The Joy of Touring

I’ve been on a sort of paternity leave since last winter. I say “sort of” because it’s not like I have an employer or anything — taking a leave for me means not touring, and mounting credit card debt. The reality that it is time to book a major tour becomes undeniable, when the debt rises into the fifth digit to the left of the point. So lately, one of the balls I’m juggling is the tour-booking one, as I make plans to spend most of the autumn traveling and playing gigs around North America and Europe.

I’ve spent most of my adult life traveling the world and playing music. For many years I barely even had a home, aside from whatever guest room I was sleeping in, which was often my van or pickup truck parked in the driveway of that night’s gig organizer, especially when I was in my twenties and thirties. Since I had my first kid, thirteen years ago, I’ve toured a lot less, but I’ve still mostly been away altogether about half of every year. As a parent, not being able to take the kids with me most of the time I go, touring now has a dark side to it that it didn’t really have before. There was always the issue of wanting to be in more than one place at a time for a lot of different reasons, and never having enough time to do everything I wanted to do, but with kids, the equation changes for me, and on some level, wherever I am, if I’m not where my kids are, it’s not the place I want to be in, regardless of how wonderful the scene.

But having had a solid break from extensive traveling, for the first time in well over a decade, as I work on booking the fall tour, the feeling of dread that usually accompanies the thought of abandoning my family for two months is not so far returning. The emotion in place of the dread is, on one level, an acceptance that some jobs involve traveling a lot, and that’s OK. But mostly, the overwhelming feeling is one of eagerness. With apologies to all of those people out there who envy those of us who travel for a living, I’m really looking forward to traveling again.

While I’ve enjoyed doing the weekly columns and podcasts — and intend to keep it up if I can manage it while touring — writing about a world which I am mostly seeing through the filters of other people, be they journalists, friends, or whoever, is such a far cry from experiencing it myself.

There are many variations of the saying, but the idea always resonated with me that life is what happens when you’re on your way there — wherever “there” may be. Most of it isn’t about arriving at your destination, it’s about getting there. This applies very much in a very literal way, when it comes to actual, physical traveling. Certainly for me, for the kind of travel I do. I’m not locked in a tour bus going from stadium to stadium, only seeing the stadiums and little else. I’d take the gig if I were famous enough for it, don’t get me wrong. But that’s a far cry from my world. I know a couple of rock stars, but I only envy them a little. What they had to give up to take that gig is huge, it seems to me.

There’s a lot you can learn about the world without seeing it all, to be sure. Just as with learning about history, which you will never personally witness, you can learn about the world by reading lots of material from many different perspectives, until the history, or the event or place or people become more three-dimensional, even to the point where you feel like you know and understand it or them.

While I do believe this, I also have found that there are many more things than just pictures that are worth a thousand words. This is also true of smells, sounds, and so many other sensory experiences you only get when you’re really traveling in the physical world, when you’re immersed in it. And there are stories and anecdotes and phrases that you will encounter when you travel, that just don’t seem like things you’d have run across otherwise, though it’s always possible you might have.I don’t know if I have this in common with other chronic travelers, but my mind is subdivided geographically. When I’m in a certain part of the world, that’s when I’m most likely to remember people I know from that part of the world, experiences I’ve had there previously, places I’ve been in a given town or city or forest, venues I’ve performed in, cafes I loitered in, and stories about the place which local people shared with me before. To provoke my memory of a place — and also for very practical reasons, to remember where I played there before and who might have organized that gig — I often leave my laptop to go gaze at one of several maps I have on the walls of my apartment. In fact, I don’t really need the maps, since they’re all in my mind now, too, but I like to gaze at them anyway.

The sharpest memories jut up through the clouds, forming peaks that can be seen from a long distance. If I were flying like a bird across the landscape looking for those peaks, those memories, those images, flying over Alaska I’d remember what it was like to walk down the street, from my hotel to the supermarket, on a windy February day at minus 20 Fahrenheit, wondering how much longer I could have my cheeks exposed to the wind before I’d get frostbite. I learned on that trip that when it’s below negative 40 Fahrenheit, axes tend to split in two when you swing them to try to cut wood. Perhaps I might have learned that by watching a documentary, but I don’t think it would have stuck with me in the same visceral way as it has since I first felt the sting of a typical, windy winter day in Anchorage.

Flying across the continent in a zigzagging path, east, west and south from there through the map in my mind, like in a guided meditation, the next peak I come to is Prince Rupert, BC. There’s a fishing boat there that washed up all the way from Japan, that stands as a reminder for all of the dangers of the trade, and the solidarity that exists among the seafaring peoples of the world.

I’d land in Montana, where I was following my GPS blindly to get to the next gig on one tour, heading towards Wyoming, and I unexpectedly came to the sign, “entering Yellowstone.” I’ll forever remember only minutes after passing that sign, the buffalo that stood bigger than any horse I’ve ever seen, like a furry mountain, thick steam rising from its fur in the early morning light, stopping what little traffic was on that road, making all of us humans in our comparatively puny cars feel very small and vulnerable. Certainly the car I was driving could have been smashed in one stomp, I imagined, but the buffalo calmly continued down the road, ignoring the tourists.

I’d find myself on the Pine Ridge reservation, where I somehow ended up early one morning before a gig in Rapid City. I’m going to film a church-burning that day, my host informed me. I had the day free, so I made sure to haul ass to the east or west or wherever I was coming from, and get there a day early, so I could go, too. I spent the day watching an old church burn to the ground. Lakota people had bad associations with it, and a guy named Big Jim bought it, and burned it to the ground, with the Fire Department watching to make sure it was safe. An old white couple who had been married in the church also came to watch. The Lakota guys who were cheering when various especially offensive parts of the church had collapsed in ash on the ground quietly moved around the corner from the old white couple, to give them the space to have whatever less joyous experience they were having while watching the church burn.

I’d land in Colorado, where on the foothills of a mountain that once served as a watershed for all the farmers in the San Luis Valley I watched the pickup truck speed towards the forest defenders locked to a tripod on a dirt road leading into the largely denuded hillside behind them. I’d watch as the angry driver slammed on his breaks, stopping only a foot from the face of some brave, terrified people.

I’d spend another night at that Catholic Worker hospitality house with the art work in the backyard consisting of a hole with a toilet in it, and a bust of Richard Nixon sitting at the bottom of the toilet. I’d remember my friend who ran the place at the time telling me how one of the residents was so worried that the authorities would shut down the house if they found this terribly disrespectful scene, that he would go out at night and cover the hole with leaves and branches.

I’d watch the Northern Lights from the plane window over Halifax — it was like the Crystalline Entity from Star Trek, appearing to be below us, completely white, and very much alive. I’d see the lights again from the ground in Quebec, like a dark rainbow taking over the sky. I’d make love again in a tent in New Brunswick, the air outside the screen so full of mosquitoes, doing anything else seemed suicidal. I’d watch that police van try to run over my friends in Washington, DC. I’d be clubbed by the police in Pittsburgh again.

I’d watch the gay couple holding hands as they walked confidently through the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. I’d see the list of names written on the chalkboard in that church in the Ninth Ward, when no one knew if they’d all live or die in there, after being abandoned by the federal authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I’d watch the tumbleweeds blow across the prairies of West Texas, in the years before it was covered with fracking rigs, before it all smelled like burning oil. I’d hear the coyotes howling in the Sonoran, and see the pack together, clearly-outlined silhouettes, with the full moon rising behind them above the cactus-strewn, dry, sandy hills.

I’d hear the stories about the outlaws back in the day, when this was Mexican land, before the border crossed them, and they found themselves in the United States. I’d remember Steve, before he died so young of some disease, what was his last name? He and his comrades talked about la Raza Unida like it was an organization everybody knew about, because they did, at least around there. I had never heard of it until I got to Las Vegas. Not Nevada, but New Mexico. They had all heard of it because they lived it. I’d remember many things. Perhaps most of all, I’d remember the bones in the desert.

David Rovics is a singer-songwriter who tours regularly throughout North America, Europe, and occasionally elsewhere. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.