2018 is drawing to a close. As we’ve been prepping for the long drive home that starts in earnest this evening, I’ve spent the last few days re-reading this blog and putting together the above map of every road we’ve driven. Together these things do a pretty good job at chronicling what has been the most unbelievable year of my life so far. But in revisiting all the things that I’ve written about, I’ve been reminded just how many amazing moments I’ve left out of this blog as well. So, along with the summation that this post is going to be, I’d like to include some stories I never did justice to. (I’ll forewarn you – there’s four stories and they’re very long.)
It’s just past noon on a Tuesday, and we’re standing in a conference room. Or at least, that’s what it feels like; this particular local radio station is pretty bare-bones. I put my guitar back in its case and make idle chatter with Greg about the interview we’d just signed off from. It went well. The host closes out the show, turning things over to the afternoon voice of this local NPR affiliate, and joins us in the adjacent room as I’m slugging the lukewarm remains of my morning coffee. “So, what are your plans before your show tonight? There isn’t a lot to do in Amarillo,” she laughs. I tell her that we’re always looking for something different to do, and her eyes suddenly light up. “Have you ever been to Palo Duro Canyon?” We of course shake our heads. Neither of us had ever been to western Texas before, and we’d only arrived in town just three hours prior. “You have to go. If you only do one thing today, make it that.” Greg and I exchange a look. It’s mid-March, and the weather is abysmal. It’s probably in the low 40’s outside, heavily overcast and raining lightly. We need to be at our gig tonight by 6pm. But it’s only noon, and state parks are a notoriously affordable way to kill an afternoon. “We’ll have to check it out,” I say as we head for the door.
An hour later we’re south of the city, cruising down an extremely foggy single-lane highway. So far we’ve seen little more than sprawling acres of farmland. All around us the ground is flat and as yellow as I’ve ever seen it, starkly contrasted against a dismal, dark grey sky. I think to myself that we might be throwing away a half a tank of gas on this. But we solider on into the mist.
Out of nowhere the ground starts to turn red. Dark green shrubs begin to dot the yellow prairie that is rapidly disappearing. I turn to my right and look out the passenger side window, and in a break in the fog I see a massive gouge in the earth. It’s probably fifty feet deep and three times as wide. “Look at that!” I’m practically yelling. In all our travels so far I had never seen anything like it. I grab my phone and snap a dozen pictures, only to find that it looks like nothing more than dark smudges on my phone screen. How is that even possible? I’m suddenly upset that I won’t be able to share what this place is really like with anyone else, but the thought is fleeting as more and more canyons start to become visible.
The highway dwindles until we arrive at the park gate, and the electric excitement in the van is palpable. The landscape around us has changed so drastically in the last five minutes that it almost seems impossible for it to get better. We follow the road – now little more than a dirt path – into the park, around a few corners and down a few small hills, and abruptly the real canyons come into view.
Even in the heavy fog, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The canyons stretch as far as you can see in every direction. We’re standing on the rim, hundreds of feet above the rivers that run through it. It’s brilliant shades of red and orange carved in bizarre patterns and formations, and there’s something new to marvel at every time you move your eyes. I’ve never seen something so majestic and breathtaking and it leaves me at a loss for words.
We park the van on the edge of the rim and get dressed for the weather – a long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, winter jacket, scarf, boots, and a beanie for myself to stave off the cold the best I can. And then we pile out of the van and even closer to the rim’s edge to get a better view. I find I could have stood out there in a t-shirt, the view is so incredible that I couldn’t have cared less about the weather. We both took countless photos, knowing full well that there was hardly a point in doing so. I hold the details in my mind more clearly than any picture we took ever captured.
But I do look back on those pictures because we included ourselves in so many of them. We take a lot of photos; a fact that should surprise no one. More often than not they’re of places and things, and not of us. But on this day, each of us took dozens of pictures of the other, and the amount of happiness I can see in us there surpasses nearly any other place we’ve been before or since. This was the very first place that gave us the sense of adventure and discovery that we’ve chased doggedly ever since. It came so unexpectedly and caught us so off guard that it felt surreal that we had ended up there at all. And it showed us, particularly me, that not only is it okay to embrace the unpredictable, but there are things that you might never see and places you will never go if you always stick to the plan. I’ve carried that sentiment with me since that afternoon.
We spent the next four hours exploring the canyons, hiking in and around little trails that cut through the rocks at the bottom. In my naivete, as we were leaving I thought this might be one of the coolest things we’d see this year. I thought that maybe this place was just an amazingly well kept secret. Surely I wouldn’t be more impressed by the red rocks of Colorado, the martian landscapes of Utah, and the Arizona desert and mountains. Surely the Grand Canyon must look a lot like this; after all, Palo Duro is the second largest canyon system in the country.
I was wrong about all of that, and I’d be wrong a hundred more times if it means I get to return to those places. But I will always think of Palo Duro fondly, because I remember it as the place that started my love affair with the American Southwest.
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m laying on my back in the middle of a parking lot. The metal guts of the van protrude out at odd angles just inches above my face. I sigh deeply, wondering to myself if airborne rust particles are toxic to breathe in, and in the same moment realizing they can’t possibly be good for you. Pushing this from my mind, I call out to Greg who’s standing next to the van in front of a pile of tools and assorted materials that are far from ideal for the job at hand. “Okay, hand me the first one.” Greg reaches under the van and hands me a roll of muffler tape – the kind that has to be soaked in water before use, so naturally it’s dripping a watery orange substance everywhere. But this is now the second time I’ve done this job, and this tape looks a lot less dried out than the stuff we bought in New Orleans that failed on us in less than two weeks. I look to our poor muffler, practically completely unwound again. It strongly resembles an empty can of soup that’s been torn down one side, a flimsy ragged edge hanging far too close to the ground for comfort.
I take this slimy tape in a gloved hand and start wrapping it around the largest part of the torn metal flap. It pulls things back into something that resembles a muffler-shaped-object, if you can ignore the gaping, rusty hole in the bottom that no amount of tape was going to fix. But this is not a beauty pageant. I’ve got all my hair tucked into a beanie to keep it off the ground, sunglasses on to keep any rogue shards of metal out of my eyes, and orange muffler tape juice running down my arms and encroaching on my rolled up sleeves. It doesn’t need to be pretty, it just has to work.
I get the first roll in place, secured with a second roll of slightly more normal tape to keep it from moving until we can turn the van on. The slimy orange stuff is heat activated, so I’m working as quickly as I can so we can get things permanently bonded as soon as possible. My arms are tired from holding them straight up for minutes on end. This parking lot isn’t exactly clean, and I’m in my good sweatshirt. But Greg hands me the second roll of tape, and I do the best I cant to strategically position it around the muffler so that it won’t give out on us a second time. I struggle with it for a few minutes, but eventually I decide it’s good enough. I climb out from under the van, desperately trying to keep my hands from touching anything. I’m sure to any passerby that in that moment I looked crazy, or homeless, or both, especially since I was half grinning at the absurdity of what we were doing.
Not three hours earlier I had just purchased my new Gibson. I did this repair in the parking lot of the Guitar Center where I bought it while waiting for the technician to add a strap button to it before hitting the road again. Three hours ago I was chatting with a salesman about how much fun it is being on the road, and how well the tour is going, in a completely normal outfit while buying a very expensive guitar. I’m not sure anyone who saw me in that moment would have recognized me climbing out from under the van; certainly I didn’t look like the same person in any conceivable way. But that’s the reality that we live in now. One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next you’re literally laying on the ground in a parking lot.
It’s well after midnight in Wichita, Kansas in late April, and we’ve just finished our set. We’re in the the quintessential music dive bar, with posters and stickers covering black walls and a hearty old soul behind the bar offering us cans of PBR. It’s always PBR.
We had a good night, unexpectedly. Wichita is a college town, and we don’t fare as well with the under 30 crowd as I’d like. But the people that come to Kirby’s are people that want to see and support live music, and I’m not sure there’s a more exciting trait to discover at a new venue. So often we’re relegated to a corner of the bar to play cover song after cover song that a stage alone, small as it may be, is a refreshing sight. Along with the usual handful of CDs, we sold three shirts right then – at the time the most we’d ever sold in a single evening. We were second of three on a Thursday night bill, so a rare opportunity to stay and catch our breath before heading off to wherever we could find to park for the night had presented itself. So we each take another free PBR and return to the merch table. We aren’t starved for a social life, but we take every chance we get to find and talk to good people. On the road, any connections you make with locals are so often fleeting and temporary, so we try and make them count.
The questions come in the order they always do. Where are you from? What are you doing here? How long have you been touring? What was your van before it was an RV, an ambulance or an armored car? Who books your shows? What’s your favorite song to play? Are you a couple? Where are you playing tomorrow night?
We of course have a canned answer for every one of these by now. I alone have answered each one a hundred times, often two or three times a night. But every night has a different flavor, and tonight it’s Buffalo pride. There’s a Bills fan here talking our ear off about Buffalo being the best city of all time. He’s never lived there, he says, but the “Bills Mafia” is so cool and the people he’s met from there are so awesome. He can’t wait to visit again. He takes a picture with us to post on his Wichita Bills Fans Facebook page. I’m weirdly put out by all of this, wondering if this guy was even here for our set.
We make our way back inside to catch the third performer. It’s a guy with an acoustic guitar and he’s playing Neil Young. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” he sings to the still-crowded room. And how true that feels right now. I think of the Buffalo fan outside and wonder where he got all those ideas. For a minute I want to tell him that’s he wrong, but the truth is that he isn’t. Buffalo, for all its worth, shaped me into the person and musician I’ve grown into. And it certainly is the right place for a lot of people. But I had already started to fade away before we left, fading into the cycle of a bitter weekend warrior with all of this desire and nothing to do but drink it away. Buffalo watered and fed me, showed me the ropes, and then told me to get the hell out the minute I was starting to stand steady on my feet. And now, over a thousand miles away, it feels like the best gift I could ever have been given. There’s a bar full of people in a city I’ve never been to before who came to see us play and want to see us play again, entirely because of what I was able to build for us from the ground up. I’m not sure things would have ended up this way if I had been living somewhere else. It’s hard not to be thankful now, when I can look back on everything instead of just blindly wading into an uncharted future.
The night is winding down and our grizzled bartender signals last call. I grab one of our stickers from the merch table and plaster it on the front door alongside hundreds of others. I know this won’t be the last time we’re here, but it feels good to add our name to the roster of people who have played this locally-famous little hole in the wall. We shake hands with our temporary friends and they promise to look us up online. We truly wish each other well though we all know we’ll likely never meet again. Then we haul all our gear from the bar to the back of the van and climb in. There’s a truck stop half an hour away from here. I chart the course and we hit the road again, forever tired but a long, long ways from burning out.
It’s mid-afternoon in the Rocky Mountains. The road before us is hardly deserving of the title, looking like a rough-hewn gravel pathway more suitable for four-wheelers or wild horses than something of our maneuverability. The suspension creaks and rattles with each pothole and dirt mound. I grit my teeth and hope no lasting damage is being done; without cell phone service, the town we passed a half an hour ago might as well be a world away.
“Is that a bald eagle?” I find myself suddenly exclaiming. “Oh my God, there’s two!” They appeared as if from nowhere to soar lazily between the snow capped peaks and valleys surrounding us, only to disappear as quickly into the dense forest. We watch them go with rapt attention; it wasn’t too unlike seeing a mythical creature.
We shouldn’t have been so surprised, really. Finding ourselves in the most remote place either of us had ever been should have been reason enough to expect all of these things. But at just four months into this lifestyle, how could we be prepared for much of anything? Every day has dealt us a different set of circumstances, and we’re just trying to field as many pitches as we can. Was it really just a week ago that we left the dry heat and urban sprawl of Phoenix? I’d never felt further from the desert than I did in this moment, absent-mindedly worrying we’d encounter some significant overnight snowfall despite feeling we were well into spring. No way to check the weather, though.
Another rusty pickup truck flies by us on the left, passing us at easily double our own speed. The fact that anyone could choose to live permanently in a place like this baffles me more than I’d like to admit. We’ve easily passed a dozen farms, some that were definitely stately vacation cabins and others with long-term residents seeming to be scraping to get by. I’m excited to be here now, but the isolation makes me a little nervous. I couldn’t do this place long-term. I then realize that forgot to tell my parents we’d be unreachable. I hope they don’t try to call.
“It’s on the right in two more miles,” I tell Greg, raising my voice to be heard over the road noise. We’re cruising at an easy 20mph, so it takes far longer than it should have to arrive. Finally, we pull into something that resembles a campground. It’s a free “recreation area”. There’s a few picnic tables and fire rings, and an outhouse that’s still locked for the season. The Welcome Sign tells us not to shoot off fireworks and to pack out all garbage. There isn’t another person or vehicle in sight.
I step out to stretch my legs, quietly rejoicing that the van appears to still be in working order. The distinct sound of rushing water is suddenly audible to my right. A few steps into the brush reveals the bright blue waters of a mountain river running strong not ten yards from our parking spot. The barely-legible sign indicates that it’s the Colorado River. The very same creator of the Grand Canyon was here, in front of us. A private viewing of a natural legend. The waters are so crystal clear that if it was warmer, I would have undoubtedly jumped in.
I follow the river to my right, scrambling over loose gravel and down a shallow embankment. Greg’s footsteps are behind me. We don’t have to go far to find a better viewing of the water. The river curves around a corner, deepening under the small bridge carrying the single road back to civilization. The banks are lined with dense weeds and plants I can’t identify, and it’s so early in the season that not a single tree has gotten it’s leaves yet. You could call it bleak, but I found it surprisingly beautiful. This place must be amazing in the summertime, I muse. Suddenly a dark shape materializes downstream. “What is that?” I say in Greg’s general direction, with a vague notion that he probably has as much a clue as I do. A moment passes, and the dark shape morphs into three, and a small, brown, wet head pokes out of the water. “Otters!”
As if on cue, one of the river otters climbs up onto a bare patch in the river bank. We watch them in awe for the better part of a half hour, swimming and chirping around the river. To credit the place as magical seems cheesy, but in the moment no other words were really doing it justice. It reads like a scene from an overly romanticized novel, but instead it’s unfolding in front of my eyes. It isn’t the first time that I’ve felt this way about a place and I know it won’t be the last, but it hits me like a ton of bricks every time.
As the sun starts to dip behind the mountains we slowly retreat to the van. A whistle sounds, and the isolation is abruptly interrupted with the sounds of a rusty freight train that is cutting across the river bank opposite us. I watch it pass from the driver’s seat. What an odd place for train tracks, I think. I wonder where they’re going. I wonder why.
“What do you want for dinner?” I hear Greg ask from somewhere behind me. But I don’t care about that right now. I try to immortalize this moment. How the sky looks, the pattern of the smudges on the windshield, the rumble of the train wheels, the whispering of the wind through the towering pine trees outside. I try to recall the nearly unbelievable sequence of events that have lead me here. I can feel that this is a place I’ll want to remember. I know I might never find my way back to this particular spot. I stop and just breathe in as much of it in as I possibly can.
Then I climb into the back of the van to have dinner, and the scene ends. The part of me that drinks in these moments water from a desert spring goes back to sleep, waiting endlessly for the next place that leaves me nothing but happy to be alive.
It’s a lot, right? I only regret I couldn’t have captured every single day like that. For each of those stories there’s two dozen more just like it. I hope you enjoyed reading them, but honestly I wrote those mostly for myself. I already find that certain events and places look fainter in my mind than I’d like, and I want to hold on to as much of this year as I possibly can.
I can’t believe the year is ending. I can’t believe we’ve gone over 20,000 miles. I can’t believe we made it this far. The good days outweighed the bad in droves, but there were more than a few times where I thought we wouldn’t make it. But not only did we make it, we don’t have any plans to stop for at least another two solid years, very possibly longer. If you had told me this a year ago I probably would have passed out from the massive weight you would have just lifted off me.
But truthfully I think I’m an entirely different person now. I think back to what I was doing a year ago at Christmas and the weeks leading up to our departure, and it seems like every opinion that I used to hold has changed in some way. I don’t think it’s outwardly obvious, especially to anyone who doesn’t know me well, but there isn’t a thing in this world that I don’t see a little differently than I did just twelve short months ago.
I could write an entire novel on the things I’ve learned. But I think the biggest lesson for me has been the finite nature of everything in this life. Greg and I spend such a short time in each place that we travel to that we often feel the need to really make every moment count. When you wake up each morning feeling like you need to make the most of it, your perspective on the world changes like crazy. And it bleeds into every aspect of life. Everything comes to an end. It’s so important to me now to spend my time and energy on the things and people that are truly important to me, and to let everything else go.
I don’t know what the future holds for us past next June. But I do know we have at least that long. This year has been incredible, but as selfish as it may sound I truly hope the best days are yet to come. Though I still have a hard time believing things could get better than this.
So many people ask me what my favorite place we’ve been is. And while we’ve been to some amazing cities and places, my favorite part of all of this is the in-between. Of course when I think back on this year, I think of all the amazing places, shows, natural wonders and incredible people that we’ve visited and met. But what might surprise you (and surprised me a bit too) is that I think my favorite thing might actually be the driving.
On the best drives, we’re heading somewhere completely new. Greg is driving with his window down. I’m in the passenger seat and there’s Jason Isbell or Brandi Carlile on the radio. The van is cruising down a brand new highway, and we have no idea what we’re going to find when we get over the top of this hill. And that’s always the best part – we’re forever looking for the next adventure together.
I thought about it, but I’m not going to stop writing here. I’ll be back in 2019. Thanks for following along with us for all this time. Here’s to hoping this is just the end of the beginning.