LOUISVILLE — We have reached the I-75 / I-65 interchange: the Mamas and the Papas' cover of "Dancing in the Streets." It's 3 pm Eastern. We'll be camping tonight. One problem: we have no idea where.
"Hey! In West Memphis, there's a small skate park with camping!"
Aaron Mondarresi, the Harlequins' sound engineer, is squinting at Rand McNally.
"That's 'state' park," bassist Alex Stenard rejoined, without looking up from Roller Coaster Tycoon. His park is making serious digital bank.
Mondarressi has turned full around from the passenger seat. He blinks, looks back down at the atlas and shakes his head. "I am so stupid."
A sign painted on a piece of plywood hangs on a barbed wire farm fence to our left:
USED COWS FOR SALE
I'm a writer. I sympathize.
If you are on the road with others and at their relative mercy, there should be a rule:
1.) Take any and all offered chances to poop. You don't know when, or where, the next chance will be.
I don't say this to be gross, shocking or scatologically humorous (it's a cheap device). I say this because it is happening, and because everybody can sympathize. I have had to go since the Waffle House in Carrollton this morning. That was three-and-a-half hours ago.
Having grown up a member of a risk-averse family, on long car trips we never stopped at gas stations, rest areas, or fast-food huts for number two. We only pooped at hotels – and the better hotels at that. Undoubtedly, just as many dirty butts have touched porcelain at good hotels as they have at any other public water closet, but there was always a perception that they should be cleaner, or at least cleaned more often.
But I can't take it anymore. Or, if you like, "Butt, I can't take it anymore." When we stop at a Southern Kentucky rest stop, I skip out of pleasantries being exchanged with another South By-bound band and make for the loo.
It is, thankfully, not entirely filthy. There is the obligatory graffiti, advertising standard pervert fare. I'm praying that the double-folded TP on the seat will somehow keep hepatitis from jumping onto my skin and burrowing into my liver. Roadside viruses got mad hops.
Worse, I am holding my jacket. This in and of itself would not be a problem; unfortunately, I am holding it because there is no coat hook on the back of the stall door. Where there should be a coat hook, two little drill holes give me a view to goings-on outside my tiny Fortress of Solitude. All the things I have ever heard about lonely truckers instantaneously pop into the forefront of consciousness, and they are angry. Like, breaking-windows-and-throwing-dishes, Ike and Tina angry.
Someone purposely unscrewed the coat hanger so that they would have holes to look into at guys like you, one rather paranoid thought screams.
I can hear Dale or Clem or Bubba's voice now: You LIKE banjo, boy? It's a lonnng haul.
We invariably adhere to a cultural stereotype, no doubt perpetuated by movies likeDeliverance, in which imaginary rest stop lizards are portrayed as big bull rednecks. As if there are no over-the-road femmes from Ontario. Maybe we just expect the Southern types to lack homegrown outlets? I've been to Toronto, and there are indeed many more gay bars there than, say, in Macon.
I hold my coat up and cover the holes. But I don't let it touch the door. I'm not sure what that streak is. I don't like the look of it. Someone comes in the restroom. Heavy black shoes shuffle past my stall, all too slowly for my taste. Finally, they move on. I hear something dragged out of the utility closet. It sounds plastic.
Scraping sound on floor.
It's coming from my right, over by the urinals.
Someone else comes in. I recognize drummer Rob Stamler's shoes. My business transacted, and with a sense of safety in numbers, I flush with my foot and emerge.
It is the elderly rest stop attendant, dragging a pan and broom. His lips are continually moving; he mutters to himself in wave troughs between expletives.
I look at Stamler, who has come in ostensibly to piss, while I wash my hands over-thoroughly.
Same volume, same delivery, same tone each time. And the guy is just moving back and forth over the row of urinals. He isn't actually cleaning anything; he seems to be sitting judgment, condemning each john in turn. I wonder if there is a toilet hell, and if this man is the Restroom Messiah. He washes away the sins of others, he casts down the unholy. Today, all the toilets will burn. I wonder if, having just sat upon one of these sinning commodes, my butt will be forever haunted.
The process repeats. Stamler and I watch, rapt. I think he forgot to go.
The hand dryer isn't blowing warm — or fast — enough.
Screw wet hands. I shove them in my pockets. Stamler and I both turn to leave.
It echoes behind us; the sound of rushing urinal water is lengthened and deepened, a Doppler effect symptomatic of our speedy retreat.
"No way that just happened."
Stamler shakes his head. He has no words. This is rare.
A motorcycle convoy of old men, all sporting Wilford Bremley-style mustaches, is passing us to the right. They'll be the surely baddest bad-asses at the Di-uh-beetus Survivor's convention this year.
"It's like the Moustache Honda club."
On tour, there are certain rules. One of those rules is no farting in the van. Someone has just broken the rule. This person repeatedly breaks this rule.
"Moustache Honey Club?" Stamler. Of course, Rob Stamler.
"Moustache Honda Club."
"Oh. Well I would have joined the other one."
We're nearing the campground that lead singer Mike Oliva and Mondarressi have agreed on: Natchez Trace State Park, near Wilderville, Tennessee. The outside air temperature now, at sunset, is in the low 40s. I can feel my testicles seeking warmer internal climes. The entrance is a left off the exit.
Mondarressi smiles. "Let's turn right and get really weird."
The park road runs about two miles back through deep pine cover. It is narrow. No one is coming in with us; plenty of cars are coming out. A cheesefest demo by a Memphis rap outfit called Children of the Corn is playing. The song: "Deep into the Woods."
I'm telling you — this is how I know there is intelligence beyond humanity's comprehension running this universe.
The sun is down when we pull into our camp lot. I have borrowed a four-man tent and a zero-degree sleeping bag from my Scouting professional brother. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to assemble the tent.
Back in high school, I was compelled to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Having grown up in the Town Most Likely to Have Supported a Nixon Political Comeback, I blissfully complied. I loved taking tests. I didn’t play sports; standardized tests were my chance for fleeting feelings of evolutionary supremacy. On the ASVAB, I scored in the 99th percentile in encoding-decoding. I scored lowest in mechanical ability – in my grade.
Attempting to raise the tent, I have a brief psychotic break.
Let there be other rules:
2.) Before going on the road, learn to assemble all applicable, necessary equipment.
3.) When travelling with musicians, get more than fifteen hours of cumulative rest in the preceding nine days.
4.) Don't punch hickory trees. Nature abhors an idiot.
5.) Bring a flashlight, even if you think there is no chance whatsoever that you would need it.
I am freezing. If I had begonias, they would be off, far, far away from my body. It's a stupid phrase – what my friend Destroyer would call a "dad joke" – but I use it here because I am reminded by the prodigious pains radiating from my lower back to the bottoms of my feet that I still have an ass. A night in the cold, without benefit of an air mattress, was a bad idea. And I will do the same thing again later tonight. I grow old, I grow old.
The Harlequins have been up for a while – their tents are broken down, folded and packed. The reporter guy is holding up the show. This is bad journalism. I am not the only person here dealing with a pain in the backside. I best check myself.
The fellers are hungry. I have vowed not to eat today. I packed trail mix and assorted vegan snacks for the road and tried, yesterday, to survive on them. Unfortunately, as noted above, my intestines did not appreciate the plan. I want no more of rest area bathrooms. But when we pull into our second Waffle House in as many days, my resolve crumbles. I'm cleaned out, and my stomach cannot alone handle the black coffee I so desperately need.
When Aundrae, the nicest breakfast counter hop in history (I actually call the Waffle House customer care line to tell them what a great job he is doing. The operator has trouble figuring out how to file my report – official kudos from Waffle House customers must be a national rarity) comes over, I order the only semi-vegan items I can find on the menu, off the Sides section: grits and hash browns. My thinking, given I am ordering sides, is that each will be a rather small portion, and since I plan for this to be my only meal today, I order triple hash browns and a large bowl of grits. Aundrae seems surprised, but I just figure it's because he's never before seen anyone in Jackson, Tennessee, forgo bacon or sausage.
When Waffle House says triple hash browns, they really mean: Hide your heart, playa. We got mad cholesterol and it's on.
Seriously. It is a platter of hash browns: capped, diced and peppered.
"You want some extra butter for the grits?" Aundrae asks.
"Nah, man. I'm good."
He grins and walks away shaking his head, incredulously. So I'm a Yankee – I still know grit blasphemy when I hear it.
Mondarressi and Stamler are laying odds on my ability to polish off the plate.
"I'll give you a dollar if you finish all that," Mondarressi says. He obviously doesn't know me well enough to realize I am the Marty McFly of spontaneous competitive eating challenges. Nobody calls me chicken. Besides, I one time put away an entire Big Bearcat from Adriatico's in one sitting. Granted – that was seven years and 40 pounds ago, but I am gastric elastic and capable of fantastic.
"Who's in, guys?" Stamler is collecting a pool.
I almost feel bad taking their money.
Until, that is, we reach our second campsite, Lake Bob Sandlin State Park, northeast of Dallas, and I am trying to put up a tent in excruciating intestinal urgency. The camp toilets are a quarter-mile walk away.
Add to the rules:
6.) Don't eat triple hash browns with diced jalapeños if you have a public restroom phobia.
7.) Bring toilet paper, even if you think there is no chance whatsoever you will need it.
8.) Bring flip-flops when camping. If there is no toilet paper, you are going to have to shower, and ringworm would be a bitch.
At least this time for the tent assembly, I have daylight.
(Tomorrow: Numbers and Duderonomy.)
Interact with Jonathan in real-time during South by Southwest. Like his WVQC radio show, "Salina Underground," on Facebook or follow @salinaundergrnd, #SxSWSojourn. He also responds to Morse code and smoke signals.