This story was written and performed at 2nd Story in April 2010. You can watch a very low-quality video of the performance on Vimeo.
"This one's a classic," Old-Timer Al said to us, sternly examining our VW Bus parked across three spaces in the Wal-Mart lot, yellow in the sun as a sea lion carcass. Tendrils of rust crept from the wheel wells. It was far from a classic.
Kevin responded, "sure is".
"All we need to do is sign over the title and it's yours," Cody said.
"I couldn't let you boys do that," Al said to us. "How much do you want for her?"
"Seriously, you can just have it for free if you take over the title." All we wanted was to be rid of this damned bus, which we'd bought off an acquaintance a month earlier for $800. Still, Al wanted to haggle.
"Okay, how about $300" Cody said.
"$150" Al said. "It's a deal."
We'd finally found a taker. Stuck in the tiny town of Yreka, ten miles south of the Oregon-California border, we were selling our only form of transportation for $150, and it was the best news of the day.
Kevin, Cody and I were in the last legs of a two-week tour of the Pacific Northwest with our band Mule Train, which I'd formed a year before, in 2004. After a decade of writing songs and playing bars and house parties solo, I had finally developed the self-confidence to form a band. We were an unlikely crew: myself, a 27-year-old coffee-shop worker, pursuing a musical career as my thirties loomed. Kevin, our drummer, was a hippie with an unlikely love of punk rock, who traipsed around his commune in flip-flops and ripped-up hand-me-downs. My co-worker Cody was the bassist, an imposing gentle giant who had never played an instrument before, who was chosen more for his personality than his musical skill.
We had garnered a decent following in our home town. Our amalgam of folk and punk rock won over crowds of college students, grizzled old punks and folk-listening hippies alike, and we'd even opened at the largest club in town, a cavernous 1000-seat hall. After a mere year of paying our dues, we had a full-length CD, satisfyingly covered in shrink-wrap. At the CD release show that launched the tour, we sold 200 copies before embarking on a ten-stop tour up and down the legendary hotbed of indie rock that was the Pacific Northwest. We were feeling pretty damn good about ourselves: that last night in our hometown, as I played guitar before a swirling mass of sweaty, dancing bodies, I felt vindicated. I felt, for once, that I'd made the right choices with my life. I felt like a rock star.
The next night we played the first show of our tour in Eugene, OR, for an audience of 10. We wrote it off as a first-night fluke. Next up was two nights in Portland: the first found us clanging loudly through a busted PA for studying students at an anarchist coffee shop, the second night at an empty bar underneath a freeway overpass. Off to Olympia WA, the birthplace of Sleater-Kinney, where we performed to a disinterested waitress in a vegan cafe. By this point, Cody and Kevin had resigned themselves to gallows humor, joking about the show turnouts.
I wasn't laughing.
Our next destination was Seattle, another bar under a highway overpass. The tour reached its lowest point the following night, at a honky-tonk in a small town outside of Seattle. The audience emptied out after our second song, because the meth-addled sound guy couldn't stop the feedback peeling from the P.A. speakers.
Our trip came to an end after a marathon driving stint through the mountains of Southern Oregon. Racing past the Oregon border, driving up a steep incline, the bus let out a bleating wail as we lost power to the engine. The transmission died as the August sun settled into 10am convection mode. Kevin and I got out and stood on the side of the road. My hangover was reaching full blossom, the hot gravel radiating nausea back at me. Cody slid underneath the bus to investigate.
As I stood by the side of the highway, I thought about how I'd convinced Cody and Kevin to go on tour: sitting on the back deck of Kevin's commune, saying, "if we want to take ourselves seriously as a band, we have to go on tour. I'm not interested in being a big fish in a small pond." Kevin had been up for it, more for the adventure than for career advancement, while Cody was dubious, but relented. Now I was having hung over panic attacks on the side of a rural highway while Cody tried to figure out why our van had died.
"I think it's the tranny" Cody yelled. "Shit," I responded. "Think we can push it into second and get into town?" Cody thought we could. Kevin and I pushed the bus off while Cody grinded the clutch, and we were gone--Kevin and I jumping in, Little Miss Sunshine-style, heading for Yreka at 20 miles an hour.
We exited at the first turnoff and sped into the nearest lot, belonging to a giant strip-mall including a Wal-Mart, fabric store, a Subway, and a DMV.
We came to an inelegant stop across three parking spots, sat there, and assessed our situation. "Hurting," Cody said. "Hurting" was Cody's response to most things. Over the course of the tour, I had come to resent the fake adjective, applied every time we entered an empty bar with our unnecessarily large amps. But this time, we agreed. "Yep, hurting," Kevin said. "Totally fucking hurting," I agreed.
We locked the van and walked to the pay phone to find a mechanic in the yellow pages. Flipping through the thin volume, we settled on Dave's Auto Repair. I called from Cody's cell phone. "Yeah, we've got a '73 VW Bus with a busted transmission, how much would it be to replace it?" "We can get a replacement tranny next Tuesday for your vehicle. It'll run you $1400." "Next Tuesday?" I asked, clarifying that it would, indeed, take a week to get a replacement. "Yeah, next week."
It was clear to me that we had to cut-and-run: we had $400 between the three of us, jobs we were expected at, and we sure as hell weren't going to stay in Yreka for eight days. We'd find a ride home--somehow--but that bus wasn't going anywhere. Clearly, we had to abandon it. Kevin and Cody were less eager, but acknowledged that there was no other option. We couldn't leave it, though: steep fines would eventually make their way to Cody's mailbox. We had to find someone to take the title.
Giving away a vehicle is harder than it seems. For two hours, we walked up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart, trying to find someone who would to take a bus with a busted transmission. People responded as if we were offering bargain-basement meth cooked in the dumpster out back.
Granted, we looked unsavory: me, tattooed and emaciated, in overly tight pants; Kevin, in a ripped t-shirt and sandals, with a beard that looked like it might sprout shoots of wheat grass; and Cody, a hulking 6'2" Argentinian in a sea of white people. We approached couples, teenagers, old folks--most of them wouldn't give us a chance. A middle-aged white trash couple listened. The husband was game, but his wife just scowled at us. "Ed, the last thing we need is another broke-down car." An 18 year old high school dropout showed some interest, but he became uneasy. "I don't think I can take it. My Mom would get pissed. Good luck," he said to us in the fish and tackle aisle. "No, dude, she won't mind," Cody argued, as if he knew the kid's mother. "No, she'd be pissed," the kid said as he turned and walked away.
Two hours later, we were getting suspicious looks from the Wal-Mart staff and were no closer to getting rid of this bus. It was then that we were approached by our knight in ruffled flannel: the man we'd later refer to affectionately as "Old-Timer Al". Al and his wife had been watching us since we arrived, and she had finally forced him to come over and investigate.
"You boys have been walking around here for hours. What's the problem?" he asked. We explained our situation.
He nodded his head and invited us into his RV. "Let's see if we can figure out a solution," he said. We were wary, unaware of America's nomadic Wal-Mart underground. Al and his wife were members of a class of retirees who sell their houses, buy RV's, and travel the country, wandering from one Wal-Mart parking lot to the next, establishing small societies in big-box-store parking lots. As we entered the RV, we were greeted by Al's wife. "Al, I'm not going out there today," she said. "Elaine's just sitting there on her lawn chair.She cheats at poker--I saw her doing it last night!"
She offered us some lemonade. Kevin, Cody and I, stinking of beer-soaked couches and smoky bars sat in the well-appointed RV of our hosts, as they told us their lives' stories: they were from the Southwest, after retirement they sold their house to travel around the country in their RV, living as strip-mall vagabonds. Their kids thought that they were crazy, but they didn't care.
"I used to have a bus just like that back in the early '80s," Al said to us. "Great," replied Cody. Morale was clearly low if Cody was responding indifferently to a man offering to help us out. Cody was the face of the band--the member willing to chat with whoever came up to the stage after we finished playing, no matter how drunk or insane they might appear. "Sure did," Al went on, "same color as the one you have there."
He waxed on about his old '70s VW bus. I tried to respond as enthusiastically as I could, avoiding the defeated faces of my band mates. In our small hometown, we felt like a big deal. We'd released our first CD, 14 songs that I had written, 14 songs pressed on a thousand plastic discs. A thousand plastic discs the three of us had spent $3000 on manufacturing. Now, 800 of those CD's were baking in the back of a broken-down VW in a dead-end mountain town. I sipped the lemonade, and a sour pit stuck in my throat.
"Now why do you want to get rid of that bus again? You can't do that! It's a classic, I'm telling you!" Kevin explained our situation to Al once again. "Well, let's go take a look at it."
As we stood there, watching Old Timer Al assess the van, haggling with him over the free bus and agreeing that it, was, in fact, a classic, I just missed my coffee shop job that I hated, the dank bedroom that I would cocoon myself in and drink and smoke and write songs, the reliable audience of friends and acquaintances and hometown fans that would come out to every show and dance, not merely glower at us from the corner of the bar. Cody turned to me and said, "the cafe doesn't seem so bad right now." I nodded.
"You know there's a DMV over there, right," Al asked. "Sure do," Kevin said. "We have the paperwork right here. All we need to do is sign over the title and it's yours." Finally, Al relented.
"Okay," Cody said, "now we just have to find a way to get home." I called every friend and acquaintance in Northern California who owned a large vehicle, and finally reached our friend Chris in Sacramento, who was willing to pull a ten-hour round trip in his pickup. When he arrived that evening, we emptied the bus and loaded our instruments, amps, sleeping bags, backpacks, and boxes of Mule Train CD's into the bed of his truck. It was so packed, I worried it would overturn.
Chris drove us into the pitch-black Sierra Nevada mountains, four men cramped into the front cab of a Ford pickup on a five-hour drive through the black void. A sliver of light from the moon reflected on the still lakes.
As we sat in silence, I stared at the dark outlines where the lakes gave way to mountains, towering on an inhuman scale. The world seemed unfathomably large, and we knew very little of it.