Tales

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction
The Peach District Marathon
What’s The Matterhorn Like?
What’s at the Bottom of Copper Canyon?
I Always Wanted to Start a Band
My First Egyptian Taxi
Can You Stay In a Motel for Free?

INTRODUCTION

Introduction
When I was sixteen, my father asked me:

“Andrew, what do you want to be doing when you’re thirty?”

I thought about it for a minute.

“I want to have climbed mountains. I want to have traveled deep into Mexico. I want to fall in love, to write great songs, to be in a rock band, to read great literature, and made many friends far and wide.”

“Andrew, you’re talking about things you will have done. I’m asking what you will be doing.”

[Long pause]

On the one hand, my old man has a point – live a life where you’re chasing whatever’s around the corner and you’ll die with perhaps a few stories, but also crushing debt, no house, no family.

On the other hand, this could be a perfectly valid manner of approaching a life – an unending series of explorations down whichever paths seem like a good idea at the time, hopefully reducing the number of deathbed regrets to zero. Maybe.

Or maybe this is the fundamental philosophical difference between my father and I.

I do understand his point about a “career” and the accumulation of at least some wealth, but it’s still more important to me to die with stories than to have taken the safe and profitable route. And now, in my thirties and reassessing how I’ve spent my time so far, it appears that’s more or less exactly what I’ve done.

I’ve been to all the lower 48 states, traveled decent swaths of Canada, Mexico, Europe and Africa, wrote plenty of songs and started bands, been in love more than a few times, co-founded an arts-based non-profit, ran a marathon, climbed mountains, saw Obama sworn in, been to Burning Man, and wrote a musical.

At the same time, I’m unmarried and have no kids, I haven’t sailed across the ocean, I’ve switched jobs too many times to be in any position for a “career,” I’m only fluent in one language, and I have no idea what’s next for me.

It’s one of those “in between” lives, falling short of the heavily traveled lives of Cassady or Shackleton. The art I’ve created so far is somewhere in that swelling bulge of the forgotten middle, my professional career (if we must call it that) isn’t nearly as complex or challenging as it could be, and I’m constantly frustrated by the chasm between my own life and those of my heroes.

And yet, it is a life of my choosing. Which, for the year 2016, seems the exception rather than the rule. For a healthy majority of my thirty-odd years on the planet, my guiding approach has been, mostly, to think of a thing I’d like to do, and then to go do that.

I wanted to run a marathon so I ran one (alone). I wanted to try out for major league baseball so I drove to Pennsylvania and did so (fifteen years after I had last touched a baseball). I wanted to see as much of this planet as possible so my finances have been consistently ballooning and deflating, oscillating between paying for the last trip and saving for the next.

So, without further fanfare, here are a few snapshots of the temporary lives I’ve wanted to live – and how that all played out. Cheers.

(Back to top)

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THE PEACH DISTRICT MARATHON

On a warm day a few springs ago, I slept in, ate a large breakfast, stretched, and ran a marathon. I hadn’t trained at all, my legs couldn’t move for 48 hours afterwards, and it’s highly doubtful I’ll ever run 26.2 consecutive miles again. Nonetheless, in what I had decided to call The First Annual Peach District Marathon, I was the lone participant – and therefore, the winner. My five and a half hour finishing time is almost certainly the slowest winning time for a marathon.

I came upon this decision after hearing so many say they wanted to run a marathon but then lamented the difficulty of training and never did anything about it. To me, it didn’t seem hard: You just keep moving your body forward, ignore the searing pain, and travel the pre-determined distance.

To amuse myself along this absurd distance (let us not forget the runner of the first marathon died), I plotted the route entirely along the sidewalks of the twelve square blocks of my neighborhood, weaving through every side street and back onto itself six times to reach the requisite length. The neighborhood had recently been informally rechristened “The Peach District” – hence the marathon’s title.

Two weeks before this date, I hung flyers around town inviting anyone interested to join. As expected, the only ones who joined me at the starting line were my friends, all of whom wore roller blades and didn’t expect to continue past the first mile. I wore shorts, socks, shoes, and some red Sharpie on my bare chest announcing the name of the event and the number “001.” A few minutes after two pm, one of my friends struck a wooden spoon against a mixing bowl, and the “race” began.

With my rollerblading friends weaving through the streets around me, we were a merry sight, full of vim and vigor. There was a camaraderie among us — a big inside joke we were playing on the neighborhood, hoping they would be curious what we were up to and instantly join. This communal spirit lasted about ten minutes, when the route passed one of their houses. As it was a hot day and they had a swimming pool, this was the end of their line. To their credit, they never intended to complete the race, but being abandoned so soon by the only people who knew what I was doing, opting for a cool afternoon of swimming did little to help the sanity of my situation. I did, however, convince them to leave their water pitcher on their front porch and refill it every so often, so I now had fresh water every four miles. Onward.

Lots of people run marathons. From the competitive Olympians who train at high altitudes to the cancer survivors raising money for their cause, the running of 26.2 miles is in no way unique. Many train long hours and overcome fantastic personal hurdles, and I mean not to belittle their accomplishments. But during those long, lonely miles when I was the lone participant, I started wondering what propels someone to participate in an event like this. What, exactly, was I doing?

My route had no signage or closed streets, so I had written the order of the streets on my forearm. Luckily, I had memorized the route by my third lap, by which time the street names had sweated off. The fellow joggers gave me strange looks, but mostly I was unbothered. I was feeling pretty damn good for the first ten miles or so, and then the existential curiousities began creeping in.

Not unlike the fallen tree in the forest, does a marathon completed while no one’s watching still count as a marathon? Is what matters the public declaration of our achievements, or just the internal satisfaction of a job well done? Do physical challenges like these exist only to trick ourselves into a feeling of prolonged mortality?

It’s these sort of useless philosophical questions that occupied my mind over those five long hours. I don’t run regularly and hadn’t for more than five consecutive miles before this, so I can’t speak for most other marathon runners, but I found much of the time to be quite boring. That the scenery repeated itself six times certainly didn’t help. Maybe next time I’ll load up a bunch of podcasts.

For miles fifteen and sixteen it rained heavily, and my previously—sensible outfit became cold and ridiculous. Umbrellas appeared and disappeared, and I started walking. All told, I walked a combined four or five of the miles, and have zero shame in that number. Not having trained gives you plenty of excuses.

At one point, I passed a gentleman for the third time who was lazing the day away on his porch. Finally, he had to know.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

“I’m running a marathon!”

Given that he was asking a topless, soaking wet man with red marker streaming down his chest, perhaps this seemed a reasonable answer. Nonetheless, I took the opportunity to stop and chat for a minute before he cheerily sent me on my way.

As my mileage crept near twenty, I honestly wondered if I’d finish. I felt my body shutting down, certain my knees were eliminating themselves of their cartilage. I also realized nobody was keeping me honest — I could take shortcuts, I could rest a while, I could stop completely. For me, this became quite interesting. With no fellow runners to follow or fans lining the streets, it became abundantly clear I had nothing to prove to anybody to myself. Lying about running a marathon is easy. Still, I wanted to know what it felt like and I wasn’t about to rob myself of that. I acknowledged the searing pain running from my waist to my heels, and mindfully (or stupidly) pushed through it.

Most big cities have at least one marathon. They arrive complete with massive organization efforts, closed roads, live music, matching t—shirts, and an all around jolly good time. They also usually come with an entrance fee. Though I understand the cost from the organization’s perspective, the cost from the participant’s angle — to pay to participate in the perfectly free activity of jogging – seemed to me tougher to justify. My marathon had no entrance fee, no press coverage, no onlookers holding signs, no road closures.

And I think it was at the finish line when I missed the organizations of larger marathons the most. Rather than a finish line surrounded with cheering crowds, photographers, and a glass of water, my marathon ended rather unceremoniously when I collapsed silently into a chair on the patio outside the bar I had started at five and a half hours earlier. After five minutes a waitress came out and I ordered a beer. I checked my phone, returned a few texts, and began two straight days of debilitating soreness.

I was completely exhausted, slightly content, happy to be in a chair, and still confused why I had done this. I had checked off another strange goal on my list, and now could say an interesting sentence at parties when the topic turned to long distance running. But it’s highly unlikely I’ll be returning to defend my Peach District Marathon championship anytime soon. Marathons, as it turns out, require a ridiculous amount of effort and ultimately feel a little too circular for my tastes. Nevertheless, I’m told there’s something to be said about sticking to a goal once you’ve set it.

Now, if only I could choose more productive goals.

—————

WHAT’S THE MATTERHORN LIKE?

Matterhorn
I wake in a tiny, clinically-white room in a Zurich hotel at which I haven’t seen a single worker (I checked in last night with a computer and a key-dispensing vending machine), and pack my bag. Having completed “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” the previous night, I decide to save weight and leave the English-language book behind in a German-speaking country, should there an be actual human who will eventually clean my room. I shoulder my pack and walk quickly to the nearest public transit station, inhaling the rest of last night’s pizza on the way. I choose not to pay (Zurich’s transit is on the honor system, which I am dishonoring) and awkwardly slide my pack and I into the Monday morning rush, clearly the only person not dressed in their downtown finest work clothes (mostly suits; there seem to be a lot of money-movers in this town), and definitely the only one with a forty pound backpack. I get off at the main train station and have barely enough time to buy the 8:02am ticket to Zermatt (the town at the foot of the Matterhorn), grab a cup of coffee, and relax on the pricey train ride into the Swiss Alps.

Three trains and five hours later (not to mention exhausting rubber-necking at the mountains we’re traveling straight through), I exit the car at Zermatt and head into the visitor’s center. I learn there is no tent camping allowed on the mountain and immediately disregard this rule. My map appears to show something that looks like a place I can sleep, a six hour hike up the mountain from here, and decide to take my chances. I wander the town for a bit, exchange some Euros for Swiss Francs, buy a brat and a coke from a roadside vendor (weirdly, he doesn’t know where the grocery store is in this small town), find the grocery store and stock up on provisions (rice, beans, trail mix, sardines, fruit), and start walking up the Matterhorn. I have traveled thousands of miles to get to this trailhead, and the feeling of actually hitting the trail is astonishing. And it is somewhere between the postcard vistas in every direction and the first cool drink of a mountain spring that the feeling of finally being in the Swiss Alps hits me. It feels for the moment like I’ve come a long way from my small town in Ohio; I’m not ashamed to feel pride.

Onward I hike, following signs to something called “Hornlihautte.” The farmers performing their daily chores against such stunning beauty further twists the confusing reality in front of me, trying to understand a life in which this much scenic beauty is the norm. I run into pockets of travelers about every half hour, and every person I pass greets me with their native tongue’s “hello.” It becomes a fun game to predict the native languages of those coming down the mountain, offering a matching “Bounjour” or “Guten tak” (though I hope for more of the latter, as my French pronunciation is not unlike that of a parrot’s).

I’m stopping to rest and drink water with increasing frequency, as my life in Ohio at a few hundred feet above sea level left me ill-prepared for these multi-thousand-feet elevations. Around four I collapse on a bench, eating sardines and trail mix at 7,000 feet; I start to wonder if my pack and I can really make this 10,000 feet Hornlihautte destination by nightfall, or ever. I take a good long break and check the map, focusing not on remaining distance, but elevation. I decide we’ve come too far to turn back, wearily shoulder my pack, and continue walking up the Matterhorn.

From Zermatt, the way in which the Matterhorn reveals itself is its own beauty. From the city floor you can, on clear days, make out the top five or so percent of the mountain. A foggy day will obscure it. As you start walking the trail, the mountain dips out of view for a good while, leaving you huffing and wondering when you’ll see it again. The stunning landscape behind you certainly provides it own brand of beauty, but let’s be honest – you came to Zermatt to see The Matterhorn. About halfway up you hit a plateau, and the mountain makes its stunning entrance. From here you walk basically straight up the thing, every step bringing more of its peculiar peak into view, but also leaving you less and less oxygen.

Thirteen hours after waking up in Zurich and six and a half after hitting the Zermatt trailhead, I see the flags marking my destination. My legs are the most tired I can remember them (a record to be outdone only two days later further down this same trail), and my mind is thin and wandering from the altitude. Dusk is closing in as I pass an American-looking hiker on the way down and take a break to chat him up. He tells me of the deal at those flags: It is not, as I thought, an area of tent camping, but instead a five star hotel at a very expensive price with only a few beds. Upon learning this fifteen minutes ago, he has decided to risk it and find a place out of sight of the hotel to pitch camp for the night.

Having hiked these six thousand vertical feet with everything I had on my back, I am equally resolute about not paying for this hotel and sleeping in my tent. We decide to pool resources and camp together, and we set about looking for a spot.

A quick word on The Matterhorn for the unfamiliar: The north face of the Matterhorn is one of the steepest final ascents on the planet. In particular, outside of the area around the pre-designated hotels they’ve peppered along the route, there are extremely few areas of flat land on which to pitch a tent.

So we have our work cut out for us, carefully wandering this rocky forty degree slope. Eventually we settle on a natural half-cave, where if we carefully position the tent among the almost-flat shale rocks we have just enough room to lay our bodies down. I carefully make camp, and upon completion we’re left with exactly two paces between the door of the tent and the rest of the mountain face. Three steps out of the front door and you fall down the mountain. Truth be told, it’s obscenely dangerous, but I’m confident in the grip of my boots, and my partner is a fearless nineteen year old kid who grew up on the ski slopes of Utah. He teaches me the noun “gnar.” I make us a dinner of rice and beans, and we eat and silently take in the panorama.

We’re three quarters to the peak of The Matterhorn, and can just make out the peak looming behind us. The sun is setting behind the peak, expertly lighting the 28 peaks I count rising in all directions from the bowl-like dip in elevation in front of us. Between the lack of evidence of any another humans, the beauty of the sunset, and perilousness of the location, I imagine it will be a long while before I camp in a more beautiful location. It’s truly astounding. We try to capture it with our phones and digital cameras, and fail splendidly.

We lay ourselves down in the tent – me in my sleeping bag and him in only the tent he brought with him, wrapped burrito-style. We are both sitting on our sides, just watching the peaks get slowly darker through the tent door until we reluctantly fall asleep, me telling him to wake me if he gets cold. Three hours later he does, and I offer him my extra pair of gloves and help re-wrap his tent burrito which gets through the night.

I’m woken when my tentmate says “sunrise” and we immediately & wordlessly leave the tent and watch one of the most immaculate sunrises of my life. Not only is the eastern view of the sun stunning over its 28 peaks, but the whole spectacle is preceded by watching the sun crawling down the peak of The Matterhorn behind us, slowly trumpeting the day’s arrival. We hang around for as long as we can, and reluctantly break camp to avoid getting caught. We hike up to Hornlihautte, where he trudges further onward (you need crampons and other alpine gear past this point, which he doesn’t have but doesn’t care about), and I relax on a picnic table and stare at this great mountain I climbed most of, supremely satisfied. I’ll make the summit next time.

(Back to top)

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WHAT’S AT THE BOTTOM OF COPPER CANYON?

View from El Chepe

The two of us were spending the month driving through Mexico, crossing in at Laredo with plans to exit at Juárez. We had made it down to Mexico City and were on the northern return leg. The Captain, my partner in these crimes, had read about a train that runs straight through Copper Canyon, winding through 39 bridges and 86 tunnels, running between Chihuahua City and the Pacific Ocean.

However, having only two days budgeted for the excursion, we couldn’t quite make the coast. Instead, we decided to pick a town, at random, somewhere at the bottom of the canyon, hope for a hotel and stay for the night, and catch the train back the next day. After careful consultation of the available brochures and maps, we chose a town called Témoris. The map key suggested a population likely large enough for a hotel, and the plans were finalized.

Woken by the alarm clock at 4:30 the next day, we showered and drove to the Chihuahua City train station. It bustled with bleary-eyed travelers dragging suitcases and easily-distracted children. We bought two tickets for the 5:45am train and inquired where it would be safe to park our car for 36 hours – no small task in this section of the country. We found a spot around the corner, hid what we weren’t taking in the trunk with as much as we could and covered the rest of our belongings with blankets, and hoped for the best.

The train pulled out on time, the sun yet to make its debut. The lights of Chihuahua City against the thin twilight made for great window watching. Most of the rest of the car slept. The train moved more slowly than I had anticipated, but I soon learned this was only through populated areas. As the densely populated areas gave way to gently rolling hills, the sun brightened our view and the train picked up speed.

The passenger cars of the train had large windows with a shade that rolled down, but they didn’t open to feel the air. For that you had to go between the cars: there was a section with four “windows” – open sections from the waist to the ceiling – out of which the views were spectacular.

When the train stopped every hour or so, a handful of passengers would get on or off, and there would be dozens of locals selling bread or baskets or blankets directly to the passengers through the windows. As they were all selling essentially identical goods, the competition was fierce and the sales pitches got louder and more desperate when the train whistled its departure. We pulled away and they retreated back into their town. This being the only train that would stop in their town all day, I wondered from where else they earned their income.

The train took a longer stop at Divisadero, Mexico’s answer to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and we had enough time to eat a hot meal, buy souvenirs, and take pictures. I walked to the supposedly beautiful overlook, and fog filled my view; I couldn’t see more than 20 feet ahead, no idea if I was staring at a rock face or an endless expanse of canyon. I returned to the train moments before it rolled on, nobody seeming too worried about a complete headcount or if someone was in the bathroom.

The train picked up speed and the landscape became more jagged and fascinating. After seven hours of slowly rolling hills, the frequency of cliffs and peaks from our window was dizzying. We leaned dangerously out of the windows, which made for rather dizzying views when we went over a bridge and looked straight down a few hundred feet at a river below, then straight up the mountain next to it. I took a pull from my flask of tequila and breathed deep the canyon air.

Finally, nine hours after Chihuahua City, Témoris was the next stop. We gathered our things and stood by the door well in advance, as nobody was taking any additional consideration to ensure people arrived at their destination. There seems to be a “you’re on your own” approach in Mexico that I truly enjoy.

To our delight, this section of the route had the steepest descent, the train cutting through switchbacks around the mountains as the train station ducked and out of view. The rain was hard but there was no fog; the view was spectacular. We hopped off, a few others hopped on, and we watched the train speed off around the next mountain.

We stood in the pouring rain at an empty train station – no guests, no workers. First thought: where is this town? Nobody else got off the train when we did (not a good sign), and behind the station are a few small houses (shacks, to the average American). We turn a corner and see a couple boys piling into a weathered red pickup truck. We were standing in the rain and obviously lost. They consult the rest of the occupants, and motion us to enter. We gather they’ve dropped somebody off at the train station and are headed back into “town,” which is still nowhere in sight. We negotiated two seats in the back, which brings the total number of passengers to eight.

In the backseat next to us were three boys – two stacked vertically – under the age of ten. In the driver’s seat was a boy around 14; to his right was a younger boy, and riding shotgun was a man who looked to be well into his fifties. He offered us a plastic Coca-Cola bottle containing a clear liquid.

“Vino?”

When in Rome…

The Captain and I both took a tentative swig; it was definitely a homemade moonshine, and tastier than we expected. We handed the bottle back to its owner who takes a large gulp. The fourteen year old shifted the car into drive. I couldn’t see where we’re going – still no town in sight – but there’s a muddy road that has to lead somewhere. The truck tilts back and I deduce we’re headed up the mountain.

Out the window there’s less than a foot between the edge of the tires and the steep drop of the mountain, but nobody in the truck seems worried. The tires slip and spin in the muddy ruts of the road. The rain offers us a few feet of visibility; the old man takes another swig of his “vino.”

After a few more switchbacks of the mountain, more and larger houses appear, and the town of Témoris unrolls behind them. From what little we can see through the rain, the town probably has a hundred or so residents, and consisting of a half dozen businesses surrounding a newly built public square, complete with a roof and large tile dance floor. It’s four in the afternoon but the rain and clouds leave the sky much darker. We can’t see a single light on in the whole town. We ask our hosts for a hotel, and they let us out at an arrangement of three flat faded pink buildings. Muchas gracias, muchachos. Adiós.

We wander the pink buildings, looking for an office. No signage anywhere. We pass a family sitting outside their motel room and ask about the office. They point, we follow. We arrive are met with a screen door and total darkness inside. We knock and hear a middle aged woman yell to someone, and a twelve year old boy appears. After discussing the length of stay, number of beds, and price, we hand him cash and he hands us a key, a remote control, and an unlit candle. The candle gives us a moment’s pause, but the boy points us towards our room, retreats into the dark room, and we’re off.

The key works, and we enter to a small room with only a little mildew in the shower and a small tv in the corner. The light switches are unresponsive; the candle suddenly sense. After we consider the lack of lights in the rest of town, it dawns on us that Témoris is currently without electricity. Considering how far we are from a metropolitan area, it almosts seems silly to have expected electricity.

We haven’t eaten since this morning’s train breakfast, so we take an inventory of provisions. Two granola bars, a liter of water, and a half a pint of tequila. We grab our cash and decide to wander town to see if anything is open. We pass the closed restaurant next door and a few other buildings (curiously, no bar in sight) before locating the lone grocery store, which is lighting its two aisles with emergency lighting. We buy tortillas, cheese, water, and a bag of chips. Nothing else in Témoris is open. It’s five o’clock, nearly completely dark, we each have a stiff bed in a candlelit room, and a dinner of cold tortillas and cheese. We’ve made it to the bottom of Copper Canyon.

An hour, without warning, the electric lights in the room turn on. Power has been restored to Témoris! The television jumps to life (apparently left on from earlier) and we find a Spanish-dubbed version of Iron Man and sip tequila, celebrating our luck, and happily drifting off to sleep.

I’m woken a couple hours later by what sounds like the neighbors blasting music deep into the night (this has been common in our hotel experiences in Mexico). Initially I figure I’ll just deal with it, but it keeps pounding louder and I realize sleep isn’t going to come. I lie awake for a while, and try to figure out where, exactly the music is coming from. After a while it stops sounding like recorded music. Is a band playing somewhere? As tired as I am, my curiosity overtakes me and I start lacing up my boots. This wakes The Captain, to whom I explain I’m going to figure out where the music’s coming from. He grunts approvingly and rolls over.

Equipped with a little cash and the room key, I leave our safety and walk the fifty or so feet into “downtown” Témoris, music louder with every step. I turn the corner and am overwhelmed by bright lights soaking the town square and the massive rattle from five musicians on a stage. Dressed in full mariachi regalia and armed with the hybrid instrumentation of traditional mariachi and modern rock bands, the band is entertaining what must be nearly the entire town of Témoris. After a careful survey of those in attendance – young people on the dance floor, middle aged and the elderly sitting at tables, and a young girl in a dress-you-could-see-for-miles in the middle, I realize I’ve stumbled into a quince años celebration – a popular Mexican tradition in which a large fifteenth birthday party is thrown. Though there were lots of people there, I didn’t quite feel like I could crash the party, not wanting to tread on the birthday girl’s special day.

Instead, I try to take a casual walk around the perimeter of the party (no easy task for maybe the only gringo in the whole canyon), watching the dancing and plastic cups of punch from afar. I’m so moved by the spectacle I nearly miss what’s just beyond the lights of the party. To my left is the dancing partiers surrounding a happy teenager. To my right, surrounding the entire quince años celebration, are dozens of men with shotguns and rifles, standing guard. I can only guess at the reason for their presence. As my mind simply cycles through versions of “holyshitholyshitholyshit,” my feet carefully quicken my pace to complete a lap around the party. I make no eye contact with anyone, trying to convey I mean no trouble, and briskly return to the hotel room. The whole while, the band played loudly and cheerfully.

I report my findings to The Captain who agrees it’s safest to remain where we are, and we lie awake for a long time, until we finish off the tequila and fall asleep again.

In the morning we return the key/remote/candle and walk back into town. Save for a few scattered napkins and plates, there’s no evidence of last night’s event. The lone restaurant seems open, so we stop for breakfast. It’s a few days after Christmas, so our waitress/owner/cook’s son rides his brand new scooter throughout the meal, very pleased with life. Breakfast is delicious and we tip heartily. We buy a few more granola bars for the return trip and sit in the city square and go about solving how to get down the mountain. The distance, steepness, and muddiness of the road we came in on discourages us from walking, so we start planning. There likely wouldn’t be a taxi service in a town this small, but could we hitchhike? As we’re formulating a plan, a local approaches us and asks us (in English) “Do you boys need help?”

The impact of hearing our native tongue can’t be overstated; we had heard only Spanish for weeks, and the bottom of Copper Canyon was the last place we’d expect to. We answered a resounding yes, explaining we needed a ride to the train station (we had a vague idea of when the train was supposed to be there, but we were shooting for much earlier as this was literally our only ride out of town). He said he knew guys who frequently gave rides to the station and that he’d go ask. He left and we relaxed on a park bench with nothing further to do. After about 20 minutes, he pulled up in a silver pickup truck.

“Nobody was available, so I’ll just give you guys a ride down there myself.”

The ride down was infinitely less stressful than yesterday’s, due both to great weather and a driver older than 14. Curiously, one of his first questions of us was whether we smoked marijuana, and we tentatively responded yes, unsure if he was offering to share or sell or bust us (our bags were clean at the time). He told us his story of having worked as a doctor in the Albequerque, NM, frequently prescribing weed to his patients. He’s quite a proponent of the stuff, but didn’t smoke too often himself. However, according to him, his roommate in New Mexico sold the stuff and one day the cops came while his roommate was out, and our doctor friend was caught with way too much of the stuff. Quickly deported, he now acts as Temoris’ lone doctor, and seemed altogether cheery about his fate. He did, however, still seem bitter that his roommate got off scot-free. Regardless, he got us to our destination safely, we tipped him, and parted ways.

After a couple hours of waiting alone at the station (which we didn’t mind – the view here was incredible), we boarded the train and headed east towards Chihuahua City. After another fabulous breakfast and a few too many beers in the bar car, the requisite stop at Divisadero was this time fog free and gorgeous. I returned to my previous day’s ledge and the view rivaled any I had seen at The Grand Canyon.

The view was yesterday’s in reverse – dwindling elevation changes, a slowing train, and a dimming sky, but just as beautiful. We spent nearly the whole ride between cars with our heads hanging out the window. Returning to Chihuahua past sunset and finding our car as safe as we left it, we hit the road and headed north, filling up at a Denny’s just outside of town and staying in El Motel De Capitan (in honor of my travelmate), too exhausted to ring in the new year. We were lying in our beds when we heard the fireworks and cheers in the street at midnight.

(Back to top)

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I ALWAYS WANTED TO START A BAND

Trains, circa 2010
(photo by Giles Clement)

When you’re born and raised in the suburban America I came from, there might be no greater life than that of being a rock star (though professional baseball player probably ranks a close second). The TVs constantly reinforced this idea over hour-long specials detailing the sublime quality of the rock star life. In what other profession is there no discernible dress code? Are there office jobs where women seem to throw themselves at you only because you can play an instrument? To my sixteen year old mind, the rock star life couldn’t be beat; watching concert videos of Bruce Springsteen with my mother and seeing the impact this short guy with a quirky-looking band could have on her life, I knew I had to see if I could do that. So I tried.

If you’ll excuse the analogy, starting down the rock star path of the rock star is a little like developing a handicap: it’s something you might not ever fully escape, and it alters damn near every inch of your life. For me, the urge for rock and roll greatness is one of the most powerful drugs I’ve experienced.

Starting a band, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, is essentially engaging in a simultaneous romantic relationship with three or four people. And, like other semi-functional relationships each wants something slightly different, and there’s always a discrepancy between the effort each are willing to put into it. I can’t speak for all bands, but this has been my experience:

Just before I turned 16, the wife of my church’s youth pastor asked me if I knew how to play guitar. Answering that I did not, she explained that the high school senior who led the worship songs every week was graduating in a few months and they’d need a replacement. I never found out why she asked me, but I figured it’d be helpful to learn guitar anyway, so I borrowed my friend’s dad’s acoustic, practiced endlessly in my room, and six months later I stood nervously in front of two dozen kids sitting on picnic benches in the park and carefully played three chords. And in that very first moment, standing in front of people watching you and following wherever you led them, I was hooked. So far as I can tell, it objectively is one of the greatest experiences imaginable on planet earth – on par with an orgasm or hitting a baseball very far with the sweet spot of the bat.

It was then a matter of weeks before we started the inevitable high school band – an embarrassing rite of passage for those bit by the rock star bug. Ours was a Christian rock band named Orison, formed by two church friends and a drummer I played soccer with. I played a thin blue acoustic/electric my parents had bought me after realizing I was going to stick with this, and the singer and I started writing songs. We played a few of your typical high school performances – graduation parties, battle of the bands, school dances – and recorded an album in three long days at someone’s home studio. Some of the album is even listenable, in my opinion – a laudable feat for four teenagers with no experience. But, of course, the band amicably met its fate when I moved to college.

After spending the first few years of college with my efforts split evenly between engineering classes and explorations in booze and drugs, my guitar skills deployed only in the occassional effort to make friends meet girls, the bug crept up on me again. So, being the lazy collegiate I was, I sat on the middle of my school’s lawn and played my guitar, hoping to meet the like-minded. Brett, a long-haired hipster kid with band flyer in hand, came right up and asked if I wanted to be in a band. After the customary exchanging of influential bands (when in doubt, say Radiohead – you’ll make friends the world over), our alliance was forged and we scoured the rest of the campus for our bandmates. Soon we found ourselves and two other musicians in some basement, tentatively exploring which songs everyone knew, learning the songs Brett wrote, and fumbling towards getting everyone to stop playing at the same time. Before long, we had booked our first show – an outdoor campus event. We hadn’t picked a band name yet (a decision most musicians approach with more gravity than their collegiate majors or spouse), but that didn’t stop us. We were going to be rock stars.

Of course, the show was a magnificent disaster. There are plenty of ways a show can go wrong, and this contained nearly all of them. After your inevitable technical issues of too few mics and half of those operational, we moved onto differing opinions of which song to play next (tip: always write a setlist), finally settling on Brett’s “guys, I’m gonna play this song solo; just hang tight for a minute.” But our crowning achievement came during the final song. The drummer, who so far showed the least interest in the band, had a scheduled, brief solo in the final song. When his time to shine arrived, he started and didn’t stop. To the crowd it must have been quite a sight: everyone in the band has turned around, incredulously watching the drummer refuse to count the rest of us back in, hopelessly pointing to our wrists and trying to signal his time is up, resigning ourselves to watch this disaster unfold. When it ended ten minutes later, we limped to the finish line of the song. After polite applause and a few “thank yous” into the microphone, our set was over. When the band reconvened, the drummer started by saying “yeah guys, I think I’m done with this band.” Everybody followed suit and our band dissolved moments after our one and only show. It was majestic.

Undeterred, and having befriended the bassist (who gave our set its one bright moment by belting out a surprising version of Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter”), I brought him with me to the next band, all the while writing music at a feverish clip and bringing in a mathematician/drummer friend of mine. Still petrified at the idea of writing lyrics and singing them, I turned to Craigslist to find a new collaborator. It was here I found Justin, a warbly-voiced poet who shared my love of the band Pavement. We ended up sounding nothing like Pavement. Both lifelong fans of public broadcasting, we named our band Viewers Like You – a band name of which I’m still very proud – and started playing house parties. From what little I remember of this time, we became known primarily for our drinking and onstage writhing. As always, we began recording with a laptop and a few borrowed microphones. Six months later, we had thirteen surprisingly-good-sounding basement recordings. The day after we finished mixing the album, Justin told me he was moving to North Carolina. Great. Next band.

Cobbling together the parts of the album that were rightfully mine (I wrote the music and he wrote the lyrics, so we had a good number of instrumental tracks to work with), and bidding the bassist adieu to begin his life with Microsoft in Seattle, the drummer and I searched for a bassist and singer, both of whom we met through our thrice-weekly karaoke addiction. The singer wrote new words, we added a few covers, and named the project after a local celebrity who told hard-to-believe stories about “helping” the cops. Jeff Clark & The Crimefighters was born.

Again starting on the house show circuit, we soon were asked to be the halftime entertainment for our town’s roller derby team. Somehow, our lead singer talked us into wearing robot outfits; we performed for a disinterested and confused crowd. However, our high-energy cover of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” – complete with the bassist’s falsetto keyboard line – did get a few toddlers dancing along.

We continued to play sporadic shows whenever bars had an open weeknight, and I kept writing songs. One in particular proved to be our band’s downfall. “Such Uncomfortable Chairs,” a mid-tempo ballad about siblings, seemed innocuous enough – except for how our lead singer sang it. Ever the showman, his voice lent a kitschy feel to the first song which resonated so personally with me. For the first time in my life, I had opinions about the vocals of a song I wrote. Until this point I had been happy just to be in a band. Now, having played enough shows to have develop specific tastes, I couldn’t explain to the vocalist what to do. Reluctantly, I realized the time had come to learn to sing. This was how my band (and arguably first “real” one), Trains Across the Sea, came to be.

Starting your own band is, I think, not unlike raising a child. It’s precocious and confusing at first, then it slowly matures, building a mind of its own, turning interesting then rewarding, until eventually it gets impatient and turns on its creator and storms off. You have no idea what you’re getting into, and you suddenly have to acquire skillsets you hadn’t ever considered.

There are a great number of ingredients needed to build a band – instruments, musicians, whiskey, loyalty – but the most important, in my opinion, are The Songs. Unless you’re in a cover band, you’re going to need to fill those 45 minutes on stage with something, and teaching myself the discipline of writing songs is as difficult and rewarding an endeavor as I’ve encountered. For those that haven’t tried it yet, here’s my five step process to becoming a songwriter:

1. Date someone.

2. Get them to break your heart.

3. Write thirty terrible songs.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you have one song you can play in front of someone, all the way through, without you or them laughing.

5. Write thirty more songs. Throw out twenty five of them.

By now you have three or four songs hopefully good enough to hold their own at one of the innumerable bonfires you’ll now find yourself where an acoustic guitar gets passed around. This, along with copious amounts of whiskey and too many hours alone in unfinished basements, is more or less how that first year went. Much of the rest of the time was spent teaching myself to sing, a feat for which I can not extend enough gratitude to past roommates of mine, who coped with endless hours of me straining to reach cracked notes. Mercilessly, my singing and songwriting eventually arrived at a not-too-embarrassing plateau.

Once I had enough songs to merit their own set, the bassist and drummer from my previous band joined me to play shows at the dive bars around town. After five or six performances, they both left to get their mathematics PhDs in Pittsburgh and Toronto. Of course. Next band. But this time, I did learn a valuable lesson: since I wrote all of the music and lyrics, I can keep the same songs and just retool. Thank God.

I found a drummer on craigslist who lasted a few shows before realizing my zealous commitment to this project would eventually clash with his lucrative law career. I tried a few solo shows, but I sorely lacked the musicality necessary to retain an audience’s interest. I soon met a man at a coffee shop who was in a similar boat as me. He too was writing songs and needed musicians. Even better, his primary instrument was piano, so we had already complimentary instrumentation. It was an “I’ll play your songs if you play mine” situation, and we agreed to form a two-headed “band.”

Before long, I met a multi-instrumental friend through an open mic (guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin, juggling) and the cool girl down the street played trumpet, so the four of us started practicing together in one of the most unlikely band lineups you’ll find. Our guitar/piano/banjo/trumpet outfit indeed looked pretty ragged onstage, but soon we consistently were booking shows around town, even getting asked to play some respectable in-town festivals.

After losing our beloved multi-instrumentalist (he taught me how to fly fish!) to California for a PhD in mathematics (third in two years), we were lucky to quickly replace him with a supremely talented violin player who happened to be the recent ex of the piano player’s sister (fun fact: most bands are formed lazily by whoever happens to be friends or lovers with people you already know). For me, the pact was sealed during that first practice when his violin solo turned one of my dopey love songs into a suddenly crushingly sad tune, clearly and directly able to channel his own recent heartbreak.

An interesting lesson from this period: any band that notifies their audience halfway through a set that they’re now a different band playing this person’s songs is doomed from the start. No band can function with that much conflicting ego, unable to merge into a single idea. About a month after our violinist joined, the pianist with whom I started this flawed concept a year earlier informed me he’d like to split and focus on his own project. I had no problem with this, invited the violinist alone into my band, and Trains Across the Sea suddenly became two roaming musicians playing guitar, harmonica, and fiddle as fast and as loudly as they could. We neer used amplification, we frequently demanded (and received) group stomping, and we had an abover average “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” We were engaging to some, obnoxious to others. In the ten months we played together, we played forty or so shows, most while standing on chairs.

The strange part about these bands I led is that I never decided on a “sound” and then curated musicians and instruments to pursue that sound. I just knew that bands needed songs, and kept writing as many as I could and then used whichever musicians were friends with me at the time to perform them live. I wanted to be unconventional, but in attempting I learned there’s a reason there aren’t, for example, a lot of guitar/piano/trumpet/violin acts – those sounds don’t exactly go together. However, when I teamed up with only a violinist and never plugged in, I felt I stumbled into a pretty cool idea, and there was a unique sound the two of us made of which I’m still damn proud.

But, soon enough, the fiddle player had begun his own improvisational project which lent more to his strengths anyway. I totally understood. Onward.

For those keeping score, I’ve by this point started and lost six bands. You might be wondering why I didn’t throw in the towel and stop. Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but maybe this goes to show just how powerful of a drug the experience of being on stage with a guitar is.

I had been making more friends at the open mic I started, and a wickedly talented pianist had just moved here from Cincinnati. For reasons unknown to me, she wanted to play in my band, and asked when I had my next show. I told her, she told me she’d be there, and showed up without even practicing. She absolutely nailed it; I learned just how supremely talented she was as I was performing. At that show was a fellow songwriter who was also blown away by her talent and started hanging around us constantly. Before long, he was in the band too and brought down his longtime friend and stellar drummer. Not too much after that another wickedly talented multi-instrumentalist offered to play bass. And this was how, sort of accidentally, Trains Across the Sea became a five piece band and entered its most “successful”* period yet.

*A note about the concept of “success” regarding bands: In my experience, there are as many definitions about what constitutes a “successful” band as there are bands. Some bands want to sell out arenas. Some are art school kids who want to invent new genres of music and could give a shit about mass popularity. Some just want to get laid. For me, all I wanted was to play Larry’s, a legendary Columbus bar. By this measure, my band became a success on July 7th, 2007. Everything since has been gravy. We’ve enjoyed none of the album sales or extensive touring of those that inspired me, but we’ve outlasted plenty of other bands and been asked to travel and be on the radio. We’ve packed mid-size venues and opened for bands you might have heard of, but we never played for more than a few hundred people and we never had a “hit.” Basically, we’re somewhere in the middle. But, more important than all that, I’ve rid myself of that voice in my head that was always going to watch bands on stage and wonder if I could have been up there. To me, that’s what counts. It’s all in your mind, and I choose to regard my band as a success. So there.

There is a curious inertia that can happen after a certain point when you start a band, at least inside a city. The bar owners and bookers around town know you, know they can ask you headline or fill out a bill. Those same people are the ones who book the local festivals, so you start naturally getting invited to those as well. And since I was lucky enough to have incredibly talented musicians playing my songs, most around town could count on my band for a musically sound 45 minute set and a decent draw, both of which we regularly provided around town for a couple years.

One night in the middle of this melee: we played a decent show for a decent crowd, and among the people on the dance floor stood one particular young woman with whom I spent the set exchanging glances. It is no secret many of us rockers got in the game to impress our preferred sex, and there are countless stories of one night stands. But for me, the clarity of this particular night still stands as one of the most pure distillations of the rock and roll sexual zeitgeist. Five minutes after the set, I was standing on the patio and the most beautiful woman in the room (in my opinion) marched right up to me and started talking to me, eventually taking me home. And it is knowing that my having just performed music directly contributed to her sexual interest in me that seemed at the time the ultimate goal. The purity was the point: boy doesn’t know how to talk to girls, boy starts band, boy plays show and takes the cute girl home. Having climbed that rock and roll mountain, how many more times would I need to climb that same mountain? Steven Tyler once claimed it was better to have had sex a thousand times with the same woman than sex with a thousand women, and his authority on the latter leads me to believe the former. Once you’ve proven something is possible for yourself, why continue in the pursuit of that?

Aside from the occasional sexual triumphs (and the previous tale was indeed the rare exception, not the rule), the whole “being in a band” thing feels pretty damn good, to be honest. Being asked to play a high-profile show and thus feeling wanted, the sound of immediate applause every three minutes (fifteen or twenty times an hour! What painter gets such direct feedback?), watching strangers sing your songs back to you – I won’t lie, it’s a very satisfying experience. And I’m very happy and lucky to have had that.

But, with every step along that path of the fiction of pop stardom, it’s harder and harder to focus on how far you came; instead you start only thinking of the gap between where you are and could be. Unlike a plumber or carpenter, American musicians crafting popular songs are near-universally expected to climb that ladder toward “making it.” However, in the section of the century in which I was performing music, the idea of “making it” was getting more twisted with every news cycle. The collision of hundreds of previously-non-existent factors after the start of the twenty first century (who ever told Bach to tweet? or crowdfund?) left many of us quite confused. Talented musicians can get pretty restless collecting ones and fives at the end of long nights trying their hardest. Couple that to the rise in songwriting and collaboration my bandmates were putting into the creation of their own band, and I knew my days of plenty were numbered. All I knew was I wanted to capture the sound we made. So, we made a record.

Up until this moment with my three previous iterations of this band, I had released records here and there, always self-producing and self-recording with the expected results of a man who can’t really tell the difference between microphones and who can’t define compression. They were all a magnificent education, learning the limits of my engineering talent – but also in the minor interstitials of recording: The importance of meditation, the ideal number of beers to put in the drummer, what words to say or not say before a take to push the musicians closest to your ideal. After finding a great match in both studio and engineer, I asked my band for one last favor before they went off on their own: to record one full length album. I had saved enough money for seven days in the studio, and took full advantage of every second there. Between the good fortune of a breakup the day before I recorded two of the breakup songs and knowing enough obscenely talented musicians in town willing to help for a few beers, I spent most of four months putting everything I had into that record, and I’m still proud of the output. Knowing I have an irreversible vinyl record I can hand to my future grandkids when they want to know how I spent my twenties is, to me, a very satistfying thing. That I then sent that album to the man I named my band after and received a pleasant postcard in return brought me untold joy.

In a lot of ways, the completion of the album itself felt like the closing of a long-ago opened loop: I had started a few bands, played hundreds of shows, gone on small tours, produced my own vinyl record, and I came out the other end of all that without crippling addictions or begrudging the city in which I spent these crucial years. The implications of all this on the rest of my life are innumerable, but the most important seems to me the fact that I can die knowing that, for a few years before my knees gave out, I threw my hat into that strange ring called rock and roll and learned how close and how far I came to my goals and those the industry imposes upon you. All things considered, I’m pretty pleased with the results of that bizarre experiment.

After releasing the record, the band left and I wrote a musical. I have yet to decide to turn my energy back to this band or towards answering other unknown questions of one’s own potential. In either case, I’m not terribly concerned. I feel a pleasant form of contentment, not unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s wildcard McMurtry, when, after trying and failing to lift a thousand pound object bolted to the floor, “but I tried, goddamn it. At least I did that.”

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MY FIRST EGYPTIAN TAXI

Egypt!

At the end of a day that began in an Istanbul hostel and involved delayed public transit, airport negotiations regarding a hatchet, a missed flight and buying a new ticket, I shoulder my pack around two am, exit the Cairo airport, and am immediately swarmed by a paparazzi of forty to fifty men yelling “taxi” repeatedly at me. Being a white guy, I knew my body would label me as money here, but I was not prepared for this. I brush past and try to look for an actual taxi as I’ve no clue whom to trust, but one fellow persists. He’s charming and a few years older than me, and my first four “no’s” don’t seem to be getting me anywhere. Figuring I’ll need a ride anyway, I finally relent, mostly just to stop the interrogation.

I show him my journal with the name and address of my hotel, and he grabs the Moleskin and holds it aloft through the next gauntlet of yelling men, the carrot at the end of our stick. He leads me past the line of what appear to be actual taxis (white cars fitted with lights on the roof), and we walk towards a dirty white sedan, a man sitting on the hood and waving at us. I’d never known taxi drivers to work in pairs.

The idea of turning and walking directly back to the airport crosses my mind, but the level of danger is unclear, the area is reasonably well-lit and in view of the airport doors, and he still has my journal. I reach the car and his friend hops down from the hood, offering to take my bag. I refuse and place it into the trunk myself, asking what the fare will be to my hotel (a fellow traveler had advised negotiating Egyptian taxi fares before entering to avoid price gouging). Instead of having a mental estimate at the ready, the man produces a brochure and points to prices – another clue this likely isn’t a real taxi service. Nonetheless, I’m a stranger in a strange land so I agree to one hundred Egyptian Pounds (about fifteen dollars), and hop in the passenger seat. My driver introduces himself and asks if I mind if his friend rides in the backseat. In what might be the first correct decision I’ve made since landing in Cairo, I refuse and they comply. His friend exits the “taxi,” and we depart.

Having a fairly good sense of direction, I know that the hotel is a few miles southeast, and we start driving on a main road pointing in that direction. I’m suspicious but calm during the small talk, my mind focused on the pocketknife near my right hand should anything go awry. He asks if it’s my first time in Egypt (yes), if I plan on seeing the Nile (of course), and tells me he has two kids, which I choose not to believe.

He says he needs to get gas; we stop and I watch him through the side view mirror. He’s gone for less than a minute, handing a few coins to the attendant, and returns to pull the car out heading in the opposite direction. After a mile I point this out and he waves it off. I pull out my smart phone and check the map. He seems particularly surprised at the appearance of my iPhone, and asks to hold it, which I deny. There is a palpable tension in the silent gaps of our conversation, both of us wondering the intentions of the other. I move towards specifics.

“Please take me to my hotel. Where are you taking me?”

“You said you wanted to see the Nile! My brother has a boat…”

Now my mind races through scenarios: a dead-end alley on the banks of the Nile and armed men waiting to separate me from my wallet; a transcendent psychadelic experience on the Nile with two brothers and their beautiful female friends; the ISIS American hostage in Egypt. I speak calmly, directly.

“You are going to turn around and take me to my hotel. Please.”

His face twists to his mind, thinking. He still has to translate everything he says to me into English.

“It’s just ahead. You said you wanted to see the Nile.”

“Please. Take me to my hotel.”

He thinks again.

“Two hundred now. All this driving.”

“I’ll give you a hundred and twenty. Please take me to my hotel.”

“Two hundred.”

“A hundred and twenty.”

He lights a cigarette, clearly disappointed. Mad, even. I’m wondering what’s next, what to prepare for. My right hand rests on my closed knife. He mentions the Nile and his brother again, and I hold my position. Finally, he relents. We pull a U-turn and my phone tells us we’re headed in the right direction. He weaves in an out of traffic, as I soon learn is standard operating procedure in Egypt. But right now, a car crash is the least of my worries.

We ride in silence, his mind possibly still thinking about his remaining options to extort money from me. Seeing the lights of my hotel appear on the horizon is one of my happiest sights in recent memory. He pulls the car up a short walk from the hotel. I get out and grab my bag from the trunk, but we’re not out of the water yet.

“Two hundred.”

I open my wallet and start fumbling. Back at the airport, I had exchanged the last of my American dollars for Egyptian Pounds. I was now looking at all the cash I had for my final week of this trip; if he took my wallet I’d be screwed. We’re just out of sight of the guard at the front door of the hotel, and I step back to get into the guard’s sights. My driver steps towards me as I nervously try to familiarize myself with a brand new currency, displaying mostly Arabic numbers. My fingers are shaking – this is only a five…this is 200…let’s see if I’ve got any hundreds…

I produce a hundred and twenty Egyptian pounds and hand them to him. He is immediately disgusted.

“DOLLARS! AMERICAN DOLLARS.”

I had heard about this trick too. The confused and scared American unsure which currency he’s negotiating in. I hold fast.

“No. You said Egyptian Pounds. That’s a hundred and twenty. We’re good. Bye.”

He yells after me as I walk towards the hotel. “Sir! SIR!” The guard stands up when he sees me, and I wonder who’s side he’s on. It seems trust is going to be a fickle fellow to find in this country. The driver doesn’t come after me but continues yelling, now irately and in Arabic. I walk past the guard who, thankfully, doesn’t belabor my preceding negotiation and lets me in. Even in the tourist sections of brown countries, white privilege seems to persist. I feel an immense rush of relief as the doors close behind me and I nervously check in at the desk, now well past three am – I’ve been up for 22 hours. They show me to my room, and I collapse on the bed. It’s still two more hours before the adrenaline in my body allows me to sleep, but when it comes it’s one of the most refreshing I can remember.

Though my introduction to Egypt was indeed jarring, my final car ride in the country a week later was a gentle, free ride from a new friend I had made. We laugh and listen to Egyptian rap the whole way back to Tahrir Square. As I take my final lap around the now-calm area, I smile at the similarity of my Egyptian transportation experience to our American aphorism on March weather back home: in like a lion, out like a lamb.

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CAN YOU STAY IN A MOTEL FOR FREE?

tommylee

When I was nineteen, I spent my spring break traveling to see a childhood friend who lived in Minneapolis, MN. This meant a thirteen hour drive, so my plan was to stop at a motel about halfway there. However, being collegiate-poor and having just read Kerouac for the first time, I wanted to know if I could stay a night in a motel for free. I was going through that youthful phase of rejecting modern society, capitalism, and the distribution of wealth into which people are born in this country. My naiveite saw this exchange of money as a scourge – a modern wedge draining us of the humanity we once had in spades. So, I made up my mind I was going to stay in a motel for free. I would offer to wash dishes, do laundry, sleep on the floor somewhere, but I was going to sleep somewhere, damnit, with no money exchanged.

Getting a late start and stopping in Indianapolis to walk the canal, during which I jogged with a middle aged man and milked him for life advice – “Don’t get married before you’re thirty. I waited until I was 27 but I got extremely lucky” – I crossed into Wisconsin as the sun started going down. I was feeling anxious about my self-assignment, and wasn’t sure I’d be able to go through with it. How many places would I try? What if nobody let me stay there? Would I break down and pay the money, or defiantly sleep in my car, sulking about a lost America I invented where people stayed in motels for free?

Just outside of Madison, I made my first attempt. To my delight, a cute girl about my age was behind the register, so I cranked up the charm. She wasn’t terribly impressed.

“I’m just fine. How can I help you?”

“Heh heh…well, you see, I’m actually in kind of a tight spot right now. I was wondering if you could help me.”

“Yes?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m trying to get to my friend’s place in Minneapolis tonight, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it all the way. I don’t have much money, and was wondering if there was anyway I could stay here – I can wash dishes, do laundry, help however you need. I’ll work it however, but I just don’t have enough money for a room.”

She thinks for a minute, looks over her shoulder, lowers her voice. “Well, I could give you my employee discount, which is half off. It’d be thirty five dollars plus tax.”

I couldn’t believe it: My very first stop and I’ve already negotiated the price in half. A rush of confidence surged through me – I might actually pull this off.

“Well, that’s great, but are you sure there’s not another option? I’m willing to help out around the hotel – whatever you need.”

“That’s the best offer I can give you, and I’m technically not even allowed to do that. Take it or leave it.”

I didn’t know what to do – the goal was to stay for free, but this was an awfully tempting offer. Hell, for all I knew, it could have led to much more flirting with the girl and a wholly satisfying night, for different reasons. I thought for a minute.

“Thanks, but I think I’ll keep looking. Have a great night!”

I hopped into my car and sped north, second-guessing myself but thrilled with the possibility of success – this seemed such a promising start. Twenty minutes later I stopped at another national chain hotel.

“Hi, how can I help you?”

Again I launched into the same routine, offering a barrage of labor to make up the lost revenue. This time there wasn’t an employee discount counter-offer.

“I’m sorry, that’s against company policy.”

Company policy! Was this phrase a barrier we created to dull compassion, or an essential component of a fair economy? Wasn’t there a kindness behind those decades when a lot of people hitchhiked and nobody seemed to mind? Does our economy affect our empathy?

Interesting questions, perhaps, but they mostly stiffened my resolve to complete my experiment. I continued north.

Another stop. Another cold denial. Again. And again. The routine was always the same; a lack of compassion in their eyes and no rush to provide solutions to the problem of a warm bed on a cold night. The daylight was now completely gone and I crept deeper and deeper into the cold Winsconsin night. My best offer so far was back near Madison with a cute girl who, had I taken her offer, would almost certainly be joining me in my room, trading massages…

I soldiered on, not yielding in my charm, always trying to find the human behind the company policy. Why couldn’t a room be traded for anything but money? Wait – would I offer my body? Could I?

I had a quick bite to eat and then tried the three adjacent hotels. No dice. I had now struck out at eleven straight hotels. It was past ten and my confidence was fading. I told myself I’d try two more, then pony up whatever money they asked, and hope I’d still have enough for gas to get back home. I exited and pulled up to the Kokomo Inn in Wisconsin Dells, WI. A short, pleasant-looking man was working the night shift.

“Hello, how can I help you?”

Again I launched into my spiel. I could see him actually listening to me, his mind straining for a solution. He spoke.

“I really like your hat.”

A human sentence! Progress! I saw his compliment as an enormous step forward – he wasn’t refusing me outright, instead seeing the humanity between us – or at least the fashion.

“Are you sure you really don’t have any money?” His eyes looked over my shoulder to the Ford Taurus I drove here. Truth be told, I did have a little money. I could have paid for any of these motels and have been okay. But my stubbornness won out; I stuck with the lie.

“No, I really don’t. I’ll be gone first thing in the morning, I promise. Please let me help out with laundry, or-”

“Tell you what.” He was smiling with an idea. “Let’s see what Tommy Lee says.”

Tommy Lee? The eighties rocker? The owner of the Kokomo Inn? I stayed quiet while he led me out of the office toward Room Two, all the way sharing his own tales of youthful travel back in India, his homeland. It seemed he too understood the universal pull of the road, often during the exact periods of your life when you can’t exactly afford it. I smiled at the irony that my salvation in the midwestern heart of America might be delivered by an immigrant. We arrived at the door of Room Two and my friend gave it two quick knocks.

“Tommy Lee? Are you awake? I’ve got a question.”

The door opened. It was not the drummer of an eighties hair metal band. Instead, I see a tallish and roundish man, about fifty years old, with a long gray ponytail, a faded tie dye shirt and calm blue eyes. A glance inside the room revealed he had been crafting a bracelet from tiny Native American beads. My Indian friend animatedly explains the situation, ending with a blunt question: would he share his room with me? I smiled as meekly and non-confrontationally as I could muster. He spoke gently.

“You a murderer?”

“No sir.” I laughed a bit too loudly. Tommy Lee looked me slowly up and down.

“Okay, sure. You can take the bed by the window.”

Just like that, my goal was reached. I had paid no money, and I was going to stay in a hotel, even if I had a roommate. My Indian friend bid me adieu, I thanked him extensively, and Tommy Lee led me into his home for that week. In some ways it was like any other roadside motel: mismatched furniture, mini fridge, bland art – but in ways that would slowly reveal themselves, Tommy Lee had made it his own during his week-long stay.

The desk was covered with multicolored bracelets in progress. The bathroom was a temporary storage space for half a dozen hand-carved wooden flutes – his livelihood. He travels the nation, usually small colleges and festivals, performing and selling Native American flutes. He seemed calm, spiritually content.

From the details I gathered that night and have never been able to independently verify, Tommy Lee was born a typical America white male: raised in a small town, graudated from college, married, got a well-paying job. As he put it, “wife, picket fence, two point four kids”.

For the next eighteen years, all was quiet on his midwestern front. And one day he’d had enough. For reasons never elucidated beyond white collar boredom, he abandoned his family and headed west, roaming for years the deserts and reservations of New Mexico and Arizona. His spiritual quest incorporated meditation, peyote, and the discovery of what became his next great passion: the Native American flute. He learned to play and then carve them, and they became a source of great joy for a few decades, which culminated in a Grammy nomination. After his time in the desert, he moved to California and lived with an actress – “you’ve heard of her. She did too much coke, though, so I had to leave.” Since then, he has lived his current life playing and selling his flutes. He let me hold a few, and they were indeed handsomely crafted.

“It’s a mostly nice life, but I really wish I had a hundred dollars right now to get me to my Michigan gig.” He switched on the TV and we started watching the rest of Raiders of the Lost Ark, while I asked questions and sought advice. For all the freedoms this adult embodied to my wide nineteen year old eyes, I didn’t overlook his frequent mentions of small sums of money over the next few hours. I didn’t ask about the wife and kids he left behind that picket fence, but I wish now that I had. One man’s regrets can be another man’s education.

I can’t say I was completely convinced that Tommy Lee, the Grammy-nominated traveling Native American flutist, was a truly happy man at the time I met him. He had a life filled with the passionate moments that all musicians understand, and he spends hours in the rewarding pursuit of a craft. But you could sense his regrets, guilts, and financial worry. Makes him more or less as happy as anyone else, I guess.

I learned that night that when you meet people and ask them the consequences of their decisions, you can learn a lot about what you want from your own life. Equally importantly, you also learn what you don’t want. Sure, I never wanted the dull suburban life he described, but I also could never see leaving my wife and child to fend for themselves. Travel on my own terms was clearly important – hence this entire experiment – but I also hoped that by fifty I wouldn’t have to be losing sleep over how to cover rent.

As we prepared for sleep, I suddenly realised how much trust I was putting in this stranger – and – how much he was putting in me. Locking the door behind us was a significant first step, but placing your unconscious self a few feet from this new person was something new. I rotated my army duffel zipper-side down, hopefully creating at least a few additional steps if he wanted to rob me, and I slept on my back, still unsure of his sexuality. We politely said good night, and turned off the lights. I stayed awake a long time, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness and preparing for anything. My guard was soon relaxed, however, as he started snoring quickly and loudly. I slept solidly and in the morning everything was exactly as it was when we had closed our eyes.

I continued to Minneapolis the next day and had a grand few days with my old friend. And on the way back, rather than repeating this whole risky charade, I woke early and drove straight through for thirteen and a half hours, sleeping happily in my room and feeling a comforting blend of success and survival. I had set a strange goal, and I technically acheived it, but, as it often, is, it was the detour along the way that made it something else.

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