Sorry for the long absence, dear readers. Our September ended up looking completely different than I had imagined, and left me with little to write about. We came home in a “semi-surprise” for Labor Day, and ended up not leaving Buffalo until the 23rd of September. We took Greg’s old car to the three out-of-town gigs we had booked during this time (and saved a TON on gas as a result). It’s always nice to be home, despite the unexpected length of time we spent there this past month. As far as I know, I visited with most of the regular readers of this blog during that time, so there’s really not too much to say.
We’re back on the road as of two weeks ago. Things…. well, things have been a whole lot less fun lately, to use some PG phrasing. A lot of things that are usually a non-issue have become large, frustrating problems since we left Buffalo. A couple issues stand out as being major culprits in absolutely derailing our usual morale, including some surprising difficulty in re-booking a number of venues in the Southeast that we were banking on this coming winter, and a long, near two-week stretch without any shows in a part of the country with very little to do; even things like rising gas prices and poorly paved roads in the Midwest are causing friction in our day-to-day. But the biggest let down as of late is the fact that I’m now very abruptly down to one part-time job, and in my remaining position I know the company’s end goal is to replace me with a full-time, in-person employee. To say that I’m suddenly panicking about the future is an understatement. (Greg will tell you that I over-stress about these things, and he’s probably right, but the prospect of being down to naught but gig income at this point in our touring career is terrifying to me.)
So I’m scrambling. I don’t mind giving up late-night Denny’s and random souvenir shopping for myself, but the reduction of our income means we have a lot less “fun” in general. Because of the amount of sacrifices we’ve made to live this way (giving up a lot of privacy, no unlimited water and electric, no hot showers, sleeping in parking lots, etc) the recreation and touristy stuff that we do is SO critical to making this whole thing enjoyable, bearable even. When all you do is bounce from truck stop to truck stop parking lot, and working in coffee shops in between gigs, things feel a little bleak.
I planned for this, I did. I expected rough patches. But to say that I haven’t been feeling more than a little dejected pretty often lately would be a lie.
That said, the thought of doing anything other than this (like moving back to Buffalo or finding an apartment) is quite honestly still extremely unappealing to me even now. At this moment, I don’t think I’ll ever move back to Buffalo on a permanent basis, and I certainly don’t know enough about anywhere else we’ve been to want to live there.
So, we’re toughing it out to the best of our abilities. I’m working twice as much as I was before. I’ve pulled Greg into the booking process for 2019 as much as I can to help keep us on track there. I’ve been applying for any remote part-time work I can find. We’ve sort of thrown ourselves at the gym, too – we’ve been going for at least an hour 3 times a week rather than our usual stroll on the treadmill followed by a mad dash to the showers. We’ve also made some long-awaited upgrades to the van to improve our quality of vanlife now that long stretches at nice campgrounds are currently not in the budget. This has included a propane stove (two burners!), and – wait for it – a second generator. (For the uninitiated, we have a 6500 watt Onan generator that came with the van. It’s MASSIVE, and sounds like an entire fleet of diesel engines when it’s on. As a result, we can’t use it in parking lots or anywhere where people value the ability to hear each other speak.) This new generator is a 1700 watt Craftsman that sits nicely under ratchet straps on our back bumper and purrs like a cat when it’s on, plus it’s almost inaudible if you’re more than 10 feet away from it in a place with ambient sounds. We’re still working out some kinks, but both of these have given me something to work on and direct some of this frustration energy into.
We’re in Indiana now, biding our time until our next gig on the 12th in Michigan. I’m counting the days until we get to actually make some headway in a southern direction, which isn’t until early November. A change of scenery is definitely something that would do me some good. I’m pretty confident that things are going to get better sooner than later. We’re making plans for the entirety of 2019, and there’s a lot I’m looking forward to coming up in the next twelve months. I think we just got too lucky for too long, and the powers that be decided we needed to face a harsher reality for a little while. And that’s alright. It sucks, but it’s alright; we’ll be just fine.
I may have developed a controversial opinion. Of all the places we’ve been this year, I…. am not finding New England to be on the top of the list. Maybe as a person I don’t mind it too much, but as a full-time RVer I’ve had more bones to pick with this area than anywhere else in the country.
I think one of the biggest contributing factors to this is the driving. When we got back to Buffalo in June, I swore up and down that the worst drivers in the nation were in Florida and Georgia. I retract that statement fully. In the aforementioned states, the driving is ignorant and annoying (like drifting across three lanes without signaling, for example). But here, these drivers are malicious. New Englanders drive like they do not have the will to live. We were cut off, pulled out in front of, dangerously passed, honked at and nearly run into more times than I could care to count. Their driving is terrifying and probably took several years off my life based on my stress levels during our time there. In Somerville MA, a car behind us laid on its horn when we decided not to drive head-on into oncoming traffic at a stop sign, then swerved to our left and drove around us straight into traffic itself instead. That was over a week ago and I’m still talking about it because of how crazy it was. It was horrendous and I won’t go within 50 miles of Boston in the van probably ever again.
Also, all the major roads have tolls, and they’re insanely expensive, (compared to NY, anyways) especially for a truck with dual wheels like we have. Sometimes we paid 3 to 4 $3+ tolls in a matter of an hour. I think we paid almost $50 in tolls in total in our week in New England.
Overall, Maine actually was wonderful, but I have a couple bones to pick with Portland before I talk about all the awesome stuff there. Firstly, the amount of homeless people in the city was staggering and super depressing. Secondly, the streets are laid out incredibly poorly and not at all friendly to a 20 foot box truck. Third, the following:
Only three times in the last eight months have I ever wished I still lived in an apartment. Once was the very first time our water system sprung a leak, and I was so new to van life and living on the road that it culminated in a lot of frustration and anger before I could fix the problem. The third time was very recently – our drain in our shower started draining very slowly and water from our sink was backing up into it. I had to disassemble part of our waste water system to clear the clog. I have NEVER been so close to vomiting in disgust. The smell… the grey sludge…. the SMELL…. (for the record, I’ve gotten pretty good at odd jobs in the van, and that was no exception – the drain is working perfectly once again).
But the second time was for reasons entirely different than maintenance. We pulled into a Planet Fitness to shower just outside Portland. The gym itself was fine, but the locker rooms were.. abhorrent. Poorly lit, uncleaned, dingy. The women’s showers had doors that didn’t lock, hadn’t been cleaned in god knows how long, other people’s toiletries still sitting on the shelves. Mold on the walls, swaths of wet hair on the floor. The kind of shower where you don’t feel any cleaner after having been in it. It felt like what I imagine a homeless shelter bathroom must be like. And I had a weirdly illuminating moment: I had a gig later, I needed a shower and this place was my only option right now. For a brief moment I sort of did feel homeless. It wasn’t pleasant, though I am surprised it took so long to feel something that’s technically the truth. It wasn’t nearly earth-shattering enough to change my opinion on how we’ve chosen to live recently, but it did make me a little introspective for a while about the social implications of this lifestyle.
This segues nicely into something else Greg and I have been talking about (though unrelated to the Portland Planet Fitness, that event did stiffen my resolve to put these plans into action) – summer of 2019 we’re planning on doing a van remodel. Triple the interior storage, add a second vent, fix the roof, redo the water system, totally remodel the shower; the works. The biggest thing for me is creating a usable shower so we don’t have to rely on gym locations or camp showers, along with more storage to get some of our things (like my bag of clothes that is forever having food dropped into it) off the floor. This is still very much in the preliminary stages, but it’s exciting to think about taking or good van interior and making it great for us.
Now ignore all of that for a minute while I tell you all the good stuff about Portland. It’s this tiny ocean side city in a really gorgeous part of the country that appears to be filled with a combination of tourists, hipsters and seriously sea-worn sailors still working the port. It’s interesting. Once again, the food was paramount in our experience. We had these donuts downtown from a place called The Holy Donut, where they use mashed potatoes as their base rather than flour. They are un-freaking-believable. They don’t taste like potatoes, they’re twice as moist as a regular doughnut but they’re not too rich to enjoy it in its entirety. It’s tied for best doughnut of my life with Voodoo Doughnut in Austin.
We also, of course, had to splurge on some serious seafood. I picked J’s Oyster Bar for its combination of popularity and dive-bar feel, which is often where our most memorable meals come from. This proved to be true once again – this was a top five meal of my entire life (which is saying something). We started with a half dozen raw oysters, something I haven’t had since I returned from France three years ago and absolutely love. Then, we were introduced to streamer clams. These are not the same as the standard little neck or quahog clams you typically buy at the grocery store. These have thinner, more oblong shells, are brownish in color, and have a very different method of consumption. You take the clam out of the shell, and first pull off the tough skin covering the clam’s siphon. Then you swish it around in a small bowl of water that it was steamed in to get the extra sand out. And only then can you dip in butter and eat it. They’re sweeter and more tender than little necks in my opinion, and I want to eat a thousand of them. Finally I had something I’ve always wanted to try: a lobster roll. It did in fact live up to the hype. 10/10 dinner, would spend another whole paycheck on a meal there again.
We had two shows in Maine, one in Portland and one just to the north in Lewiston. Our Portland show had every possibility of being a rough night (our opening act was a trio of pirate-costumed individuals singing sea shanties, which historically does not vibe with our typical style), but we managed to draw a very respectable crowd and ended up having a great night. The same was true in Lewiston, a slow start turned into a solid evening (plus, they fed and drank us thoroughly and I have mad respect for any venue who does so willingly – thank you Guthrie’s!)
After our gigs, with a few days off we decided to head up to Acadia National Park on the eastern coast of Maine. I had managed to snag us a couple nights at two campgrounds on the park grounds, so we had lots of time to explore what is basically a mountain in the ocean. It’s every bit as beautiful as it sounds, even though every day we were there was foggy or overcast. I’d love to go back in the fall or when it’s brilliantly sunny.
We did a small bit of hiking while we were there – we hiked up Gorham Mountain and the adjoining Cadillac Trail (for those who are familiar with the park, no – we didn’t make it to the top of Cadillac mountain for the sunrise, as RVs aren’t allowed to drive up the hill and I was not prepared to hike up a mountain at 3am for that!). But the hike up Gorham treated us to some stunning views nonetheless. Greg hiked up the mountain with his new camera, and it led to some pretty neat shots:
Feelin pretty small.
The master at work.
If you zoom in real close, that white dot next to the road there is the van! This is atop Gorham Mountain.
Not a crazy amount of hiking, but hey, we’re basically novices.
This was something I really enjoyed learning while we were in the park.
A Cairn in action on the Cadillac Cliffs trail.
Another fun fact about Acadia – blueberries grow wild in the park, and you’re encouraged to pick and eat them. They’re a lot smaller than store bought blueberries, but incredibly sweet. I personally had a blast finding blueberry bushes on the various trails and chowing down mid-hike.
After Acadia we headed for our gigs in Massachusetts. We did arrive at both our gigs in one piece despite the general driving populations attempt to murder us at every turn. Our gig in Somerville was particularly notable as we played with some really amazing bands that evening (look up Visiting Wine if you’re into the modern pop/folk sound at all). We played in Springfield MA the following night (someone there said to Greg, on finding out we were from Buffalo, “that’s even worse than Springfield!” So apparently, people there haven’t heard that Buffalo is on the rise; also, maybe don’t go to Springfield?) Then we found ourselves looking at almost a week off.
Our absolute favorite thing to do when we have nowhere to be for a few days is to find a cheap campground with electric hookups and just hang out in the van. We’ve really gotten comfortable in this space, but that’s especially true when we don’t have to worry about running out of power. We’ve been running like crazy pretty much all summer, so we found an affordable state park west of Albany to spend just shy of a week at, kicking back and taking a bit of a break.
This break paid off handsomely; in the reprieve from the chaos of constantly moving, I had a chance to work with several months worth of half written lyrics that desperately needed completing. We put together four new songs in two days, and some of it feels like my best work in a long, long time. I’m very excited to start debuting these and gearing up for our sophomore release (also summer 2019 if all goes well).
In the midst of all this, the van has been doing some funky things mechanically. Our engine temperature gauge currently rises quickly to the max soon after starting the engine but always falls back to normal one time every drive, the various rattling and metallic clunking sounds in the front passenger side are acting up in the chillier (sub 70’s) weather, and something just might be up with the back breaks again. With the amount of money I put into this in July, I’m very disappointed to be dealing with all this so soon (if anyone knows a great truck mechanic in Buffalo who wants a project this December, give me a call). I intend to replace the thermostat to hopefully resolve one of these issues, but as someone who’s entire knowledge of cars comes from things I’ve read on the internet, it’s hard to say if that’s actually the problem. Driving has been an awfully stressful activity lately, and I’m hoping we can get things back on track sooner than later. But you know what they say about the devil you know, I suppose.
Yesterday we left the campground to make a necessary pilgrimage as a musician hanging out in this area of New York State. Bethel NY was less than an hour from our hideaway for the past week, and unbeknownst to many this town is home to the site of the Woodstock Music Festival, rather than the town that bears the same name. We spent the better part of the day walking the grounds and checking out the museum – nothing makes you want to be a better musician more than watching movies about some of the greatest of all time performing all in the same space, and knowing it happened where you’re standing.
Today we have a gig in Kingston NY and then another set of days off that are already filling up with plans. We have a handful of NY dates to go in August, and a few more in early September before we start to make our way south. It’s weird to be already running into some familiar places just six weeks since we left Buffalo. But as usual, time will fly and I’ll be writing to you from a state I’ve never been to in no time at all.
Hello from Burlington, VT! In the usual fashion, I’m already behind on writing here and so much has happened in less than two weeks. It doesn’t feel like we’re on the road until I look at my calendar and gasp, “I haven’t written a blog post in like ten days!”
Our gig in Binghamton gig went well. It’s not college season yet so it was a little slow, but the venue was super cool and I’d really like to play there in the fall next time we route through that way. Instead of fries, Cyber Cafe West serves chips & Gouda cheese! I wish everywhere served hunks of cheese with their food.
From Binghamton we went to Cape Vincent. For those of you that have been playing along since the VERY beginning (i.e. since the second ever blog post), this is where my dad’s place in the 1000 Islands is located. This is where Greg and I took our first ever trip for a gig in the van, just over a year ago! This year, not only did we book a return gig, but we also scheduled in a long weekend to see some family and hang out on Lake Ontario. Now, last year was the first time since about 2012 that I had been up there at all. When I was younger and full of angst, we used to spend a week or two there every summer. I hated the isolation, the lack of cell service, the intense family bonding, and basically anything else I could ever find to complain about. In the years that have passed, it turns out that I’ve become basically an entirely different person. I LOVE all of those aforementioned things. There’s hot water, electricity, and a free place for us to park. There’s a big-ass (read as: normal sized) fridge and freezer. There’s a coffee machine that makes more than one cup of coffee at a time. There’s a boat. There’s an endless supply of beers to drink and card games to play. It rules. Plus, my mom, dad, and youngest sister all came up to join us.
So, for a few days we took total advantage. We went fishing. We drank beers. We fished some more. We had a fancy steak dinner. We drank more beers. We went knee-boarding and air chairing. (Watch this video if you don’t know what an air chair is, it’s an absolute blast to ride – but we don’t do flips like that guy, sadly). We went to the beach. We played music. We did a bunch of nothing at all, too, and it was awesome. Pictures incoming:
So, tl;dr – we had a blast, and we can’t wait for next year. Oh, and the gig went well too – the people at Snug Harbor are generous tippers and a really fun group of people to perform for.
Wednesday we took the van to get new front tires (as soon as something gets fixed in the van, it seems something else already needs fixing…) and then a sharp return to reality found us sleeping at a Walmart in Watertown that night. Thursday we worked ourselves back into “tour mode” and headed for Lake Placid for our gig that evening. Lake Placid is cool. It was absolutely mobbed with people while we were there for due to a lacrosse tournament, which I always kind of hate, especially when needing to park the van. But despite all this, you can still really see the beauty of the place and of the Adirondacks. It’s a gorgeous part of New York State that I can’t believe I hadn’t seen yet.
Our gig that evening was a total blast. We played a BBQ place right on the main strip of downtown. Great dinner crowd, great drinks, great food, and a great payout – it’s all you can ask for when you’re playing to tourists! The mountainous roads to get all the way up there are not easy on our gas budget, though.
Friday was our first day here in Burlington. Unbeknownst to us, there was a major event happening here this weekend as well – the Festival of Fools, where street performers basically take over downtown. And doubly lucky for us, not only did this mean that there were tons of people in town, but our first gig was smack dab in the middle of the action. It was an early show so things didn’t get too crazy, but it was fun, and easy, and refreshing to play on a stage after doing lots of bar-room-corner gigs so far this summer. We rounded off the night with a stop at a Japanese noodle bar for dinner and a stroll through the festival – true to its purpose, we saw some pretty incredible street art that evening.
Saturday was our second gig in town, this time at an eclectic little bar/restaurant. A short set for us at only an hour, and for the first time in like 10 years I had to use a microphone on my guitar as some of the venue’s equipment was broken. I hate doing that, because you basically can’t move on stage and it doesn’t sound great in a performance setting. But we’ve managed to make a handful of fans & friends in Burlington, some of whom came out to see us at this show, so we persevered and had a good time anyways.
Yesterday, after a couple cloudy days and a lack of driving found us needing to get some juice into our batteries ASAP. It also found us leaking a whole bunch of water in never-before-seen locations from the overhead storage compartment (See? Always another repair to be done…). So, we booked a campground for the night and stopped at Lowes beforehand to patch a small hole in the top of our fresh water holding tank that I thought was the problem. Turns out, the problem is actually the roof tape we put up on the left side – it’s failed somewhere, and we’ve sprung a new leak. Once we get things dried up on the roof that’ll be the next project.
Today was a “get lots of work done because we finally have a day off” day. I’ve caught up on my part-time job work, I’ve rounded out booking for this year, and I’ve started making headway into 2019 booking. Time flies when you have to plan your entire life at least six months in advance.
Tomorrow we start heading for the coast. We have a gig in Portland, ME on Wednesday, another in Lewiston ME on Saturday, and a couple nights booked at Acadia National Park right after. I am incredibly excited to eat lobster, see the ocean, and hopefully do a little hiking, too.
The weather is warm, our fridge is full of good food and the van is running smooth right now – life is good. Now it really feels like we’re back on the road, and I’ll say it again – I love it so much. I don’t know if I’ll go back to regular house living for a long, long time. For every issue we do encounter, there’s ten amazing moments that make it worth it every time. Here’s to smooth roads and sunny skies for the rest of the summer!
It’s been too long! And damn does it feel good to be writing here again. We’re only just getting the summer/fall tour started so this won’t be too long, but here’s a quick update on how the summer has gone so far.
We were home for just under five weeks. And while it didn’t completely feel like we never left, we did fall back into a lot of our old routines pretty quickly. That said, it was of course nice to see everyone in Buffalo and recharge our batteries a bit.
We played a total of 15 gigs (I think), and that was honestly a little strange for me. Something that used to be such a big deal, that I took years to cultivate and network to obtain, these gigs at home seemed so very ordinary compared to everything else we did this year. Don’t get me wrong, a big part of me really did enjoy the predictable nature of playing the same places I’ve been frequenting since I was about 18 in the company of longtime friends, fans, and family alike. But in the back of my mind I found my inner voice musing “remember Flagstaff? Remember Austin? Remember Fort Collins?” I was inwardly nervous I might become complacent after coming home and I wouldn’t be as excited to head back out on the road this time. But the point of this entire thing is to play music, and I felt about a hundred times more fulfilled doing that on the road where every single day is truly an adventure. Home is for friends and family and 4am nights at the bar, and good pizza and Louie’s slime dogs and blue cheese (I miss all of these things already). But everywhere else in this country is for the rest of my life, I think.
We did find some time to make some various upgrades while we were home! The van got about $1k worth of work, which was very overdue (and yet, yesterday afternoon we discovered a large piece of the tailpipe had rusted through and very nearly fell off.. the cycle of repairs is unending). Greg got a brand new DSLR camera as an early birthday present and has had a blast learning how to take “real” pictures, and I grabbed some of my fancy audio recording gear from my parent’s place. We’re pretty decked out from a tech perspective these days.
And that brings me to our new video project – The Pit Stop Sessions. We plan to shoot music-centric videos regularly in the places that we’re visiting on this tour. There’s not much structure – we wanted to leave it open ended so that we have creative freedom everywhere we end up, but with all our fancy gear now seems like the right time to get more consistent with some video content. You can check out Episode 1 here!
That was shot in Allegany State Park, which was our first stop out of Buffalo. We did their artist in residence program – they give you a cabin and a stipend for a week, and we do five 1-hour concerts for park visitors. It’s a pretty sweet gig, and a really nice way to ease back into being on the road. Although the lack of cell phone service is not my favorite park feature, we were kept well occupied with visits from both friends and family for the majority of our stay.
And now we’re back at it. We’re playing in Binghamton tomorrow night, we’re currently hooked up at a state park, and I’m plotting our future path months down the road into places I’ve never been.
Forty-something gigs, twenty states, far too many cities to count and well over 10,000 miles. Here we are on day 144, staring down the home stretch of the most eye-opening, important, and quite honestly, life altering journey I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking.
Before we get to the highlights reel, I have to recap the last week. It wouldn’t be a true return to Florida if some unsavory events didn’t befall us. (I’m certain I angered the Florida Gods in a past life and they have a vendetta out against me).
Our show in Tupelo was great. Really great, engaging crowd for a weekday show. Tupelo is a pretty neat little town too. Fun fact: it’s also home to Elvis’ birthplace. We got to see Graceland and his childhood house in the same week, which was pretty cool. That said… Elvis’ childhood home is not exactly as interesting as his mansion. Any Parks and Rec fans here? You know that episode where they go to the William Henry Harrison Museum and after one or two exhibits everything else is just majorly grasping at straws? That episode may have been based on this place. These people have tried to turn something Elvis-related into a full-fledged attraction as hard as they possibly could. There’s a lot of “walk the trails Elvis may have once walked!” type of stuff. My advice: come take a look at the outside of his childhood home and walk the grounds, it’s free to do that. But don’t pay for stuff here, and don’t plan for a day long excursion.
Up next was the drive back to hell Florida. We almost died twice immediately. Within an hour of crossing over the Florida border on the first of June, while we were attempting to pass a tractor trailer, a large piece of metal fell off of the truck, bounced off the highway, and hit our van about six inches above the windshield. It took one of our small orange work lights with it and left a nasty indent. The van is otherwise unharmed, but had our speed been any different there’s a very good chance that piece of metal could have gone straight into the driver’s seat, and therefore into Greg. And THEN, not an hour later, a truck towing a U-Haul trailer had a hitch failure. The trailer swung wildly across several lanes of traffic, held on only by a safety chain. It missed us by no more than a few feet. I was incredibly relieved to be off the highway that evening.
We played at the Olde Fish House Marina for the second time on this tour last Friday. It was great to be at a familiar location; we knew we’d be paid and fed and have a place to park the van. Taking the uncertainty out of gig days really takes the stress level down a few notches. On top of that, Matlacha is a very cool town and we really like this venue (and their food. They put pineapple and coconut in their coleslaw and it is the best coleslaw I have ever eaten).
We had a few nights to kill at a truck stop before our last Florida state park reservation until 2019. And, in Florida fashion, the only truck stop available to us is the weirdest and creepiest we’ve stayed in on the entire tour. I have seen some bizarre things go down at truck stops. There was an active crime scene at one in Albuquerque that we still slept at without a second thought. This one is worse than that. Between being pretty far removed from the main road, the trucks not being separated from the cars and RVs, a barely lit parking lot with cars that have not been moved in a very long time, and the, uh, caliber of the other people staying here, it’s more than enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. I write to you from this exact truck stop on our last night in Florida, because we never get to leave this state on a high note.
Monday to this morning, mostly due to the borderline unbearable humidity and our need for AC in order to sleep much at all, we stayed at a really nice state park just south of Fort Myers. Florida certainly has its faults, but they really do have an incredibly beautiful parks system. But mostly it was nice to have a place to run our air conditioner and temporarily forget that 85 degrees in 100% humidity actually feels like 110 degrees. I do not know why everyone does not leave Florida after Memorial Day – I absolutely prefer the Arizona desert heat to this.
Like I mentioned, it’s our last night in Florida. We have two more gigs to go, one tomorrow and one on Saturday. I’m not expecting either of them to be too much to write home about (6/9 edit: our last Florida gig was one of my favorites ever, but that’s for another post now), nor do I expect the insanely long drive back to New York to be remotely interesting either. So instead of waiting until we get home (and inevitably forgetting to do a final post), I’ve compiled a list of questions that some of you might find interesting, so that we can tell some stories about this trip that we otherwise might not have a chance to share. I answered all of these first, and then I had Greg answer the same questions to see how similar or different our answers would end up being. Here are the results!
What was your favorite city?
Jess: I still can’t pick. I loved New Orleans, I loved Albuquerque, I loved Phoenix, I loved San Antonio, I loved Austin. And a bunch of others. This country is amazing.
Greg: “Austin, TX. The food is amazing, a lot of amazing musical history as well. If you’re a musician it’s definitely a town you should visit and spend some time seeing.”
What was your favorite gig?
Jess: The Brewhouse in Lake Park was great because of the amazing crowd. Flagstaff Brewing Co. was great because of the awesome venue and cool town. The Driskill in Austin and Odell Brewing in Fort Collins were probably our biggest crowds. It’s so hard to pick because every gig has upsides and downsides. Overall though, I enjoyed 90% of the gigs we played.
Greg: “It’s hard to choose. It’s probably a toss up between Laughing Goat in Boulder, CO (it was nice to have my parents there and other familiar faces from back home) and probably Brewhouse Gallery (it was a gig that could have gone really wrong, and ended up being a really, really great night instead).”
What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
Jess: I’m still surprised how much of a good time we had in Albuquerque. We didn’t even have a gig there, we just hung out for three days and had some of the best food, hiking, and exploring days of the tour there.
Greg: “Seeing our friends Dave & C walk in the door at our gig unannounced at the Alley Cat in Carrollton GA was definitely surprising.”
What was the scariest moment?
Jess: It’s quite honestly a toss up between our near death experiences mentioned above coming back to Florida, and when the van wouldn’t turn on outside of San Antonio because of that dead battery. Terrifying stuff.
Greg: See above.
What was the hardest or most frustrating part of the trip?
Jess: Nothing worse than a booking agent changing or cancelling a gig on you last minute. While overall we were incredibly fortunate to have minimal problems on that front, the few times it did happen I wanted to punch something. Also, trying to fix things like the van’s plumbing when I have literally no clue what I’m doing.
Greg: “Not being able to always have air conditioning when it’s almost 100 degrees outside, definitely.”
Did anything go wrong that seems funny now?
Jess: Most of the non-terrifying things that have gone wrong are somewhat funny now. Spending so long at the mechanic’s in northern Florida is an amusing story to tell now that we’re several months removed from the chaos that it was in the moment!
Greg: “We had a certain show where the bar owner decided they wanted to sing along with us from their own wireless microphone from behind the bar while serving drinks. Difficult to deal with in the moment but a fun story to tell now.”
What was the best moment of the entire trip?
Jess: Despite all the amazing shows, new fans, and amazing sights we’ve seen, I’m not sure I’ll ever be more awestruck than I was when I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time.
What little, ordinary thing did you miss from your usual routine?
Jess: Having good, bright lights to do my makeup in, and the ability to use my hairdryer whenever I wanted. Also, windows in my bedroom.
Greg: “Being able to cook on a stove whenever I want to.”
Favorite part of van life:
Jess: Being able to load all my gear back into my house at the end of the show and then drive away is such a great feeling. Also, being able to leave any place that we don’t like whenever we want.
Greg: “The fact that you can drive literally anywhere you want to, and have your house and everything you need right there with you always.”
Least favorite part of van life:
Jess: If you’d have asked me this six months ago I would have guessed the answer would be “dumping our black water/sewage waste tanks”, but that’s actually not so bad. I miss having unlimited electricity and water, mostly. You really take those things for granted until they become a finite resource.
Greg: “Having to take the van into the shop when something breaks, and therefore having your house and everything you own at the mechanic’s sucks. Also, the fear of worrying about breaking down so far from home and having to figure out what to do next on your own.”
Did you find any sights or activities a bit off the beaten track? Beyond the tourist traps?
Jess: We did a lot of hiking and exploring out west which I loved. Our campsite in the Rocky Mountains where we did some great songwriting is one of my favorite spontaneous, off the beaten path activities we did on this tour.
Greg: “Camping with Savannah and Drew in Tonto National Forest in Arizona was amazing.”
What was your favorite meal?
Jess: Another question I literally cannot answer. I think New Orleans had the most good meals overall, but the barbecue in Austin, the Mexican food in San Antonio, and the seafood and Cuban food in Florida were all phenomenal and possibly better individually. I wish my waistline and wallet allowed me to eat out every day because the food was definitely one of the highlights of this trip for me.
Greg: “Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin. No contest.”
What was the strangest thing you ate?
Jess: Oh man. In San Antonio I was looking for this particular variety of Mexican candy that I had bought the last time I was in the area. Instead I bought salted & dried spiced plumbs. It was the single worst thing I’ve ever eaten. Why do those even exist??
Greg: “Crawfish, just because I’ve never had them and didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t like them nearly as much as other seafood I’ve had.”
What was the funniest/strangest/most insightful thing a local said?
Jess: A lady in Flagstaff wished us a Happy New Year in early April. That was weird.
Greg: “Carlo in Santa Fe told us the state park we were about to stay in is where the mob dumps dead bodies.”
Where would you revisit? Would you ever move to any of those cities?
Jess: We don’t stay in any place long enough to really get a feel for what it’s like to live there. So, zero plans to settle down anywhere any time soon. That said, I cannot wait to return to the southwest and New Orleans.
Greg: “I would go back to the Grand Canyon, back to New Orleans, to Austin, to Phoenix, to all of Colorado – really, a lot of the places we went, and anywhere that would book us. But we didn’t really spend enough time in any one spot to know if we’d want to move there.”
If you could only re-live five minutes of the trip, which five minutes would it be?
Jess: If I couldn’t even pick a favorite city, you know damn well I can’t pick a single five minute period. Maybe the first few minutes I started playing my new guitar in Dallas. Maybe the few minutes we saw the wild horses in Arizona. Maybe the couple minutes it took to eat beignets and drink lattes at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Maybe just the five minutes after midnight on my birthday where I got to open a new year of my life doing exactly what I want be doing. Any of those would do.
Greg: “This is a tough question. Honestly, I think I’d relive the the night we stayed at the first truck stop in Georgia because of the excitement we had about finally getting out there. Not knowing what to expect out of the next six months and having everything be completely new and different was so exciting, along with that first realization of complete freedom that comes with living on the road.”
So there you have it. If you’ve been following us from the beginning, you know how much has gone into making all these things come to a successful conclusion. I’m sad to see things come to an end, I really am. But I am infinitely more glad that I was able to go in the first place, and forever appreciative that not only did we get to complete this journey, it surpassed all of my expectations. I was not gifted the opportunity to make these things happen, nor was it some stroke of prophetic luck. I have worked nearly every day to make my incredibly far-fetched dream into some kind of comfortable reality. And I suspect I’ll spend many more years doing the same. I have learned to live with less than I ever thought possible, and that while thorough planning is an absolutely vital component to success, sometimes the unplanned and spontaneous avenues we find ourselves turning down end up being the most memorable. It’s hard to notice change in yourself measuring day-to-day, but things have been definitively different for me the minute we pulled onto the road in front of my parent’s house nearly six months ago on a snowy January morning. I’m no longer living for a 48 hour break at the end of the work week. I’m not drowning in the idea that my life wasn’t turning out the way I expected. I did something. And I’ve been living a life that I no longer feel the need to run from. I’m sure this comes off as self-indulgent or even over-dramatic, but I can’t begin to tell you how fulfilling it is to walk a personal dream from an unguided wish into a reality that is better than you could have imagined it becoming. It’s pretty intoxicating.
This was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and though I don’t want to give luck credit for my hard work, it’s impossible not to look back on each and every day we’ve had and not feel incredibly lucky anyways.
I can almost count the days left on this tour on my fingers. I certainly can count the number of shows – there’s only four remaining. Much like in January when it felt like we’d never actually get in the van and drive away, heading home feels like an equally foreign concept now. And I’m feeling a lot of feelings about the whole thing. But first, let’s recap the conclusion of Texas, our return to Arkansas and our spur of the moment Memphis visit.
Austin is a very cool city. An incredibly different feel than much of the rest of Texas, and probably the youngest average age of any city we’ve been to so far. Sixth street is the main drag downtown for nightlife, and it feels a lot like Nashville with a dash of New Orleans grunge. (All the famous bar streets in this country look incredibly similar, for what it’s worth.) We spent four nights in an RV park right downtown and got a pretty good taste of what the city has to offer.
First of all, Terry Black’s Barbecue. Hoooooooooly cow, you guys. We’ve had lots of great food on this tour but I feel the need to call this place out by name. Those of you that know me well know that I am not the worlds biggest carnivore – by no means a vegetarian, but if I have the choice between ribs or a pasta dinner, I’ll usually choose the latter. But at Greg’s insistence we stopped for barbecue our first night in Austin, and we so happened to be just down the street from this place. I had a brisket sandwich and it was unquestionably the best barbecue I have ever had in my entire life. And also maybe the best peach cobbler too. If you ever go to Austin, eat at this place. You can thank me later.
We spent a couple nights hanging around downtown, once on purpose and once on accident – there’s a few drink deals on 6th that make it pretty tough to leave without tossing back a few. I had hoped (and somewhat expected) to see some amazing music in all of the bars, but while there weren’t any bad players, it was overall nothing too spectacular. Maybe we’ll try and book one of those venues next time – I think we’d do pretty well there.
We had two gigs in Austin. One was pretty close to the aforementioned main strip – The Driskill Hotel is apparently a bit of an Austin staple and was gracious enough to book us on a Thursday night. Aside from the struggle of parking and maneuvering the van downtown, it was a really great gig. Beautiful venue with a massive built in crowd, an incredibly accommodating booker at the bar and a more than reasonable payout. A+ show, we’ll be returning next time we pass through without a doubt. The second gig was at a coffeehouse towards the north side of the city, far from the business of downtown. A much more low key and less lucrative gig for sure – next time we’ll be booking downtown exclusively if I can help it.
Our last day in Austin we finally got to break in the drone! Ziker Park was just around the corner from the RV park we stayed at, so after checkout on Sunday we stopped over for a couple hours to test it out. In between rain showers I was able to get some incredible shots – that thing is fun to fly and takes awesome pictures for being so small. I so wish I had this thing when we were in the Southwest. While we did get some good shots on our phones, next tour the video quality is gonna shoot up by like 250%. Here’s a couple sample pictures we snagged:
Post-Austin things slowed down again for a bit. Between there and San Antonio, combined with our lack of gigs for the first week and a half of May, we had overshot our budget a bit and needed to lay low until payday. So we spent a couple nights at a few free campgrounds between Austin and Fort Worth. I got some Florida flashbacks after just one day – we made the mistake of parking under a tree and ran our totally full batteries down to almost nothing overnight. So we spent a couple days driving around in rural Texas looking for free, sunny places to camp, and managed to find a couple on the Brazos river. Not the worst way to kill time for a few days. We also caved and bought a fan. It wasn’t less than 90 degrees for a single day that we were in Texas. I’m fairly convinced that the back of the van would hit, if not surpass, 120 degrees – no windows makes it damn near impossible for the air to circulate, even with our overhead vent fan on. Some things have literally melted off the walls in here. So we bought a tiny air circulator fan and it has actually made a world of difference – I can actually sleep past 8am now without being woken up by the heat.
Friday we had our last Texas gig of the tour in Fort Worth. Upon rolling into town I immediately wished we’d had more money and more time to spend there; it looks like such a neat place. We played in the Stockyards, which is a section of town that is more or less a modern recreation of the Wild West, complete with longhorn cattle and staged shootouts and people in full cowboy attire. We treated ourselves to one more meal of good Mexican food at Joe T. Garcia’s (also highly recommended – they only serve two dishes but they do a near perfect job at making them) and wandered around for a bit at our leisure until the gig.
This particular gig was perhaps the most strangely executed gig of the tour. We showed up hours early as nobody had told us when we were going on – we were supposed to open for some up and coming country singer. Well, the headliner that evening changed at least once between when the show was booked and the day of, and when time came to sound check, nobody but us was around. No headliner ever showed. The bar scrambled and called in a local to fill in – and he showed up without a band. Since he didn’t want to play solo for three hours, we ended up splitting the night. We played the first two hours and he played the second, and Greg and I walked out with a free meal and significantly more money than we had expected to make that evening. Unorthodox? You betcha. But financially it worked out better for us, which is always a win in my book. (Also, we met the nicest old Australian men at this bar after the show. We bonded over the unexpected hospitality we’ve received from Texans across the board and Niagara Falls. They may have been my favorite new people I’ve encountered so far on this tour and I wanted to hang out with them all night. Australia is now on the bucket list.)
Yesterday we finally left Texas (not before stopping for In-N-Out Burger one last time. I’ve gotten Greg hooked, and I can’t say I’m happy to leave the land of consistent, cheap, and delicious burgers). We drove back through Arkansas and stayed outside Little Rock last night, at yet another truck stop that we had already visited once.
Today, entirely on a whim, we decided to go into Memphis for a few hours. I knew we’d be passing through on our way to Tupelo but I hadn’t planned to stop, until Greg decided he wanted to see Graceland while we had the chance. So this afternoon we took a tour of Elvis’ mansion and surrounding grounds. And despite accidentally dumping the contents of our fridge to the ground on our way out and leaving our roof vent open while it thunderstormed and soaked our carpet
(whoops), we had a great time. While massively overcrowded for my taste, it was pretty cool to see such an iconic place. Everything inside is original and has been preserved incredibly well for its age. Apparently, Elvis bought Graceland for $100k when he was 22 in 1957 – that’s almost a million bucks in today’s money. As a musician living out of a van at 24, I can’t say that doesn’t make me both a little jealous and a little awestruck. How crazy it must have been to be so wildly famous and successful so young.
We of course had to get some Memphis-style barbecue before we left town. While Terry Blacks still has my vote for best barbecue ever, I did have an excellent pulled pork sandwich followed by excellent peanut butter pie. Food wise, this tour has essentially spoiled us. There’s almost no situation where I won’t shell out the cash for a really good meal, and I’ve done my best to make sure all of our food excursions on this tour have been the best available when I do have the funds to splurge. But we’ve had so much good food in such a short span that I think I’ll be unable to top a lot of these meals for a long, long time. I still think about my New Orleans crawfish boil and beignets and jambalaya, about the po boys from Savannah, the grouper in Florida, and all the Mexican and New Mexican food from the Southwest and Texas. I already wish there was anything even remotely close to any of these things in the Northeast. (And I’m all ears if you have suggestions, but be warned: we’re critical as all hell after the places we’ve been!)
If you guessed we’re at another truck stop tonight, you guessed correctly. Tomorrow we’re headed to a nearby state park to charge up the batteries overnight (it’s been overcast, so our solar panels can’t do the work we need them to lately) and then we’ll head to Tupelo for the fourth to last show of the tour. After that, it’s a two day haul all the way back to the Fort Myers area for two more shows before we start the trek home.
And that’s it! I can’t tell you how much it feels like we only just started. Of course January feels like forever ago, but in another sense these past few months have absolutely flown by. And while I am of course looking forward to seeing family and friends at home, another part of me definitely wishes it wasn’t ending and is already counting the days to the mid-July date we’ve set for the start of the second tour. We’re booking in October as we speak, and we’ve got no plans to stop anytime soon. This “Proof of Concept Tour”, as I have come to call it, has shown me that all the things I had hoped were possible, are possible. We can book shows in pretty much any city we like, we can make money doing it, and with a little effort we can stay in the black so long as we keep living out of the van, which we’ve both grown to be incredibly fond of. We’re set up to do this for a long, long time. Maybe we won’t ever be Elvis-level successful, but at the end of the day I don’t give a damn about owning a mansion or horses or planes or any of that superficial nonsense. I just want to keep playing music and keep seeing more of this beautiful country for as long as I can. If I can continue to afford to fix the van when we break down, to buy us a good meal when we’re sick of bologna sandwiches, and to buy the gas to get us to the places we’ve yet to go, I’m already a lot closer to my own idea of success than I ever thought I’d be.
The next time you’ll hear from me, it’ll probably be the last time before we’re home. I’m hoping to do a recap of all the highs and lows of this crazy adventure and maybe tell some previously untold stories to round things off, so expect the longest blog-novel to date and a lot of reflecting and rambling and the like. Wish us well on this home stretch, and we’ll see you Buffalonians sooner than later!
Hello again, dear reader. Once again I have failed in writing a new post within a reasonable amount of time since writing the last one. Settle in for another novella in the comfort of your climate controlled environment, as I slowly roast in this 90 degree Texas spring weather.
When I last left you, we were just outside of Wichita, KS. A very weird observation about Wichita – it looks a LOT like Buffalo, if Buffalo were a landlocked city in the Midwest. Lots of highways and streets with the same names, lots of large, dated industrial structures on the outside of town. The venue we played that evening, though, was nothing like anywhere I’ve ever played in the country. Kirby’s Beer Store is one single dimly lit and poster-covered room, about the size of a large living room at best. A quarter of it is a stage, and a quarter of it is a bar – there is not much room to do anything in there aside from sit still and watch music. That said, we had an awesome time at this little dive. With maybe two dozen people in attendance over the course of the night, the place looked packed, the sound system was great, and we met some of the nicest and most interesting people we’ve met so far (including one man who loves Buffalo more than any person I’ve ever met in my entire life. A man who loves the Bills and the Pegulas and smashing folding tables at football games, and who has also only ever been to Buffalo one time. Meeting this person is the closest I have ever felt to being a real life celebrity…. and quite ironically it had nothing at all to do with music.)
The four day stretch of shows continued in a place called Pittsburg, KS the following night. A neat bar in a tiny little town in the southeastern part of the state with really great in-built sound, which is always a treat. We had a bit of a slow night but those who did stay and listen made for a great audience. Our final leg of the four shows ended in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Fun fact about Fayetteville – it is bumpin‘. At the risk of sounding ignorant, previously when I thought of Arkansas, I thought of farms and small towns and old guys in overalls and not much else. Fayetteville is the literal opposite of all of those things. It’s a busy college town with a great main strip downtown and what appears to be a hugely active nightlife scene. We played at a bar right in the middle of all of this, and despite the horrendous parking situation (street parking the van is one of my least favorite activities), we played to a very busy bar for the entire night. Not a bad way to round off a tiring stretch of shows.
After that, we had 10 days off. I didn’t plan for this on purpose, but honestly it wasn’t an unwelcome circumstance after the previous busy couple of weeks. So we kept things pretty low-key for essentially the whole week and a half. On the second of May I found us a state park to crash in for a few nights, and honestly it was one of the nicest we’ve stayed in so far. (Way nicer than any park in Florida!) DeGray State Park, for the curious. This place had a golf course and a disc golf course, horse stables, hiking trails, a marina in a huge lake, a restaurant, AND a hotel, among other things. It was gorgeous, and extremely affordable for all the amenities included. It rained for the majority of our time there which was a bit disappointing, but having some time off just hanging out in a beautiful place like that was rejuvenating in itself. We did take an afternoon to film a cover video of a song we’ve been digging on lately (and you can watch it here if you’d like to see it).
After a couple enjoyable days of a whole lot of nothing, we headed back towards Texas. En route to our next gig, we had our first stop at a place we’ve already been. Shreveport, Louisiana is in a location that happens to be a few hours from a lot of big cities. We stopped at a truck stop just to the west of the city on our way into Dallas, and again last week on our way down towards Conroe, TX. Despite the fact that we’ve stayed at dozens of truck stops, most of them tend to be memorable for one reason or another, and I remembered exactly what this one looked like as I was punching the address into my phone’s GPS – it’s the one with the real big parking lot where we ate burgers at Denny’s for dinner. It was actually kind of nice. We deal with unknown variables every single day since we’re always in brand new places, and this small little detail took the uncertainty out of things for the afternoon and evening.
Last Wednesday, we made some more upgrades to the interior of the van. Previously we had been struggling a bit with storage. Underneath our table and at the foot of our bed all our previously open space was absolutely overflowing with stuff. All things that we need to be accessible, but it was making our table seat almost unusable and making other things completely accessible near the bed. The original plan was to install a shelf mounted to the wall directly next to our cabinet. It took us quite some time to settle on this course of action (it was very weird that being angry about the placement of a shelf in a van while we’re sitting in a parking lot of some random gas station a thousand miles from home did not feel abnormal to me in the slightest). But we were thwarted none too soon by the previous owners, who I was sure had run out of surprises to throw at us. Between the metal exterior and wood paneling interior, our walls are almost entirely filled of… Styrofoam. Great for insulation, terrible for mounting things (like shelves) to in any capacity. The only wood we could have used was placed specifically behind things like the cabinet and the TV. So, our original plan was out of the question. We went with a less-stylish but much more economical solution – wire shelving. It takes the svelte look of the van’s interior down a few points, but the extra space it gave us was well worth the sacrifice.
From there, we worked our way down to Conroe one truck stop at a time for a few days. We arrived in town the morning of the show, and mid-afternoon we were informed of a lineup change. Our gig was supposed to be a “song swap” with a local singer-songwriter, but a family emergency rendered him unable to make the gig. So we were on our own and now had the entire night to fill ourselves. Usually last minute changes mean a gig is not going to go well, but we had a pretty solid night all things considered – a decent crowd, a bunch of merch sold and tips given, and a bunch of free beers and dinner for us both.
I turned 24 just after that gig, on a Texas highway just outside of Houston. The first birthday I’ve ever spent away from home. It even sounds ridiculous to me to say that 24 feels old, but to be fair it’s the oldest I’ve ever been. I’ve always tended to measure the passing of time between my own birthdays rather than at New Year’s. It was very gratifying to spend that late night drive looking back over the past year and everything that’s happened; it’s honestly an overwhelming amount of change. I no longer feel like I’m hurdling towards some predetermined destiny that I didn’t have much say in. I worked so incredibly hard to get myself to the point where I could be so lucky as to celebrate a birthday in the middle of the adventure of a lifetime. It’s impossible to talk too much about this without sounding cheesy or over-dramatic, but I really do feel like I have a greater appreciation for everything in my life now than I ever have before. This country is so big, but the world is small, and life is far too short to spend it unhappy. Here’s to 24, and to hoping I can close out my first quarter-century on its highest note.
For all of the above reasons, I really didn’t care too much about doing anything crazy for my actual birthday. But we did happen to be lucky enough to be en route to a city I very much enjoy – San Antonio. We drove into town that morning to an RV park I reserved a few minutes from downtown so we could Uber into the city for a few days.
Before we get into that, I want to briefly talk about my sole birthday present. With Greg’s relatively stringent budget (set and grudgingly enforced by yours truly), physical presents aren’t much of an option (though he did buy dinner & paid for the RV park, which was no less wonderful and very much appreciated ♥). And at my age I don’t have much expectation of gifts from anyone. But my wonderful parents shipped me a present all the way to Texas. They were kind enough to both make me a particular dessert I am extremely fond of, and buy me something so outlandish that I would never have purchased myself… I am now the proud owner of a drone. If you thought we had some cool pictures before, hang on. Once I figure out how to fly the thing (not nearly as easy as it looks), we’re gonna have some next level photography and videography going on.
Back to San Antonio. I really do like this city. The river walk downtown is such a fun way to kill an afternoon and evening. Last time I was there I was only 20, so this time around I made it my primary objective to have a few margaritas with my unbeatable, delicious, real-deal Mexican food. We also spent time at the Alamo and in Market Square – all a bit touristy, but as far as tourist activities go this place has some of the best ones for a major city, in my opinion. We did not anticipate the weather, though – it has not been below 90 degrees since we left Conroe. You literally can’t be inside the van from 1-5pm if the A/C isn’t on – it does not cool off in here easily or quickly.
We had two gigs in San Antonio as well. The first one was the day after my birthday at a bar/restaurant called Sanchos. Early gig for us (3-5pm), but a really cool venue and great crowd. We got food afterwards – Greg had street tacos and I had a torta, and it was the best food I’ve had in weeks, no joke, and very possibly the best Mexican food I’ve ever had. Last night we played at a pizza place called Fralo’s on the outskirts of the city. Really nice outdoor patio with a great little stage, and a very respectable dinner crowd for a Monday night.
Post-gig last night, we had our very first major problem. So far, we’ve had brake issues, water pump issues, roof issues, fridge issues, and muffler issues to name a few. All of these things have either been non-essential or planned for carefully. Yesterday we stopped for gas less than fifteen minutes after we left our gig. Shut the van off, filled the tank, and jumped right back in, all in less than five minutes. Turn the key, and the van suddenly sputters, then goes silent. Unbelievably, our battery is dead and the Beast is hobbled. We’re now stranded at this random gas station at 9:30pm in a strange town. For the first couple of hours we consulted the Master (my dad), ran a couple diagnostic tests, and tried jumping the van off of our house batteries (which has worked several times previously) to no success. After coming to the conclusion that further assessment of the problem was going to call for disassembling things under the hood, and with the clock rapidly approaching midnight, I broke down and we called AAA. I think everyone has heard the trope that it usually takes a technician hours to arrive, so I prepared to be stuck at this gas station well into the night. Not today, said the AAA gods as they smiled upon us! This coverall-clad angel showed up within a half an hour of my original phone call for help, tested the battery, told us that it was completely dead, swapped it for a new one in 15 minutes, and the van fired right up immediately after. Hallelujah. I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t something in the van mechanics that killed the battery in the first place, but for now things are running perfectly again, and I’m hoping we can get home to a familiar mechanic before any other issues arise. All in all, as far as a crisis could go, we really couldn’t have asked for a better timed or more easily resolved one.
And that brings us to today! Today was a boring day by most anyone’s standards, – we did laundry, we took the van to a self-serve car wash to scrape off some of the ever-accumulating layer of dead bugs, and we spent the entire rest of the day in a Starbucks so I could get work done and stay out of the heat. Not every day is chaos, craziness, or adventure, which is undoubtedly a good thing or I would be exhausted.
We’re a few short weeks away from heading home, with just seven gigs remaining on this first tour. These past few months have absolutely flown by. We’re heading into Austin tomorrow, one more city neither of us have ever been and both of us have always wanted to go to – so there’s still a few cool things left for us to do before we start making the trek back east.
Anyone that knows me knows exactly how I feel about cold weather. I absolutely cannot stand it. Anything below 50 usually calls for a heavy jacket and boots. The expected weather across the country had a very large impact on our tour route. Not only does cold weather make me want to sleep in and waste the day doing a whole lot of nothing, but in the van we have to be conscious of pipes freezing as we don’t have the battery power to run a heater 24/7. I was so sure that after we left Arizona that we’d be in the clear and we wouldn’t have more than a handful of chilly days. And I was absolutely positive that we wouldn’t be dealing with snow in any capacity. Sadly, I was mistaken. We’ve not only had temperatures in the 20’s most nights for the last week, we’ve seen and driven in far too much snow for my liking. Note to self: next tour, we don’t cross the Rockies until May.
I last left you as we arrived in Grand Junction, CO. For the unaware, Grand Junction is on the far western side of the state and is home to some of the most impressive red rock formations I’ve ever seen. We’ll get to those in a second.
On one of our typical grocery shopping Walmart runs here, we mistakenly (on purpose) wandered down the RV supplies aisle. We had been talking about doing some redecorating inside the van for some time, and suddenly inspired by all the things we didn’t need but definitely wanted, decided that today would be the day to do it. We bought: new seat covers for the front seats, tiny lights to run around the edge of the ceiling in the back of the van, an extra canvas storage unit to serve as a catch all for junk that always sits on our table, new fabric to replace the makeshift curtains over the back windows, and (at a different store) a fancy tapestry to replace our boring beige curtains. We spent the evening at yet another truck stop, as we do quite often at this point – Greg hung up the new lights and I sewed blackout canvas onto some black fabric to make new curtains for the back windows. All said and done, it looks a whole lot homier in here. It looks a bit less like a hotel room and a bit more like somewhere that we actually live.
Between all the interior decorating, we had another quick little in-studio interview at KAFM Community Radio. We’re getting better at answering the typical questions like actual professional musicians in my opinion. I used to dread interviews entirely, but now we have so much great stuff to talk about that I’ve started looking forward to them.
The next morning we headed for higher elevations by way of the Colorado National Monument. Grand Junction is surrounded almost entirely by giant geological formations: a huge mesa to the north, the Colorado National Monument the South and West, and the Rocky Mountains to the East. I was determined to get a little more hiking in before we put the red rocks behind us completely, so we booked a campsite up at the Monument for the night before our Grand Junction gig. Both the drive up and the views from our campsite and short hike were pretty unbelievable (not quite Grand Canyon unbelievable, but still absolutely stunning). You can see the entirety of the city –
we could actually see the truck stop we had stayed at the night before from up there, about 11 miles away. The way that time and the elements have carved these rocks into these bizarre and impressive shapes is really quite the sight to behold. We were also lucky enough to see a herd of bighorn sheep ambling through the brush hundreds of feet below us on the hike. I’d like to go back in a warmer season though, as it was high 40’s at best while we were up there, not at all helped by the crazy high elevation.
The next day – Saturday – we went back into town to prep for our gig that night. We played Cruisers, a cool little sports bar attached to a hotel in downtown Grand Junction. Though it did take us a while to turn the crowd onto the music, once we had them dancing we had a great night. The sound guy actually told us ours was the first show where he had ever seen anyone asked to do an encore. All in all both a very fun and financially lucrative gig for us – our highest payout to date on the tour.
We had planned to spend one more night after the gig in Grand Junction and then drive to the Denver area, but at the last minute I found a free campground about halfway that would allow us to break up the drive a little bit. So Sunday afternoon we started the drive into the Rocky Mountains, a drive I had been slightly concerned about, seeing as the van is over 20 years old and still makes unpredictable sounds which have not yet been correctly diagnosed. But truth be told, the drive was pretty easy for the most part. The first half of the Rockies are largely made up of the red rock we’ve been so accustomed to seeing everywhere, with a touch more familiarity than some of the otherworldly shapes and structures we saw in Arizona and Utah. They’re covered in pine trees and capped with snow, slightly reminiscent of forests back in Western New York.
Our campsite that night was about 20 miles off the main road, and three miles off the back road too; we had a long, slow drive down a lengthy dirt path to get there. Completely worth it, though; we saw two bald eagles on the drive up, and watched a handful of river otters swimming just off the banks Colorado River before dinner, which we were camped just a few feet from. Definitely in my top five campgrounds to date. We also managed to successfully co-write a song that evening. Greg and I have very distinct and opposing writing styles, and it’s been a bit of a road block for us as songwriters lately. But with nothing else to do, some beer to drink, and no cell phone service, we were able to actually complete a song as a unit, which was actually a pretty big accomplishment for us. Maybe we will have another album out in the next decade, lol.
The next day was when we drove through the “postcard” side of the Rockies. Honestly, that drive was up there among one of my favorites as well from a scenery perspective. The descent down the mountain is certainly a bit scary, but we really didn’t have too hard a time with it either. I know it sounds ridiculous to say “the mountains are big”, but that’s just the truth. They’re huge and steep and beautiful. We made a pit stop in Vail, and there was snow on the ground for the first time since we left home. At over 10,000 feet up, though, it’s hardly surprising. (This is not the weather I was referencing earlier, either – that’s later).
We made it down the eastern side of the mountains that afternoon, and arrived at the state park where we’d be spending nearly all of our remaining time in Colorado. I won’t publicly put this place on blast here, but it was definitely one of my least favorite places we’ve stayed to date, maybe only beaten by the gross RV “resort” we stayed at in Homestead, FL. It was over $30 a night to stay at this place (this is expensive for a state run RV park and the use of basically a glorified parking space), the water in our site ran brown for the first five minutes we tried to use it, there was one single shower building in the whole park a ten minute walk from our campsite, and the showers cost 25 cents a minute to use. On top of that, the park charges park use fees on top of camping fees so it cost about $30 more than expected on arrival, and the park is literally a stone’s throw from a major highway. The worst. But there’s not a lot of options for free overnight parking in Eastern Colorado as far as I could find, so we were stuck there until the following Friday.
Greg’s parents came to visit for the week while we were in this part of Colorado. As always it’s great to see familiar faces from home after being on the road for so long. Definitely not the right place to vacation to get away from the Buffalo weather – I think we had one nice day of weather where it wasn’t snowing, raining, or below 50 degrees. But we did get a chance to do some stuff that Greg and I don’t usually do, and in good company. We went into downtown Boulder, downtown Denver, and toured the famous Red Rocks amphitheater while they were in town. We also had some amazing food – the area seems to be a bit of a melting pot, so we had everything from poke to barbecue. I think the Vietnamese food was my favorite – the steamy buns from Zoe Ma Ma’s were especially delicious. Thanks again Nancy & Ray, hope you guys enjoyed your trip!
We also had two gigs during this time. The first was in Boulder at The Laughing Goat, a pretty cool coffeehouse. Greg had a few friends in the area come out, and with his family there as well we actually had a decent crowd, a rarity for a coffeehouse show. If for nothing but my own future reference: the sound system and the monitor mix at that venue was impeccable, and I’d like to play there again just to get some more insight into their setup.
Our next gig was in Jamestown, CO – population 300. This tiny little town is way up in the mountains, and the Jamestown Mercantile is the only bar or restaurant in town. The drive up to the gig was, in my opinion, scarier than the drive down the Rockies, mostly because of the weather. The rain turned to snow about halfway up, and as we parked the snowflakes falling were the biggest I’ve ever seen – the diameter of golf balls, no exaggeration. The gig in itself was a lot of fun – the staff were SO friendly and organized, which is a rare treat in this line of work. We made more money than I expected and they sent us on our way with all sorts of food, another great perk.
I was terrified to drive back down the mountain in the dark and in the snow in our eight thousand pound vehicle, but it let up just enough for Greg to talk me into leaving rather than staying at the bar. The drive down the mountain itself wasn’t too terrible, but it snowed nearly the entire hour and a half drive to our next destination – Cheyenne, Wyoming. Driving the van in the snow is something I like for us to avoid at all costs, as all it’d take is one patch of black ice to send us careening into the guardrail, so I was none too pleased that we were seeing this much snow past mid-April. We spent that night and the entirety of the next day huddled in the van trying to beat the cold. It was freezing and we were both pretty exhausted.
The weather improved on Monday, so we decided on another spur of the moment adventure. There was a bison farm just five miles from the truck stop we had parked at. Not only did they have a crazy assortment of animals living at the farm, they also offered horseback rides. I rode horses for a few years as a kid and had always enjoyed it, but Greg had never so much as sat on a horse before. So, off we went. The Terry Bison Ranch was in fact, a very fun way to kill an afternoon. We rode horses over the Wyoming/Colorado state line – the ranch is 1/3rd in Wyoming, 2/3rds in Colorado – and were lucky enough to see a handful of prairie dogs and a herd of antelope out on the plain. My horse, Mirage, was a slow, old man who didn’t really feel like keeping up with everyone, but Greg’s horse Sammy seemed to give him a pretty enjoyable ride. We had fun, and Greg is now a self-proclaimed cowboy.
After that we took a train ride to tour the rest of the farm, where they house camels, ostriches, alpacas, llamas, turkeys, and of course, bison. And we actually got to hand-feed the buffalo. Those are some pretty damn big animals, let me tell ya. They have these crazy tongues that are rough like a cat’s and easily nine inches long and would wrap around the food we were giving them. That’s something I’ll probably never forget, it was such an unusual and memorable experience.
And then after that, we got dinner. Since the farm raises bison for human consumption…we had bison burgers. Ah, the circle of life. And you know what? They were delicious.
Wednesday we left Wyoming for our final Colorado gig in Fort Collins. Prior to the gig, I had found a burrito place that serves travelling bands and musicians for free – Illegal Pete’s. They gave Greg and I both a free meal, and it was absolutely delicious. Hard to complain about any free food, really, but I preferred it to Chipotle, which is our usual burrito joint of choice. If any of you go to Colorado, patronize this restaurant – it’s rare to see anyone supporting the arts so directly and freely these days.
We played Odell Brewing Company immediately after we ate, and let me just say that I have never booked a gig at a brewery that wasn’t both well run by the staff and well attended by a good crowd. The stage was huge, the weather was good, the patio was beautiful, there were like 20 dogs there at any given time, and the beer was delicious, too. We played a quick 2 hour show to a receptive crowd, grabbed some fancy corn dogs from the venue’s food truck du jour for the road, and started one of the longest drives of the tour.
Our gig tonight is in Witchita, KS, which is about 8 hours from Fort Collins. We made it about halfway last night, and now we’re down to about an hour to go. Kansas is not quite as flat as I expected – it looks a bit like Ohio or Pennsylvania, with maybe a few less trees. Tonight’s gig is two of four in a row – we’ve got another three hour drive to Pittsburg, KS tomorrow, and another few hours to Fayetteville, Arkansas on Saturday. Then we’ve got a break for over a week before we head back into Texas, where we close in on the one-month-left-mark.
The van just hit 46,000 miles today. We’ve put nine thousand miles on it this trip so far, and we still have quite a ways to drive. I’m currently of the opinion that while I’d build a number of things differently if I started from scratch (and I just might do that some day), I’m gonna run this one absolutely into the ground first. It’s become too much of a home to me for me to ever sell it to someone else. We’ve got our summer and early fall dates almost completely booked, and I’ll be working on September through December real soon. If I’ve said it once on this blog, I’ve said it a thousand times – I’m a million times happier doing this than I have been doing anything else, all things good and bad considered. There is no end in sight, and for once in my life that’s a good thing.
Buckle up, folks. I’ve been awfully busy having some crazy adventures lately that I’ve had no time to sit down in front of a computer to do much of anything, which I’ve actually found quite liberating. But it’s been a long two blog-post-less weeks and I have a lot to talk about. For the first time ever on this blog, it’s nothing but good stuff this time.
So. I really didn’t give the Southwest much thought when I booked the tour. The cities are spread out too far, we’re going to put too many miles on the van, etc. I was mostly indifferent about going west of Texas, to tell you the truth. But I’ve never been more happy to be wrong about somewhere. I’ve never been to the desert before, and it is unbelievably beautiful out here. It’s been many years since I’ve seen mountains with any regularity, and here they’re framed by these vast open plains and dusty fields and red cliffs and the biggest, bluest sky.
We had a blast in Amarillo before we got out here, too. Our High Plains Public Radio interview went phenomenally (it’s available here on SoundCloud if you’d like to listen) and has sparked an interest in doing a lot more of those going forward – radio is fun. At shows we have to say things to entertain the crowd, but in a good interview you can talk about what matters in your songs and the highs and lows of the trip and put some substance into things.
Post-interview, at the insistence of the host of the show, we went out to Palo Duro Canyon State Park – the second biggest canyon in the country. This place literally took our breath away. Neither Greg or myself had ever seen anything like it. And like most things out here, you absolutely can’t capture its depth and massive size in a photo taken on a cell phone. Palo Duro has over 250 miles of canyons, and we drove the van right down into them and hiked around for a bit. Our first real foray into the outdoors since the start of the tour. I can’t tell you how much I loved it. We rounded off our stay in Amarillo with a Tuesday night pizza-parlor show of all original tunes; a rarity for us and truthfully a bit tough to do, as we don’t really have that many originals as a duo just yet.
After Amarillo we headed into New Mexico. We spent a beautiful couple days in some campgrounds out in the absolute middle of the desert. New Mexico is very yellow-y in the more remote areas, and the two campgrounds we stayed at both had these giant blue lakes right in the middle of the desert. I wish pictures could capture the amazing view we had as well as the human eye does. It was unbelievably beautiful. We had this frustration with the mountains as well; they just don’t photograph as well as you want them to. Looking at them from the highway, they consume the horizon and rise out of the ground like these unmistakable geological giants. In photos, they look like black smudges against the tawny ground. You really have to come out here to get a sense of the beauty of this place.
Between our two campground stays we spent quite a bit of time in Albuquerque. We got a better taste of this city than we do most. The first night I treated us to some authentic New Mexican cuisine (its pretty darn similar to Mexican food, with slight variations in the ingredients and a focus particularly on red & green sauces). I got tamales – one of my favorite meals – and they were so good and came in such a huge portion I had leftovers to eat for three days. If you find yourself in New Mexico, go to Sadie’s – and put the honey on the sopapillas, it’s amazing.
The second day we did some more hiking into the Petroglyph National Monument. This is a site where hundreds of rock drawings done by original settlers of the land have been preserved. A pretty cool way to kill an afternoon – looking back into history that far really makes you think and appreciate a place just a little more. And it was kind of fun to spot the petroglyphs as we walked along the path – I’m sure we missed more than we saw, there’s supposedly hundreds.
The third day we went into Old Town Albuquerque. We very rarely venture into cities anymore, but with nothing else to do and lots of van-accessible parking lots, we decided to brave it. Very worth it in my opinion, it’s a very neat part of the city with a lot of incredible food and really interesting shops with stuff you can’t find anywhere else in the country. We had a blast just walking around and window shopping. We ended the day with Baja-fusion cuisine and margarita. Mine was prickly pear flavored and it was damn good (a bit like a strawberry-watermelon flavor hybrid).
We were supposed to have two shows in New Mexico, but sadly one of the venues had a huge fire days before our scheduled show. So we got to kick off April with our only show in the state in Santa Fe, and on Easter, too. It was a pretty typical bar gig for us with a surprisingly solid crowd despite the holiday. We picked up some pretty cool art for the van from an artist we met at that gig, which is currently hanging over our bench seat. Overall a very solid night for us.
On our way out of New Mexico I recall telling Greg that this might be the coolest scenery we’d be seeing on this tour.
And then we drove into Arizona.
This is when I noticed that the problem with the New Mexico mountains is that they just weren’t big enough.
Everything New Mexico has, Arizona seems to have times ten. The mountains are easily double the size and photograph a whole lot better, the sunsets were out of this world, even the cacti were bigger. (Those iconic saguaro cacti you’ve seen on all the postcards? The big ones are like fifty feet tall and weigh thousands of pounds. Apparently they fall and crush cars sometimes).
Our entire time in Southern Arizona was spent in Phoenix with some musician friends of ours who also live out of an RV! Savannah and Drew were incredible hosts for our few days in the city. Each of us had a show over the three days we were in town, and it was awesome to be able to go to their shows and have them at ours as well. On top of the fantastic music, they gave us a great taste of the local food (I literally cannot stop thinking about the carne asada burrito I had last week) and an amazing trip out into the Arizona wilderness. Friday morning we headed out into Tonto National Forest for some backwoods boondocking.
Before we went out to our camping spot, our hosts took us to the Lower Salt River for some hiking. Not only were the views spectacular and some of the best I’ve personally ever seen on a hike, we were also lucky enough to encounter an entire herd of wild horses hanging out at the lake. They ran straight into the water from the shore maybe twenty feet from us after we ended our hike. Apparently Savannah and Drew have been trying to come across some wild horses for years – I can’t tell you how privileged Greg and I felt to see them on our first trip.
Our campsite was out in BLM land, which is entirely public and basically free for anyone to use. We had the Four Peaks mountain range directly in view of the campsite. To say it was pretty incredible would be an understatement. We had a really great evening of more delicious food, wine, and great company under some incredible stars. And to be able to talk about the struggles of van life with another musician couple was incredibly liberating and enjoyable – turns out most of the issues we tend to encounter are pretty typical among people who travel like us! Savannah and Drew – if you guys read this, thanks again for an absolutely awesome couple of days!
Our gig in Phoenix was our last night in town. I was worried about this one as we were billed with a singer songwriter from the UK and we were playing a coffeehouse on a Saturday night. Incredibly, the other artist actually had heaps of family in the area and the room was packed. The gig was unique in that they don’t allow any amplification equipment- it’s a bit like singing songs around a very intently listening campfire. It was a bit unnerving not to have microphones, but I think once we settled into our groove we had a great night.
We basically ran out of Phoenix on Sunday morning to do a podcast before our show in Flagstaff. Colton of Proud to Present Podcast may have hosted the most enjoyable interview Greg and I have ever done. Not only was it short and lighthearted, but he and his lovely wife actually made us breakfast after we got done with our interview. I continue to be shocked at the hospitality and genuinely good people that we continue to encounter out in the world. (When the podcast is live I’ll link it here for those of you who would like to listen).
We drove out of Southern Arizona early that morning headed for Flagstaff. To our utter surprise, not too far outside of Phoenix the desert scenery rapidly begins to change into a massive forest. Flagstaff is apparently on a mountain, and by the time you reach the top of it you would swear you left Arizona hours ago. It looks exactly as I have imagined Colorado would, with these towering pine trees and much cooler temperatures and mountain air. The speed with which the entire environment changes between those towns just two and a a half hours apart is pretty crazy.
All that being said, Flagstaff was awesome and we had an incredible gig there. We played at Flagstaff Brewing Company (right on Route 66!) early on Sunday to a great crowd. Honestly it was one of my favorite tour dates yet and I absolutely plan to play there again on our next time through.
The next day we drove out of Flagstaff. I again remember thinking “Okay, surely that’s it. We’ve seen the coolest scenery we’re going to see and it cannot possibly get any cooler.”
And then we went to the Grand Canyon.
Let me preface this by saying I feel that I’ve seen quite a bit in my 23 measly years. I’ve seen both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. I’ve been in the Redwood forests, I’ve seen the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve swam in the waters of the Bahamas and I’ve climbed the Eiffel Tower. And I’ve seen quite a bit of the US now thanks to this tour, and I feel like I’m starting to get a tentative grasp on all the wonderful things this country has to offer.
That being said, without a doubt, the Grand Canyon is the most spectacular thing I have ever seen.
It honestly doesn’t look completely real, even when you’re standing on the edge of it. If there was anything photographs truly could not do justice to, this is that one thing. It’s so incredibly massive that you have to get in your car and drive miles just to get a slightly different view. It’s truly indescribable. Palo Duro, as the second largest canyon, doesn’t even come remotely close to this. Everyone in the world should come see this place just once, it would be a shame to die without doing so.
Greg and I decided to take it one step further than most people do and actually hike down inside the canyon. We chose the Bright Angel trail as we didn’t have more than a few hours to spend hiking, with our goal being the mile and a half rest house, the first and supposedly easiest to reach. The hike down was quite honestly no problem; when gravity is doing half the work for you, nothing is too terribly difficult. The hike back out was incredibly challenging for people who are in only passable physical shape like we are. But we did get to eat lunch over 5700 feet below the canyon rim, which is something not a lot of people can say they’ve ever done. Next time we come back though, we’re going all the way to the bottom (on mules).
Neither of us really wanted to leave the Grand Canyon this morning – we did steal a couple last looks on our way out. Since then, we’ve made the drive up to Grand Junction Colorado, and while it doesn’t quite compare, the scenery out here has been nothing to balk at either. The towering red rocks of both Northern Arizona and Utah combined with the sprawling expanded of wide open space is truly awe inspiring.
Let it be known that now, I do think the coolest scenery of the trip is actually behind us. (Colorado, you are welcome to prove me wrong if you like.)
As usual I’m sure I’ve missed some details I would have liked to have included. But I don’t think it matters too much, because I know without a doubt we’ll be back in this part of the country many, many more times.
We’re just over two months away from heading back to Buffalo. Not that it won’t be nice to be home for a bit, but… I wish this tour was a year long and half of it was being spent in the Southwest. Next time around, maybe it will be.
My legs are sore from hiking. We’re almost out of drinking water (again). Half of our belongings are covered in a thin layer of red dust. Gas is over $3 a gallon out here. But now I couldn’t imagine living any other way, or what took me so long to get out here in the first place.