The lights of the carnival drank up the darkness and all the people’s pupils followed suit. Caught in a clash of captivated awe from the locals and magnetic disinterest from the carnies, I’m floating unknown and unnoticed. The local’s eyes remain fixated on each other, stuck in a loop of familiar sentiments and mannerisms, distorted and amplified by a non-stop barrage of overlapping 8-bit melodies coming from the rides. But one carnie’s eyes find mine, while circular screams pulsate from the smeared metal behind his back.
One particularly candid ride operator had a conversation with me, about six inches from my face as we all began strapping ourselves in on a ride called the “Ali Baba.” His red teeth pushed out words I didn’t want to hear, “Listen man, I don’t know what’s going on with this seat, but it’s acting a little funny this week. It should tighten just fine though.”
I feigned concern, knowing that his uneventful, lever-pulling life was punctuated only by these moments of striking fear into the hearts of children. I pulled the harness over my head and decided to take my chances. Right before we left the ground, he reminded us that he’s the one that tightens all of the bolts, and he’s “pretty sure” he did it right. It was a nice touch.
Clarence is a place I never knew existed. After spending about six hours here today, I think one day will be enough.
Our stage tonight is a permanent concrete structure directly in front of two sets of train tracks. The word “bandstand” seems more appropriate here. Shadowed by massive metal silos, it can be found directly across the street from “the bank” and “the restaurant.” Everything there is to do in Clarence outside of home is presented, like something out of a movie set, in one neatly condensed street.
It quickly becomes apparent to us that we are the only entertainment for the night. There are 841 people that live in this town and I’m pretty sure they’re planning on sticking around for both hour long sets.
“It’s ok, people will be walking around a lot, coming in and out”
The crowd was seated and attentive. They came armed with folding chairs and their attention was fixed on us.
Dry claps followed every song, as if the audience had been briefed on proper concert etiquette.
Point Pleasant, West Virginia
George Washington named this place. He surveyed this part of the country over 250 years ago and stood at the spot where the rivers meet and said, “This is a pleasant point.”
I step out of the bus and wonder what carnival we’re at now. I see a stand selling deep-fried Oreos and feel at home.
We’re greeted by two women, both named Darla. The younger of the two Darlas would like to know what we want for dinner so that she can start cooking. I’m praying for anything that’s not the pulled pork/mac & cheese/baked beans combination we’ve been getting served all summer.
“Have you ever had cabbage steak?”
We, of course, say no but that we’d like to try it and whatever else she’d like to make would be fine. Home-cooked meals are a rarity on the road and this woman about to feed us food from her kitchen is a godsend.
It’s hot and miserable like you would expect anywhere in the south to be in July. As I peruse the stands that seem to deep-fry anything remotely edible, I come upon downtown Point Pleasant.
I’m amazingly bored, thumbing through cheap t-shirts with terrible slogans for far too long. I just need to be anywhere that isn’t on the bus - our poor excuse of a converted U-Haul where we sleep every night. It’s 60 feet long with the trailer and has made Alex, Scott, Paul, and I real-life bus drivers, contrary to everyone’s best interest. It’s terrifying when it’s moving and cold and damp when it’s not; the AC units turning heat and humidity outside into dripping condensation inside.
When we drove past the “Welcome to Point Pleasant” sign earlier that day, we unknowingly found ourselves in a tightly compressed capsule of culture. We were thrust into a condensed, overly-colored Atlantis. It's like a level in a video game, an oversimplified, cartoonishly-vivid version of a one-of-a-kind reality.
There’s a story for everything here and a hundred people that want to tell you their version of it.
“You’ve never heard of The Mothman?!”
Most of these stories are relayed to us over burgers, homemade potato salad, and cabbage steak at the American Legion. Real people, telling real stories, transparent with an uncontainable pride in the small town they were born in, grew up in, fell in love in, and raised a family of their own in.
As soon as the show was over we loaded all of our equipment in the back of a pickup truck. We played in an amphitheater at the edge of the Ohio river and the only place we could park our bus was at the top of the hill, opposite the stage, so we needed a truck to get everything down (and then later back up) the hill.
Once the gear was in the trailer and the locks secure, I couldn’t get my damp clothes off quick enough. Remember, it’s West Virginia in late June, and after playing for 75 minutes outside, I felt like I had just come out of the shower with my clothes on.
I pry off my jeans, pull at my cutoff Point Pleasant 2008 State Champs t-shirt as it resists, ardently sliding it’s damp cloth hand against my sticky back. My whole body is sticky and I think about nothing but crossing the finish line of sitting in our overly air-conditioned RV in a tank top and shorts and cracking open another Bud Light. I look in the fridge and all we have is Busch Light. I look at myself in a sleeveless t-shirt I made a couple hours prior and come to accept the fact that the drink matches my outfit.
On to Delaware..
I wake up and know where we are. My body doesn’t want to meet the light yet, so I do my best to ignore the erratic, side-to-side movements as we begin our exodus from Point Pleasant. Our clumsy mechanical dinosaur of a bus saunters and sways as objects from bunks and cabinets take turns making suicidal leaps to the ground. The small objects I ignore, only small blips in the linear cardiogram of my rest; something happening in a dimension separate from the focused calm of my cocoon – a universe at peace, planets and stars suspended in agreement with my two closed eyelids. Then the big bang – the front right tire hits a pothole as we pull into a McDonald’s parking lot and the extra large container of laundry detergent we stored in one of the top cabinets comes crashing down and explodes on the floor. Blue goo coats the steps and now we’re all awake. Everyone sticks their heads out of their bunks to witness the disaster. A cocktail of chaos and curiosity acts as a bus-wide alarm clock.
Today we’re heading to Dewey Beach, Delaware by way of Columbia, Maryland - a charted course that everyone seems to have an opinion about. I don’t think I’ve been to either place and I’ll end up wherever the bus ends up.
We park in a place that looks like a deserted lot and behind a building that clearly no one wants to go to. As it turns out, we accidentally landed ourselves in the backyard of one of the rowdiest beach front bars in Dewey Beach. Lit is an appropriate word to use here.
Dewey (as the locals call it) reminds me of the Jersey shore. It’s overpriced and cheap at the same time, making a valiant effort to coerce traveling land-locked families into paying top dollar for seafood from a state away. The city attempts to mask gaudiness with paper-thin sophistication, but is unable to conceal it’s blue-collar muffin top over the edge of a swimsuit two sizes too small.
Quaint, but surely expensive little wooden houses line every street. It’s not a fancy town, it’s casually worn in; comfortable with and aware of it’s dilapidations. It’s touristy and tacky, but everyone seems to embrace it.
As she turns on the TVs, the bartender informs us that we’ve arrived in the calm before the storm of “Sunday Funday.”
“Everyone goes to brunch and then comes over here to get trashed. Around 2 or 3 this place will be packed.”
We drink and watch a World Cup game over a couple beers. Once we find out that the bar is covering our tab, we let loose. It’s 1pm, Russia just knocked out Spain and I’m ordering my fourth drink, a margarita, because Meg the bartender is treating us with heavy pours and little splashes of orange juice. The Croatia/Denmark game starts and we continue our pattern of sipping and ordering more, but now with a heaping plate of fries sprinkled with Old Bay and a side of cheese sauce.
This is pretty good. I mention to a couple of the guys in the band that we get paid to do what other people do on vacation. Maybe that’s why I don’t enjoy vacations. I like getting paid while I drink and sit in the sun.
This bar was meant for Spring Break. There are giant inflatables being lubricated by unseen misters. I can see the appeal, it’s like a summertime birthday party from 5th grade. The nearly-naked girls that jump on it seem stoked, but I look at the pool of water forming on the giant swan and wonder if it’s ever been cleaned. I know the answer and steer clear, walking further to the water.
Shirtless guys in their 30’s play beer pong like they’ve spent the last ten years since college attempting to find a more captivating activity and with all odds in their favor, haven’t succeeded. It can’t be from a lack of trying. I’m sure they’ve been racking their brains.
We eventually decide that it’s time to go to the beach and start making a dent in the two twelve packs of Corona we picked up at a gas station on the way here. I carry the cheap Styrofoam cooler full of beer down to the beach as it falls apart in my hands, the water from the melting ice inside eroding one edge of the container.
We traverse the sand-layered asphalt like a trail of preschoolers whose teacher gave up and abandoned them. But we continue on and our visibly drunk train of toddlers slowly snakes it’s way to the beach. Once we get there, we're warned by a man throwing away two beer cans that we’re not allowed to have beer on the beach and to be discreet about it.
We got here by way of navigating around the south side of the island of Manhattan and shooting back up directly north towards upstate New York. I didn’t realize until yesterday how big Long Island is. I realized it when it was 5am and Alex, who had been giving me directions from the passenger seat, told me after we passed Manhattan that we only had 49 more miles to go.
Now we’re at a Courtyard Marriott, another one. It’s the 4th of July. It feels heavy for me like it always does.
There are bird calls and nature sounds coming out of the speakers in this lobby and it’s distracting me.
My favorite part of yesterday was opening the window to the RV and watching NYC through the window as we passed. Feeling the warm air from the city blow on my face as we screamed past. At times I could see people below, lining the streets just like the row houses we passed. The cramped, makeshift suburbia of Brooklyn looking uncharacteristically docile.
12 hours prior I was driving us into this mess. My eyes and my brain were focused on keeping our bus and trailer away from guardrails and other trucks shooting down the narrow lanes, with not enough excess brain power to look at the city as well. Luckily, Alex took a picture for me.
It was a nice drive leading up to that – exactly what I wanted. I drove alone for the first two and a half hours out of Delaware and into New Jersey, mostly in silence. No voices, just the noises from the road and ample time for thoughts to evaporate from my mind.
It was 6am when I finally put my head against my pillow and shut the curtain to my bunk. I was hoping no one would wake me up for load in at nine; that the boys would grant me immunity for my service performed in the cabin of the truck.
They did, and I slept until 11:30 when I had to go to the stage and set up my drums for sound check. The finest union stagehands in New York flawlessly offered their services like they always do, letting cymbal stands fall when moving the drum riser on stage and plugging half of the cables into the wrong drum mics.
We walk into Goose Island Brewery looking like a bachelor party going trick-or-treating.
Scott is wearing his granddaddy’s ten-gallon hat, Alex is wearing a grey Kangol and sunburst aviators that fade from yellow to pink, and I’m wearing a NASCAR shirt with the sleeves cut off that I bought/made in Point Pleasant.
After the three of us walk away from the bar, one of the bartenders asks Paul,
“So what’s the deal with you guys?”
Well we’re in a country band currently living at a truck stop near O’Hare and we rented a minivan this morning so we can soak up Chicago for these next three empty days.
After mandatory deep dish from Lou Malnati’s, we head north to the beach where one of Alex’s friends is. I never think of the beach when I think of Chicago, but Lake Michigan is beautiful during the summer time. I wanted to take off my Doc Martens and get in the water with all the other splashing humans, but got a beer from the bar instead.
We walk along a stretch of the lake with a city view. It’s a city I’ve seen before, but not from this angle. Not from the north side, reflected pink on skyscrapers stealing clouds from the horizon.
We take the minivan to Lincoln Park and find the kind of bar where the bartenders wear leather aprons like a character who is about to put a blowtorch to your face in Hostel.
We walk across the street to meet Alex coming out of a head shop and are drawn, like moths to a trap music flame, to a bar next door with a herd of people standing outside.
It was loud as fuck. That was the first indication we were in the right place. Although, due to our county fair attire, I’m sure other people in the bar felt the exact opposite sentiment.
I went to order two Modelos at the bar and the bartender told me it was a $20 minimum. Never heard that one before, but ok beers for everyone.
I felt at home with the bass hitting me deep in my chest. The familiarity of the music washed over me like a cleansing water sweeping away weeks of ingrown sounds from country festivals and fairs. For me, days in the city are like coming up for air.
A row of young men stood directly in front of the DJ booth facing out, nodding their heads and observing the crowd. They all dressed like interchangeable versions of the same Hypebeast Ken doll. Each with a fanny pack wrapped around his shoulder and one article of clothing with a Supreme logo.
We dance for the rest of the night, or just until that point when the group realizes if we don’t go back now, we’re either going to be stuck in the city, crashing on someone’s floor or having to pay for a long uber ride.
I safely park the minivan in front of the truck stop and we walk to the back parking lot where all the trucks are parked.
I fish around in the fridge for leftover pizza while Paul starts vacuuming the carpet. I remind him that it’s almost three in the morning and he doesn’t have to do that now.
I’m grateful that I live with people that obsessively clean on a level I can relate to and I’m grateful that my bed is just a few short stumbles away. I’m grateful we’re all home safe.
I'm a touring drummer. I live in hotels and venues to be on stage for one hour a day. That hour is why I do this and the only part people see. This is a documentation of the other 23 hours.