Performing in a touring band – making a living by the simple act of playing music – is doubtless among the loftiest dreams of any true-at-heart musician. The Road beckons a call that, though steeped in illusion and glorified hardship, seldom allows the passage of mere hours before returning to tug at the adventurous sleeves of any musical artists. The separation from friends and family and the resulting isolation; the brotherhood between band-mates born of repeatedly enduring seemingly insurmountable hardship and solitude; the long hours and myriad miles traveled for reasons of exposure – these things represent the intoxicating challenges to which countless musicians have subjected themselves – whether willingly or otherwise.
In the late summer of this year I found myself manning the helm of a 15-passenger van pulling a gear-filled trailer in the wee hours of the morning. We – the band and I – had elected to drive through the night in order to return from Mississippi to our home of Nashville as soon as possible. Cheerfully roused from my bunk by Jason, our unusually sleep-deprived bass player in order to adopt my shift as driver, I stumbled into the 24-hour gas station to pour myself 32 ounces of sludge-black coffee.
Catching a glimpse of the crookedly-hung digital clock on the wall as the attendant rung me up, I shuttered as I read the time: 4:02 am. Two hours and twenty-one minutes until sunrise. Though we’d been graced with relatively subdued weather on this leg (not uncommon on our tour dates were hurricane-force winds, impossibly thick rain and imminent tornadoes) I questioned my exhausted mental capacity and its ability to cope with the tribulations involved in safely operating our sorry excuse for a tour bus.
Shoving my insecurities aside I pulled myself up into the driver’s seat and hollered the customary, “Everybody in?” Upon muffled and groggy “mhmm”‘s I turned the key and pulled out of the parking lot. After months on the road with this particular band I’d grown accustomed to our compulsorily-shared driving shifts – more importantly I’d discovered the listening material most conducive to driving in the pitch-black night through hundreds of miles of cornfields: This American Life.
Ira Glass’ nasally, monotonic voice notwithstanding, the humor and lunacy unfailingly present in the program’s makeup drastically decreased the gravitational pull on my eyelids and kept my mind sharp and alert. Any other musical choice seemed, without fail, to eventually precipitate the demise of my efforts to stay awake.
Offering a welcomed change in scenery, our route from Mississippi to Nashville was lined with dense forests, winding roads and beautiful flora that evoked from the band a generally light-hearted mood. Of course, being that it was 4 am, everyone was asleep so that enthusiasm – or rather lack of dread – wasn’t so enjoyed as my own gratitude at having something other than cornstalks and luminous green highway signs with which to entertain my eyes.
As our Great White Van lumbered through the hills of the south, a dense fog found us somewhere near the Mississippi-Tennessee border. Growing thicker with each passing minute, we came upon several cars that had pulled off the shoulder for lack of visibility. I was well-aware of our unyielding policy stipulating we not pull off to the shoulder unless absolutely necessary, so I slowed to a pace so unbearably slow it seemed at times that we’d actually started moving backwards. I reluctantly accepted the symptoms of my disorientation.
Any person who’s spent even a modicum of time in the outdoors – especially on or in some sort of vehicle – knows the inescapable and utterly helpless feeling of vertigo. As your mind loses any semblance of reference, forward becomes backward becomes upside down, and your ability to function comes to a grinding halt. More so out of necessity than out of preference, I pulled to the shoulder and brought our pale beast to a soft but definite arrest.
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Following a seemingly inordinate expanse of time during which each member of the band awoke briefly, only to fall back asleep, we finally began to regain visibility. Lifting my foot off the brake, I began willing the gas pedal to depress just enough to begin our crawl towards clearer, less humidified air.
With our adventure through the abyss behind us we pushed forward into the burgeoning light of the Mississippi morning. We climbed and climbed, rising through the stagnant remnants of darkness desperately clawing at the last moments of the night. Then, cresting the ridge, I caught sight of something unexpected. The sun had, in one foul swoop illuminated the air, the trees and the fields of golden grain sprawling for miles on either side of the highway.
One of my favorite things about backpacking lends itself to similar experience. Hiking in to the campsite after dark, you’re granted visual access only to the minute radius of your headlamp beam. But then the sun rises, bringing with it a new, often overwhelming wave of ecstasy. This bliss, the result of your realization that there’s been something just outside your reach – something beautiful and breathtaking – is one of the more grandiose emotions a man is capable of experiencing.
Made all the more fantastical by the fog that had minutes earlier altogether prevented our progress, the scene I now witnessed shook me to a core rarely touched by the shallow gravity of daily experiences. Things otherwise mundane seemed to adopt a mystical air while colors became at once rich, drab and vibrant. Save the occasional bird or gust of impossibly faint breeze, the atmosphere appeared devoid of motion. But there I was, gliding through the whole marvelous event as all four of my companions slept like infants in their bunks.
Bliss derived from deprivation – a glorious happening, the product of a newly-gained perspective – has adding to its intensity the element of surprise and the weight of contrast. But more so, it boldly stands to illustrate the benefits of resisting stagnation. If one could successfully ward off the darkness of night forever, there would be no sunrise. There would be no moment of realization when it becomes apparent that the evening’s tenebrosity was nothing more than a curtain behind which the universe was preparing an earth-shaking exhibition intended only for those patient enough to bare witness.
Welcome change, and the metamorphosis will be your reward.