In my other life, I was a musician.
My apologies, fellow traveller, I can only guess how I must look to you. The high-pitched trill in my ears is louder than the jet engine that carries us from John Elway to Pittsburgh International, and there’s a turbulence between them that makes the overhead lights too bright for my eyes to bear. Post-concussion on an airplane is vertigo on top of delirium; the opposite of the bends. Like plunging down in a submarine to find a lake on the floor of the ocean. Call it compression sickness.
When I left home the day after Thanksgiving, I knew exactly what I was (musician), and exactly where I was headed (out west, in a van) and now here we are, going east in an airplane, you with wrapped gifts poking out of your carry-on, me with a headful of compasses pointing to all points. I can only guess how I must look to you.
I’ve been living out of this luggage for nearly a month and when I get home I will continue to live out of it for another week before it occurs to me to unpack. I will spend the next months trying to regain the vigor and enthusiasm for what has always been my passion, but I will find it gone. It died on the side of a frozen Wyoming highway in an upside-down van. I lived.
Kicking off a tour in your own town, surrounded by your own friends, is stacking the deck in your own favor. You fill the coffer, you play the songs they all know and you leave feeling like you’ve triumphed before you’ve even begun. See ya in a month! You hit the road, Bob Seger on full blast (hello, Cleveland!), but you’re barely across the Ohio line before you realize the headlights have shut off and the dashboard is flickering. hello, rural zanesville.
And so touring truly begins. You book a Motel 6 in the middle of nowhere and let your label and manager know that your van is dead (in a few weeks you’ll have a whole different metric for what is a dead van), and you sit in that grody motel, worrying about bedbugs and getting under each other’s skin. Before management can secure a replacement van, you lose a band member. This failure to begin is too much for his fragile psyche. Can’t blame you, friend, best of luck.
You’re off again in your shiny new(ish) van, maybe now a little too weary for the Seger, but happy to be putting a little more distance between yourself and home, nonetheless. The idle days have been costly and you need to log some serious driving hours to try and make up for it. You will spend the rest of the tour trying to shake this nagging feeling of a deficit of time, money, sleep. You won’t be able to.
Through Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas you drive, unload equipment, set up equipment, play for a bit, tear down, reload and repeat. And then you’re in Texas, where there are actual guys who look like cartoon Texas guys and the drives are so long and the terrain so barren you begin to wonder if you died and woke up in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Austin is cool, but all anyone there can talk about is how much better it was five, ten or fifteen years ago, so why have I bothered coming, and better yet, why do you still live here? San Antonio is a neon stripmall with the name of a city. In El Paso, you stand outside the venue, looking at The Border just a few feet away. The sound guy says the kidnappings have gone way down since El Chapo was arrested. Where were you when you heard Scott Weiland died?
Driving through the Arizona desert while the sun rises and your bandmates sleep in the back is the best part of the trip, until you cross the dunes into California. You make your way up the coast, stopping in all the important cities, and yeah, yeah, you play some shows, but it might be the most beautiful place on Earth. Scratch Fresno though, it’s populated entirely by ghost-pallored shopkeepers without social skills. By the time you get to the top you feel like a Red Hot Chili Peppers song become self-aware. The saltwater and sand are still in your teeth and in your bag through Portland and Seattle, but any uplift you get from the warm, coastal leg will be short-lived. It is December, after all, and Welcome to Montana.
When I signed on for this trip and saw the schedule and routing, it definitely wasn’t my first thought, and maybe it wasn’t my second or third, but it didn’t take long for it to dawn on me where we’d be going and what time of year it would be. Turns out no amount of pre-worrying could have made me any better prepared for the three days we spent driving through Montana and Wyoming in four feet of snow. I killed most of it supine on the third-row bench, soothing music blaring in my headphones, trying not to barf with fear. Every time I stuck my head up for a look, it was black as night regardless of time of day and there was all manner of vehicle littering either side of the highway in various states of crashed. I lay on that seat convinced that this van was my future tomb, the only uncertainty being where it would come to rest, wishing for a road closure and I’ll be damned if it didn’t happen in Casper, Wyoming. They have these big gates out there with ‘Do Not Enter’ signs on them that they can just throw across the roads when conditions get deadly enough.
I breathed my first sigh of relief in days when the van was in park in another motel lot. I fell asleep to the sound of a Republican primary debate featuring Donald Trump, thinking, Well, it can’t get any worse. When I woke up the next morning, the road was reopened.
Minutes later I was settling into the third row, safe in the assumption that the good people of The Wyoming Road Commission or whatever had my best interest at heart — surely they wouldn’t allow us to drive on a completely unsafe sheet of ice — when the back end kicked out. We did a near-perfect triple axel across both lanes of I-25, but failed to stick the landing. Stumbling around outside the upside down van in shin-deep snow, trying to pack roadside debris back into my bag, a cigarette like an arthritic finger in my hand too shaky to get it to my lips, the thought first occurred to me: This is no way to live. The sirens in the distance seemed the more pressing concern, but it wouldn’t go away.
Flying home now, the uncertainty comes to a crescendo louder than any siren or engine, but I’m not yet ready to hear it, the Monday-morning knell to this fifteen year long Lost Weekend. I’m trying to pen an exultant ending to a narrative that would only be a lie to myself. It would go something like this, and it would be total bullshit: “…As the wheels touched down in Pittsburgh, despite the tremor in my gut and the disorder in my thoughts, I couldn’t wait to take off again for the next one, because this is the life that I choose.”
John Dziuban is no longer a musician.
In My Other Life, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2016.