We’re less than three hours away from another long overnight drive back to Buffalo. I have a wildly varying number of conflicting feelings about this, and each time we prepare for our return I find the overwhelming majority of these are not as positive as they used to be. But at the end of our last tour I concluded things with a collection of stories from our recent travels, and I’d like to do something similar this time around. Instead of just stories, I’m going to give you a glimpse into the deleted scenes of the past six months – we try to curate the things that make it out into the world of social media, and there’s so much that we never get to talk about. So here are some photos and anecdotes from the life of a van-dwelling touring musician.
I wanted to start with this since it’s been all I’ve thought about since we left. Hawaii was borderline magical. Of course you expect it to be beautiful, but it truly feels like some kind of otherworldly paradise. I could talk for hours about all the things we did and how much I loved it.
If you follow us on any other social media platform, you’ve seen all the beautiful pictures Greg and I posted that week and several weeks after. The snorkeling videos, the beautiful green mountains and jungles, the unbelievable food, the plumeria flowers and the hiking views. But this picture is how I will always remember that trip. This was towards the end of a beach day, after swimming in an immense surf on one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen. Just outside this shot, Greg and my sister Haley are still in the water, being tossed around by the waves and grinning from ear to ear. My dad is standing next to me. I am exhausted here. My hair is an absolute mess and my rash guard is full of sand. But in this exact, candid moment, I can’t even begin to tell you how honestly happy I was. To be surrounded by family in our own personal Shangri-La, where each and every moment was an undeniable adventure and seemed to be better than the last. Unforgettable does not even begin to describe how I feel about our time on Oahu, and I am so unbelievably thankful that I got to experience every moment surrounded by some of my favorite people on earth.
I have also vowed that this will most definitely not be the only time I go to Hawaii. I may never get to live in paradise like my sister did, but I have more than a sneaking suspicion that we could make our next trip out there a business venture.
Mahalo and aloha, Honolulu. We’ll be seeing you, and that’s a promise.
On finding other people’s cool vans:
One of the best resources I had when planning how to move into the van back in 2017 was other people already living in their vans. There is an astounding community of van-dwellers and full time RV-ers all over the world, and every once in a while we get to encounter some of them. Most often, we’ll see a Mercedes Sprinter with a roof vent installed and argue about whether or not it’s a camper on the inside. But every once in a while, we come across a rig that is undeniably a complete camper conversion, and it’s way cooler than anything we’ll ever drive.
The top picture was at the Grand Canyon this year – that truck was MASSIVE. And European! And while it was most definitely an RV, all I could think of was the gas mileage whoever drives that is getting. The second picture was after an overnight stop at a Walmart in Daphne, Alabama. That little red van that could is exactly the kind of photogenic van I wish we were driving, save for the lack of space we’d have in anything smaller than our current ride. The last was just recently in Kansas at a TA truck stop. It might be hard to tell from the angle, but that thing is a school bus. Whoever converted it raised the roof up by about a foot, and installed that whole back porch looking area, on top of painting it and whatever awesome stuff they did to the inside.
By the van life community standards, our van couldn’t be further from “cool”. We don’t get nearly as many Instagram followers as the weekend warriors driving cool 70’s campervans or the families living in Skoolie conversion buses. But the thing about living in a van is that you can customize everything to exactly what you need to achieve anything that you could possibly imagine. And our big, boxy, white Beast is perfect for us in so many ways. I hope she runs for another hundred thousand miles.
On weird tips at gigs:
People LOVE to put weird stuff in our tip jar. Greg does this joke at a lot of our gig that goes “If you like what you hear, you can toss some money in the tip jar, and if you don’t, you can write what you don’t like about us on the back of a twenty dollar bill and put it in our suggestion box.” It gets a laugh nearly every single time, and over the years we’ve received dollar bills with lots of stuff written all over them – usually compliments and song requests. (Nobody has critiqued us via a tip, yet.) But I have so many weird tales of things people have tipped us, given us after the show, or written on paper and tossed on our merch stand.
I don’t have pictures of the best stories, but I’ll tell them anyways. My favorite song request story was at a bar in South Carolina where we were being really well received. A camo-clad southern gentleman threw five bucks and a piece of paper in the tip jar. Whenever paper ends up there, I always have to stop after the current song and fish it out, because it’s usually a song request. This time it was, but it took me a second to decipher it. This guy actually wanted us to play the National Anthem. In a bar. At 11pm. I think he was trying to show off his patriotism to his lady friend that was with him, but I don’t think she would have been too thrilled if we asked everyone to put down their drinks, get up from the bar and remove their hats. We had to skip that one, despite him submitting the same request a half an hour later. (Though I often wish we had played it just to see what would have happened).
We’ve also been tipped the following: a winning ($2) lottery ticket, dollar bills folded into origami, meatballs, hundred dollar bills (my favorite), K-Cups, and more than once, drugs (which we politely returned). The top picture is from our show in Boulder earlier this week, we actually received two of those in absolute mint condition. The second was on Easter in California, at a tiny little saloon north of San Francisco. Everyone tells you to say no to drugs from strange people and I think we’ve mastered the art of that, but nobody prepares you for how to handle when some lady you’ve never met wants to tip you in hard boiled Easter eggs.
None of this is said with malice, however. As much as a $5 bill goes a lot further in our gas tank than almost any of this other stuff, I don’t tell stories about those tips. Except for the homemade food. Just buy us a beer instead, please.
On van repairs:
We’ve put over 40K miles on the van since we bought it. It’s a ’95. So it’s inevitable that things break down with some sort of regularity. I’ve talked about this at length in previous posts, but I thought I might shed some light on what actually happens when something decides to die on us.
Step 1: Hear a weird new sound. Decide to ignore it until it starts happening with regularity.
Step 2: Hear the sound for the third consecutive day in a row. Curse a lot when it starts happening every time you drive.
Step 3: Google some stuff to decide whether this sound is likely going to cause you to be stranded or if you can put off repairing it until the end of the tour.
Step 4: Google has told you it’s either an inconsequential piece of the suspension, or your engine is literally dying. Not exactly helpful.
Step 5: Text my dad to confirm what I suspect the problem to be. You know how on cop shows the team always has someone sitting in front of a bunch of computers they can call who can give them the crucial information they need to catch the bad guys? That’s what texting my dad when I’m worried we’re going to break down feels like.
Step 6: Based on my dad’s recommendation, either: do nothing because it’s not a big deal, try a temporary DIY fix, or immediately start looking for a mechanic (and start praying that you get lucky and it doesn’t cost you your entire grocery budget for the week).
Step 7: Rinse and repeat in two weeks when the next new sound pops up.
As my dad would tell you, this is what happens when you have old shit. Break down stories are often of the more exciting variety to tell, but damn do they suck when they’re happening. The pictures above are of two separate repair incidents that we attempted to DIY, but so far are technically unresolved. The first is a picture of our starter (and a glimpse at how rusty the undercarriage really is), because the van has started doing this thing where it doesn’t start every single time you turn the key. We were considering replacing that, but after climbing underneath to take that picture I noticed what’s shown in picture number 3, which is a cable running directly to our battery that was all but chewed through. We settled on replacing that cable first before trying to mess with the starter – while we were in Idaho we set up shop in an Auto Zone parking lot for a few hours and completed that job ourselves. Since that swap, the van has only not started on us a couple times, so we think that it helped. We’re in the “put it off until the tour ends” phase of repair there.
The second picture is of our old multi meter. It’s really tough to have anyone help you diagnose a problem from a thousand miles away. So whenever I do call my dad about an issue, I’m always sending pictures of stuff to try and make clearer the problem we’re dealing with. With this particular picture, if I remember correctly we were determining whether that multi meter was capable of reading current (it was not). This was also when we were having an issue with the van starting back in February, but at that time the van would start when we jumped it, and recently a jump does nothing if it doesn’t turn on. So we suspected a parasitic drain on the battery and needed to test it with a better-equipped multi meter. Sadly we found no such drain and the problem seemingly vanished overnight, as many of the van’s idiosyncrasies seem to do. It’s yet to be seen whether or not this one will come back around to inconvenience us yet again.
Ah, me and my old shit. A tale as old as time. But I’ll take a mechanical issue over a sewage problem every day.
On the eternal question of getting a dog:
I’ve shared this picture before, but look how damn perfect our friend’s Chihuahua Sally looks in the back of our van.
I’ve been around dogs all of my life and I love most dogs more than I like most people. And we get asked fairly often if we travel with a dog. Now, I would like nothing more than to run at full speed to the nearest animal shelter and adopt the first scrappy little terrier I set my eyes on. And I know Greg feels similarly. And there are lots of other van-lifers and RVers who have pets, in fact I know more than one person travelling full-time with multiple large dogs.
But the truth is that right now, it would be very tricky. Possible? Sure. But it would make things quite a bit harder than they are now logistically. When we aren’t playing a gig, our lifestyle is perhaps as dog-friendly as they come. We hike, we go camping, we’re always outdoors with somewhere to run around – some truck stops even have dog parks these days. But we also have to do things like go to the gym. And spend four to five hours inside music venues when the van is parked three blocks away. And go grocery shopping when it’s 90+ degrees outside. If we had an air conditioner that didn’t require electrical hookups, or if we could afford to always leave the van in a campground when we have a gig, I would absolutely 100% get a dog literally tomorrow. But the van gets so hot sometimes, and our schedule can be so crazy, and the last thing I’d want to do was make both the dog and us miserable.
That being said, I look at animal shelter pet listings about once a week. I feel like my life would be legitimately complete with a furry little co-pilot hanging his head out the window. We would need a unique dog – a dog who loves meeting people and going new places, who doesn’t mind loud noises at truck stops and could behave if we brought him to a show (I envision an 150% increase in tips if we had a dog wearing our sign). A dog who doesn’t bark much, who can be trained well, and who’s small enough to be comfortable in our little 8×12 foot space we call home.
I believe that dog is out there, and that one day we’re gonna stumble across him. Until then, I’ll keep spending too much of my free time watching videos of dogs on the internet. Someday, someday.
On trying to take decent pictures and failing 80% of the time:
This is why most of our pictures we post are of the van, or a landscape, or other random things, and much less often of us. I often tell Greg “Take a picture of me!” And then he takes one or two and I look at them and immediately decide they will never see the light of day. Because the truth now is that all of our social media activities have to be coordinated. We can’t post goofy pictures or bad shots of us unless they’re remarkable in some way, because for us social media is a tool to connect with people about what we do and not a personal journal (and that’s one of the reasons I started this blog – this is more for me than anyone else). And unflattering pictures of us don’t do us any favors. Slowly over time, we’ve learned how to tell each other to “make a less weird face and stand less weirdly”, and overall the quality of our pictures has really gone up. But in every set of photos we take, the large majority always look like this when we’re the subjects.
But I keep them all anyways and save them for myself. Like these ones, for example. This was in New Orleans (no surprise there) on the Sunday before Mardi Gras in a little bar in the French Quarter called Cafe Beignet. We had just finished watching a parade and wanted to find a place to sit down for a while. And I asked Greg to get a cool picture of me….. and these are what I got. I’m sure that if I ever have kids they’ll find these super amusing, along with the hundreds of others that look very similar to this from all over the country. And they are amusing. But what’s really great about all the shots that never make it to the Instagram page usually tell a better story than the ones that do. You can almost see me in the first picture asking Greg what in the hell he was doing.
On the whole music thing:
The third picture in this set here is something I have not previously shared publicly. This past year I had applied for us to have a performance showcase at South by Southwest. For the uninitiated, it’s one of the biggest music festivals in the country. I expected no response fully and completely, but we were going to be in Austin where it’s held at the exact same time as the festival no matter what. So with literally nothing to lose, I applied and kind of forgot about it. Until I got the email pictured above. Now, I would have of course loved to hear yes. But this was quite literally the next best thing, and said in a fairly flattering way by a very prestigious selection committee. I was absolutely floored when it showed up in my inbox.
Of course, we ended up not getting called for the festival – that I most certainly would have posted about. But that doesn’t matter to me at all. I applied with our current music, press quotes, and media, thinking it was absolutely not on par with what the bar is set at for a festival like this. And instead of “thanks-but-no-thanks” we got a maybe. A maybe! That means they liked what they heard and saw. That means someone read our application and listened to our music and thought we might be a good fit for the festival. And on learning that, I know that once this new album comes out and we hit things really hard next year like we’ve planned to, we have a really good shot at getting the “yes” that I’m chasing.
The top picture is our Spotify code. You can scan that in the Spotify app and it’ll take you right to our page, which is cool. Spotify is our target with this new album. As much as selling CDs and getting Facebook likes are important, one of the biggest metrics that people look at when gauging a band’s success these days is how much their music has been streamed online. So I’ve laid out a pretty comprehensive marketing plan for the next 8-12 months that really focuses all of our energy there. My digital marketing background has come in handy more times than I can count, I’ll tell ya that. But things like this make it a great time to be an independent musician. Previously you needed a record label to swoop in and blast your music out to the masses. Now, you can do it all yourself, and if you’re good you can do it pretty cheap. So as much as I wish someone would swoop in and save me from doing this all myself, I’m incredibly grateful that I can.
(Shameless plug: if you haven’t already, go follow us on Spotify. It takes like 30 seconds and really helps us out.)
The middle picture is from our second ever house concert that we played in San Antonio. House concerts, for me, are weird. They’re technically great, because you don’t have to bring an audience ever, you make more money at one of these than you ever will playing as a bar band, and you play to a silent crowd of listening people. Sounds great, no? And logistically it is great. But I don’t love playing them the way I should. Maybe I just haven’t played enough, but to me, I feel extraordinarily out of place playing music in someone’s living room. I think maybe it reminds me of all the house parties I’ve played as favors and how much I don’t miss playing for free, or even worse, the promise of “exposure”. But they are something that we’re going to continue to push for more of, because of that laundry list of benefits I mentioned. And that’s a huge part of being an independent musician, too – not everything is comfortable. Sometimes you play shows you can’t stand and make a lot of money. Sometimes you play shows you love for tips and beer. Every single show is a learning experience and helps you make the next one just a little bit better.
The whole point of moving into a van was to focus everything on music. It’s been a long, slow grind, but we’re getting there little by little. I have no doubt that at this rate, if we keep at it we’ll be able to have long, lucrative music careers on the other side of this thing. Here’s to hoping the rest of the journey to that point isn’t any harder than it has to be.
I could talk forever about Utah. Of all the states I’ve been surprised by, Utah is number one by a mile. When anyone from the East coast thinks of Utah, I’m not sure they think of anything more than Mormons if they’ve never been. Only people who have been there “get it”, if you will.
We only drove through a small corner of southeastern Utah last spring on our way to Colorado, and I was absolutely blown away at what I could see just from the highway. So this year, we planned almost a whole week in Moab right towards the end of the tour. And every single minute of that week was breathtaking. There’s tons of free camping around Moab, so not only is it incredibly affordable to be there in a camper, but it attracts outdoorsy people of all types and corners of the world. I couldn’t even begin to count how many cool vans and RVs we saw in our short time there.
Greg wrote a really great paragraph for our social media pages about the campsite we stayed at on some public land that really captured the essence of our most recent trip to the desert:
“We had the privilege of making this spot our home for a few days and we’re slightly bummed to have to be leaving it. Often when we’re asked “What’s your favorite place you’ve been to?” it’s easy to tell people cities, towns and landmarks. Those types of places are more easily understood. It’s a lot harder explaining that there’s this beautiful, peaceful patch of dirt in southeastern Utah that gave us this feeling of peace and happiness and joy for a few days. So for those asking: this may be one of our favorite places. This beautiful, peaceful patch of dirt. Friends, if you’ve never been, do not sleep on Utah.”
There’s this thing that I’ve noticed among all the most beautiful places I’ve been to. They tend to look fake, kind of like a movie set that’s been airbrushed into place by some invisible special effects team, and it always looks just a little hazy. I first noticed this at the Grand Canyon, and I’ve seen it at every national park and extraordinary place in nature we’ve been to since. It’s like a signal from the planet that “hey, you’re looking at something amazing right now and you should pay attention”, and it’s the feature that gets lost in photos. When I look at literally anything in Utah, it looks like this. Much of it looks alien, like we stepped onto Mars for a moment and got to look around. It’s an absolute treasure of a place and perhaps one of the most overlooked in the country.
Greg and I have talked about what happens after we decide we want to live in a house again. (Mind you, I don’t think this is anytime remotely soon.) We talk about places we might like to live, and Texas comes up a lot as an option. It’s centrally located to make for easy, short tours, it’s got a great music scene in several cities, it’s affordable and there’s a whole lot less snow than there is in WNY. But secretly I also love the fact that it is a whole hell of a lot closer to all these beautiful desert states that I have grown to love so much, and I certainly haven’t written any of them off as a future home.
On sleeping at truck stops:
This is something that many people find weird. We spend probably 85% of our nights sleeping in truck stop parking lots. Now don’t get me wrong, truck stops are not the ultimate solution to RV travel. I have seen some very shady things go down at these places, including screaming domestic disputes, homeless panhandlers approaching cars, drug deals, lot lizards, and active crime scenes, among plenty of other things. But I see those things less than 1% of the time. Every other day, we pull into a big, well lit parking lot that has bathrooms and gas and a convenience store and even showers if we need them, and then we get a night of sleep that is usually peaceful and always undisturbed by anyone telling us that we can’t park there. I value my sleep too much to take risks by parking in places where people might ask us to leave.
This is also where our van’s design comes in the most handy. When you close the metal partition door between the cab and the living space, we are basically undetectable from the outside. All the doors lock, and all the spaces where light could sneak out are covered. We look like a parked, unoccupied white work van and nothing else. I will never know how many times our getup has prevented us from getting hassled, but I’m sure it’s been many more times than once.
Plus, we have security cameras installed in three different places in the van. Over each seat in the cab facing the windows, and one looking straight out of the bumper, which is where this photo is taken from. When it gets late, we do our best to not leave the van, and if we hear anything weird we can flip the cameras on to look outside and see what’s happening. If those cameras are off, and it’s quiet out, inside the van truly feels like its own little world. It’s been one unchanging aspect of our lives that we’ve had every single day since we started this adventure, and I think that has helped immensely in regards to making things comfortable day in and day out.
We’ve talked about getting a new van, almost exclusively so that we could have more space and get better MPG. But I think wholeheartedly we’ll run this one into the ground first. Not only could I not imagine anyone else driving the beast around instead of us, but this one has done remarkably well at getting us from place to place and keeping us safe each night we spend on the road. I think I owe a lot more of our success to stumbling across this van on eBay than I’ll ever be able to quantify.
On being with your significant other every minute of every single day:
You ever have an argument with someone and leave the room to cool down after it’s over? I literally haven’t gotten to do that in almost two years. Living in a space this size with anyone would be immensely difficult, and that person being not only your significant other but also technically your business partner makes that doubly true. Despite this I personally think Greg and I do better than almost anyone else would do on this front. Like any couple we have fights, and when you can’t even so much as go to the next room to breathe for a minute it can really complicate things. But here we are 18 months later and our relationship is so much stronger than it was before we left Buffalo.
You learn a lot about a person you spend this much time with, but I have learned so much about myself simply by being with Greg every single day. I’ve learned the things that I can handle and the things I can’t. I’ve learned how to pick my battles and let a lot of things go for the greater good. I’ve learned that we share so many of the same goals and aspirations far beyond just playing music for a living. I think I’m a better communicator and partner after living this way, and I think Greg is too.
Greg has been the comedic relief to my intense focus, the driver to my navigation, the carefree traveler to my workaholic, and the public speaker to my reserved stage presence. The longer we are together, the better we seem to complement each other. And in just four short days we’ll have been together for six whole years, which is still unbelievable to me.
I was always going to do this van-life thing once I got the idea in my head. I remember when I decided to ask Greg if he’d be interested too, and that if he said no, I would just get the smallest van that I could handle and a big guard dog and hit the road myself. But the relief that comes with having someone at your side who has your back and wants to walk the same path as you do is immense. To be able to share the highs and lows with someone else who understands your own journey as much as you do is absolutely priceless. I could do it alone if I had to, but having done it with my partner in crime I most definitely would never want to. There isn’t another person on earth who I owe more of my own success to than him. And at the end of the day, when it’s just the two of us planning out our days, weeks, and years, we make a really, really good team.
So there you have it. Another six months of touring and traveling under our belts. Each time we do this we learn a little more, and we make a little more progress, and I feel a little bit more convinced that moving into the van was the best decision I have ever made.
They say that when you travel, the trouble is that you always leave a piece of yourself in each place you go. I have found this to be overwhelmingly true. A piece of me lives in Amarillo, another in Flagstaff, one in Santa Cruz and another in Asheville. It’s been weirdly and surprisingly difficult to manage that. I want to live in all of these places and revisit these moments time and time again. It breaks my heart a little bit each time we leave somewhere that I’ve left a piece of myself in. And I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that feeling.
Buffalo has taught me plenty and made me wise and hardened to a lot of things that I couldn’t learn any other place. And Greg starts every show by saying we’re “The Rightly So from Buffalo, New York”. But I’m starting to feel like that isn’t true now. It hasn’t felt like where I’m from for some time. In fact, I’m not sure that I’m from anywhere anymore. I’m from the red rocks of Arizona, from the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and the surf off the South Carolina coast. So much of who I was before we moved into the van is gone, and it’s all been replaced by the things I’ve learned and places I fall in love with every single day. And I’m not sure I’d like to be from somewhere ever again.
In every state and county, between the hills and valleys and over the lakes and rivers, I live for the long highway drives. When the world is flying by out the window, the engine humming low and the wind whipping around us, I am always, always contented. It’s the most honest kind of peace I have ever found. I could live in the drives between all of these places forever. I hope that when I get to heaven, it has room for a big lug of a van like ours. I hope that gas is cheap and the weather is warm, and that the roads up there wind on for all of eternity. But I hope that’s a long, long time from now, and that I have so many more years to cruise these dusty, earthly highways that will always feel like home.