River Whyless: Band on the Run

An essay series by the bands themselves about adventures on tour

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All Things Must Pass

It was the last night of a 46-show tour and we were in Richmond, Virginia, at a venue called The Yerb, which wasn’t a venue at all but a dilapidated house in whose living room somebody had built a stage where the fireplace should have been. The PA system was old and half-broken, farting out the low notes and missing the highs altogether. Nobody seemed to mind. People pressed against the rim of the stage. They stood in couches and crowded the kitchen and spilled into the hallway and made stadium seating of the staircase and the house grew hot and sweat-fogged and at the end of every song came an eruption of applause so that by mid-set I had slipped into that state of blurred and furious bliss we all so covet and pursue to every corner of the country.

Little Tybee played next. We’d alternated every night and tonight it was Tybee’s turn to “headline,” though it really didn’t matter because we split any money made. I stood watching from the back of the room. Their energy was intense, even after all those shows, and my bliss continued, absorbing the worry that usually accompanies the end of a tour. The concern about money and the future and the questions of what have we accomplished and where do we go from here was forgotten. The unceasing passing and passing and passing was suspended by the shear force and holiness of the moment.

But then the show was over and we began to pack our equipment. We’d done it so many times that it had become a completely thoughtless process. The same late-night, half-buzzed weariness. Slow fade of the onstage high that leaves you feeling scooped-out and lost. We moved around one another like ants in a nest, putting instruments in cases and hefting them down the staircase into the street where Ryan, as always, had climbed up into the back of the van to direct the last of the nightly routines. When all was loaded we piled in and rolled out, our van leading and the Little Tybee rig following. It was three in the morning and six hours to Asheville, North Carolina.

Ryan drove first shift. Dan lay out on the bench seat and Halli and I shared the homemade bunk in the back. We unrolled our sleeping bags head to foot and I was asleep before we hit the interstate. I woke somewhere near Chapel Hill. A faint navy glow seeping out of the east. My turn to drive. I shambled into the gas station and bought a coke, passing on my way in a group of truckers at a picnic table sipping coffee and eating doughnuts and smoking cigarettes while their rigs stood huge against the glowing rim of the horizon.

Soon it was full light. My mirrors consumed by a molten sun exploding behind me to the east. The van chasing its own shadow westward toward the mountains. Ryan was the first to part. He was catching a flight that very morning to California, where he would be staying with his girlfriend (a woman he met on a previous tour) for the duration of our three-week break. He was flying out from Charlotte. The Tybee guys were going to drop him at the airport on their way home to Atlanta. We stopped at a gas station in Statesville to make the switch. Ryan standing among the pumps in nothing but his underwear, rummaging through his suitcase for something halfway clean. People gawking at this ragged partially naked figure dousing himself in deodorant and brushing his teeth with a jug of water. This was also goodbye to Tybee. We hugged, said our farewells.

Now three: Halli, Dan, and I. Dan drove the last leg. I dozed in the back seat. Woke to the sight of mountains filling the window. Pulling into the driveway of Molly’s house (Dan’s girlfriend). She came skip-running out the door. They embraced in the walkway. Halli and I watched from the van, squinting into the bright sun.

Now it was just Halli and me.

“I feel strange,” she said, having climbed up from the back and into the passenger seat. “Almost sick” she said. “But not really. Not physically.”

I nodded. “Me too.”

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I drove to Halli’s grandparent’s house in Asheville. We’d been homeless for over a year, crashing at Papa and Mama Anderson’s house when we weren’t on the road. We got out and removed our bags and staggered inside without a word. It was eleven in the morning and her grandparents were at church. We parted ways in the hallway.

“Goodnight,” she said.

In the shower I took soap to every inch of my skin, turning the water hotter all the time. Afterward I clipped my fingernails and toenails. I flossed and brushed my teeth. I gargled with mouthwash and took Q-tips to my ears. Then I put on a clean pair of underwear and drank a massive glass of water and slid down into the cool sheets of a bed—sweet delicious bed—and put on my headphones and crossed my arms behind my head and closed my eyes.

Chicago you come back in flashes. Did I dream you, or you me? New York, you great and powerful place, are the souls you swallow equal to the ones you set free? Where I sat atop the van with my legs dangling above the street on a Friday night in springtime Manhattan watching the people pass along the sidewalk, the taxis, the busses, the steaming subway grates—so much desire on a single island it breaks my bursting heart. San Francisco, end of the west, I know again your nowhere-left-to-go woes.

I woke to the rumble of thunder. Darkness. Whispering rain, shushing everything into wetness. I got up and opened the window and climbed back in bed again. Stormy smell, cool and fresh. The thunder clapping now, loud and overlapping. I stretched my feet to the end of the bed and pulled the sheets to my chin and watched as trees jumped out in the white light like negatives of the night.

It was raining still when I finally got up and dressed and went out to buy some groceries. Spattering my windshield and hanging like television static in my headlights. The traffic lights bleeding and streaked where they stretched reflected in the shimmering black macadam. A set of headlights coming toward me all lashed and starry without a car at all to connect them to.

I wandered the grocery store. It was ten at night and the place nearly empty. I fondled some tomatoes. I hefted a loaf of bread. I stood in the magazine aisle flipping absently through an issue of Rolling Stone. I paid for my groceries at the only open register.

I made a dinner of tuna fish and raw spinach and sat eating it in silence at a little table in the basement. When I was finished I washed my dish and turned out the light and went to my room.

I laid and listened to the rain. Sometime later I received a text message from Ryan. “Crazy that I just did in three hours what took us three weeks. This morning I was in Charlotte and now here I am on the Pacific. San Francisco. I’m confused by this. Driving seems … more honest.”

“Hope all is well in the West,” I replied. “A strange loneliness I wasn’t expecting. My sadness tonight is for this whole huge country of ours and the way all things must pass.”

Alex McWalters is the percussionist for the Asheville-based band River Whyless, which is currently on tour.

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