White trash in a wagon on a Texas four lane

A Suitcase and a past my only load

Cover art by Gary Mackender

Oh take me, take me, take me you fool road

I wrote those lyrics, or part of them, on an interstate highway somewhere between Tucson, Arizona and the East Coast in the summer of 1998.  That was a year of constant travel for my band, The Mollys. The US Interstate system was our home. A beat up Rand McNally Atlas that automatically opened to the state of Texas was our guide, its pages folded on the states and cities where we frequently performed; the occasional stain of taco sauce from a Taco Bell burrito, purchased at a drive-in-window, and consumed, minus the drippings, by the “navigator” decorated its pages.

In time, the interstate system became etched in our minds.  In the same way that a person from New Jersey says “Which exit?” when they meet a fellow Garden Stater, referring to where you would get off I-95 to find their hometown,  I might find myself saying to someone from Zanesville, Ohio, “Isn’t that on I-70 between Columbus and I-77?”

I have seen the United States Interstate System from the window of a rolling Ford Econoline van in winter, summer, spring and fall, by night, by day, and in every mood imaginable. I remember driving along I-70 watching an ominous line of clouds in the distance and listening to the radio for tornado warnings.  If I were a cartographer like Olaus Magnus, whose Carta Marina, or Map of the Sea, shows the North Atlantic filled with pictures of sea monsters, I would map I-70 from Missouri through the plains of Kansas with drawings of tornadoes, farm houses and cows.

One winter we drove across Texas on Interstate 10 and into Arkansas during a record breaking ice and snow storm.  We had to drive under twenty miles an hour, because, as we learned, there is a shortage of snowplows in the South.  Our view from the window was one of snow and sleet, and the occasional eighteen wheeler, jack-knifed and overturned in a ditch.  We lost so much time on that trip that we had to drive with only short stops for gas and restroom breaks.  We didn’t even have the luxury of a sit down meal in a diner; all the while we were watching the clock and mentally calculating the time it would take to get to our gig.  I haven’t been able to stomach a Whopper Jr. since.  We did make it to our show on time, but with less than an hour to spare.  After three days in a van and no shower, we performed two fifty-five minute sets to a sit down crowd in a performing arts center in upstate New York.  There’s the romantic life of a touring musician for you.

We didn’t always take the interstate highways by choice.  It was a necessity.  We had somewhere to go, and we needed to get there quickly.  Extra time was extra money, and we wanted to save our precious dollars to take home.  As time passed, we got to know which routes were the quickest.  If our task, as it frequently was, was to get to the East Coast in record time, we started on I-10 to El Paso, switched to I-20 near Toyah, Texas, continued until we hit I-30 in Dallas, and then it was on to I-40 in Little Rock, Arkansas and east to Greensboro, North Carolina, where we’d catch the I-85 to the I-95 to the DC Beltway and, eventually, our first night’s sleep in a bed in a wonderful old farmhouse near Gaithersburg, Maryland, free lodging with our friend, Randy, the brother-in-law of our bass player.  We usually drove the whole route nonstop, taking turns driving, sleeping and navigating.  Any money spent on hotels would come out of our meager pay. If we couldn’t get a promoter to spring for our rooms, we slept in the van – which was almost always rolling.

Joni Seager tells us that a map “reflects the priorities, sensibilities, fears, and the state of knowledge of the mapmaker and his or her cultural context.” Aside from lines of interstate netting the country, the tornadoes and the cows, what else might I add to my map to reflect my sensibilities during my time as a traveling musician: the oil refineries in Odessa (how might one map a smell?), the Admiral Benbow, a hotel in Memphis  where I spent one of the most frightening nights of my life and wrote, “I’m Not as Willing,” the now abandoned Blue Moon, a roadhouse in Kasota, Minnesota where Joyce always requested “the yellow dress song“?

The interstate system is only a bunch of lines on a map, a series of numbers without character, like the identical travel plazas at the end of the off ramps, offering the same knock off tee-shirts, fast food and tire gauges as the store fifty miles back; but layered on top of these highways is a chunk of my life.  The roadside attractions are the funky bars and the characters like Joyce.  Waiting at the end of a long drive were small town nightclubs where the Saturday night dance was the only game in town.  To our fans, we were the kids who ran away to join the circus, rolling into town in our late model Ford van to put on a show.  Our audience saw us at our best, sweating out our frustrations and spilling our guts on stage.  Under their surveillance we lived a carefree existence, unburdened by the nine to five.  But like the character in my song, “Moon Over the Interstate,” we carried our own baggage, the baggage of our pasts, our desires and our fears, as we struggled to find intimacy and fulfillment in our vagabond existence.

I remember driving with my family from my mother’s home town, Muenster, Texas to Tucson to “settle down” after my father’s retirement from twenty years in the air force.  I was nine years old.  My parents had never been to Tucson, but my mother had romantic notions of the West and they were both fans of the television series, High Chaparral which was filmed in Tucson.   As we drove west along I-10 at night, I remember how many of the towns seemed to be nestled in valleys.  When we reached the crest of a hill, we were able to see the lights of the towns scattered below us.  Each town seemed to hold some sort of promise of a new life.  I always had that feeling when I was on the road.  Something new and better was always waiting, in the next town, at the next off ramp.

photo by Gary Mackender

The Mollys 1998, photo by Gary Mackender

For every brand new town there are a thousand brand new lights
a thousand hopes and dreams that lie and wait for you tonight
There ain’t no call to shed a tear or linger on what’s past
The cure ain’t in a bottle, it’s a foot upon the gas… *