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Joseph, The Rockies, and the Desert

A Story about a Band, a Hitchhiker, and a Long Journey

Our beloved bus, Bonda.

I woke up on the top bunk, hungover, smelling to high heaven and in desperate need of a shower. I rolled off the bunk and began digging around to find my tooth brush, which was, of course, nowhere to be found. There were beer cans strewn across the floor of the bus as well as two dirty pans from a chili we’d made the night before. That Walmart parking lot had very quickly become our home for the night. The chili was vile. It was our third day on the road at that point and we had yet to play a single show. Money was tight and so we found a Walmart just south of a bend in the Mississippi river in western Illinois and found the cheapest canned chili and pre-cooked rice that they sold. It was a solid gel with a very striking resemblance to dog food that I had to shake profusely just to get out of the can.

While Sacha and I were in the Walmart, Liam ran to find the cheapest beer he could find so we could get drunk enough to stomach the dog food we were about to ingest. Needless to say, a great night was had, drinking beer and eating god awful slop in that Walmart parking lot. The next morning, as I awoke, came a chorus of groans and grunts as our last night's “meal” made itself known in our lower intestines. Liam drove and I sat up front with my head as close to the small sliding windows as I could just to breathe in some fresh air. The van didn’t smell very good…for obvious reasons.

Within minutes we were crossing the vast and gorgeous Mississippi river into the state of Iowa. In Davenport, we found a gas station and filled up on coffee, diesel, and air. Our bus has a duel back axel and in order to stop the chassis from smashing against the wheels, we had to inflate two airbags to elevate the body of the bus. Many years ago, when the bus was brand new, to inflate them the driver would simply flip a switch near the dashboard and they would inflate up to the correct pressure. However, that was in 1993 and 24 years later our dear bus no longer had that capability. Two or three times a day one of us would find ourselves under the chassis of the bus on the back of a skateboard inflating the airbags to a level that seemed reasonable, hoping that we didn’t over inflate them, further hoping that one of us wouldn’t end up getting crushed by the bus in a bloody, mangled mess.

Originally we were told when we bought the bus to fill up these airbags every 2–3 days. We found ourselves doing it two or three times a day as, of course, there was a leak. It wasn’t for another 4000 miles or so that I discovered a simple $5 solution for our airbag leak which thankfully put an end to that. Our oil also leaked along a crack in the oil pan gasket. Stopping for gas, as a result of all the aforementioned ailments, was never just stopping for gas. After about 25 minutes and a lengthy explanation to a local kid that “No dude, I’m sorry I can't buy you Bud Light and cigarettes”, we were back on the highway. In dire need of showers, we were all keeping an eye out for a truck stop of sorts. Not even 20 minutes later, we saw the world's largest truck stop. Literally. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Or any of us had seen; it may as well have been its own miniature municipality, more of a town than a truck stop. This was America as I’d imagined it as a kid growing up. Fields of corn, truckers, and the allure and freedom of the open road.

We piled out, headed inside in search of showers. To our bitter disappointment, Nicole and Liam discovered that they were $13 each which was about $12 out of each of our budgets. Nicole thanked the clerk and said that we couldn’t afford to spend $13 each and we’d probably keep going. Incredibly, the lady at the desk felt sorry for us and said: “You can shower for free.” Nicole then informed her that there were six of us. 

“…like a couple?” She asked. Thankfully, the six of us didn’t have to shower together and each of us was given a separate token to access the showers. As soon as I got to my designated shower, I realized why they cost $13 and how goddamn lucky we were to get them for free. They were incredible. Each shower was in a private bathroom with fresh towels, a choice of shower gels and soaps and the hottest, highest pressure power shower I’ve ever had. After each use, the room gets sanitized and steam cleaned automatically. It was nicer and cleaner than my bathroom at home and arguably nicer than any hotel bathroom I’d been in before.

Feeling like a million bucks, I left the showers and wandered through the truckstop, past the chiropractor, massage therapy centre, movie theatre, dentist, and then, right before I went back downstairs to the bus, I walked past a prayer room. As I walked past, I heard a voice say “Hey man, you driving out west?” 

I turned around to see a guy sitting quietly in the prayer room and he was talking to me. “Yeah, I am, man,” I replied. 

“Can I come with you? I’m trying to get to California.” Slightly taken aback, I paused for a moment. My immediate reaction was to say, “Fuck yeah, dude. Let’s go.” I’ve hitchhiked many times before and I’ve spent hours stuck on the side of the road or at truck stops. I told him, that I’d love to but I’d have to check with the guys first. I told him to wait there and I’d go ask. 

“His name’s Joseph and he told me that he’d walked here from Gary, Indiana,” I told my bandmates. “He’s trying to get out west, d’you think we should give him a ride?” Everyone was down and I went to tell Joseph the good news. Joseph is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. My first thoughts were, well, he’s a black guy, he was also wearing a turban and a DIY Indian Sherwani and I had a feeling, judging by the amount of Trump memorabilia I’d seen around, that not many people would be willing to drive Joseph to where he needed to go. I later found out that Joseph had been stuck there for three days and had been sleeping in the prayer room. In the spirit of good karma and paying it forward, etc., Joseph hopped aboard the bus and we sped off down the highway again, headed west toward Nebraska.

Our first stop was Boulder, Colorado. I naively thought we’d be in Boulder by the end of the day and Joseph told me he would stay with a friend he had there. Of course, we had to stop multiple times to fill up air, put diesel in the tank, top up on oil, get coffee, pull over in a huge rain storm etc., so we were way behind schedule. By 11 PM or so, I was pretty miserable. Being on the road for three days straight, eating and sleeping out of that vehicle with only a few intermittent stops was seriously getting to us all. The rain was absolutely pissing it down and the roof of the bus was leaking. We were all nearly completely out of money and were hungry. The showers of that morning felt like a distant memory and we started to smell again. I made a pitiful can of chicken soup on the electric stove in the van and tried to get some sleep as Karl took over for a night stretch of driving. Slowly, with some warm soup and a cold beer in me, I drifted off to sleep.

I woke up again at about 3 AM to the abrupt sound of the engine turning off. “My bruv, we’re in Colorado. Look at the stars.” 

I pulled myself off the bench seat and stepped out of the bus. “Where the hell are we?” I asked looking around. 

“We came off the highway to get gas because we’re nearly out but the gas station is closed until morning so we’re gonna stay here for the night.” As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to see that we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It really looked like a ghost town. On the water tower, I could make out that we were in the hamlet of Crook, population 109.

In the morning, in the light of day I could see that we were parked up behind a row of huge corn silos; on one side of them was a single road, a few abandoned houses and a gas station and on our side was our bus, a railroad track and then miles of nothing as far as the eye could see. The gas station opened and we piled in to use their washroom to brush our teeth. The little old lady who ran the place couldn’t believe her eyes as we walked through the door. She told me she’d lived in Crook her whole life and seldom saw strangers come through town, let alone a bus with a band from Ontario accompanied by a turban wearing hitchhiker. We took a side road for about 50 miles across the planes of north eastern Colorado. It was flat as a pancake until we rejoined the main interstate. Within about five minutes on the interstate, we started going up and down some really small hills. Up and down, up and down. The landscape was so barren and the grass on the side of the highway was thick. After an hour, as we crested yet another tiny hill, lay before us one of the most beautiful sights we had ever seen: The Rocky Mountains. They towered above us in the distance, jagged, snow peaked and absolutely breathtaking. Then we saw Denver, a city that appeared in the middle of a vast expanse of nothingness, nestled at the foothills of the Rockies. We were all so stoked, whooping and cheering at the sight of the mountains after thousands of miles of midwestern flat.

Spirits were high as we arrived in Boulder. We were all so incredibly happy to be out of the bus. As it happened, the 12 hours we were there turned out to be the longest time we were out of the bus on our six-day journey from Kingston via Vermont to Los Angeles. A glorious afternoon was had busking on Pearl Street in Boulder and soaking up the beautiful scenery. We made some much-needed cash, ate a hot meal, had coffee, and even bought some beer. The people in Boulder are special. Everyone is kind, friendly, and relaxed. No one seemed to be in a rush to get anywhere or to do something. People there would walk slowly, looking up and around rather than at their feet or glued to their phones. It was so refreshing; maybe it's the mountain air…or y’know, something else.

Touring is very often a grueling slog. It’s also the most fun imaginable. One thing I’ve found in my musical career is that the highs are so intensely high, the lows feel so much lower. On the road as a band you can be on top of the world one minute and the next, feeling like you want to curl up into a ball and die. It’s mentally and physically exhausting, unpredictable, and a real rollercoaster of emotions. Being an indie band, very often the only people you can rely on while you're on the road is your bandmates and, if you’re lucky, the kindness strangers. When your van brakes down, or one of you gets sick, or something bad happens, nine times out of ten, in my experience at least, you’re on your own and you have no one to come to your aid. This is what happened just outside of Boulder. We’d really been working our poor bus very hard, driving for 12 hours or more a day for almost four days. We left Kingston a week later than planned as she needed some pretty extensive repairs in order to be road worthy. Being a week late into the tour meant that we had to pull the plug on a number of great shows we had booked and drive straight to Los Angeles for our album release on May 25. When we finally left the mechanic he warned us that the radiator wasn’t great and could use a replacement soon so keep an eye on that temperature gage. “If it over heats, pull over or you’ll blow the engine.”

We left Boulder with a full tank of gas, a few bags of groceries, and some cold beer and got ready to make the final 1,000 miles to Los Angeles. The scenery was breath taking, I drove in awe of my surroundings through small roads that lead us through valleys between the mountains. We joined I-70 and things started going wrong very quickly. The highway was incredibly steep, the speed limit was 80 mph and I couldn’t get poor Bonda (the bus) to go faster than about 15 miles per hour. It was terrifying. Huge transport trucks sped past us going full tilt up the mountain as we inched forward, hazard lights on, crawling up the hard shoulder. All of a sudden, smoke started billowing out from under the hood and I pulled over as fast as I could. There was no shoulder at this point and I started freaking out. I was convinced it would burst into flames at any second and we’d all die. I couldn’t help but think of the full tank of diesel we’d just put in about 20 miles prior. Terrified, we all bailed out and popped the hood. 

I noticed at this point that we weren’t properly on the shoulder and for some stupid reason, there were plastic dividers every 20 feet or so between the highway and the shoulder! They were about four feet high and were bolted to a pivot on the concrete, so they could, in theory, move should a car go slamming into it at 80 mph. Our bus was gonna kill someone if we didn’t get it off the road. Realizing that our bus is 28 feet long and the weird plastic divider things were about 20 feet apart, I knew that with the way we’d pulled over so hastily and with such a terrible turn radius AND having to back up the damn thing ON A FUCKING MOUNTAIN that I wouldn’t fit between one without running it over. 

So I did what every calm and sane person would have done in a situation such as this… I grabbed a hammer and destroyed the fucking thing, ripped it out of the ground and threw it out the way. Then with the van still smoking and probably on the brink of explosion, I jumped in the van, put it in neutral, closed my eyes, and started backing the van off the highway between the gap I’d created and onto a spacious part of the hard shoulder. It was terrifying. I was certain that at any second the van would explode and I’d die in a fiery mess. Luckily I did not. We let the van cool down and tried to figure out our next steps. Upon further investigation it appeared that the radiator had got so hot that the coolant had bubbled over into a reservoir which then got so hot that it started to melt the (supposedly) fire resistant coating of the underside of the hood. 

I figured we were done for. The serenity of the the mountain air no longer applied and my stress levels were through the roof. We called AAA and, even with our premium membership, they refused to help us claiming that they “were not an emergency service” but would very happily put us in touch with some private towing contractors. Thanks guys. I found a Walmart on Google maps about ten miles up the mountain in a town called Frisco. It’s the highest Walmart in the world: over 9,000 feet above sea level. I figured if we could just get a tow to there we could figure out our next steps, get any fluids we need, and hopefully keep going. Using the little knowledge of vehicles I have, I knew the engine was miraculously still in tact and figured that we had probably burnt off the coolant or...something?

While Liam and I freaked out and tried to negotiate with the useless people at AAA, Sacha began cooking a stir-fry on the side of the highway. Tensions were high but Joseph just sat in the van and chilled the fuck out. How someone could remain so calm in a situation like that is beyond me. I wasn’t just worried that the vehicle was buggered, I was concerned for our safety. It was getting dark, very cold, and visibility wasn’t great. After a while, our hazard lights would go out because our battery couldn’t go on all night and we would be absolutely buggered. Eventually, I gave up freaking out and sat on the gravel and ate a bowl of Sacha’s stir fry. It's incredible what a warm meal does for moral. I instantly felt better, no longer on the brink of a nervous breakdown and started joking around. 

“Y’know, you guys. The beers we have here are pretty strong, so hear me out. We get nice and drunk, get in the bus, put her in neutral, and just roll off the side of this mountain. It’ll put us all out of our misery and be a GREAT career move.” We all laughed. After about four hours, I managed to flag down a car. Two gentlemen popped out and agreed to drive me and Karl to the Walmart. Quentin and Derek were really nice dudes who were headed home after an evening in Denver. They drove us to the Walmart and Karl and I ran in about four minutes before they closed. We bought coolant, oil, radiator block seal, and something else and started to figure out how the hell we were gonna get back down. Quentin and Derek, instead of driving on home, had waited for us outside and drove us back ten miles down the highway to the bus. 

“It just gets worse,” Quentin told me. “And once you get to Utah there’s more of it and you won't see a single gas station for 100 miles in some parts. Your best bet is to turn round and go down through New Mexico.” Back at the bus, the radiator had finally cooled down to a point that we could take the cap off and top it up. I poured the coolant in, a lot of it...we had a leak, followed by the block seal. Nervously we piled back into the bus and I told everyone to hold onto something. Henry was lying on the floor, clinging to it for dear life. The engine spluttered into life and I put her in drive. We inched forward for the longest, most painfully slow mile of our lives until we reached the next exit. We came off the highway, turned around, and hurtled down the mountain to flat land. Everyone at that point burst into a round of applause, whooping and cheering. 

“Guys, I think we’re gonna make it!” Followed by a chorus of, “Fuck you, Triple A.”

I drove until the early hours of the morning, trying to catch up with the lost hours on the side of the mountain. We HAD to be in LA by Thursday afternoon at the latest or all of this, all the months of planning and all the hard work, would be useless. A brief and uncomfortable night’s sleep in a truck stop parking lot in Pueblo, followed by an early morning, and we were off towards New Mexico. If this all seems a bit monotonous (drive, get gas, sleep, repeat) it’s because it was. However, this morning was the first day on the journey that I felt like we were finally getting closer to the west coast. The landscape opened up and we tore across southern Colorado. I then knew why people for centuries have told tall tales of the enchantment of the American South West. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen or experienced: the landscape is so bold and almost moving; as I drove across a vast floodplain with the mountains in the distance and wide open space as far as the eye could see, I got an overwhelming sense of everything that I’d ever been worried about was now totally insignificant. I was able to put everything out of my mind and just revel at the sheer, indescribable beauty of my surroundings.

After an oil change in Trinidad, Colorado, the lovely guys at the mechanic told us that we have one more big pass to get through and then it’s mostly flat down to the west coast. We crawled again, slowly up through the mountain pass, with great towering mountains to our left and a deep gauge with burnt out trees to the right off the shoulder. Eventually, we crested the hill without breaking down and began descending. Up ahead was a sign the read, “Welcome To New Mexico. Land Of Enchantment.” Never a truer word has been used to describe New Mexico, it is indeed the most enchanting place I’ve ever been to. I got the overwhelming to desire to listen to two songs and two songs only: Bruce Springsteen, “Land of hope and Dreams” and CCR, “Fortunate Son.” 

I tore across the plains as they slowly became more and more barren and more and more desert looking, singing Springsteen and CCR at the top of my lungs. This was it. This was everything I’d ever dreamed of doing as a teenager. If, at 17 someone came up to me and said, in five years time, you’re gonna be driving a bus across the New Mexico desert, on tour with your band, en route to play a show in Hollywood, I would have never believed them. It was everything, EVERYTHING I’d ever dreamt of doing. New Mexico was hot, drastic, colourful, and beautiful. I wanted to keep driving but the band all insisted that someone take over. I’d been driving since the breakdown on the mountain the following evening with not much in way of sleep. Liam took over and I tried desperately to finish mixing and mastering the album that we were set to release the next day in Hollywood. I can now say that my band's debut album was mixed and mastered in Liam’s bedroom, my bedroom, on a bus somewhere in New Mexico, and at a Dunkin Donuts in Arizona. We had Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography as an audiobook and as the sun started to set, Liam and I sat up front, driving into the setting sun listening to the chapter in which Springsteen described his first trip out through to desert to the west coast. It was very fitting indeed, and so inspiring. It was the longest most beautiful sunset I’d ever seen, it seemed to be totally suspended in the sky, refusing to dip below the horizon the closer we got to it.

New Mexico turned into Arizona and before long I was fast asleep. For the final push, we were taking shifts and not stopping. One person and a co-pilot would drive and after four or five hours, they’d switch out and get some sleep. At about 5 AM, I woke up to see the sun rising above the Mojave Desert, California. Somehow, miraculously, we’d driven our 1993 Ford E350 across the United States in six days. At so many points leading up to this tour, it looked like it would all fall through and months of planning and thousands of dollars that we didn’t really have would have all gone to waste. Waking up in the back of the bus, trundling across the desert, I knew that it was all worth it. Every last second.

After our final stop for gas before Los Angeles, we set about finding a place to drop off Joseph. He’d been travelling with us for over four days by this point. We needed to do us and he needed to do him. He told me he was going to Northern Cali to work on a farm for a while and didn’t want to be in Los Angeles. After that, he told me he was going to sail to Nepal... Yes. Sail to Nepal. I looked up on the maps and found a gas station/truck stop/rest area near San Bernardino that would yield a lot of traffic where he could then find a ride north without heading into the city. Time wasn’t on our side as much as I’d have liked to drop him off at a more convenient location for him; we couldn’t go out of our way. It was blisteringly hot in the desert and he suggested a place sooner than San Bernardino. It could have worked better for us, but I also didn’t want him to die. It was close to 100 Fahrenheit and only 9 AM, he’d have no shade and little water. Judging by how long he’d spent stranded before we picked him up, I didn’t want that to happen to him in a place where he could easily die of exposure.

Eventually, we started our descent to sea level for the first time in about three days. Little did I know we’d been 3–4,000 thousand feet above sea level for about 1,500 miles. At the bottom of the steep mountain pass, we came to the rest area. I ran inside to use the bathroom and to connect to the wifi. By the time I came out, I saw Joseph walk across the truck stop and disappear out of view. I wanted to say goodbye, exchange contact details and touch base with him from time to time. But he was long gone. He had a journey to complete and we had a rock and roll show to play.

A few pictures from along the way!

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