Russellville. Tiny little town in the River Valley of central Arkansas. 6 weeks into tour, and I’ve decided that I don’t really want to be in a van with these people anymore. I decided this weeks ago, actually, when it started to feel like this tour was more about beer than music. But I didn’t want to fuck the band over by bailing mid-tour. There were many highlights on the tour: countless awesome shows, amazing and supportive people, band camaraderie, and a few great stories to tell, but about 4 weeks into the grind, a deep and lasting fatigue had settled over the group. The go-to coping mechanism for touring musicians is intoxication, and this was no exception. But all the sitting and drinking and sitting and drinking had pushed the already sedentary tour van lifestyle to new lows. The tour had begun to feel like a waiting room. It sucks, because these were my friends of many years, and they were good people, but 6 weeks living out of a van together had put our differences into sharp focus.
It seems pretty standard for a touring metal band to be drinking pretty much every day, but jesus, it was boring to watch. I was dying for an adventure, and everyone else was finding theirs on a couch in a bottle. Finally the monotony of night after night spent watching empty cans of PBR accumulate had pushed me to the point of expressing myself.
As fate would have it, Russellville was in a dry county, so for the first time in what felt like eternity, we were spending some time outdoors instead of in a smoky bar or punk house. I ventured out into the woods to find a lake, reflecting a beautiful sunset, and Marcus standing beside it, gazing into the water. In what felt like a confession, I admitted to Marcus that I had thought about bailing several times, and moreso lately. It was no surprise to him, and in a roundabout way he told me that having me around had become a buzzkill for everyone else. I looked him in the eye, and asked him if this was worth talking out with everybody. He said he didn’t think so. They were willing to continue without me, he said, and it started to sound like this was something they had all discussed beforehand. It felt like a breakup, and he said so, before I could.
The feeling of freedom was heavily dampened by the reality that I may have just lost some friends.
It really sucks, but I can’t see how it could’ve gone any other way. I watched them sit so many hours, so many nights, content, happy, fulfilled, living the dream, and all it took was a 40 oz, a little bit of weed, and some folks to shoot the shit with. After several weeks of this, I had the soul-crushing realization that, holy shit, this is enough for them. I caught the Fear all at once. I’m not the same as them. I can’t be part of the club. I’m not capable of having a great time from the safety of a living room every night. It was the most alienating thing I’ve felt since grade school. I felt alone. I have to go out and do something crazy to feel alive, and they can just buy their kicks for $2.50 at the corner store. What a luxury. Unfortunately, it’s a convenience I can’t afford anymore. I’m a recovering alcoholic and junkie, and when I drink, my good time somehow turns into me dying, before I realize whats going on. So I don’t anymore; at least I haven’t for the past 4 years. I usually don’t bother explaining this to people, cause most don’t really care. But more and more on this tour, I was getting strange looks when turning down a drink.
One instance is burned into my memory. We had just finished a show, and a guy came running up to the stage. “GREAT SHOW MAN, THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!,” and handed me 2 PBRs. I said “Thanks man. But I’m good.” He lowered his outstretched offering and looked at me with with this disdainful and confused look that I can’t forget. It said, “What the fuck are you even doing here, then?”. He turned and walked away without saying anything. Didn’t talk to me again.
Another time, upon politely declining a beer:
“No thanks. I appreciate it, though.”
“You don’t drink?”
“Nah, not anymore.”
“Well, do you smoke, then?”
“No, sorry. Don’t do that either.”
“WELL DO YOU HAVE FUN?!”
After this scenario plays out 100 times all across the country in every city in every state, you can see how I started to wonder if I was even a part of the human race anymore. What the fuck kind of weird anomaly am I? Who am I?
I wished, wished to god so many times that I could just drink and be Normal with everybody. So everyone would stop questioning my existence and wondering what the fuck was up with that Weird guy who doesn’t drink. But I can’t. I knew from a million failed experiments, psyche ward trips, hospital bed awakenings, and rehab stints that it wouldn’t be fun, and I probably wouldn’t survive it.
Weird or Dead? Those are your choices. Guess I’ll go with Weird…………….
And so Weird it was. As disappointing as it was to part with the band, I had packed for this, with full trainhopping gear. After a short farewell that they all saw coming from a mile away, I was alone with a backpack and a guitar in the parking lot of a mexican joint in central bumfuck Arkansas. I made my way to a Starbucks to charge my dying phone, and shot out a text to an old friend, JP, who I knew lived somewhere in Arkansas. I took a look around to find a place to sleep, and saw what looked like a promising wooded area down a side street. I made it about halfway there before being greeted by blinding flashlights in front of what looked like an office building.
“Where you goin’, son?”
Turns out that the ‘office building’ was the police station. Critical error.
“Just looking for a place to camp tonight, officer.”
“Welp, that back there’s the jail.” he pointed in the direction I was walking. “I don’t think you wanna sleep there tonight, do ya?”
“I most certainly do not. You gentleman have a great night.”
I quickly turned around and walked out of sight, before they could come up with something to hassle me about, and saw what could be a decent spot along a creek. Turned out to be better than I had hoped, behind a tall wooden fence, with trees to hang my hammock from. The only downside was that it was behind a walmart. I set up camp, and checked my phone. To my delight, JP lived less than 2 hours away, and insisted on coming to pick me up the next day. This set my mind at ease a bit, but I was still reeling from the emotional implications of parting with my buddies, who I had been making music with for years. My head swimming in the Fear, I didn’t sleep well.
It was great to see JP again, and decompress a bit from the exhausting tour stretch through the northeast/great lakes winter. I stayed with him a few days and recharged. He gladly showed me around town, and took me to shoot an AK-47.
A few trains passed, but none going my way. I used the traffic to figure out which tracks were active, and which ones headed which way. The tracks ran north to south along in this spot, but I knew from previous experience that it wouldn’t be as simple as picking the one that was headed geographically south when it passed me. Train tracks branch off all over the place, and there’s no indication of which way they’ll turn until they actually do it. According to my railroad atlas, trains headed north from my location could continue north (thru Kansas City and up to Chicago) or branch east (to Memphis), and trains headed south from me would either branch west (thru Amarillo and ultimately LA or SF) or continue south (thru OKC and Dallas, down to Houston). According to my information, the way to differentiate a southbound train from a westbound train would be in its cargo. I was looking for a doublestack train with a lot of containers that said “SWIFT.”
A couple hours passed by with no trains, I got absorbed into my book, and things got sketchy. I was jolted to awareness by some loud banter that was sounded way too close. I shut my light off just in time as some rowdy thugs walked RIGHT past me. The area I was in was not somewhere that pedestrians could just stumble into, and though there were signs of a couple of abandoned bum camps down the way, these guys weren’t bums. I stayed low and they barreled past me to duck in the bushes and smoke what I assume was angel dust or something, cause you don’t run into the bushes down by the train tracks just to smoke a friday night blunt. They kept yelling at each other but luckily the sherm-smoking continued without incident, and in another jaw-clenching, knife-clutching moment, they walked back out past me again. After their voices faded into the night, I went back to my book, only to be jolted again by a weird sort of prolonged zombie scream coming from the bridge above me. I looked up to see a guy with a weird white spandex-like mask over his face, sprinting and screaming in my direction and flailing his arms. Once again he blew past me and wailed off into the darkness.
At this point my quest gained a sense of urgency. Now I’m trying to outrun the weather, and the likelihood that I’ll end up in an altercation with the weird fucks that Tulsa is sending over this bridge. I don’t know what the fuck was going on in this town, but I didn’t really want to stick around to find out.
My eagerness to blow town may have been my downfall, because just as I heard more questionable people coming over the bridge, I saw the nearby railroad crossing begin to flash, and heard a train whistle coming down from the north. I waited, poised and ready for a few tense moments as both the train and next wave of degenerates got closer. The train came around the corner, and as soon as I saw a couple of the prophesied “SWIFT” containers, I frantically packed my bag up, grabbed my guitar, and sprinted down to the tracks before I could meet whoever was next in the sketchball parade.
The train stopped just like I was told it would, cementing in my mind that this was the right one. I ran down the length of it looking for a ride before it took off again. I finally found a rideable train car, but as my luck would have it, it was the car that was stopped squarely in front of the railroad crossing. It was brightly illuminated and some vehicles had accumulated in the road waiting to get across, but at this point it was either jump a train in front of soccer moms and SUVs, or stick around and meet more whitefaced zombie-screamers. I had seen enough of Tulsa’s finest for the night so I just went for it. Once I was on the train, I noticed some bums congregated in the street by the tracks. One of them started walking toward the train, and I assumed he was gonna jump on too. I gave him a nod of acknowledgement as he jumped on the car in front of me, but to my surprise he walked over it and jumped off the other side. I gave him a salute as he walked off, but our eyes met for a little too long, and for a second I felt something off. The guy kept walking, into the parking lot across the street, which I realized was filled with cop cars. An automated gate closed after him. He walked straight up to a running police cruiser, popped the trunk, and threw his blankets and bum rags in there to reveal a military high-and-tight haircut, and to my amazement, got into the DRIVERS SEAT. What the fuck did I just walk into?
First of all, UNDERCOVER BUM COPS?!; what the fuck? I’ve never heard of that. Second of all, I just hopped a train in front of a police officer. Third of all, I’m sitting in plain view of what I now realize is the police station. I hit the floor instinctively and stayed low and still. I was watching intently through a small hole in the train car, waiting for a reaction, and praying the train would leave now. Nothing happened for a tense minute or so, before I noticed more ragged bum cops file into the police station. So apparently the entire group of ‘bums’ were all either officers or informants or something, and it’s shift turnover time…I guess? Undercover cars of many shapes and sizes were rolling out of the lot. I’m not supposed to be seeing this, I thought. I had to laugh at the absurdity of my situation. I mean really, I’m not supposed to be doing any of this, much less witnessing the 2am bum-cop roundup. My chuckle didn’t last long before the real danger of the scenario set in. If I fuck this up, the train could kill me, or I could go to jail, or, if I’m lucky, I’ll spend the night in an icestorm with whiteface and the PCP crew. Really though, I couldn’t be too distressed…it was the same two choices I’ve always had: Weird or Dead.
I was in my element now. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” as Hunter Thompson said. As crazy as my predicament was, the danger was familiar, and exhilarating. I’ve been in much worse situations, and besides, this felt way more natural that sitting on my ass, watching people drink themselves to sleep. I resigned myself to the bewildering current that had swept me up and took a few breaths into relaxation.
Not a moment sooner did the train lurch forward, jerking my head and banging it loudly against the shipping container. Seemed an appropriate start. In a few moments I was out of the beaming streetlights and back in the cover of darkness. I rolled out my sleeping pad to keep me off the cold metal.
As the train picked up speed, we passed a construction site I had explored earlier when looking for the hop-out spot. A security truck was there shining bright lights around and looking for me. They didn’t think to look on the train. I waved them farewell, though they couldn’t see. The train barreled over the Arkansas river on a trestle and gave a surreal view of a refinery across the water:
My phone died shortly thereafter, but by reading the passing signs in town, I was beginning to suspect this might not be the southbound train after all. After an hour or 2, I was in Enid, OK, which brought me to the sinking realization that I was definitely on a westbound train. I looked back at the long string of shipping containers on the train behind me, and saw maybe 6 “SWIFT” containers out of at least 50. I guess in retrospect that 6 doesn’t quite qualify as “a lot.” The train began to slow down, and I realized that this was the fork in the road. I could either jump off in Enid, a tiny farm town, at 4am, and attempt to hitchhike south to OKC and catch another train before I was frozen solid by winter storm Titan, OR just roll with it and see what happens. I had about 30 seconds to decide this before the train would clear town, speed back up, and my window to jump closed indefinitely. I stood at the edge of the train with my backpack on, guitar in hand, ready to jump. I stared down at the blur of gravel illuminated in my headlamp, I smelled that familiar acrid burning metal as the train’s brakes squealed, and slowly the grey blur clarified into individual, distinguishable rocks. This was my window. I stepped down onto the ladder of the train car, inches from the ground moving 6mph under me, but I hesitated. Visions of the west flashed before my eyes. The desert, the mountains, the ocean, the sun, the warmth, the friends……..I lost myself in a moment of bliss before snapping back to the cold, dark, flat, culturally deprived, manure-scented reality. I took a step back and sat down on the train in resignation. I wouldn’t be seeing my friend in Houston. The rails had their own plan for me, and I was a fool to try and superimpose my own in the first place. I breathed in a long, deep breath involuntarily. Alright. I realized I had said it aloud, with a romantic cocktail of resignation, defeat, and determination. That single word had meant “Ok, I see,” “Fine, I give up,” and “I’m ready” all at once. I didn’t know who I was addressing. The train? The stars? Loki? It didn’t matter. The second I came to acceptance, I felt a peace wash over me. I was going home. Where I belong. I’m getting sent right to where I need to go, and all I have to do is ride along.
I stared out over the twilit horizon.
The ride was long, and exhausting. I had only planned to be on the train for a few hours, and I was on it for a few days. Titan was hot on my tail, and I didn’t completely escape its reach. It dropped down below freezing the second night as I passed through New Mexico, and 28 degrees with a 50mph wind from the train was COLD. The biggest issue was that I didn’t bring nearly enough water. I ran out after 24 hours, and had to resort to eating the snow that would collect on my tarp. The rain was the worst though. I thanked god that I had brought my trusty blue tarp, without which I would’ve been completely fucked. I stayed mostly dry, as best I could on a train speeding through a 35 degree rainstorm, but the rain kept me pinned under the tarp for uncomfortable periods through the night. It saved my ass though, when the train pulled into a hot trainyard, crawling with cops and railroad workers. I stayed low as the menacing cop trucks patrolled and zoomed past every minute like clockwork, waiting to take me to jail. Soon I heard radio chatter in the distance, and I sounded like it was getting closer. The footsteps in the gravel grew clearer and clearer with every step. I had outrun and outsmarted the railcops before, but this was a different scenario where I was stuck in the middle of the yard, brightly lit by floodlights, and pinned down by constant patrols. I felt like I was in a spy videogame. The radio was almost deafening now, and my heart pounded in my ears. I saw the railroad worker stop and hesitate at my car. She grabbed the ladder and pulled herself up. Im fucked. I watched in horror as she stepped towards me on the train car. To my amazement she literally stepped over me without seeing me and jumped down off the other side. She was just crossing the train! Close one. She gave some cryptic command over the radio, and my train lurched forward out of the yard. Home free! Well, not quite, but I had triumphed over the forces of evil once again. I passed out under my lifesaving tarp once again.
I awoke to the familiar dull blue glow of the backlit tarp. I assumed it was still raining, and rolled over to fall back asleep, but I caught a flash of bright blue sky out of the corner of my eye. I peeped cautiosly out from under the tarp like an apocalypse survivor coming out of a bunker, and was greeted by the sweetest, most amazing sight I had seen in at least a week: the Sun. I jumped out and threw my hands in the air, taking in the warmth and radiance. How long had it been? I didn’t remember the last time I felt the sun beaming down from a clear sky. And it wasn’t just any sun, this was the desert sun. So dry, clean, and warm…I felt a lump in my throat and tears well up in my eyes…it felt so good that I nearly cried. I screamed aloud in joy and danced around like a little kid. The whole thing felt like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Probably looked like it too, with my pants tattered and patched to hell, an army jacket in the same condition, guitar bundled in trash bags, tangled hair blowing in the wind, out in the middle of the desert with no one around for miles………………….I was in Arizona now, I could feel it.
I had my sights on Prescott, AZ, my spiritual home in the high desert, but the train tracks don’t run through there. The train stopped in Winslow, but it was a bit farther than I wanted to hitchhike, so I was hoping for Flagstaff. I was finally back where I belonged: the West. I could see the San Francisco Peaks looming in the far distance. Flagstaff couldn’t be more than a couple hours away. I was so excited to be out of the brutal shitstorm of a winter, so excited to be somewhere familiar, I couldn’t sit down. I hung off the side of the train and let the wind blow my hair back triumphantly. I packed up my tarp with the confidence that I wouldn’t need it any longer. We were running parallel to the I-40 now, and every once and a while, car would match pace with the train and the people inside would see me. They were always so happy and amazed to see someone riding the train. Inevitably one would notice, then frantically point and proclaim to the other passengers. Soon the windows would come down and everyone would wave. Some even filmed it with their phones. It’s a great feeling. Moments like this, riding a freight train feels like a true red-blooded American adventure. And by seeing the country this way, I’ve become a bit of a patriot. Not for the politics, or the economy, or the broken government, but for the land, and its people. We live in a huge, amazing, and beautiful country, and it’s hard to take it for granted when you’re given a solitary tour through the lost backcountry on a speeding locomotive.
Another thing I’ve noticed in my time riding freight trains, is that the kids will always see you first. Every time I’ve passed a railroad crossing, the children are the only ones who notice me. They’re always so happy; I’ve made many a toddler’s day. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the kids point and tug on their parent’s sleeve as they fade away in the distance, the parent looking around obliviously. Sometimes parents will take their kids and just stand by the tracks to watch the trains go by. I’ve passed this scenario many times: a parent holding their child as I go by, standing straight up, looking the father straight in the eye and smiling without him ever realizing I’m there. The kid does though, and points me out excitedly to his mom or dad, but by the time they’ve followed his finger, or deciphered his excited babble above the roar of the train, I’m long gone. Gives me this awesome ‘pied piper’ sort of feeling, like I’m a secret fairy tale spirit of the railroad that only children can see. I know there’s been many times that a kid has yelled up to their parent in the drivers seat about ‘the man on the train,’ and it’s been waved off and patronized like a fantasy. The adults, calloused by the drudgery of daily life, don’t even register me. They see me with their eyes, but their brains edit me out as irrelevant. They’ve seen hundreds of trains in their lives, but probably never a person on one, so the brain just fills it in the scenario they’ve seen a thousand times: big, loud, boring train going by, wasting my time, keeping me from getting where I want to go. The kids haven’t had the time to develop these efficiency subroutines, and are truly observing life, moment to moment. They know I’m real, even if their parents say I’m not.
After much fanfare from bystanders and highway travelers, I triumphantly arrived in Flagstaff, and the train slowed to a crawl as it passed through the city. I had a huge window to jump, but I made a foolhardy gamble to wait until the next town, Ash Fork, so I would only have to hitch straight down Hwy 89. Pride comes before the fall; as soon as we left Flagstaff the train cranked up to 70mph and didn’t stop till we hit California. I went through stages of anger, regret, frustration, sadness, and eventually acceptance as I watched the desert fly by me. It was incredibly frustrating to see the ground that I wanted to stand on, inches away, but going far too fast to safely jump. It was like being teased, and each town that passed with not even the slightest slowdown was like another slap in the face. After about 2 hours and 200 repetitions of “I should’ve just gotten off in Flagstaff”, I came to accept the will of the rails once again. Whatever. It’ll probably be nice and warm once we hit the Mojave, anyway, I thought. Nice for hitching.
The train rolled to a slow stop in Needles around 6:30pm. I gave the hulking monstrosity a pat of acknowledgement and tagged it discreetly with my customary symbol and moniker. I had to be grateful to it for the free ride, but man, I was SO glad to be off that fucking train. After 1200 miles on that freight car, the ground felt surreal under my feet. I had been to Needles once before, but like most people, only to stop for gas and a burrito. There’s really no reason to stick around, nothing but a bunch of tweakers and a river. And a trainyard, I could now attest. I walked around and sweated in the welcome 80 degree sun, but I was so weak from dehydration I could barely carry my pack. I finally made it to a gas station with a few last dogged steps, and threw my stuff down exhaustedly inside. The gas station attendant wasn’t much help, but I eventually got some water out of the sink and drank the shitty tasting, lukewarm swill to my heart’s content. I spotted a grocery store down the road and made my way there to charge my phone. There were some expired sandwiches on sale, and they tasted like a royal feast after my 48-hour tuna-and-cereal diet on the train. I scored some cardboard and made a friendly-looking hitchhiking sign that said “FLAGSTAFF.”
By the time I made it out to the highway to hitch, it was dark, which is really bad for hitchhiking. Think about it, would you pick up a stranger in the dark? People are much more scared at night. I figured I would at least try until I was good and ready for sleep. To my surprise, after only 20 minutes, a beaten old Toyota truck pulled up and a long-haired old road dog asked, “You know how to get to San Antonio?” I sure did, and we were off. He was super nice, and offered me Mountain Dew and PB&J right off the bat. I declined both, but we struck up a nice conversation and I felt fairly at ease after a couple of minutes. That feeling lasted until I noticed the meth pipe sitting in the center console. I didn’t say a word, cause at this point we were in the middle of the desert and I had nowhere to go even if I did jump out. His name was Matt, he was 46 years old, from Orange County originally, and coming out of Vegas to San Antonio to build industrial cooling towers. After a few rest (meth) stops I learned that he had been to prison for cooking speed, and had been involved with the Hell’s Angels since he was 15. This is the other reason why you shouldn’t hitchhike at night: because anyone crazy enough to pick you up in the dark is likely someone you don’t want to be in a car with for any period of time.
I kept my hand close to my knife, but after a time I decided that Matt was pretty harmless, and in fact was a real nice guy. He had picked me up after all, asked for nothing in return, and had shown me nothing but kindness. But his driving was becoming a liability. It had been several days since he slept, and it was starting to show with some wild swerving. I could tell he was starting to come down and was falling asleep at the wheel. At this point I offered to drive, but as soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that was an equally bad idea, because the car was loaded with meth, for which I would take the rap, as the driver. I knew the drug laws in Arizona, and ending up in Tent City on account of this guy’s tweak habit was the last thing on my list. Eventually the only option was to get him to pull into a rest stop and get him to just smoke more speed. I had to do this several times, but eventually we got to Phoenix in one piece. Never thought I’d have to get a guy to smoke tweak to save my life, but this was a period of many firsts for me.
My old friend Ryan picked me up, and brought me to his quiet and spacious home in Mesa. I got a hot shower and a hot meal, and got to see Jenna, his wife and another old friend of mine, when she got off of work. The weather was absolutely beautiful in Phoenix, 70 degrees, clear, with a cool breeze. I’ve never been a big fan of the flat, hot, boring and lifeless ‘valley of the spun’, but Phoenix felt like the best place in the world that night. The next day I went to see another old friend and fellow musician, Trevor, and stayed at his place. After the emotional drain of the band drama, and the exhausting and solitary ride here, my spiritual void was gaping, so seeing old friends was downright therapeutic. I soon found that another friend, Matt (different, non tweaker Matt), was in town and driving up to Prescott the next night. He would be glad to take me up. I had made it this far, and now that I had collapsed in Phoenix, I was being carried back to my sanctuary, the beautiful mile-high pine forests of Prescott.
Matt ended up late for work and had to drop me just outside of town where he worked, but no matter. A few more miles of hitchhiking was nothing after how far I had come. I made a quick sign, strapped it to my back and started walking down the highway. Not 5 minutes later, my friends Dan and Marko recognized me and flagged me down, waving out of the car. They picked me up excitedly, and immediately offered me a couch to stay on, and a job. The royal welcome. Goddamn it was good to be back. I’m not even within the city limits and I’ve already been offered a ride, food, shelter, and employment. Though I had to decline the job and couch for the moment, I did take the ride into town, and showed up at my sister’s door. She was ecstatic to see me, and the feeling was mutual. The feeling of love was overwhelming after the isolation of the road.
So here I sit in Prescott Arizona, back where I started over a year ago, writing, reflecting, regenerating and resting before ultimately heading west. These high desert mountains will always hold a special place in my heart, as will the people I’ve come to know and love over the 2 years I lived here. This place feels more like home than any other, and I feel I’ll always come back to it one way or another. As part of the reacquaintance process, I hiked 10 miles round trip up to the nearly 8000 foot peak of Spruce Mountain, where I took these pictures of the town and surrounding area.