Photos and article by Callie Sumlin
As Callie reflects on the ups and downs of traveling with a touring band, she wonders if the best thing about moving from A to B is the free movement of her art: writing.
The roads were clear as we left Durango, heading south through Carson National Forest en route to Taos. A bald eagle cut graceful arcs above us, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains loomed large and stately in the distance. The bassist’s girlfriend, Susan , had come along for the weekend, and we made plans to take pictures over Royal Gorge Bridge, peruse the southwestern art galleries in town, and hit the hot springs early the next morning.
Inevitably, we got a late start on the drive. After the show the night before, we had rolled into our hotel beds at 4 a.m. The sun was well to the west as we pulled into Taos, the desert air quickly taking on a chill as we passed corralled horses and adobe shopping centers. In our hotel room, a spray of dried piss gilded the toilet seat and a rusty screwdriver rested haphazardly on the cracked tile floor beside a dirty rag. The conditions of the room only made Susan and I all the more antsy to get out and explore. We were halfway out the door when the boys reminded us that we were late for sound check. So much for exploring.
There are two things you should know about me: I’ve always loved to travel, and I’ve always been broke. At times, when friends or acquaintances recount stories of markets in Vietnam, mountains in New Zealand, and macchiatos in Italy, I feel an envy coursing through me so fierce it’s scary. Since it doesn’t look like I’ll be acquiring an excess of disposable income anytime soon, I’ve found other routes to satisfy my thirst for newness and adventure. Namely, tagging along with my boyfriend on his band’s cross-country tours.
I’ve gotten to see a big part of the country this way. On these tours, I’ve tripped over giant turtles in the backcountry swampland of Virginia, taken my dog for his first ocean swim in the warm waters of South Carolina, and camped in the shade next to cool rivers in Arkansas. I’ve eaten fried chicken in Asheville, green chile in Albuquerque, and blue crab in Norfolk. I’ve slept in four-star bed and breakfasts, mildew-y hotel rooms, and in the back of the car at rest stops in Kansas. I always come home with stories.
I’ve also watched flawless spring afternoons pass by inside a stuffy car, slept in far too late for morning hikes and museum tours, and spent entire days withering away in dark, dirty venues, reading novels at the empty bar during sound check. My boyfriend and I were once so broke we couldn’t come up with four dollars to enter a state park. I can’t even begin to count the beaches, lakes, historic quarters, restaurants and vistas that have passed by, unexplored. When traveling like this, very little is under my control. The band usually needs to get to the venue by late afternoon, and often the hotel and food for the evening is predetermined (Motel Eight and pizza, anyone?).
Anyone who has ever traveled for business knows the longing and desperation that accompanies being somewhere but not really being there. It’s a so-close-yet-so-far-away type of disappointment. Under normal circumstances, I travel somewhere to try and explore as much of my destination as possible. On tour, this mentality only sets you up for a letdown.
Take the recent trip to Taos. In the end, Susan and I didn’t do any of the things we talked about. The biggest adventure of the trip was trying to navigate around the screwdriver on the hotel bathroom floor to use the toilet. At the venue, we got drunk on red wine during sound check and spent the rest of the evening trying to sell T-shirts while the band played. The next morning, a Sunday, all the shops displayed prominent “closed” signs and the locals said the hot springs were always crowded on weekends. The gorge and the earthships were a 40-minute detour out of our way, so we skipped those too. As we pulled out of town, silence fell over the car, and I could see the disappointment on Susan’s face. It was one of her first times tagging along, and the experience must have felt a bit anti-climactic.
Though I rarely accomplished any of the things I planned to do on each tour, there was some sort of unnamable allure for me to continue tagging along (aside from getting to spend time with my boyfriend). But could it even really be called “travel” in the true sense if we didn’t get to fully explore the destination? The word travel is defined as: “from one place to another, as on a trip; journey.” It is nothing more than a verb of movement. Very few people, however, consider a satisfying trip to consist of just passing through a place. We travel for much more than that.
Though there are different ways of going about it, be it guided tours or spontaneous wandering, it’s assumed that we will try to take in as much as possible wherever we go—the people, the architecture, the food. We research every detail of a trip in advance, eating at the five-star restaurants on Yelp, visiting the most legendary shops and sights, and staying in the most highly recommended hotel.
So what happens when all of the planning and control are taken out of travel, like on tour? When all the superfluous details disappear and travel is stripped down to its simple core—movement? What redeemable qualities are left, if any, in merely going from A to B?
I realized as I was scribbling these questions into my journal that I was so completely focused, so wholly absorbed in my writing I lost track of the time and miles going by. When I’m at home, even on a day off, writing somehow always gets moved to the lowest rung on my list of priorities. Laundry, dinner, yoga. Walk the dog, go to the store, clean the kitchen. I can always think of something that needs to be done before allowing myself to just sit and write. But in the passenger seat of a car on the highway, there’s not a whole lot of ways to run away from yourself. I turn around and notice that Susan, a professional artist, is bent over with a ballpoint pen, immersed in her sketchpad. The boys, as usual, are talking music.
I realize, my to my bemusement, there is a lot to appreciate about moving from A to B. Not just the dramatic mesas and buttes of New Mexico flying by, and not just for that luxurious in-between time that movement grants us. I’ve been seeing travel in the wrong light—the consequential inspiration that I usually absorb from an excursion has less to do with in-depth exploration of a place and more to do with simply interrupting my everyday scenery and routine.
When I take this kind of travel for what it fundamentally is—a change of surroundings—I don’t expect so much or feel let down. I embrace an open-mindedness that stems from literally expanding my horizons and being fully focused on the novelty of where I am. Even if that means eating breakfast at the Cracker Barrel right off the highway.