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God's Country Part I

Photo by Steve Elkins

God's Country (Anecdotes from Hell): Part I

by Steve Elkins

Perhaps deciding to embark on a 5,000 mile tour in 4 days was the single most foolish decision in the history of our band. And it didn't help when we noticed, within hours of our departure in December of 2003, that our van was leaving a perfect Hansel and Gretel trail of oil behind us leading all the way home. The only mechanic we could track down at that hour informed us that it was a very old van that needed special parts not easy to come by. It simply couldn't be fixed on our timeline.

We determined that at the rate the oil was going through the van we would have to stop to replenish it hourly but that we could handle jumping that hurdle if we needed to. If we had known that the next several days would find us driving into the heart of a blizzard in the Rockies (and off a cliff in Wyoming), destroying a gas pump in Reno, performing at a Christmas party for a Mormon corporation that sold a dietary supplement drink, or sharing a stage in Denver with an obese man in a top hat who stripped so the audience could attach dollar bills to his body with a staple gun, we might not have spent that evening loading crates of canned oil into the van.

We knew we had crossed the Texas state line when our Ft. Worth host told us that he knew someone who could "nigger-rig" our vehicle, which we applauded with stunned silence. Given that our schedule required that we never stop driving unless we were at a venue performing, this possibility was never explored...a fact not lost on Dustin and I that night somewhere in the vast expanses of a sub-zero Oklahoma, as we unsuccessfully tried to curl our frozen hands into fists aimed at every deity in humanity's pantheon following our ejection from the cozy womb of our van to empty the contents of yet another can of oil.

Dread had been building as we packed our gear into the van at 2 am after our Colorado show because word had been coming in that a severe blizzard was moving in our direction and would be concentrated over our chosen route through the mountains that night. Someone suggested we consider another route, which would take us well out of our way by blazing a trail north through Wyoming, but would at least allow us to bypass the worst of the storm.

Either we were misinformed or the storm changed course in the night, because as we later found out, the "safe route" sent us right into its epicenter. By the time it hit us, we were at too high of an elevation to change plans. We spent that entire night navigating the switchbacks of the Rockies with a visibility of five feet at a pace under 20 miles an hour. Everyone was delirious from severe sleep deprivation compounded with exhaustion from performing and incessant driving. Certainly no one could sleep now because our tires maintained only a fleeting romance with the road.  We couldn't stop driving either because we would be snowed in with no way to communicate with the outside world. We could only stop long enough to get out once an hour to continue feeding the van its obligatory ration of oil, hoping we would make it back inside before the tires got stuck or the engine gave out.

Matthew, sprawled across a fold out seat in the back waging an impossible war for the spoils of sleep, was probably contemplating the colossal feat of acrobatics it would take to get buckled in by the time we discovered we were sailing down the wrong side of the road, courtesy of black ice, and straight into oncoming traffic.  We glided back to our side of the road and then right off it, launching off a small cliff into knee-deep snow. 

Once we were able to shove the doors open just wide enough to get out, leaving little snow angels' wings around the van, we surveyed the area to assess our options. Our sustained silence pretty much summed it up. Then: "Whooooo-weee! Bravo! That was some fine driving!" Two men and a woman start descending the slope toward us.

My mind immediately embarks on a reverie of previous experiences in this part of the U.S. Easily one of the most beautiful regions of the country, it is nevertheless populated by candidates ripe for a recasting of "Deliverance."

Take one example I experienced year and a half prior: Shelby, Montana.

Shelby consisted of only a few blocks, and the whole town was in the bar. Upon inspecting our unfamiliar vehicle, one local pulled me aside and said, "California plates, huh? Be careful. They'll be watching you like hawks here."

"Why's that," I innocently enquired.

"Well, you see, a pedophile recently moved into town." My brain ransacked its resources to make a connection between California and pedophiles. "He didn't last more than 30 days here."

"Did you kick him out?"

"No," he stared back unflinching. "We killed him."

We learned that the vast majority of the people in Shelby, who were curiously all at the same stage of middle-age, had never left the town except to smuggle guns over the border, which they used their wives to conceal, in order to...well, to shoot things. They boasted having 3 times more guns than any other city in the country, which averaged out to about seven guns per household, and of varieties that would take a bullet proof vest off a cop. It was clear that this stockpile was not viewed as an instrument of self-defence or sport; it was a bastion against the entirety of creation itself. A theological statement. The hunter-gatherer ethos of the male rooted in St. Paul. Manicheans with guns. Throughout Montana, we spotted gun and bear repellant catalogs sporting Bible verses such as "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Just as we were about to bolt, we realized that the only town that wasn't several hours away was a place we had stopped in earlier that day called Sunburst, where the two blocks that comprised the town were riddled with warning posters of new pedophiles-on-the-run that had moved in, kids shooting cans in the street, and one white steepled church which had been converted into the town bar. As soon as we walked through the door, the bartender immediately launched into an unprompted lecture detailing the finer points of how he was NOT gay, which lasted the better part of the afternoon.  While his leather-faced parents stopped in to restock the bar with hard liquor from the grocery store directly across the street and have a couple mid-afternoon shots, he explained how one of his lifelong dreams was to automate his collection of dolls to perform as the house band.

Reminiscing over these events, we decided that maybe Shelby wasn't such a bad place after all. When we opted for the Shelby Motel (whose decor was rather fittingly a Spanish conquistador theme) my new mercenary friend made us promise to say hello to the desk clerk for him, because they had not been on speaking terms since they had run against each other for mayor earlier the same year. That night we made futile attempts to sleep under the gaze of cold light reflected from Spaniards' lances.

So perhaps one can appreciate my apprehension about the three figures sliding down from the road toward our van hibernating in its bed of snow.  And they were peculiar slice of Americana, but of a different phylum. It turns out the three of them drive their reinforced pickup truck around this part of the Rockies when the weather conditions are this bad just so they can help people like us who get into situations like we were in, with no interest in pay or even thanks...and they happened to be right behind us when we went off the road.

It took them every trick in their book (and they certainly had a lot of them), but they managed to get us out even to their own surprise.  Having to restart the vehicle so many times caught up with us 8 months later in spite of the extensive repairs it underwent and a successful expedition to Mexico, when it breathed its last after the starter broke while in transit through the middle of the Arizona desert, where we were left with no choice but to invent primitive games with rocks and lose our minds.

But at least we made it to our show on the other side of the Rockies, where our corporate Mormon hosts treated us to a fair share of their lucrative dietary nectar which tasted remarkably like regurgitated blueberries. And from there, an all-nighter through the Sierra Nevadas to our grand finale in San Francisco where an irate soundman suffering from incomprehensible neuroses and self-orchestrated purgatories kicked us off-stage in the middle of our set.

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