An Ode: Standing on the Shoulder of an Oklahoma Turnpike
[Originally published December 2011]
Sometime in the spring of 2003, I had adopted my habit of wearing a wife-beater under my t-shirts. That summer, after my freshman year of college, I found myself in a Days Inn bathroom in O’Fallon, Missouri, a western suburb of St. Louis, undressed as far down as my white wife-beater when I noticed a big, red stain on the front of it. It was blood, and lots of it.
I peeled off the undershirt and found a red geyser where my navel had been. Blood trickled downward and seeped into the fabric of my cargo shorts. The smell of infection filled the tiny bathroom.
My four road tripping companions were sitting on the beds in the room, watching “Ice Age” on late-night TV. We had just come from Denny’s, across the parking lot, where we put away Grand Slams and greasy meats as if we were breaking a religious fast. When we got back to the room, I called first dibs on the shower.
Earlier that night, we’d been been at a show 270 miles east in Louisville, Kentucky. One of my all-time favorite bands, Thursday, were doing a summer tour to build momentum for their second full-length release, and their show in Louisville was straight-up in an arcade.
Thursday shows are intense. The band emerged from the New Jersey hardcore scene in 1997 and brought with it the same sense of devotion and the same blood-and-guts live performances any hardcore scene worth its salt fosters. We fans must bring that same commitment to our side of the stage, and Thursday shows always turn into a big sweaty, heaving mass of bodies, pumping fists if anyone can find room. I always brought a clean shirt to change into after shows back in those days.
A group of 10 of us had driven up from our hometown for the Louisville show, and after Thursday’s set, a couple of us — hoarse, dehydrated, and drenched in the sweat of every other person in the room — struck up a conversation with members of the opening band, Murder By Death, whom we’d never heard before that night but absolutely blew the crowd away. They told us we should come check out the next day’s show in Columbia, Missouri. They’d put us on the guest list.
Magical golden doors opened before our eyes. Guest list? We had been granted access to The Dream.
Half of our crew — myself, three dudes and a dude’s girlfriend — were in, no questions asked. We phoned home to say we wouldn’t be coming back that night and piled into my friend Brad’s Ford Taurus. He balled that thing at 100 miles per hour toward the Mississippi River, and we were in St. Louis by 4 a.m.
I didn’t change into my clean shirt because I knew I would need it for the next night. My doctor later said the four hours en route to Missouri in that sweat-covered shirt probably allowed some kind of germ to fester and infect my navel.
Back in the bathroom, I found a bottle of Listerine and poured it over my stomach, hoping to disinfect whatever was going on down there. It did the trick, or at least it bought me time ’til the morning, when I could go find some antibacterial ointment. I showered off and emerged from the bathroom smelling curiously strong of mouthwash. By then, it was almost 6 a.m., and we only had a few hours for sleeping before checkout and our drive onward down I-70 into Columbia.
News broke on Facebook last week that Thursday were calling it quits after 14 years. It’s a bummer for fans, yeah, but I understand. Fourteen years is a long time for a group of people to play music together. I imagine that once a guy hits 30 and the hairline starts to go, it becomes harder to summon the same fire that made him as a teenager want to play hardcore music.
That’s not to say the music itself has suffered. Their “No Devolucion” record, released earlier this year, is as inspired as any record Thursday have put out. But they also just did a tour to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their “Full Collapse” record. When the band that was so a part of your formative years starts dabbling in nostalgia, it’s probably your cue to do some reflecting yourself.
That’s what this is. This is a reflection, and it’s dedicated to the band that provided the soundtrack for what became the first of many great adventures in my life so far.
The Taurus’ right rear tire blew out with a mighty ka-THUMP just outside of Vinita, Oklahoma, (home of Gene Autry and Dr. Phil) as we barreled through tight midday traffic. I-44 was a mess of construction, and we were in the left lane when the tire blew. The pop triggered a killswitch near the gas tank that was designed to prevent an explosion in the event of a collision. We wobbled to a stop at the concrete barrier in the median.
The shoulder was about a foot too narrow for the car, and because none of us knew about the car’s killswitch, we were stuck precariously with passing cars having to crowd trucks in the right lane to avoid us.
Luckily, an Oklahoma state trooper with a Sooners blanket draped across the back seat and a massive cattle guard on his front bumper arrived. Brad put the Taurus in neutral, and the officer pushed us across the highway to the right shoulder.
As any cop might, he had more than a few questions for us. What were a bunch of haggard-looking 19 year olds from Kentucky doing in northeast Oklahoma? We told him how we’d been in Columbia the night before and been guest-listed again for that night’s show in Tulsa and how we were cutting a big, magnificent swath through the Ozarks in search of adventure.
He was impressed. The word he used, I think, was “admired.”
The officer knew his way around a Ford and helped us get the thing started up again. We put on the spare tire, which was enough to get us to Tulsa, and were on our way.
Somewhere in sprawling Tulsa, we found a tire shop, where some locals were discussing a group of Democratic Texas legislators who had recently fled to Oklahoma in protest of some carrying-on or another down in Austin. The whole thing was cowardly, they agreed.
The mechanic himself was a friendly guy, and he perked up when we told him we were from Kentucky. He told us stories of how he used to spend summers in Burnside (the next town south of us) as a kid, swimming in the lake and chasing the local girls. At the time, I couldn’t appreciate this coincidence. I was far too concerned with going, going, going forward for any thoughts of home to resonate.
That night, at a venue called The Other Side, Murder By Death gave us a shout-out before playing “Killbot 2000.”
I was having a look at the schedule for what has become Thursday’s farewell tour, and I saw that they’re playing Cincinnati tonight and Chicago tomorrow. I felt a pang of sadness when I read that. In other circumstances, I would be at one if not both of those shows.
The Chicago show is at the Bottom Lounge, the last place I saw Thursday play. The turnout for that show was pretty weak, and my friend Matt — who was also in that Taurus — and I were feeling a bit too old to thrash with the kids near the front of the stage. We hung back, PBRs in hand.
I don’t want that to be my last Thursday show. I still need to see “Turnpike Divides,” a song off the new record, played live. I know my friend Jereme, who was also in that Taurus, is at the show in Cincinnati tonight, and I’m jealous.
We bid Brad farewell at the Tulsa Greyhound station. The rest of us had jobs (we hoped) and angry parents to get home to, but he wasn’t done.
The bus ride from Tulsa to London, Kentucky, via Indianapolis somehow, was 36 hours long. By the time we got to Indy, the four of us were absolutely ravenously hungry, and in the 20-minute layover, we found a White Castle and ordered two dozen miniburgers. Mystery meat never tasted so good.
In Frankfort, Illinois, a short man with a curly, red beard got on the bus and sat directly in front of us. We didn’t think anything of him until he turned around with his hand puppet. He performed a mumbled rendition of “Jesus Loves the Little Children” through the puppet, then turned back around.
We were delirious. Three days of haggard living and three nights of shows, plus the belly full of White Castle, had completely altered our understanding of reality. In fact, I don’t even remember getting home. I think Matt’s dad picked us up at the bus station. At home, I got some stern looks walking through the door. Jumping in a car and heading for Tulsa was not my parents’ idea of how I should spend my summers.
A couple of days later, I gave Brad a call to see where the journey had taken him. He had gotten speeding tickets in three states in three days, but the states’ databases did not update every day, and he never got his license suspended for it. In Iowa City, he ended up in a drinking contest with Thursday’s drummer plus the members of Cursive. After the show in Madison, Wisconsin, he drove that beat-up Taurus back home, a solid thousand dollars poorer just from the speeding tickets and new tire.
Over the years, the mileage Brad and I put in by ourselves to catch Thursday shows added up. By 2006, we had surpassed the round-the-world mark. Other adventures soon called. California, Guatemala, Sweden. Nowhere seemed far away anymore. And all it took was a simple invite from a band on tour to shrink our worlds down to a manageable size.
How to Introduce Yourself When Traveling
When I was studying in Sweden, our university had a sizable contingent of foreign-exchange undergraduates from one of California’s state schools.
I didn’t meet many of them, but one day, a friend from France remarked to me just how arrogant they were. This surprised me, and I asked what made them so arrogant.
“Because they always say, ‘I’m from California.’ Not the United States, but California.”
Assuming preferential status for the Golden State somehow rubbed this guy the wrong way. Looking back, I see he had a point. Sure, California is home to more than 35 million people and has one of the 10 largest economies on the planet, but “Californian” does not supersede “from the United States” in a person’s identity.
Wait until the landmass breaks off into the Pacific and you form a uniquely identifiable culture, Californians. Then you can introduce yourself as being from California when traveling abroad.
Introducing Yourself While Traveling
Introducing yourself seems incredibly basic, like a topic for Being Human 101. However, after traveling for long enough and after meeting enough people, you will understand that experience, culture and circumstance create so many permutations of self-identity that even a simple, “Hello, my name is …” can shake your worldview.
Hello, my name is Eric, and I’m from the United States, from a small town in Kentucky.
This is my standard introduction, and it works perfectly 99% of the time because it offers neither too much nor too little information. My introduction has two elements: A name by which you can call me, and where I am from. Let’s break down the two elements of an introduction to see all the strange ways your first encounter with someone new can get turned on its head.
I offer only my first name as an introduction for the sake of brevity and so no one feels compelled to use a [First Name][Surname] format in conversation. It’s nice to save people three syllables when you can.
In much of Scandinavia, people introduce themselves with just their first names, regardless of age or whether they’ve earned a title (Dr., Professor, Mrs., etc.). This, to me, suggests a preference for pure equality among people, and I plan to continue offering anyone I meet an invitation for a first-name basis because of the equality it suggests, even if by chance I’m knighted somewhere someday.
Pay careful attention to the name others use when introducing themselves to you. It may be unclear whether a two-syllable sound represents a first name and a surname, a name and a title, or just a simple nickname. Also, encountering names that feature a brand-new arrangement of sounds can mess with your brain. I am in Latvia now, and half of the people I meet have names with no English equivalent.
To further complicate things, our names are hard-wired into our identities and our native accents, so most of us pronounce our names through our native tongues.
It’s cool. Just take it slowly and have the person spell out his or her name if need be. It is important to get the name thing right because of its hard-wiring into our human circuitry. Plus, people always appreciate your making an effort to really understand them.
Where We Are From
You need to identify with a geographical location on someone’s mental globe for the introduction to be full and complete.
Please note, unless you are from London, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, New York City, Monaco, Gibraltar or the Vatican City, you should identify yourself by your nation of origin. Those 12 cities are either city-states or can lay claim to having a sufficiently unique image that supersedes the surrounding nation.
Also, please no fudging with suburbs and exurbs. If you’re from Yonkers, you have to say you’re from the United States. If pressed further, you can say your city is near New York City.
If you are from the United States, be careful about saying you are simply “an American.” This does not differentiate you from Canadians or Bolivians.
If you are from a nation that has a clear identity, such as Argentina or China, you can then feel free to be more specific about your city or region.
If you are from a nation that is not fully recognized as a sovereign state by all countries, such as Palestine or Kosovo, identifying your place of birth is not a political statement, and you should feel free to educate us about your home.
If you identify yourself as being from a nation that no one else recognizes as a sovereign state, such as Transnistria or the Basque country, your identity does become political speech at that point. Your story will get no protests from me, but it will from someone somewhere.
And if you are from a small nation with no more than a couple of million people, you might need to break out a map for some of us. Case in point:
I was on a train from Prague to Krakow a few years ago and shared a car with five Erasmus students, one of whom had a Maltese passport. She told me her country’s diminutive profile almost got her into trouble one day in Hong Kong.
She had lost her Hong Kong bank card and arrived at the bank at 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday to apply for a new one. The bank clerks were mentally checking out for their weekend and moving slowly. When someone finally saw her, they asked for a passport as proof of identity. She handed over her Maltese passport.
The bank clerk snorted at the document and suggested that if she wanted to defraud the bank with a fake passport, she should at least copy one from an actual country.
The girl appealed to the bank’s management, apoplectic that the bank would not recognize her country of origin. As luck would have it, one of the bank’s managers had a big thing for Orlando Bloom, who had just recently finished shooting the movie “Troy” in Malta. She confirmed that Malta is, in fact, a country, and the girl was issued a new bank card.
Who Are You?
I imagine my oversimplification of geopolitics might stir up some trouble. That’s fine. We’re all here to learn. My name is Eric, and I’m from the United States, from a small town in Kentucky.
How to Budget for Long-Term Travel
I make the case to anyone who will listen that travel can be inexpensive. Let me break down some numbers to show what I really mean by “inexpensive.”
A big caveat: I’m basing these numbers entirely on my own experiences. Those experiences thus far have taken place entirely within the Western World (North America and Europe) and Costa Rica. Your experiences will certainly be different given your tastes, your destinations, etc. The important thing to take away from this post is how to calculate expenses and create your own budget in light of your own needs and wants.
You Have to Write Down a Budget
As impulsive as long-term travel allows you to be, you must first plan out your expenses to the best of your estimations and set a spending limit. This is absolutely crucial. Once you see your budget and your numbers in front of you, you must have the discipline to stick to that budget.
Sounds boring, right? Believe me: Doing this before traveling pays off.
Creating Your Budget
I break my expenses into two categories: Day-to-day expenses (food, accommodation, telecommunication, ATM fees), and one-off expenses (airfare, healthcare, public-urination fines).
The One-Off Expenses
You can plan for many of your one-off expenses such as airfare. If you’ve created a route for your travel, or if you’ve bought an around-the-world plane ticket, you can simply pencil in that number. Leave a reserve of cash in your account — or wherever you keep money — for trips to the hospital, a replacement of clothing, emergency flights back home, bribes at the Transnistrian border, gifts or any other incidental expense. Obviously, you cannot plan for illness or emergencies, so the reserves in that account will depend a bit on your acceptance of risk.
I’ve found it best to calculate my day-to-day expenses by either day or by week. As an example, when I first arrived in Riga in 2011, I took out 50 Lats (about $100) every Monday, and that was my spending money for food, drinks and intercity train fares. That breaks down to 7 Lats ($14) per day, which is very doable in Latvia, and about 200 Lats ($400) per month.
If you stay in one particular region with a uniform-ish standard of living (such as the EU), then you can imagine your day-to-day expenses will not change much.
Backpacking in Europe
Throughout Europe, the day-to-day expenses remain relatively static whether you’re moving on every few days or staying where you are. Of course, $14 gets me a lot more in Riga than it would in Oslo, but the budgeting process doesn’t change. It only requires you account for a country’s expensiveness.
Traveling from city to city, though, needs to be factored in, and this depends on the route and method of travel. If you are planning a trip, calculate the cost of transportation among your destinations, and put that number under your one-off costs.
Outside of Europe
By global standards, Europe is an expensive continent. Southeast Asia, as a contrasting example, is much cheaper, and day-to-day expenses there are much lower. (That said, the one-off cost of getting there could be expensive.) Dan at The Tropical MBA says, “You can live like a king [in the Philippines] for what you make back home.” By “back home,” he means The West, but just understand that $1,000 per month can make for comfortable living in Bali.
I write all of this to prove that long-term travel is an attainable goal for many people. You can get blissfully lost for a whole year for the price of a Kia. It’s certainly not money to sneeze at, but it also does not exclude those of us not in the jet-set class.