The oscillating fan adjacent to my unmade bed hums along heroically, but it’s no match for one of the hottest days of the hottest summer on record in this usually temperate town. Parting the zipper on my bulging, FAA-approved, carry-on-sized suitcase, I pull out items of climatically incongruous clothing — hat, scarf, thermal shirt — which remind me that, despite the suffocating inferno that’s currently being inflicted upon the hapless, air conditioning-bereft citizens of Portland, Oregon, this morning (or was it yesterday morning? Does it still count as today if I haven’t slept since then?) I was literally on the other side of the planet, shivering against the eucalyptus-scented heart of a cold Melbourne winter, where it was raining and in the mid-40s. Unhappily, my favorite jean jacket still smells faintly of the adorable but olfactorily repugnant koala I paid twenty Australian dollars to snuggle last week.
I am profoundly, deeply, nauseatingly jet-lagged, and after five weeks on tour, I am trying to remember how to temporarily re-enter my civilian life.
For the majority of the past six months, I have been on the road, playing guitar and keys and singing backing vocals for Death Cab for Cutie. It’s a busy time for the group — a new record, Kintsugi, came out in April, their first in about four years. This means it’s time for a proper world tour, and in that regard the band’s booking agent has been no slouch — though there are a few breaks here and there, for the most part we’re on the road almost non-stop from mid April until the holidays. And that’s just 2015!
We spent the past three weeks touring Australia after a two-week run through the western U.S., and last night I stumbled through the front door of my Portland home after twenty-six straight hours of either being in a plane or waiting for a plane. I was too out of it to pay much mind to the fact that, after well over a month away, the majority of my houseplants had shuffled off to the great raised bed in the sky (a situation I’ll attribute equally to inadequate housemate communication and this godforsaken heat wave), but on the bright side, both of my cats appear to be alive, though suspiciously eyeing this interloper, their deadbeat dad.
As you might expect, touring with an outfit at this point in its career is a deeply enjoyable, fun-filled, comfortable experience, replete with the bells and whistles and accoutrements one would expect from traveling in a world-class band (a guitar tech, beautiful venues, dressing room riders that are actually fulfilled). It’s a far cry from so many tours that I (as well as Death Cab) have done over the years, driving the van from Des Moines to Oklahoma City to Dallas to Little Rock, to play to twenty people or five people or maybe just the sound guy and the forlorn fellow behind the bar making no tips.
And yet, coming home from both of these kinds of tours feels remarkably the same. It’s if I have spent months aboard the International Space Station, following the mission directive with a hardy band of experts, and have found myself utterly unable to describe my experiences to anybody who wasn’t there. Replying to the query “Dude, how was tour?” is about as easy as elucidating a response to “Dude, what was zero gravity like?”
Forget the space station: I often feel like Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut in Interstellar after he’s experienced the effects of gravitational time dilation: I’ve returned more or less the same age, and everybody back home has gotten a bit older. Not older physically — I’m not fooling anybody with these gray temples that relentlessly expand like a negative-image oil spill across my scalp — but while I was sampling the delicious cheese tray backstage at Conan, my friends advanced another space or two on the Life game board: babies, endless babies are being had (sorry, it’s been four months and I still haven’t met her, I’ve just haven’t been in town!), weddings celebrated (I’m so sorry I missed the big day, I miss everything these days), houses bought (sorry I missed the housewarming party, but here’s some stroopwafels I bought you at a gas station in Holland).
In a wonderful, evocative Talkhouse piece from about a year ago, Jonathan Meiburg from Shearwater stated that “touring means constant motion and constant routine.” On a van tour, that daily routine can be pretty much boiled down thus:
- wake up
- forage for coffee
- drive somewhere between two and nine hours to the next city
- sound check
- forage for food
- play the show
- go to bed
On a bus tour, very happily swap out the “drive” portion with “find something to do in the city in which you’ve just awoken” and, less happily, swap “go to bed” with “attempt to sleep in a tiny bunk in a vehicle traveling seventy miles per hour,” but otherwise you’re still locked into the same schedule.
As you might expect, the bigger the gig, the tighter the ship: with the involvement of bus drivers, crew, and the operating timetable of a large venue, each day is planned out to the minute several days in advance.
Returning home after three, four, six weeks of this schedule, suddenly lacking those built-in mealtimes with built-in buddies to eat those meals with, abruptly absent the gig, that nightly two-hour bundle of nerves and joy and release that looms over each touring day like a small and benevolent black hole, I am often at a loss for what I do with myself.
Over the past few years, when I unexpectedly run into friends at the grocery store, the response has gradually evolved from “Welcome back!” to “Oh, I didn’t realize you were in town!” That’s because I’m not, usually. I’ve become that guy.
I once counted cooking amongst my greatest passions, but having eaten out for the past 165 meals in a row (n.b.: at least 37 of these meals could be classified as “Clif bar” or “some combination of bread and/or pita chips, hummus, and carrots”), I am at a loss for where one even begins. The spice drawer grins at me mockingly, a fragrant reminder of a more domiciliary former existence. Marjoram? What does marjoram even taste like, and when on earth did I cook something requiring it?
My culinary prowess has been reduced to the Sunday grazing habits of a stoned college student. Today I have eaten, in order: a smoothie, a can of tuna, a bowl of cottage cheese and a handful of tortilla chips, though I remain cautiously optimistic that I’ll remember how to scramble some eggs tomorrow morning.
Having worn the same six shirts and two pairs of pants for the past couple of months, I open my closet door and am blinded by the rainbow panorama of options within. I own not one, but two green shirts? Where did all these shoes come from? Is this…a suit? When was the last time I wore one of those?
I’m still picking through my travel bag, foggily attempting to reunite my chosen adventure garb with its temporarily abandoned brethren in the closet. An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and I haven’t stopped: I’m merely in a state of suspended animation. I bury my nose in the sullied jean jacket and breathe in deeply, taking in the musky scent of adventure, the other side of the looking glass. The smell of where I belong, and where, after a couple of weeks in the limbo that, despite everything, I still think of as home, I will once again be.