I spend a lot of time piloting a large 15 passenger van around the country for my job. It’s anonymously white, and my friends enjoy making fun of me for it.
“It’s a child molester van,” they say.
This kind of comment never fails in putting me on the defensive.
“It couldn’t be a child molester van,” I say, “it has windows.”
Such a response makes me feel as if I’m defending the van, and not myself. It’s been a good van, and it has handled its share of the workload without question or concern. It deserves respect, yet it almost always ends up on the receiving end of their stinging laughter. It’s a thankless job, being a fuel inefficient, boringly colored hunk of steel and rubber filled to the brim with stale smelling gear and cranky musicians. Often criticized and rarely praised, it somehow manages to retain a stiff upper lip when up against such unfair social stigmatism.
Playing music for a living can feel exactly like that sometimes.
The life of a musician has always required a massive amount of travel, and unless you’re one of those sheltered, financially comfortable musicians (whom I despise at 3 in the morning during a 4 hour drive, yet whom I constantly wish to be) sleeping in a fluffy bed in the back of a tour bus, the 15 passenger van is most likely your vehicle of choice. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done.
The roads we travel all look the same— with their black asphalt backs and yellow spines baking underneath an unforgiving sun—and over time, even the landscape surrounding these well worn paths begin to look identical. Traveling down a trail of monotony can make a four-hour journey seem like it takes eight… Believe me when I tell you that it can suck the very soul from your being. This isn’t something that concerns me greatly—I usually have new music to listen to or interesting fodder for conversation to save me from boredom—but I worry about my van. To keep it from revolting against the duties it willfully undertakes with the asking of a key, and at the sacrifice of 30 or 40 minutes, I try to lead it down new and unfamiliar roads from time to time. I don’t like things in my life to get stagnant, and I assume the van doesn’t either.
I’m kidding myself, of course, since the van could probably care less. While it’s a highly evolved piece of machinery, I doubt it’s been able to put together many emotions at this point in its fossil fueled life, let alone the ability to reason and thus prefer one road over another.
This willful diversion off of a direct route between points A and B most often occurs when I’m searching for inspiration. A song can be found in the most unexpected of places and I occasionally try to expedite the writing process by putting myself in an unfamiliar setting. Once in a while this exercise will yield a little fleck of mental gold that I can mine for ideas. More often than not it simply gives me an excuse to get off of the interstate. Either way, I’m usually willing to ditch 30 minutes of a day on the road if the possibility of adventure exists.
You can take several different routes to San Angelo from Austin. The route that I had chosen on this particular day took me through Marble Falls, Llano, Brady, Eden, and then finally to San Angelo. I had traveled this way several times before, so my mind was free from directional thoughts and able to wander as I sped through the hill country. The speed limit on the road from Llano to Brady is an uninterrupted 70 miles an hour, save for a mile long stretch through the nearly uninhabited town of Pontotoc.
Most of the buildings in Pontotoc, made from local stone, had fallen into disrepair and with the exception of one small building close to the shoulder of the two-lane highway, the town looked utterly abandoned. As I surveyed the area, slowing to its posted 50 mile per hour speed limit, a sign standing six feet above the intersection of the highway and a dirt road caught my attention.
Then a second sign came into view by another dirt road.
On the western edge of town, the speed limit went back to 70, and I set the cruise control at 75. I continued on my journey, but my mind stayed locked on those two street signs, now a mile behind me. The idea of an unpaved and commerceless Commerce Street, and likewise a collegeless College Street was both funny and sad at the same time. Clearly the founding fathers of Pontotoc had big expectations of this place when they arrived, and they named their streets accordingly. Something had obviously thwarted their good intentions, and I imagined a railroad choosing to bypass this place or an unforgiving drought had probably been the culprit. Bad luck had left unrealized dreams in its wake.
The rocky buildings and street signs were left behind to crumble and rust, standing as a reminder of the pioneering spirit that swept through this area of Texas as people headed west in search of a life of their own. I was also headed west, hoping to discover a large crowd waiting for me in San Angelo. My destination had managed to avoid a Pontotocian fate, but the ghost town I had just passed through reminded me that the fate of my own pioneering musical endeavor was yet to be determined.
I’ve tried in vain to write a song about Pontotoc, or at the very least it’s two hopeful streets, but nothing has ever materialized.
Sometimes a back road adventure can lead to a song. Sometimes it can make you think about where you’re going and where you’ve been. And sometimes, it can remind you that just having a good plan isn’t always enough.
Sometimes you need a little luck.