able to visit places and enjoy being able to experience things while we did this, and when I have to be on the computer for four hours every day, it really cuts into that in a bad way. Four hours might not sound like a lot, but between playing gigs, booking shows, going to the gym, working my other part time job, and navigating van life – which often can often require as much work as a job – it doesn’t leave us too much time to do anything else. Plus, the job is very stressful and inflexible, and it can be mentally exhausting. Right now, since we’re heading into the home stretch, I’m just trying to pack away as much cash as I can while I still have the time. But 2019 is looking a whole lot busier than this year, and though I’m not one to freely throw away a chance to make some steady income, I’m seriously thinking about quitting and trying my luck with some less lucrative or reliable options to get my sanity and freedom back. Some day – I can’t say when, or that it’ll be anytime soon, but still – we’ll move out of the van and back into an immovable dwelling. I don’t want to come to the end of this road and find that I wish I had done more or seen more, but instead spent too much time staring at a computer screen when we could’ve gotten by without it.
So as usual, there have been ups and downs, but things are mostly looking up. The past couple of days, however, have been a particularly bright spot. On Wednesday we played something called the Awendaw Green Barn Jam. This is a weekly outdoor concert series in a suburb north of Charleston. We played with three other ensembles on a very eccentric little piece of property to a pretty large crowd on a 40 degree weekday night, an incredible feat in itself. But this show was an absolute blast. Not only did we get to swap stories with a couple other touring bands (a rarity for us, and something we always look forward to), but every single person working the event, selling food at the event, or playing the event, was an absolute delight to talk to and hang out with. And as an added bonus, they had a spot for us to park and plug in overnight. So for the first time in ages, we got together with a group of great people over
a bunch of beers after a gig. We were all strangers not hours before we were all congregating in one person’s living room, talking like we’d been friends for years. It reminded me so much of all the nights we’ve had after really good gigs back home, where good music and good people having a good time was the only thing anyone cared about all night. I can’t tell you how much we needed that reprieve. I could write an entire post on that night alone, about the Jam Ladies and the freezing weather and the cases of PBR and American Opera and the music teacher from Fredonia and the barn cat who almost lit his tail on fire, but alas, I don’t have the time…. maybe another day.
We kept things going the next morning – I wasn’t ready to get back on the computer. Instead, we headed into downtown Charleston to do some exploring. Greg had a hankering for an authentic southern breakfast, so we found a small little cafe in the city and loaded up on biscuits and gravy and other delicious, fatty, tasty breakfast foods. Then we went to the touristy area of downtown and spent a few hours just walking around, which we’ve done in just maybe four or five cities since June, as opposed to easily over a dozen, maybe more, in our first six months on the road. It felt good to be in a new place again, and I got such a good vibe from Charleston. It has all the charm of an old southern city, with the architecture and vibrant colors of New Orleans (it even has its own French Quarter), topped off with a gorgeous coastline. Not sure what else you could ask for in a city to be quite honest. I really wish we’d had more time to spend there this time around. But we only had time for just a few hours as there was work to be done once again. (But here’s a little slideshow of some of the sights:)
Today we’re headed into Myrtle Beach for a show at 9pm. We’re en route to they gym as we speak – I have work open in one tab and this blog open in the other, hopping back and forth between them whenever I have a couple seconds of a break, otherwise there would be no time for updates here until January, maybe. We’ve got five gigs and just over two weeks remaining until we go home for the holidays, so I’ll probably do one more post here after this until 2019.
Thanks as always for reading – I’ll see a lot of you guys real soon!