The Smell of Cow Manure Makes Me Homesick (AKA Life on the Road)
"Wow, sounds like you had an AMAZING vacation." I've just run into a friend at the coffee shop and his offhanded comment (echoed by everyone from family members to total strangers) has me torn between bemusement and laughter. Having just come back from a 9 day ("Thunder run") tour of the Netherlands and Germany, I thought it would be a good time to write about what touring (here at home or abroad) is most often like, in my experience. Including (especially) the things that don't make Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.
THE CLIFF NOTES VERSION:
If you want to simulate how it feels physically, just stay up for at least 24 hours, sit in a really uncomfortable chair for enough time that your back aches and various limbs fall asleep, then borrow a car you've never driven, switch your GPS to a foreign language, and use it to navigate to a place several hours away in a town where you don't know anyone, and try to do your work as usual, preferably with some element of public speaking in there. Eat and drink something you don't usually, then try to sleep in an unfamiliar place. Now get up 2-3 hours earlier than normal and lather, rinse, repeat for at least a week, probably two to three weeks if you can spare it. If 36 hours is all you've got, then just throw a small bucket of cash out the window of that borrowed car, and head home.
THE UP: It can be an inspiring, transformative experience.
Although you don't often have the time to see all the museums, restaurants, cultural attractions and other tourist-type things you'd see on an actual vacation, you do get to hang out with the people who actually live and work in the cities and towns you're playing in- the quickest, easiest way to get a real insider's perspective into what life in those areas is like. Want to know where the music stores, record shops, bookstores, coffee shops, farmers' markets, cool bars are? Easy.
Unexpected experiences can pop up out of nowhere and make your day. An impromptu bike ride to a mill that Van Gogh painted? A hike to a beautiful overlook in the Alps? Finding that cool little farm stand with the local cheeses and smoked salmon just off the Northern CA coast? Spontaneous happenings can easily become highlights of the trip.
It's also really special (domestically or internationally) to get to share your art with interested audiences who may not have known about you before. It can be incredibly rewarding to connect, make new friends, and experience your art through a completely fresh (sometimes unexpected) perspective. This is probably the biggest reason why we do it.
It's a truly mind-broadening experience. Seeing firsthand different lifestyles, different viewpoints, different ways of doing and looking at things, without a comfort zone to fall back on can do incredible things for your empathy, humanity, and imagination. When you're in one place for a while, it's easy to assume that there's only one or two ways to do or look at things. "Get out of Dodge" for a bit, and that gets totally upended. It's cross-ventilation for the mind. I always come back feeling more creative, more nimble, more flexible in my thinking and doing and being.
THE DOWN: It's physically and mentally really, really hard.
You're exhausted the majority of the time. Most of us are familiar with what a drag jet lag is, but trying to be functional without any recovery time is its own form of hell. Most of the time, you'll arrive and have a show the same night. So you'll hit the ground running that night, then get up and do it again the next day, and the next... At some point jet lag will switch to garden-variety tiredness, but it takes an experienced connoisseur of exhaustion to detect the subtle change. You also spend a lot of time sitting on your bum, in cars, planes, trains etc. Your legs will fall asleep and your butt will become very tired, just like the rest of you.
You probably won't get to see those museums, hip restaurants, galleries, spas, natural, or cultural attractions. You just won't have the time. Most days will either be gig days or travel days. Days off are to be avoided if at all possible, because any day you're not playing, you're losing money. (Sometimes there are exceptions, and I always try to add a few days on to the end of a tour to get to see some of those things I wouldn't have the opportunity to see otherwise.)
Speaking of money, you probably won't make much. Sometimes you'll be in the black, sometimes you'll be in the red, sometimes you'll break even. The overhead required to make it happen in the first place can be overwhelming and take a long time to recoup. Just Google some airfares (either domestic or international) and then multiply by the number of band members you'd like to bring. Add in a car rental, throw in for gas, tolls, lodging on nights the venue doesn't provide a place to stay, meals, and other unexpected expenses, like gear repair, socks, or your 37th replacement iPhone charger.
The weirdest things will make you weep. (Mostly because of the exhaustion- it's not lost on us that sleep deprivation is an interrogation tactic.) For me, it's the smell of cow manure. Or new-mown hay. This puts me in a minority, I know, but whenever we're in farm country, look out. (City-dwellers have other triggers that I know far less about. They always seem to have something to do with the smell of rain on asphalt.) Other weird things will make you laugh. It's trippy.
THE CONCLUSION (IF THERE REALLY IS ONE):
In short (or long), this is what it's like, much of the time. We generally only post the really cool stuff on social media- the awe-inspiring views, the fabulous dinners, the cool venues. Because nobody really wants to see half the band asleep and drooling in the back of the van, or hauling gear up several flights of hotel stairs (no elevator!) at 2 am, or the tiny bed in a hostel in the middle of nowhere where you hit your head on the sloped ceiling in the middle of the night, or the hours you sat in traffic, or the piles of dirty laundry...
Touring is an alternate reality, an enhanced state brought on by completely uprooting yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. It's strange, inspiring, rewarding, exhausting, exciting, boring, and in the end can serve as a mental brush fire of sorts, forcing you to focus on things that might not be possible in the tedium of everyday. This can be a very useful thing, and I recommend that everyone try it, if possible. It's hard, and you might not come home with a lot of financial reward to show for it. (It's also not for everyone, and for those with small children, I can't even fathom how you do it!) But you get to share art with new friends in new places, and although the road is harder now than it's ever been, there are still a bunch of us crazy fools out there doing it. Maybe we'll be coming to your town soon. Can we do some laundry?