Witness my dismay at finding the road ahead—the road to work—buried in several feet of snow, on the first of June. You can see it was a paved road, with painted lines, proper signage, and the tracks of a four-wheeler whose journey had also ended there. Ahead you see my beloved “winding road” sign (one of our “snakes and arrows” logos, the one that marks the door of my warm-up room, otherwise known as Bubba Gump, backstage at shows). Clearly, on that day, the speed limit behind the winding road sign would only apply to snowmobiles.
(Metaphor alert: this photo, the “winding road” sign, and the story’s title, all contain potentially meaningful quantities of metaphorical resonance. I.e., I’ll be jamming on those riffs.)
That rudely interrupted road was near Mount St. Helens, not far from a jobsite near Portland that Michael and I were on our way to, after sleeping on the bus up near the Tri-Cities, at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia. It was obvious we would have to turn back and find another way to work, but it was also strange for us to remember, facing that impassable wall of snow, that back in 2004, on the R30 tour, Michael, Dave, and I had ridden that same road together. However, that had been in July, when all that snow would finally have melted. Not in June, apparently.
In the mountains of the West, like the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Sierra Nevada, many high-elevation roads are simply closed in winter, because they are impossible to keep clear—some of those areas might be buried in up to forty feet of snow. This tour, in May and June, Michael and I seemed to arrive too early for quite a few of those roads. We were turned back by snow in the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains in New Mexico, in the Cascades in Washington State, depicted above, and in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon—on the very next day.
After sleeping on the bus near Pendleton, Oregon, I had planned an adventurous day off, a 400-mile ramble from eastern Oregon into Idaho on tiny back roads. By early morning, Michael and I were already way out there, on a remote U.S. Forest Service road. The moderately rough and twisty gravel track followed a boisterous river, swollen with snowmelt (a clue, perhaps?), as we climbed ever upward, pounding and sliding along between leafy hardwoods and pines. After an hour or so, we met an unexpected sight: a sudden swath of sophisticated pavement in both directions, all “official” looking, with painted lines, metal signs, and everything.
Trouble was, it was another “Closed in Winter” road, and as we followed its high, winding curves, things began to look bad…
A few miles on, bad turned to worse, and once again we halted at deep banks of snow that completely covered the road. We tiptoed over the first patch, pushing my bike through, then Michael following in my wheel-ruts, but all too soon the road disappeared again, this time under a massive snowfield. Even after a reconnaissance on foot, it went on as far as I could see, broken only by the tracks of an elk. Once again we had to face the grim reality—this road had ended.
Unless a particular road ends at the ocean, say, or at a high-mountain retreat, it is an uncomfortable feeling to have your way suddenly blocked. I don’t know about other travelers, but my whole being recoils at the thought of going back the way I have come, and I’ll do anything I can to avoid it. (Another road metaphor, of course.)
With the help of our trusty (usually) GPS units, Doofus and Dingus, and the paper map, we navigated our way out of that mess, but had lost so much time that we had to resort to the interstate (though not a bad one: I-84 across open stretches of eastern Oregon and into Idaho) for 300 miles.
Usually, wherever we happen to find ourselves in late afternoon—whenever I’m ready for our road to end—I start looking for somewhere to stop for the night, watching for billboards or pausing to peruse the list of accommodations programmed into Doofus and Dingus (incomplete, rapidly out of date, and sometimes incredibly wrong, but occasionally helpful). That day, however, I had a particular destination in mind: the Sun Valley Lodge, near Ketchum, Idaho. I had stayed there with Brutus on the Test for Echo tour, in early 1997, and again during my Ghost Rider travels, and I knew it would be the rare combination of a fantastic journey to a great destination.
Opened in 1936 with a fanfare of visiting movie stars like Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Ingrid Bergman, the Sun Valley Lodge remains a luxurious hotel in a winter playground. These days it fills the rest of the year with conventions, judging by my out-of-season visits.
Ernest Hemingway spent his last years in Ketchum, where he is buried—under a plain flat stone next to a matching one for his fourth wife, Mary. Near the Sun Valley Lodge there’s an artful memorial, set among the trees along a stream.
The inscription reads, “Best of all he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams, and above the hills the high blue windless skies. Now he will be a part of them forever. Ernest Hemingway, Idaho, 1939.” The words had been written for a friend’s eulogy, but resonate well for the writer, too.
During dinner at the Lodge that night, Michael and I had a table overlooking the outdoor skating rink. We looked at each other and nodded, “We have to do it.” After dinner we rented some skates and made like Brian Boitano and Elvis Stoyko for a while. (To the tune of the song from the “South Park” movie, “What would Brian Boitano do?”)
In further “sports” news, that day and the next we enjoyed some spectacular rides in Idaho. I have described the state before as seeming under-rated for its roads, scenery, and lack of much other traffic. We took a roundabout route into Boise (naturally), north through Salmon and west along the Payette River. Some grayish snowbanks remained at the roadsides, among the characteristic criss-cross rail fences and coniferous forest, and (quoth the anchorman, “now here’s Bubba with the weather report”) the gray sky gave way to rain showers, sometimes light, sometimes heavy.
Riding in the rain does not appeal to every rider, but I don’t mind it. (In any case, there’s nothing I can do about it, so might as well enjoy it. My chosen motto this year has been, “What cannot be altered, must be endured”—about which more later). Faced with wet roads and diminished visibility, I can adapt to the slower, gentler pace, and the somber, pensive mood. (Another metaphorical bit of roadcraft: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” Or the wrong attitude.)
Plus, I had been wanting to capture an Action Self Portrait of riding in the rain. You can see from the rider’s intent expression behind that rain-dappled faceshield that it is a serious business.
Speaking of faces telling stories, I spent one day off not riding, as I tend to do once every month of the tour. A luxurious hotel in Chicago made a nice change from our usual cheap motels (however “atmospheric”), and I was satisfied not to see anyone all day but the room service waiter. (Even not to visit one gas station was a symbolic treat.)
During that day I watched the finished edit for our live DVD from last October in Rotterdam. It looked really good, and we had played well, so it was enjoyable to view, but I could not get over how composed I looked. Such a contrast to how it feels, mentally and physically—brain frantically trying to keep everything “under control,” and body pounding away at full strength all the time. It doesn’t seem fair that it should look so easy. But as I learned a long time ago, “Ain’t no why, ain’t no fair.”
My friend Jamie Borden, a drummer in a Vegas band called Phoenix, wrote me that a friend of his who might be described as “an old Vegas hand” told him after seeing our show, “Neil is up there just whaling away and never makes an expression that fits how much energy and concentration it must take to do what he does. He has the best poker face I have ever seen.”
A kind of high praise, I suppose—and perhaps an idea for a future vocation. When the road ends.
Meanwhile, back in Boise … I was joined by Brian Catterson, Editor in Chief of Motorcyclist magazine, for his fourth annual appearance as guest rider—and his fourth annual good fortune to ride with me in rainy weather. Michael flew to Denver to take care of some unpleasant business involving a menacing psycho, while Brian and I made our way down from a truck stop in Wyoming (spotting a golden eagle on the road, a rare thrill) into Colorado, and into plenty of rain. Cold, too.
We stopped for the night in the pleasant town of Gunnison, and I said to Brian at dinner, “Nothing is better for your riding technique than twisty roads in the rain.”
He nodded, still shivering.
The next day we faced more rain, and an impromptu side trip to a nearby national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, for a passport stamp. I told Brian it was “about forty miles,” but it was more like sixty, and I’m pretty sure he appreciated an extra 120 miles of riding in the rain. And worse was yet to come, for when we climbed the 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, we found ourselves riding through a full-blown blizzard. An early title for this story was “Snow in June,” given all the previous encounters with the frozen elements, but this was the capper. Near the summit of that pass, the pavement was clear, if shiny wet, but the roadsides were solid white, and the air was filled with flying snow, covering our windscreens and faceshields. The temperature hovered at exactly the freezing point (as I nervously kept an eye on the thermometer on my bike’s instrument panel, while wiping snow off my faceshield with my left glove—which has a pad on the back of the index finger just for that purpose. Clever).
That time we made it through, but unfortunately the show we were on our way to—Red Rocks, near Denver—had been cancelled due to impending bad weather. The same front that delivered us a blizzard brought thunderstorms to Denver, and tornadoes to Kansas. Our equipment trucks and crew buses had already been on-site at Red Rocks that morning when the decision was made to cancel, but we’ll be making it up at the beginning of the next run.
Knowing the weather was threatening that show, I checked my cell phone at the park and saw I had a message, but there was no cell service until an hour later, back in Gunnison. I led Brian into a roadside spray-wash (a rare and valuable shelter for a motorcyclist on a rainy day—more roadcraft), and called tour manager Liam to discuss alternatives for the make-up date, and bus driver Dave to plan our logistics. I arranged to meet Dave and Michael in the parking lot of an arena in downtown Denver, where I did a quick oil change, then we loaded the bikes in the trailer and climbed on the bus. Dropping Brian at his hotel, Dave drove Michael and me to a truck stop in western Kansas. The following day we would enjoy a pleasant ride on the back roads of the Great Plains, without snow, rain, cold, police, or traffic.
There are some travelers who are unimpressed by flat country, but on the back roads I find there is a certain calmness, a feeling of space to let your mind relax. There’s little to fear, and plenty to look at: the farmhouses scattered among the open fields, occasional crossroads towns (one, Hoxie, Kansas, with the motto on its sign: “Good Crops, Great People,” another in Saskatchewan with the alarming sign, “Tisdale, the Land of Rape and Honey.” Of course they meant what Encarta defines as “an annual plant of the cabbage family that has bright yellow flowers and is grown commercially for its oil-bearing seeds and as a fodder crop,” but . . . don’t they know?). In early summer, the fields of Kansas were low and green, plush and velvety, stretching to the horizon. Hawks perched on fenceposts, lines of cottonwoods traced the banks of slow, muddy rivers, red-winged blackbirds and goldfinches flitted across the road, and often we passed those Aermotor windpumps, solitary and iconic. I studied different ones for many miles across the West and the Great Plains, to find just the right one, at the right distance from the road, with the light on the right side, and all that “artsy” stuff.
On the back of my bike is a one-gallon gas can, which I always carry west of the Mississippi and east of the Coastal Ranges—in the Great Plains and the Great Basin, where gas stations can be a long way apart. Once again, I never had to use it, but I felt so reassured just knowing it was there. (Metaphor alert.)
And now that my story’s meanderings have followed the tour’s itinerary back eastward, I would point out that in the middle of the country, our road ended a few times just because of water. Last summer I wrote about my traveling mode of “Shunpiking,” choosing the least-traveled roads, and seeking out ferries across rivers and lakes when I could find them. This year I was determined to ferry across the Mississippi, the Father of Waters, and first tried one at St. Francisville, Louisiana, between shows in Jacksonville and Houston. After a long ride, Michael and I learned the ferry was not running, because of what the sign announced as “High Water.” We could see that for ourselves—the road to the dock was underwater—and we had to scramble down to the interstate and ride for Houston that way.
That was very early in the season, and in the tour—April 20—but a month later, May 21, I tried to take another ferry higher up the Mississippi, from Cassville, Wisconsin, over to Iowa, but it was also closed due to high water (at least I knew by then to check in advance—always learning). That rising water in the Mississippi headwaters was soon to wreak devastation in the area, as the huge, sluggish volume backed up into the other slow-moving rivers of the plains.
(My friend Chris Stankee has posted a story, “The Accidental Drum Tech,” on the Sabian Web site, and it recounts some of the other dramas from the first few days of this run.)
The state monuments of North Dakota seem to be abandoned farmhouses, which are common along the country roadsides, and a little sad to contemplate. The combination of the state’s depopulation, and the amalgamation of marginal family farms into agri-corporations, leaves behind these desolate memorials. Places where people have lived and loved, grown up and grown old, now moldering in the harsh prairie weather.
However, the national monument of North Dakota, and neighboring Manitoba and Saskatchewan, ought to be the prairie wetlands. Environmental slogans like “Save the Wetlands” can sound a little dull, but start to seem vitally important when you see the constellation of ponds, sloughs, and small lakes surrounded by reeds, and the millions of migrating birds that use them as stopovers and feeding stations.
Meanwhile, on our own spiraling migrations through the states and provinces on this second summer of the Snakes and Arrows tour, we were continuing eastward by mid-June. One morning, in the woods of Pennsylvania, bright with flowering dogwoods, it looked like another road was about to end. A sign at the beginning of the road, running through a state park, had read, “Drivable Trail, Open for use by Licenced Motor Vehicles, No regular maintenance, 4-wheel drive recommended.”
And at first it wasn’t too bad. Here I look back to make sure Michael is still with me.
But the track soon got much worse. A high-clearance, specialized off-road truck might have got through there, but no ordinary four-wheeler or “Licensed Motor Vehicle.” We only just made it through some of the roughest sections (but again—go forward, or go back!), bounding over deep ruts, through wide, brown puddles, over mossy rocks, and into slippery mud. Here Michael negotiates a particularly dodgy stretch of the “Drivable Trail.”
That too was a show day, on our way to Philadelphia, and once again we made it out to a real road, and got to work in plenty of time. Pennsylvania has been my “discovery” this tour (though when I said that to Geddy at dinner in the dressing room one night, he said, “I’m pretty sure it’s been discovered already—they have people living there and everything”). The back roads of north-central Pennsylvania are as good as any in the East, for their curves, scenery, and relative emptiness, and it is also one of the few Eastern areas where you might ride twenty miles without having to stop—along with parts of Virginia and West Virginia, maybe, and always the Adirondacks (I saw a bumper sticker on a battered pickup there: “It ain’t a damn park. It’s the Adirondacks. It’s where we live, and where we work.” Some local conflicts between the natives and park authorities, I guess).
Just one more show remained, in Boston, and by then we had made it to thirty-two, and brought our motorcycling total to almost 14,000 miles this summer.
During those miles, I have had plenty of time to think. In the middle of a grueling tour, I mostly just live from day to day, not counting how many more days until I get home, or how many until it is over (psychological roadcraft, like immediately changing your watch to a new time zone, and not thinking in terms of the previous one anymore). But from time to time I do allow myself to think about “when the road ends.”
People often ask, “What’s next for the band?”, but we learned long ago that when you’re in the middle of a big job, you don’t need to talk about another one. So, in the middle of a tour, we never talk about making another album, and in the middle of recording, we never talk about another tour. One job at a time, even in your own head, is easier to deal with—you don’t need another burden if you can keep it “in storage” for a while.
For fifteen years people have been saying to me, “I hear this is your last tour” (I’ve been saying it myself since 1989), but subjects like that don’t even get raised among the three of us. Certainly after the last two summers of heavy touring, which will eventually add up to well over a hundred shows, there will be no more of that for a while.
(I adopted my current motto, “What cannot be altered, must be endured,” around New Year’s, and actually found it useful in such occasions as, say, flight delays. Only much later did I realize that the reverse was equally true, in a less passive way: “What cannot be endured, must be altered.”)
Some fresh challenges await me, no doubt. Later this year, I have agreed to take part in another big-band project, a Buddy Rich tribute concert in October, and that will be a huge occasion to try to rise to. I’m thinking a lot about that these days.
While I ride the open roads, from time to time I have given a little thought to trying to write another book. It seems to me that the stories I’ve been writing for this Web site are laying a good foundation for another challenge I might like to undertake: a book called ROADCRAFT: How to Work the World. If I could draw together all I’ve learned about traveling, in the literal sense and in a larger, metaphorical way, it might be worthwhile. It wouldn’t be just for motorcyclists, of course, or even just for travelers—but I would love to make the particular elements of roadcraft apply to the larger journey: life.
The gas can, the oil changes, the rain gear, the maps and signs.
How to make the most of the road you’re on; what to do when the road gets tough; what to do when the road ends.
That would be a tale worth telling.
(Hint: In reference to the question, “what to do when the road ends,” the correct response is not, “Pout.”)