July, 2013

On Days Like These


Rounding the Corn in Indiana

Photo by Michael Mosbach

Our travels between shows in early summer 2013 also took Michael and me through parts of Indiana and Iowa on “days like these” that were mostly sunny, or at least dry—though we passed many swollen brown rivers and signs of recent flooding. Even in such relatively flat states, the true backroads remain surprisingly twisty, because they trace around old property lines between corn and soybean fields in ninety-degree angles, rather than blasting straight through them in the modern fashion.

And speaking of modern fashions, Michael and I also traveled through a lot of Amish country, especially in Ohio and Indiana. I have been fascinated by the “plain people” since my first encounter with them, on the Fourth of July, 1984. On that day off between shows in Indianapolis and Cleveland, I was riding through Ohio on my bicycle, on my first ever “Century” (100-mile-day), and I noticed that the Amish farmers driving horse-drawn plows waved to me, as a fellow “non-mechanized” person.

In my motorcycle travels since then I have observed the various enclaves of Amish and old-order Mennonites with a mix of curiosity and amazement—that they can live that way in today’s world, and that they choose to. Like the Mennonites, Mormons, and Scientologists, the Amish grew out of the vision of a single charismatic individual—Jakob Amman, in this case—and in all of these out-of-the-mainstream faiths, and some similarly restrictive societies like Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, it is truly astonishing to see such complete adherence to principles (often inconvenient principles, if not downright nutty) laid down centuries ago by one man who claimed to know God’s will, and convinced others that he did.

One fun fact is that Amish men wear beards but not mustaches because those are associated with European military officers and militarism in general. The Amish do not fight in wars, or take part in any violence, even in self-defence. But if they do not make war, they certainly make love. The Amish are among the fastest-growing populations in the world, with an average of seven children per family.

A few years ago in Pennsylvania, Michael and I came up behind an Amish buggy, and while we waited to pass, we returned waves from two young boys in the back, wearing flat-brimmed straw hats, plain blue shirts, and suspenders. Michael said later that he wanted to buy those two boys BMW GS motorcycles, but what I have always wanted is a photograph of me passing an Amish carriage.

Michael wants to change the world—I just want to capture it. With me in it.

Photo by Michael Mosbach

Ahead of us on an Ohio country road, I saw the dark shape of a horse-drawn buggy (with its government-mandated Slow-Moving Vehicle triangle, which the Amish communities resisted strongly, and some sects still do—though these days you see more “progressive” buggies with reflective tape and even battery-powered flashing lights). I stopped Michael and sent him ahead to set up with his camera, and waited until he was ready before passing the buggy.

In retrospect, now that I see it was a young woman with her baby, I feel a little guilty. She was not in any danger from us, but she might have felt she was, and that’s bad enough. (In Roadcraft, as in life, the Three Deadly Sins against others are: 1) Causing Pain, 2) Causing Fear, and 3) Causing Worry.)

Two louts on motorcycles buzzing around would have made her nervous, because it is sadly true that the “plain people” are sometimes tormented by the outsiders they group together as “the English,” and I am sorry about that. (But I guess she’ll never read my apology—too bad, in more ways than one.)

(Incidentally, I’m sure the plastic baby-seat must also be an unwilling concession to state law—the Amish don’t do plastic—but what about her tinted glasses?)

I did know that the rumored Amish aversion to photography is not about being photographed—stealing their souls or anything like that. They are only forbidden to pose for photographs, which would be considered vain.

I kind of feel the same way about posing for photographs (especially with strangers)—but I know when to make an exception. On the night of our show at an amphitheater outside Chicago, some players from the Chicago Blackhawks, who had recently won the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup, brought the actual Cup out onstage in “YYZ,” toward the end of our show.

I knew in advance about the event, so during the second set I wore one of the hats I had made for the “Hockey Theme” project (see “Fire on Ice” for more context on the momentousness of this occasion), with the logos of the “Original Six” NHL teams. I turned the Chicago logo to face prominently front and center, and during the show, had to smile for John “Boom-Boom” Arrowsmith’s close-up.

Photo by John Arrowsmith

The last five shows of this run were in Eastern Canada, and after crossing the border on the bus in Sarnia, Ontario, and parking in the local Château Walmart, Michael and I unloaded the bikes from the trailer and rode north to catch a ferry to Manitoulin Island. Brutus had been riding east from Alberta, and would meet us there that night—the West Side Beemer Boyz reunited again, and riding together for a few days—as only happens in Canada. During the following days off between shows in Hamilton, Ottawa, Quebec City, and two in Halifax, the three of us had some fantastic rides, with weather varying from rainy in Ontario to hot and sunny in Nova Scotia, and we stayed in the kind of pleasurable, treasurable accommodations only Brutus can discover.

The only dark spot was the Quebec City show. It was held outdoors in a vast open area—another famous battleground, the Plains of Abraham, from a battle between the French and English in 1759. It was just one theater of the Seven Years War—perhaps the real first World War, as it involved most of the Western Powers. (In Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide, published in 1758, he described the North American part of this war by saying they were fighting over “quelques arpents de neige”—some acres of snow.) That war’s effect on Canada’s history will come into this story again, when we finally “return” to the ending, Balancing Rock in Nova Scotia.

The Scenic Route to Quebec City

Photo by Michael Mosbach

With something like 40,000 people in front of us—making more of a landscape than an audience—the first set went very well. During intermission, Geddy remarked how much he enjoyed playing these festival-style shows. (We had recently played similar events in Ottawa and Sweden.) He liked how the younger fans were able to make their way up front, instead of the older (and wealthier) people buying up the front rows, and the overall energy and excitement in such a setting.

I agreed, but said, “The weather always makes me nervous.”

During the second set, just before we began “The Garden,” I started to see flurries of raindrops in the spotlight beams over the crowd. As we launched into the song, the wind gusted up, swirling rain all through the colored lightbeams flashing around the stage. Behind the vast crowd in front of me, lightning flickered in the distant darkness. Raindrops covered my cymbals enough to dampen their sound (literally and figuratively), and striking a crash cymbal sent a colorful fountain into the air. Of greatest concern were the exposed electronics—keyboards and foot pedals—and the delicate violins and cellos. (Later cellist Jacob told us, “If it had been anyone but you guys, I would have been off that stage.”) Just as we finished the song, monitor engineer Brent’s voice came over our ear monitors, “The show is over. A storm is right on us. Make an announcement, and get off the stage.”

Hard to believe that in almost forty years, we had never had to stop a show in the middle like that. Only once, a couple of tours ago in Chicago, had an outdoor show been called just minutes before we were supposed to go onstage. (We made that one up later.) But never once in all those years had we stopped a show in the middle—so we had no policy.

In front of the stage, preshow, Quebec City

Photo by Michael Mosbach

I ran offstage, following the usual series of backstage flashlights from Donovan, Tony, and Michael, climbed onto my bus and started to change out of my sweaty clothes. Dave aimed the bus toward the next show’s dropoff point, while Alex and Geddy, in their cars, drove off to the airport to fly home for the night. The three of us took Brent’s words at face value, “The show is over,” and although it was extremely strange for us, and we regretted the coitus interruptus, we didn’t feel we had cheated anyone. We had played at least three-quarters of the show, close to three hours — more than many performers give. And I must admit it felt nice to have “The Garden” reverberating in my brain after the show for a change, instead of the chaotic burnout at the end of 2112.

But unfortunately, there was some unpleasant fallout the next day. Geddy had made a quick announcement before we ran, but it must be remembered that Quebec in general is ninety per cent francophone, and Quebec City closer to one hundred per cent—and no one came out to explain the situation in French.

It turned out that the storm veered away, and the rain stopped after fifteen or twenty minutes. Some bands on other stages resumed their performances, as we might have done if we were there. The Quebec City press spread the impression that it had been Geddy personally who had stopped the show, which was wrong and misleading.

So . . . the next day we issued a public apology, and even went so far as to record the six songs we had missed playing that night at the next show in Halifax, and gave them free to a Quebec City rock station. Nothing more we could do.

Fuel Stop

Photo by Lashawn Lundstrom

Here is a common moment in our travels, taken early the following morning—filling up with gas, as we do every 200 miles or so—but it is a rare photograph (because riders like us just wouldn’t think of snapping a photo at a gas stop), and thus nice to have.

(Brutus, incidentally, is riding the fourth of my GS bikes, “Geezer IV,” which made its debut on the R-30 tour, then was sold to him a few years ago. I am on my newest bike, Geezer VII, with Geezer VI in the trailer for backup. Geezer V, with just over 50,000 miles, was just sold to one of our truck drivers, Don Johnson, and Geezer III belongs to our artist liaison man, Kevin Ripa. Because I look after my motorcycles so meticulously, I am always glad to pass them down through the family when it’s time to upgrade.)

Having lost an hour passing into Atlantic time, and with a ferry to catch, we had set off obscenely early from the bus in Woodstock, New Brunswick. An hour or so later—still only about 8:00—we pulled off the Trans-Canada Highway for gas, and saw two of the crew buses pulling in behind us. One of the drivers, Lashawn, snapped this little portrait. We joked that we wanted her to wake up the crew for an “inspection” by the boss, and she said, “They just went to bed about an hour ago.”

It was strange to contemplate, but we had been getting up when they were going to sleep. However, their hours were different—on show days, a few hours longer than mine on both sides of the night. Lashawn also remarked that it was the first time she’d seen me since the beginning of the tour. Some of us in the touring vortex (sixty-five of us, this time) were on such different schedules that we never saw each other—except at our end-of-tour bowling parties.

Over the years, both Brutus and Michael, as my riding partners, had encountered the perception from other crew members that they were just “joyriders”—looked down upon because all they did was follow me around on motorcycles. They didn’t have real jobs, like the techs and drivers. I understood how it might appear that way, from a distance, but the reality was different—typically seven hours a day on the road, plus the shows, and no days off. Michael, Brutus, and I certainly knew, as I wrote in a previous story, “Serious traveling is hard work.”

Or as the great American journalist Ernie Pyle used to say when describing someone’s difficult job, “Try it sometime.”

The Coast of Acadie

Photo by Michael Mosbach

That day would offer its own little drama, too. After waiting in line for the ferry to board in Saint John, I started up my motorcycle and saw the tire-pressure warning light flashing, showing that I was down from 42 pounds to 30 in the rear tire. I knew what that meant—a nail or a screw in the tire causing a slow leak. But how slow? For the entire two-hour crossing, I was mentally prepared to return to the car deck and find a flat tire. I would have to push the bike off the boat, then try to find the puncture (seldom easy) and plug it, and we still had far to go.

Riding off the ferry, the indicator showed 20 pounds remaining. Better than none, but too low for safety. I rode delicately to the nearest gas station, and pumped it up again. Within a half-hour it was back down into the twenties, and I stopped again for a refill. From then on there were no more gas stations all the way to our remote lodge in the Nova Scotia outback, part of it on a road called the Evangeline Trail.

Another big story . . . but briefly stated, when the British defeated the French in that Seven Years War, they gave the French settlers in Canada a choice: swear allegiance to the British king, or get out. Those that departed were called the Acadians (after a French village called La Cady, apparently), and settled in Louisiana—where they became the Cajuns.

“Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” is an epic poem by Longfellow, set during and after the Acadians’ expulsion. So we were in Acadia, which clung to its dwindling French heritage in music, a regional flag, and even language. On a previous journey Brutus and I had stopped in nearby villages where even young people spoke a unique, antiquated French.

All through that ninety-minute ride, my eyes were glancing at the number on the tire pressure indicator, watching it fall. However, I was relieved to see that lower pressure seemed to escape more slowly, and it held at a safe level (for cautious riding) until we arrived. Once we were parked in front of our cabin, Michael and I found the nail, pulled it out, and plugged the hole. It would hold temporarily, but only until we could get the tire replaced. When you only have two tires under you, you don’t take chances. And that’s when it’s good to have a backup bike in the trailer—Geezer VI.

West Side Beemer Boyz, Trout Point, NS

The two shows in Nova Scotia separated by a day off gave us a rare chance to stay in one place for more than one night. The cabin at Trout Point was a few hours away from Halifax, on roads that I wouldn’t advise for a bus and trailer, so after the first show we slept on the bus at the Château Walmart in Digby. In the morning we rode out on the pilgrimage to Balancing Rock, and back early to Trout Point in time for a swim.

The little lake was exactly the color of The Macallan 18-Year-Old single malt whisky, in this case tinted by peat rather than sherry casks. It reminded me of the lines from the great hobo classic by Harry McClintock, “The Big Rock Candy Mountains,” which defines a hobo’s paradise, with such attractions as “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs.”


There’s a lake of stew

And of whisky too

You can paddle all around it

In a big canoe

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains


So I floated in the whisky lake, feeling muscle-sore and bone-weary. (An observation about this tour that made me smile: Show-day mornings start with a multivitamin, while post-show mornings start with Advil.) It had been a difficult few weeks, with twelve demanding shows and 4,235 miles of motorcycling, on all kinds of roads, and in all kinds of weather.

The Macallan 18 Lake

Photo by Michael Mosbach

Not for the first time, I allowed myself the brief fantasy that I could just stay in a place like that, soaking in the whisky (inside and out), hiding out from the world, and from work, and not feeling any more pain.


Oh, I’m bound to stay

Where you sleep all day

Where they hung the jerk

That invented work

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains


(Love that line, “Where they hung the jerk/ that invented work.” And from the 1920s!)

There were other sources of pain stirring in me, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I tend to forget that much of Ontario is haunted for me. Shadowlands. I can face memories from a story that ended badly when I’m prepared for them—but in Ontario it was always too easy to be struck out of nowhere. Between the Hamilton and Ottawa shows, riding into our lakeside resort in Algonquin Park, I saw a sign for the summer camp that Selena had gone to in her teens, and where we had visited her. It didn’t hit me immediately, but later, sitting alone by Little Joe Lake, it beat me up pretty bad.

The band had recently been overseeing a remixed version of our Vapor Trails album, from 2002, as we had never been happy with how it turned out. I found that trying to listen to those songs again was too upsetting, taking me back to a mindset and emotional state that hadn’t been good to live through then, or to relive now. I had to “recuse” myself from those judgments, and the Guys at Work understood, of course.

Floating in the lake of Mac 18, I looked around at the wooded shore of pines, tamaracks, and black spruce—perhaps the signature tree of Canada’s Atlantic Provinces, with a uniquely pungent smell from rural chimneys. I thought about trees and their growth rings—how botanists can retrace the annual history of what a given tree has experienced and endured in its entire lifetime. Dry years, wet years, insect infestations, maybe the scattered wildfire or lightning strike, all printed in the growth rings.

It occurs to me that we humans have our growth rings, too, and like even the mightiest old tree, the heartwood retains the memory of being a fragile little sapling.

But we don’t dwell in those times, or in those Shadowlands.

We live on days like these . . .

Quebec Scenic Route