April 1st, 2011 | Tour Diary | 2 Comments
Boise, ID to Portland.
You don”t know what love is, until you know the meaning of the blues.
I could hear it in his voice as we packed up. The thought of leaving the bus there in the middle of nowhere killed him, and I could hear a hint of it in Jared’s voice even as he joked around. It was a calm and overcast day on the edge of the Snake River, the border that separates Idaho and Oregon. We were about five-and-a-half hours from home, as we cleaned out everything from our broken down bus, and packed it into the back of a rented U-haul. From my perspective we’ve have had a tumultuous affair with our tour bus. Like any affair it hasn’t been without it’s good times—great times even. Having gotten us through two of the best tours we’ve ever been on, or possibly ever will be on, Thor[i] has been an integral part of the experience–the sixth man. By far the most interesting, novel and comfortable vehicle I’ve ever traveled in, its short moonlighting as a tour van had facilitated if not generated many great stories.
Bus Van Sant[ii] was a twenty-foot, fourteen-seat euro shuttle bus like one you might see idling in front of the London-Heathrow airport. It was bright yellow with large windows, powered double doors, and bays of bench seats inside. Outside, the words Tender Loving Empire[iii] in big black letters ran across each side panel. It was spacious at least for our standards, having done tours in small cramped vans many times before. It had a built in luggage rack that we’d modified with a hefty door and lock, making it a safe and enclosed space for our gear. The front of it was covered with a vintage sheet; patterned with a faded hearts that had been donated by Jared’s wife. It had, had sentimental value for her and Jared wanted to save it.
“Brianne’s gonna be bummed” Jared said, realizing there’s no viable way to get it off and that we’d have to also leave it behind. “I put so many staples in it…”
Practically speaking the buses best quality was her size. Antonio Vanderas[iv] was roughly nine feet tall from tire to top. Once aboard a person could stand totally upright in it. This facet was often one of the first things that other touring bands would comment on. At twenty feet long and eight feet wide, it was large but not overly cumbersome. It was narrower in the lane that most airport shuttles, and had a surprisingly decent turning radius. It slept at least four people fully stretched out if you put two on the floor. On one tour we got as many as seven sleeping. You would be amazed at how effectively a few hours of being able to stretch will help mute or diffuse the stress inherent with a long tour, or stretch with no days off. It was a novel vehicle, maybe not the most practical but not the least either. It got better than you’d expect gas mileage, and was surprisingly easy to parallel park.
The flip side of those attributes was its penchant for mechanical disappointment. We were discussing this as we waited for our food in front of a Sonic Burger in Boise where we’ve been stuck for a day. There was the time a booster failed on last tour, and we were limited to going ten to twenty miles an hour up the hills. There’s the time the ignition went out in Palm Springs and we had to have a mobile mechanic rig it so we could start it with a pair of pliers. The time the wipers went out in Salt Lake and another mobile mechanic had to rig the horn mechanism so that when you depressed the horn the one working wiper turned on. This got us precariously through the snowy passes to Idaho. Then there are the little things; the other zips pops and quirks. It had breakers instead of fuses that frequently and mysteriously tripped. The fact that if you touched the instrument dimmer and the interior light switch at the same time it would shock the shit out of you. This often happened by accident if you were driving. The fact that despite having five gears, its only two speeds were slow and painfully slow. There’s the frustration in being regularly passed even by other airport shuttles. The fact that even when we added an hour to any quoted travel time in Google Maps we are still almost always behind. All said and done the bus had spent more than its share of time in the shop considering how long we had owned it. Though not colossal failures—easy enough to shrug off individually—all these things could add up to what no one at the table wanted to admit. Ol’ Yeller[v] was a lemon…
“Well it is yellow, we should have known!” Jared jokes as we eat our Sonic Burgers and fries.
Rewind twenty-four hours and you’ll find us cheerfully blazing down the road, five-and-a-half hours away from Portland, on the day after our last show of tour. It had been a great tour, a great last show, but also a long tour and everyone was excited to get home. Ever since we’d left Boise Vanna Banana[vi] had been chugging down the road and running like a dream. Suspiciously good I’d say, in hindsight. I was driving and I suddenly I heard an urgent knocking sound underneath the gas pedal—an impatient fate at the doorstep. I felt the pedal bump against the underside of my shoe. It sounded like a belt had come off and was somehow whipping the floorboard form the engine compartment. Everyone perked up and stared silently toward the floor. Jared and began to brainstorm possible causes of the sound, but even then it didn’t seem too dire. We noticed that the knock only happened when I depressed the gas pedal. I checked all the gauges and everything looked fine, though the gauges were fickle and seemed to stop working at random. We saw a rest stop ahead and we decide to pull off the highway. As soon as I decelerated down the exit the bus died. All power was lost and we coasted down the off ramp toward a small rest stop in the middle of nowhere, where we’d end up spending the next six hours. All Huddled up in the cold bus, we waited for people to come out to us and give us what turned out to be increasing degrees of bad news. A man from Triple A and his wife checked out our battery and power situation. He tried for and hour to get the batteries powered up, but the engine wouldn’t even try. What started as possibly a battery or alternator problem—somewhat cheap and easy to fix—escalated toward a broken engine bearing which had caused the engine to lose oil pressure and thus the block to rapidly overheat and either seize the pistons or crack the block itself. It was a pronouncement of death for the bus, although we weren’t quite ready to accept it. After those hours of standing around speculating under the increasing darkness, a few things had become clear: We weren’t going home that night, and we’d have to find a way back to Boise and we’d have to make a new plan.
Ben, a friendly man, sort of a hero in his own right, and the owner of Ben’s Truck Repair was our third visitor. He delivered the prognosis, before calling us a tow truck and driving us back to his shop. Ben is the only mechanic in the area. He’s on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and on holidays. Serving us drinks in her warm living room, Ben’s wife told us stories of stranded folks at both her thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables. He rescues stranded big rigs and auto’s alike several times a day from anywhere in the area. His home and shop are twenty miles away back toward Boise right on the bank of Snake River. He gave us shots of Patron and showed us around the house that he’d built. We hung out waiting for our friend Lisa to drive three hours from Boise to retrieve us. She came out late even though she had to work in the morning and we are forever grateful. The next day we had another friend driving from Portland to get us, but his van also started having problems and, perhaps a little spooked by the situation he decided to turn back. Eventually we developed a plan and Jared rented a U-haul to take gear and I rented a car to take people. We meet at Ben’s shop to empty out the bus before heading back to Portland. We were going to abandon the bus hoping to sell it to Ben, or part it out. There was talk of putting in a new engine, but shipping it out to the middle of nowhere was too expensive. It’s a tough thing walking away from a tour vehicle most likely for good. Years ago I’d had to do it once before.[vii] Our transmission had gone out in the Appalachian range of West Virginia. We’d spent the day climbing the mountains and just as we reached the snow line, it gave up. A horrendous grinding metal sound cried out from beneath our feet. I was able to drive it on the shoulder at about four miles an hour until we reached a turn-off. Eventually we ended up stuck in a tiny town with little-to-no cell phone service for three or four days. I was able to borrow enough money to buy a used van in the area and get us all home, but when we went to the western union to pick up the money they laughed at us never having more than three hundred dollars at a time. We spent days maxing out our ATM withdraw limits at various places until we had all the money we needed. It was such an exhausting ordeal, that my then band mate Matthan and I drove strait back to Portland form West Virginia without stopping. It took us fifty-two hours. It’s a jarring and senseless kind of feeling when you rely on technology that suddenly fails. Seemingly for no reason something that was so simple and taken for granted as pressing a gas pedal and steering a vehicle, rapidly becomes a shit storm of logistical, financial, and emotional stress. It’s like being teleported from your warm bed and suddenly reappearing in the middle of a harsh wilderness. You’re super fucked and you have to make a lot of important decisions quickly.
It was drizzling in Portland the next morning as Jared and I waited for the rest of the band to show up at our practice space to unload the U-haul. We stood at the edge of the small stoop out of the way of the rain, looking out into the street. Now there were considerations for the bus that we were only beginning to evaluate. It’s possible for instance that a vehicle with an engine, size, and strength was never meant to climb mountain passes or challenge the grapevine with a seven people and a bands worth of gear? Maybe the hills were too much or the drive times too great? Maybe these vehicles are only built to drive in short jaunts from Heathrow to the hotel and back? Like I said before, it was a tumultuous affair. The word affair implying something temporary and maybe that’s the way to look at it: a honeymoon with a lover that we never should’ve tried to marry. Jared smoked contemplatively as we looked out at the rain from the stoop. There was a warm breeze weaved evenly into the rain, and the day was humid. We didn’t speak much, just a little small talk though we were thinking about the same things. He was especially quiet and I could see him standing on the edge of something; a great hill in his mind that overlooked a dark mountain forest high in an American range. He surveyed a thick layer of trees and rolling hills searching for a path. His brow is bent into a worry as he tries to make sense of his view but it was hazy, and there were many possible routes in the distance.
[i] There are many names for the van this is the one I liked not only because it’s tough but also because it says it for some reason on the side wing window.
[ii] This was Megan, one of the band mate’s name for it.
[iii] Tender Loving Empire is the record label and retail store in downtown Portland that Jared, our bandleader, and his wife own.
[iv] Brianne thought of this one. So good.
[v] Our tour manager Theo thought this one up. I had forgotten what it was so I texed him for this post, and he immediately texted back: “Ol’ Yeller. Perhaps it was a poor choice given how the film ends.”
[vi] Javier, another band mate, really pushed for this one but we all hated it.
[vii] Jesse, who was in the bus as well, was with me then too. He is the bass player of Jared’s band, but was also the singer for that band.