“RIDE THE SNAKE”
Day 10, Sunset
We carried the generator into the boulder pile. We plugged in the sound system, and stage lights Whitney had wired up. As the sunlight faded, the lights flickered on, and the boulders turned green, blue, and violet. All twenty or so of us climbed into the rocks and made ourselves comfortable.
Then came the music. This was the show for the night.
When it comes to music my words are useless. My words are a small picture of a large fire. For the next hour we listened to the forthcoming Oil Derek album. It sounded like cedarwood smells, like I imagined teeth feel biting gold, or like the movement of a vein of crude oil through a fissure. James recorded, produced, and mixed the album in Nashville. I could hear him in there, twiddling the knobs, cuing the different parts. Mikayla McVey sings warm harmonies on “Grief Song.” Abigail Washburn sings a bright counterpoint on “Crow and the Canyon.”
We had planned to listen to more music, by more Splendor All Around artists, but when the album ended we decided to cut things short. We were within Joshua Tree National Park rules. It was way before quiet hours, and our set-up did not harm the rocks, animals, or plant life. But our campsite had neighbors and we were conspicuously weird. While we could pull the plug and pack up shop if anybody asked us to, we didn’t want them to have to ask us.
We listened to one more song, from James’ upcoming album “Seen Coming from a Mighty Eye.” It reminded me of a circus, climate change, La Jetee, The Handmaid's Tale, and the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. It reminded me of taking road trips with my parents as a kid, and falling asleep in the backseat, squinting at the streetlights to make them twinkle.
Then Wiley, James, and Whitney packed up the sound system. The rest of us heckled. We mocked their authority, their responsibility. We called them “dads.” They, in turn, griped and shook their fists. It was great.
I found them afterwards, giggling in a huddle, congratulating each other for making something beautiful. I thanked them, and asked if we could do another listening party later on, inside the bus, on the bus’ sound system.
James: “That sounds like a lot of pancakes to me.”
Me: “What does that mean, exactly?”
Wiley: “Can we stop evaluating our plans in terms of pancakes?”
James: “It means no.”
Pancakes wasn’t a new Splendor term to me. But if I was ever given a formal definition, I don't remember it.
From what I can tell pancakes means “tasks” or “coordinated efforts." It comes up a lot when planning a project like a Splendor show, a bus remodel, a listening party. “We’ve got all sorts of pancakes,” means, "There's a lot we have to do before we can finish this project." The term gets at what it feels like to have lot of things to do, especially a lot of little things. Cooking each pancake on its own might be simple, but if you try too many at a time, you're doomed. And it’s extremely poor form to leave the stove while the griddle’s hot. If you’re the pancake chef, pancakes are going to tax your attention until all the pancakes done.
This isn't that weird. As a rule, people who work together and play together develop slang together. Especially if they're artists and wordsmiths.
Some newcomers, like me, hit a language barrier. When that happens, it can be surprisingly hard to get people to translate things into plain English. Even if people are comfortable unpacking silly/playful language, language is slippery, and definition is inherently challenging. Eventually, you learn slang like you learned most of your language: from context. Make a few mistakes, get corrected, make fewer and fewer mistakes. If you stick around long enough you get to witness the invention of new idioms that stick. Before you know it, you’re calling (childless (I think)) Wiley a “dad,” and you’re calling tour a “snakeride” -- snakeride being another core piece of vocabulary.
From my perspective, snakeride might as well be older than time. It seems like these people shared a crib as toddlers, dreamed up the bus life, and agreed it would be a "total snakeride goo goo ga ga." "RIDE THE SNAKE" has been painted on the bumper, snakes are in Splendor's logos and branding. We have yet to take a national tour, but it was long-ago named "The United Snakes of America Tour."
Nonetheless, my theory of snakeride is a lot shakier than my theory of pancakes. On the surface, it seems to mean something like “inherently chaotic endeavor.” But the connotations are slippery.
As you can maybe tell, a lot of the time snakeride, and related terms like snake and snaky are meant as positives. In this context, chaos is a beautiful thing: the only possible medium for truth and magic. In a show flyer, Pancho once advertised me as a, “A Heart-stomping, Bone-Bawling, folky Americana Snake-Witch with feels for days." I felt I understood this well enough to feel very, very flattered.
But snakeride has a dark side. When it’s used as a negative, snaky seems to mean something like “shoddy verging on dangerous.” I’ve heard Wiley say his immediate goal is to make Splendor “a lot less snaky.” When we show up late for our own performance, or when we can't start setting up the stage because plastic the bag holding the tools has a giant hole in it, or when the bus gets stuck in the mud -- that’s all pretty snaky. When electrical cables are bust, or need disentangling, or the bus is precariously parked, or people who shouldn’t be climbing it are climbing it, you hear things like: “It’s looking a little too snaky in here.”
And sometimes, other things go wrong. And then you hear: “I get it. People’s feelings get hurt on tour all the time. It’s a snakeride.”
Day 11, Sunset
I stepped out of the token-operated gift shop shower at sunset, filled with regret.
I did not regret the choice to shower, exactly. We had a show that night, but I’d been told there wasn’t space for me on the bill. This was kind of disappointing, but it was also kind of great: Instead of sweating over preparing for my set, I could kick back and relax.
But I wished I had given the mechanics of this particular shower a little bit more thought. I jumped off the bus without soap, a towel, or a proper change of wardrobe. Natalie was kind enough to lend me her toiletries, so aside from having to dry off with my bandana, leave my hair wet, and go without deodorant, this turned out fine.
I also hadn’t anticipated that the floor of a token-operated-back-of-a-gift-shop shower, frequented mostly by hitch hikers, campers, and weirdos like me, at the absolute end of the day would be so...grotty. I tried going in barefoot, quickly changed my mind, and wore my shoes while showering. Afterwards, I had the worst of every world: squelchy, spongy shoes, strange grime stuck between my toes, a mild wind chill, darkness falling.
Also I was alone and kind of lost. I hadn't paid attention when anyone said where the bus would be.
Luckily, Twenty-Nine Palms is a small town. I walked half a block in a random direction and spotted Splendor’s weird and beautiful forehead peeking out above a building. When I got to Taylor Junction, the art gallery we were performing at, the crew setting up. I tried to be helpful and failed. I ate some of a delicious pizza Whitney bought. I had a Tecate and started to relax.
And then Wiley informed me that I could, in fact, play tonight. And I was opening, and due onstage ASAP.
I actually like opening Splendor shows. I’m not saying I only ever want to open. But opening means I get to enjoy everybody else’s set afterwards, without worrying about how I’ll do after them. And playing in any order is, as a personal rule, way better than not playing at all, even when there's grime between my toes and I’m not at all prepared.
Soon I was up there, glaring into some weird-colored light, and waiting to check sound. Derek and Casey Jane’s beautiful smiles appeared at the edge of the stage.
“Hey!” Casey Jane said.
“Heeey,” I said, with a wink.
“Rosie you might already know this,” Derek said. “And if you do I apologize but: your fly is down.”
I looked down. It was.
The rest of the show was, predictably, great. It was a complete honor to share the stage with Annachristie, who is a word witch, a rocker, and an angel. Her friends ain’t bad either. I felt about as social as a mop, though, and hid on the roof couch for a lot of it.
Day 12, Sunset
It started raining again. Angela said her old apartment in Fresno was vacant, and her friend and former neighbor could let her in. He kept late nights so it was OK that we were still a ways away.
It was OK with him, I mean. We'd been on the road for far too long already and were starting to crack. Angela and I made peanut butter banana sandwiches for everyone with gas station ingredients. Both Wiley and I ate slices of stale, Republican pizza that had fallen on the floor cheese-down.
Day 11, Morning
Angela: “I’m going to go find a place to play.”
Me: “Can I follow you with my camera?!”
Our temporary society played out below, beneath Angela's bare and dangling feet.
Day 12, Morning
We had breakfast at a greasy spoon. Whitney, Jeremy and Puck said goodbye and drove home to Berkeley. Casey Jane was supposed to fly out that day, but decided at the last minute to move her flight back a week -- Rachel helped. Bradford met one of his musical inspirations and decided to hang on with him.
We headed to Victoria Williams’ house. She is an old friend of the bus, from the last tour. She is also a singer-songwriting celebrity, Rock Queen of the California Desert, and Patron Saint of Splendor. Annachristie, who shared our stage the night before, was also there. In my cosmology, she’s Victoria Williams Junior, and the sweetheart of Joshua Tree.
We played with Victoria’s animals and jumped naked in a scummy, scummy pool. I played an out-of-tune, outdoor piano and took pictures. Will, who James befriended at the Day 11 show, met us up and had us pose for a photo. Even though a lot of people had gone home by then, this is the closest we got to a family portrait on tour.
As it happened, we were all very dirty and tired. The day ahead held nothing but the long drive north. And we were missing Pancho.
Pancho and Wiley had a fight right before the Day 11 show, and Pancho left tour. He took Natalie to the airport and drove home alone a day early. I definitely didn’t get what was going on at the time. The short story is: the snakeride got too snaky, and Pancho very reasonably felt disrespected, not just by Wiley but also by Splendor at large.
Splendor All Around can be disorganized. A lot happens without group process. Shows can start late and end early. Sets get truncated or cut entirely. Equipment gets wrecked. Meals are skipped, as are soundchecks. Personal sacrifice goes unnoticed and unappreciated. And no matter how shit-on someone might feel -- often because they actually have been shit-on -- come showtime, time is of the essence, and the show tends to go on.
If you're not careful, all that shit can converge on one person, and at a certain point disorganization yields disrespect. Even with the best intentions. Wiley and Pancho spent a lot of time that day making up via text message. It's a snakeride, but we're working on it.
Day 11, Night
We drove out to the middle of a BLM lake bed and were a one-bus Burning Man for the night. We had a DJ, bright lights, loud bass, and (thanks to Whitney) some borderline very dangerous playing with fire. Fire is not a metaphor, here. I mean literal, actual fire. Molotov cocktail t-ball playing with fire.
Angela sat up in the gem bubble, a disco tableau, wearing Derek’s sunglasses. She kept still and silent, reflecting blue light. She was there for long enough I almost got worried.
Me: “What did you take?”
Me: “Oook...You’re OK?”
A few friends came, but it was mostly just us. The dance floor a little sparse and loud. Victoria and I did cartwheels and handstands. We argued over whether it was rude to request oldies soul from the erudite Turkish DJ. She did it anyways and according to her “it did not go very well.”
Maybe I am boring. The highlight of my night was the three paper lanterns Angela had in her backpack. She made us read the instructions on the packaging before lighting them and releasing them into the sky. It was in poetically poor translation, and the last line was, “Do not forget wishing oh!”
Earplugs and a blindfold bought my sleep that night. As the day dawned, I rose from fitful slumber to meet the call of nature. No longer able to hide behind the black cover of night, I found a tumbleweed to squat behind and a hole to pee into. I held in a poop, and thought of Wiley. Before we met, he went through a period of living on the bus full time in Berkeley, and parking it next to a dog park. He says he used to fantasize about putting on a dog costume and shitting wherever he wanted. “Dogs can do it,” he said.
Day 12, Night
Angela and I were the only ones who chose to sleep indoors. Despite the walls and cushions and flush toilets of her old apartment, everyone else was staying on the same bus we'd already been cooped up in for way too long.
It might have had something to do with the fact that we were almost home. Tomorrow night I would be back home with my walls and my plumbing and my often complicated and confusing life. I always set off on a trip hoping not only to be transformed by it, but to be transformed in a way that makes my default life obviously easier, my problems at home less scary. The reality of travel is a lot messier.
In that light, Day 12 was a pretty sad and difficult day for me. If other folks felt the same, clinging to Splendor’s cold, sea foam interior might have been a coping mechanism.
Angela flit about the empty house, brushing her teeth and feathering her nest. I wallowed on a borrowed futon, on the floor of her old bedroom. A window was cracked open to the smell of rain and the sound of banjo music next door.
Angela dropped an armful of bedding. “I’m going to go say hi to Barry!” she said. “Do you want to come?”
We followed a path through the front yard, past a pomegranate tree. The rain was thick but light, a substantial fog. The door to the house next door was ajar, banjo tumbling out.
I knew a couple things about Barry by then: he was Angela’s friend and neighbor from when she last lived in Fresno, he had stayed awake for us, and he played the banjo, apparently. I pictured a hip, long-haired 30-something with delicate wrists.
We opened the door to the smell of wood and glue and pipe tobacco. The house was cluttered with fiddle bodies and paperwork. An older gentleman -- he was both gentlemanly and older -- sat at a small desk with a banjo on his knee. He and Angela greeted each other warmly and lovingly, more like close family than mere friends. The kind of family that actually gets along.
My mind flashed to Angela’s performances, particularly a recurring piece of banter:
“I learned this song from an old man I lived next door to. He taught me a few songs directly, but this one I learned by listening at my window as he played at home.”
This was the guy! The window I'd been staring at was the window! Barry was Angela’s fiddle guru! Not that she ever used that word.
Angela and Barry caught up. Apparently Angela and one of her sisters "adopted" Barry at a folk music festival when they were teenagers. They talked about Barry’s first grandchild, who was just born. They talked about Angela’s fiddle, and how she deserved a better one. They talked about Splendor, the tour, and Barry's days as a traveling musician.
I glanced around the corners of the room, at piles of half-made or half-repaired instruments. This wasn’t an ordinary bachelor pad, it was a workshop. I remembered the first day of tour, around when we met, Angela told a story about her luthier friend, who was very talented but never made as much money at it as he might have, because he preferred to play music all the time. When she told the story, I had also assumed she was talking about a trendy young dude. I suddenly realized she must have been talking about Barry, then, too.
Angela prodded our host into playing us a few songs, on a few different fiddles. It was beautiful.
Day 11, Day
Laura headed home to Nashville. Natalie and Pancho went for a run into town to get groceries. We spent a lot of time resting to make up for the night before, preparing for the night to come. We gave Splendor a fresh coat. We went for walks and ate sandwiches. Pancho and Whitney shot an audition tape for Pancho to play a prosecutor in a procedural crime drama. Angela, Jeremy, and a crew read out loud from The Martian Chronicles. Victoria, who is from Ireland, picked up the guitar and played a song about the American West. It was in English, but by a French band, but she had learned it in Spain, and her singing was the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard. Derek and Wiley went to get sound baths at The Integratron.
Eventually, we busted our asses to put Humpty Dumpty together again and drive into town.
Day 10: Morning
We woke up in Kevin's yard. Whitney made breakfast. I think I groggily helped chop vegetables. I know Whitney ended up saying something like: “After last night, does it make more sense why I’d be anxious about food?”
“We didn’t end up making dinner, and I got really quiet and didn’t want to hang out or talk to people and I went to sleep super early.”
Suddenly many pieces of a puzzle clicked together in my head, a puzzle about my mood and energy on tour. I had been crashing the past several nights, and not as social or adventuresome as I was used to. I had psychological theories about this, like: “I guess past a certain point, even I find human interaction exhausting, and this tour has pushed me to my limit. I’m just not as much of an extrovert as I thought.”
This may still have been true. But against this backdrop, Whitney’s calorie-based theory was earth-shattering. I really hadn’t been eating enough. We were eating one meal a day, tops, and I wasn’t snacking responsibly in-between, even when people encouraged me to, and it was bringing me down and stringing me out, on the regular.
In that same moment I realized: it was going to be OK. Because standing before me was a brilliant, capable, responsible, creative, tasteful, beautiful, beautiful human being who shared my problem and was competent to address it. Whitney was an incredible cook, a fellow vegetarian, and he was planning our next several meals.
I'm not sure what this revelation looked like from the outside, but I think I said “OH MY GOD” and “THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE.”
And then I tried to put my feelings into a hug. This display was inhibited by the fact that I had only known Whitney for a few days at that point, and he was still in front of a hot stove frying onions. But in my heart I felt never in all creation had two souls been in such perfect harmony as ours.
Day 12, Day
We decided not to pick up a hitchhiker, because he was traveling with his bike, and he told Angela he didn’t care where he was going. James tried to get one of Victoria Williams’ old tape players to work and fell asleep instead.
We went a long ways out of our way to try to acquire weed, and failed. This resulted in a very, very, very, embarrassingly long detour. Too embarrassing to tell you actually how very long.
I tried sitting in the hammock instead of the bench while we were moving. I declared “It’s awful I hate it.” Rachel, who was a hammock fan, pointed out that I probably shouldn’t have been trying to read/write from my hanging, galloping seat.
We played songs.
We bought $5 gas station pizza from a very friendly man in a Trump hat. Earnestly, unmockingly, he offered to top it with vegan cheese, or make it gluten-free. We declined. He asked Victoria where she was from and she said Ireland. She asked him the same and he said, “California, unfortunately,” and complained about business regulation. He said if he didn’t own this place he would move in a heartbeat.
The pizza was so hot it burned everybody’s mouth. Some slices fell on the floor. Eight hours later, we were still on the road and I ate one of them anyways.
Day 10, Day
We did a few questionably legal things. Including riding up in the gem bubble through Joshua Tree National Park. Mikayla McVey, who headed home on Day 8, was with us in spirit as the soundtrack.
Day 10, Night
After listening to Derek’s album, we stayed up late. Gourmet-grade grilled cheese sandwiches were made, and consumed, and burned. Laura, James, Rachel and Casey Jane turned the illuminated boulders into a shadow-puppet stage. We sang songs around a campfire. Was the Grateful Dead The Great American Rock Band, or is that blasphemy? Pancho’s dad called and Pancho answered him on speaker phone. Whitney and Puck sped off into the night to try to dig up nearby geocaches. I learned what a bug-out bag was. Puck gave out tiny plastic dinosaurs to keep in your pocket. I still keep mine in my purse.
Late in the night, Pancho and I had a Moment. He thanked me for coming on tour, and said he was glad I was around.
And then he said something like: “I always feel kinda bad when people come on tour for the first time and I didn’t warn them about the lows. Sometimes you just feel shitty and you wonder what you’re doing here and why.”
I was surprised. I didn’t realize I was wearing my lows on my sleeve, or that anyone had the time to notice if I did. I had noticed the group energy wax and wane throughout the days, but I somehow hadn’t figured out many of us were being cut by the same blade.
Is this really where I belong? Singing the same songs over and over again in different scenery? Letting my legs atrophy and my heart grow fat, eating gas station crap, burning fuel, driving in a giant circle? Is this what I choose to do with my one precious life?
Maybe I would have gotten there on my own if the highs weren’t so high. If the doubts weren’t drowned out by the distracting splendor of Splendor. If every other song and every other sunset didn’t reverberate through my skull as a loud and enduring YES.
Or maybe I would have figured it out if I were on the road for longer, and learned how to introspect while living in a tube with a dozen beautiful, interesting, and talented people I wanted to know better. Or if I looked harder at my desire to really belong to and with Splendor in some profound way, and saw the emptiness its center, heard the snaky hiss caused by the vacuum.
In any case, I definitely hadn’t gotten there yet. So thanks for seeing me, Panch.
Victoria, Angela, and I dragged the mattress out of the bus and slept in the open air. It was very romantic and cuddly. It was also required. At the gate, we had been told that we weren't allowed to sleep on the bus. Sleeping on it would make the bus an RV, and our campground prohibited RV camping. None of us brought a tent, so this was one of the better options. Stars seen from earth are small pictures of large fires.
The Alignment Tour is long over, but I'm slow! There's one post -- full of audio-video-photo goodness from the whole tour -- left to go!