“A Place For Us All Here”

They ain’t lying when they say it’s always darkest before dawn because it’s about a quarter of 6AM and the surrounding darkness is almost suffocating. I’m on a winding, two-lane highway which slowly and repetitively climbs up then dips down between heavy pines with dangling, skeletal fingers. Signs tell me that I’m fixing to cross over the Sabine River into Louisiana.

For the first time in probably thirty minutes, another vehicle appears around the corner in front of me and I quickly turn off my car’s brights. They do the same and I have to say how much I love the respect we strangers show each other during overnight driving. Rarely in my dark drives have I ever experienced the motorist who fails to turn off their brights and I think that says a lot about how polite people are just by nature. I’d wave, but they won’t see me—I imagine they think about waving, too. As soon as they pass, I click my brights back on. Long, curvy lines of yellow reflectors. Piney fingers. Slithering fog in ditches.

I’m ashamed to admit it being a native Texan and all, but I’ve never been to Louisiana. My friends give me a hard time for this. “What? You’ve never been to Louisiana? New Orleans? But you’re so close!” I know, I know, I’ve no excuse. But then here, around this corner, I come upon a break in the trees and the highway turns into a bridge and halfway over the bridge, my only travel companion, Google Maps, interrupts my audio book and says, “Welcome to Louisiana.” I smile.

The bridge ends and here I am: Louisiana. Maybe it’s the profound darkness, the solitude, or the fact that the fog sure seems to be collecting more and more of itself, but Louisiana feels different. Not even a mile past the Sabine and it feels like I’ve entered into a distant and strange land. As they say, Google Maps, we’re not in Texas anymore. I have about ten hours left to go on my planned drive to Atlanta, Georgia. I should get there by 5PM their time which will be just in time to head on over to The Tabernacle to see my most favorite band of all time, Old Crow Medicine Show.

My decision to make this trip is barely a day old: completely impulsive and last minute and the thrill attached to that kind of pseudo-recklessness is the real caffeine I need right now, just before dawn. This is exhilarating to me and also a bit chilling because coincidentally, as I’m making my debut travel through Louisiana, my audiobook moves to the next story: ‘Bitter Grounds’ by Neil Gaiman. For y’all who are unfamiliar with this story, (and if you are unfamiliar, I would recommend picking up his book of short stories, ‘Fragile Things,’ because they’re the kind that stick with you) it’s about a man who has decided to start driving without a particular destination and, on his own, ends up in New Orleans where…well…I won’t give spoilers. I begin to imagine that I am like that man, just driving and driving. This is not the first road trip where Neil Gaiman has kept me company. I hope he knows I’m grateful for this.

“Why are you driving to Georgia?” my mom asked me when she called yesterday and I told her of my newly hatched plan. I couldn’t really give her an answer. I didn’t know why I suddenly had this red-hot urge to just go somewhere and I suppose I still don’t really know. She wasn’t a fan of this plan, her being a perpetual worrier like me. I assured her I’d be fine and also, I had a knife in the center console which I know how to wield, so…all good. I could feel her eyes roll through the phone.

On I drive through an eventual pink sunrise, a small rain storm, sheep-clouds, no clouds, acres upon acres of cotton fields, and then fields of…what is that, soybean? I’m not sure. Corn, cotton, and wheat are the only crops I think I can pick out when they’re in fields.

Mississippi,

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Alabama,

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and then finally, Georgia.

I get to the venue early. I want to be in the front row because last time I saw Old Crow, I’d ended up in seats that didn’t give me any room to dance until I hurt which is, as far as I’m concerned, the proper way to behave at one of their shows: reckless, wild, and completely unhinged from everything. When they’re on stage, nothing else in the entire world matters. They are such, sweet freedom. (And darn cute, too.)

So I dance. I dance and I sing and I clap until my hands begin to bruise and sweat is winding down my spine and there, in the glow of the shifting lights and rhythm pulsing through the room, I am free…

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…free…

“Free from what?” I wonder as I bounce and sing and slide my gaze over all the elated faces around me while completely alone in an unknown place. Then I realize it: I’m free from my worries. Oh my dang worries, my parasitic worries. They stand no chance here.

I’m not shy about the fact that I struggle with anxiety. Part of my dealing with it is constantly trying to break the stigma around mental health issues. I have anxiety? You have anxiety? Or something else? Not a big deal. Let’s love each other a little more for it so that we can create platforms to deal with our emotions in healthy and supportive ways. Our brains and hearts are so utterly complex and can feel so deeply that it’s not surprising that they can get a little out of hand from time to time. It’s up to us to not judge ourselves, but to instead be grateful for our layers and learn to explore and manage them effectively. As Mechanical Morty says, “Your feelings are not only forgivable, they are the very meaning of life that only pre-silicon, carbon-based entities can ever grasp.”

Free. Hoo boy. Sublime.

Sadly, the show ends and as the overhead lights turn on, I wander towards the exit, my body buzzing with fatigue, excitement, and something else I can’t quite put my finger on. People are everywhere, chatting and laughing with one another. They’re holding hands and kissing and finishing drinks out of plastic cups. They’re laughing and singing lyrics to songs they’ve just heard and when I make it back outside to the fresh air, I realize how badly my face aches from smiling for so long. Everyone is smiling…everyone…big, toothy smiles; and we’re all smiling at each other. A tall man with an impressive beard gives me a high five for no reason. A woman with a long, purple skirt and braided pigtails tells me she loves my boots. We’re this migrating flock of dazed yet connected people wandering in all directions, drunk off our asses from the consumption of Old Crow’s heavily intoxicating energy. It’s glorious.

I want to stick around to see if somehow, someway, I can meet the band so I can tell them just how much they mean to me (because they really, really do) and also by this point in the night, I’m craving human connection. For a few minutes I linger, but in the nearly midnight air, the hours of my travel and sleeplessness begins to descend heavily upon me. Also, I’ll have to walk to the nearest hotel alone and while there’s still a crowd, I figure I ought to be on my way. Just before I wander off for rest, one of the band members, (who’s a hell of a whistler, come to find out) Mr. Cory Younts, appears from between some buses and I want to thank him for handing me a guitar pick which I’m rotating between my fingers in my pocket to ensure I don’t lose it. As I stumble to find some coherent words to say (of which I don’t really find any), he agrees to take a picture with me. I wish I could thank him again for that.

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In my hotel room, I lay and stare at the ceiling still rotating the pick around and around between my fingers. It’s one of those ceilings that looks like an aerial view of intricate mountain ranges. At some point, I drift to sleep because I dream of being at the show, only this time I had a faceless dancing partner, but then suddenly, I’m wide awake and it’s only 2:00AM.

After another hour of trying to fall asleep without success, I decide to just leave and head home. I’d be able to take my time this way. I could stop in Mobile or maybe even New Orleans since I’ve never been.

So I do. By 4:00AM, I’m driving southwest through Georgia towards Alabama. The roads are empty on this early, Sunday morning but for the occasional driver. We turn off our brights and turn them back on as we pass. A silent wave. Polite by nature. I love it.
As the sun rises in my rearview window, I’m back to wondering why I decided to make this trip. The handful of people I met before and during the show who learned that I’d driven all the way out here alone from Texas were surprised that I’d do such a thing. I guess I’m a little surprised, too, but I like the idea of putting on a brave face and doing something a little crazy. I like the idea of being brave (and I sure as hell like the idea of seeing Old Crow).

On stage last night, Mr. Ketch Secor asked the crowd to turn to the people around them and tell them “you matter.” I did. And I was told, too. In addition to just loving the living daylights out of their music, I love this about Old Crow: their humanism. The lyrics of their songs touch the rawest parts of us: our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, our excitements, our ability to connect but to also let go. I love life in Old Crow songs.

Indeed, no one should feel a world away, even when you’re quite literally, 850 some odd miles away from anything familiar. I didn’t, despite my solitude departure. I didn’t because in Old Crow world, there is no stranger. There is no worry. There is freedom to live and to love and just be without anxieties and judgements. They create this space just by being them. In Old Crow’s world without any kind of goggles, there’s just humanity: beautiful, complex, deep, cosmic, and smiling oneness. There’s a place for us all here.

I realize now as I head home that I needed that place. It’s been a heckuva summer with lot of challenges, changes, and uncertainties about what the future holds and I think I’ve allowed myself to get swept up and a little lost in it all. But last night, free as a mocking bird and alone but not lonely, I realized that whatever is on yonder past that curious and uncertain horizon is just that: yonder. I’ll get there.

The rest of the drive home is mostly uneventful. I do stop and see a few things but by the time the afternoon rolls around, I start itching to get back to check on my sweet donkeys. Upon arriving home, dazed and light-headed, a chorus of brays erupts from the pasture. Before even going inside my house, I leave my duffle bag on the hood of my tired car and head straight for the barn where a few sets of long ears are waiting for me. They nip my arms and swish their tails and I’m quite positive that if I had a tail, I’d be wagging it, too without one little worry in the whole, wide world.

“There’s a place for us all here and ain’t it enough?” – From OCMS Song ‘Ain’t It Enough?’

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The Midday Scorcher

I’m three hours into a drive out west and it’s hotter’n blue blazes out there. My dash board’s telling me it’s 116 degrees, but even with the a/c working as hard as it can, that temperature feels underestimated. Having lived in Texas my whole life, I’m supposed to be used to this, but hoo boy I tell ya, there’s no getting used to frying eggs in your driveway.

Still, I love this drive. This 6-hour jaunt out west to the land of 1,000 donkeys that I find excuses to make where I end up on two-lane highways surrounded by prickly pears and yucca plants is therapy. I have no cell service on much of this route and either spend it listening to a pre-downloaded audio book or all of my Old Crow Medicine Show albums. I am as good’a singer as Ketch Secor on these drives; it’s a shame no one else ever gets to witness it—seems to only happen when I’m alone. 😉

Speaking of Ketch Secor, the novel I’m coincidentally listening to on this trip is ‘The Midnight Cool’ written by his wife (at least that’s what the interwebs tells me; I habitually read about authors I enjoy) and amazing writer, Lydia Peelle. You’ll never guess it, but this book is chalk full of mules….and not just mules as outlying, empty creatures that serve as backdrop ornaments to set tone or mood, but as detailed, respected, and complex and I gotta tell you, it’s the first novel I’ve read (well, listened to) that does this. She talks about how the “…humble long ear has been the victim of much mudslinging” which, whether you’re talking about a mule or their father, the donkey, it’s true. I’m hanging on every word she’s written (and is being read to me wonderfully by Don Hagen) and it just gets me that much more giddy about arriving at my destination.

Y’all know by now that I work with the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue (it’s where I’m headed on this mirage-inducing drive) and as such, it’s become a red-hot goal of mine (and frankly, my highest honor) to spread the word about donkey welfare. They are victims of mudslinging like Ms. Peelle describes…they’re the butts of jokes, the forgotten warriors, the misunderstood creatures. But it’s true that anyone who takes the time to get to know them realizes that there are worlds within a donkey’s eyes. There is tenderness in their hearts. There is a gravity about them: an inescapable yet peaceful gravity.

My donkeys are what keep me grounded. No matter the day or time, if I need someone to lean on, they’re there. If I need someone to sit with for a while, they’re there. I never ask them to do this, they just do.

How much are we misunderstanding simply because we’re not taking the time? Not just donkeys or mules, but everyone? Over the years, I’ve learned from many people the assumptions they’ve made about me which have often been based on my behaviors as a person riddled with deeply-seeded anxiety (which I suppose is understandable, I can be difficult to be around sometimes…an ungentiled and untrusting donkey.) But at the core of myself, (like a donkey) I’m loyal too. I’ll sit with damn near anyone who just needs a shoulder for a while. I’m overly cautious (which is often seen as stubborn).

I don’t mean to sound egotistical, but I’m comfortable enough with myself to love my own isms, especially the more I choose to learn about them and the more I’m starting to realize that if reincarnation is indeed a thing, I might’ve been a donkey in my past life. Same goes for donkeys—how many people jump to the conclusion that they’ve got pea-sized brains because some movie made an ass joke about them while trotting a big, statuesque and shiny hero-horse by?
It’s been a while since I’ve passed another vehicle and I start to wonder if my car broke down in the heat of this sun, what would I do? No cell service, no folks passing by, no donkeys to lean on. I suppose I’d find some shade and listen to this book some more until someone came along.

On I drive, my heart happier and happier that I found this novel by chance. I’ve decided that if somehow, someway I ever get the chance to meet Lydia Peelle, I’d like to hug her neck and thank her for what she has to say about long-ears. She’s fighting the fight I’ve only barely begun: the uphill battle in convincing the world that donkeys (and their kin) are the best. Donkeys are what we should all be striving to be: kind, cautious, loyal, inquisitive, and strong even when it’s so hard sometimes.

To my left, two dust devils dance around one another in a vast acreage of red dirt and brush, their bases hopping around like they too feel the heat on the ground. It’s quite lovely what nature does when she thinks she’s not being watched. Deer delicately pick the flowers out of the prickly pears. Cows lay peacefully in the shade of any tree they can find, their sides and rumps touching I imagine, because they just want to be sure of each other. Vultures float in tornadoes around something dying or decaying, their bellies anxious for a meal.

Makes me wonder what we do most when we think we’re not being watched. In a lot of cases, I don’t think we’re much different from the dust devils, the deer, the cows, or the vultures. We’re all part of this bizarre life quilt sewn together by all of our strange and often misunderstood isms. It’s quite lovely.

‘The Midnight Cool’ reaches the end of a chapter and so I switch my speakers over to Old Crow’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” I turn it up as loud as my speakers will go singing along with every complex lyric, giddy and thrilled that in a few short hours, I’ll be at my home away from home—the land of 1,000 donkeys—the place where my fire for change is stoked like no other.

Here’s to donkeys. Here’s to those who fight for them. Here’s to those who hopefully come to know them. And here’s to each other:

“…Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while…”

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