For those of you who haven’t been following along, which is most of you, I’m trying to make up for an unconscionable two-year gap in my from-the-road dispatches. I’m not entirely sure how that happened. First of all – and this is my go-to excuse – I was drunk a great deal of the time.
Also I had been pretty much everywhere at least once by the time the last batch of dispatches appeared. I’d driven through every U.S. state (except Hawaii, which I’d visited just before moving into The Traipsemobile) and every Canadian province. All of them. Even North Dakota. I drove across Labrador, across the Yukon, across the Ambassador Bridge. I’d been all the way from the top of Alaska to the tip of Key West. There just wasn’t much road-accessible territory that I’d left unexplored. (I keep stalling on going to Mexico and Central America, mostly for economic reasons. And also because it’s hot.) My life had settled into a kind of rhythm that was extremely pleasant — morning at a ridiculously named coffee shop, afternoon at Anytime Fitness, evening at a ridiculously named pub — but didn’t seem interesting enough to write about on a regular basis. I got a little bored with myself.
So I didn’t write about it (except on Twitter) when I saw Bob Dylan playing in Duluth (where he was born) or Wanda Jackson in Oklahoma City or Bryan Ferry in Milwaukee. Or that time I was hanging out with Fiona Apple in Evanston, Illinois, trying to convince her that she should get a Traipsemobile of her own. I didn’t write about all the time I spent – nearly two years – trailing the Alabama Shakes for the story I wrote about them in The New York Times Magazine, following them from northern California to Mobile, to Nashville, to their hometown of Athens, Alabama where Brittany Howard attempted to drink me under the table and pretty much succeeded.
Or that time in Maryland when I got pulled over by a state trooper because he’d caught me looking at directions on my IPhone instead of the road and then didn’t beat the shit out of me. Because, I assume, I am white. I got away with a lot of shit because I was white, actually. The very few encounters I had with police – usually because somebody was concerned about the large gray Special Ops vehicle parked on their block – were relaxed and stress free. The flashlights would appear in the middle of the night, I’d hesitate a second in the hopes they would just go away and then, after they didn’t go away, I’d open up the sliding side door, stick my face out and say, “Hi, guys. What’s going on?” We’d chat a bit and then they’d tell me, in the friendliest way possible, that I might want to move down the street a bit. Sometimes they’d tell me to just go back to sleep and they were sorry to have bothered me. They did everything short of tucking me in and wishing me “Sweet dreams.” A few of them still follow me on Twitter.
I’ve felt no compunction about wandering into neighborhood bars all over America, not knowing a soul. Biker bars. Cowboy bars. Urban bars. Suburban bars. Small-town bars. Bars with 100 high-priced whiskeys on the shelf. Bars with nothing but Coors and Bud Lite on tap. Do you think the regular patrons of those establishments would have been so nonchalant about my presence if I weren’t a 60-year old white guy? I felt safe every place I went. More than that, I felt welcomed, hugged and handshook by all manner of adorable drunks. Didn’t matter whether it was a tavern on the south side of Chicago or a redneck joint in Mississippi with a Confederate flag behind the bar. But let’s not kid ourselves, If I’d been a black man living the way I’ve been living? A stranger in every neighborhood? Shit, I’d have been in jail a half-dozen times by now. Or worse. I know this. I am grateful for it. I do not take it for granted.
Really, in nearly five years on the road, the only time I’ve ever felt even remotely threatened was in Carmelo’s barber shop. Otherwise I’ve floated around North America remarkably unscathed.
When Carmelo shaved my head. (SHAVED MY HEAD!!) I was on my way to Athens, Georgia to see the Drive-By Truckers play a show at the 40 Watt, one of my favorite music clubs in the world. I’d spent the entire winter in Florida, frozen in place by the polar vortex, which had kept me south of Interstate 10 far longer than I’d intended. Oh, sure there were perks: running into Hulk Hogan in a restaurant in Clearwater (not the statue, the actual guy), stumbling across a young blues guitarist named Damon Fowler in Tampa,, watching the distant trail of a rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral. But Florida, with the humidity and the palmetto bugs and the way–too-many Canadians in flip-flops, always skeeves me out if I stay there too long. And that was BEFORE Carmelo shaved my head. I wanted out.
There was, as some of you may recall, a late-season ice storm in Georgia last year that, more or less, shut the whole state down But I was so tired of Florida that I kept on going, only slightly dissuaded by the army of power company trucks that I passed in Jacksonville, clearly heading the same direction as me. Because I am an idiot, and likely still traumatized by the head-shaving incident, I continued anyway.
I was crossing my fingers that by the time I got to Athens the roads would be pretty much cleared of ice and snow. And, for the most part, they were. But not all of them. The Traipsemobile, it turns out, is very good on snowy, slushy roads. The extra weight gives me stability. This is also true for the vehicle.
In central Georgia, I drove past acres of pine trees doubled over from the weight of the ice, oak trees with the limbs snapped off. It looked like a frozen hurricane had blown through. I’d never seen Spanish moss coated in ice before. It’s really beautiful. It looks like icicle lace..
I made it to the 40 Watt, still feeling incredibly self-conscious about my shaved head. Until I looked around and realized that pretty much every 40-plus white male in the place had a shaved head. And a beard. Then suddenly I was self-conscious in an entirely different way. Oh, shit! People are gonna think I’m one of these assholes who’s trying to disguise their receding hairline by shaving their head. Fuck! I look like I’m trying to be cool! Damn you Carmelo, you have shattered my sense of self!
Sorry. I may have overreacted a bit there.
I spent the rest of the spring playing tag with that damn polar vortex, retreating to Florida when it got too cold, sneaking up to Atlanta when the temperatures allowed. I did a little bit of work but, as is my tradition, not much.
It was still cold in Atlanta on April 15. I was at Padriac’s Bar & Grill, ( which is actually in Smyrna , hometown of Julia Roberts I only mention this because I just haven’t done enough name-dropping in this dispatch) For reasons I cannot explain (or justify) I decided to have some chips and queso with my beer. The abdominal pain began soon after.
I thought what you are thinking: that somehow Carmelo had paid the people at Padriac’s to feed me poisoned queso. I cursed him as I vomited in the Traipsemobile toilet. Over and over again. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes. I couldn’t stop, even though the queso – and everything else – had long since left the building. I was sicker than I’d ever been. By a lot. I’m pretty sure I tasted my own intestines. I was too woozy to drive myself to a hospital. So, in between retchings, I called 911. “I’m in the parking lot at Padriac’s,” I told them when they asked for my address. “In a large gray van. You’ll know it when you see it.”
I’m not sure how long it took the ambulance to get there. They had a little trouble grasping that I really was in the parking lot and not inside the bar. My head was swimming. I felt like I was being punched in the gut. Repeatedly. And then when the EMT’s put me on the gurney in the cold night air, it got worse. I was shaking, convulsing practically. And every bump in the road made me dry heave again. They gave me an anti-nausea drug. It didn’t work. There are many hills and twisty roads in northeast Atlanta. Oh, the swerving. There was so much swerving.
Turns out that it wasn’t the queso at all. It was kidney stones, two large kidney stones that had been bouncing around my pipes for nearly 10 years. I had been assured before embarking on The Traipsathon, that they wouldn’t cause me any problems. They were tucked away in a lower corner of my kidney, far from the exit gate and, therefore, unlikely to ever block it. And yet, like a basketball that somehow gets jammed between the rim and backboard, they did. Now they were boulders blocking my urine highway. To remedy this they put a pipe cleaner up my pecker. (Sorry for the technical terms.).
Also, they gave me morphine.
The pipe cleaner (oh, all right, it’s a stent) widened the highway enough to let traffic pass, but the boulders were still there. They would have to be pulverized and removed. This meant going back to Dallas – a drive that seemed much longer than usual, mostly because I was driving with a pipe cleaner in my pecker. It took a couple of months to get everything resolved, months during which I barely moved off my friend Cynthia’s sofa, getting up to pee through a strainer but not much else. There were medical misadventures, a Doctor named Fine, who wasn’t, and finally a savior, Dr. Maggie Pearle, nationally-recognized expert on hard-to-pulverize kidney stones (no, really, she is.)
So I knew it was serious when she told me, right before the anesthesiologist filled my veins with sweet, sweet propofol (Michael Jackson was on to something here), there was a chance that she might not be able to get to my back-corner kidney stones through the preferred “non-invasive” method, which involved inserting a camera and a sonar zapping device directly into my penis, blowing the stones to smithereens and then exiting the same way they came in.
And that was the non-invasive method. But there was a chance, she said, that she might not be able to reach stones with the zapper, that they were tucked away behind, I don’t now, a cliff or a billboard or something. This is why previous doctors had left these last two stones intact. They weren’t good enough to get to them. And if she couldn’t get to them, either? Then they would go invasive, they would punch a hole in my side and go in there the old-fashioned way. With a scalpel and, I assume, a sledgehammer.
So, goodnight, Joe. Sleep tight.
Because she is in such high demand, traveling to conferences and seminars all over the world – apparently she is the Tony Robbins of kidney stones – Dr. Pearle had scheduled me for surgery on a Friday night. It was already 7 p.m. when they knocked me out.
I was in surgery for five hours. They didn’t wake me up until after midnight. Apparently, it took her that long to track the bastards down and blow them to bits. She could have given up. Other doctors had. (Hello, Dr. NOT Fine.) But she kept at it until she zapped them all. I woke up, stoneless and without a hole in my side. And, feeling oddly refreshed. The propofol really does suit me.
I had to wait another couple of weeks to let the rest of the shrapnel shake itself out and then (hold on to yourselves, TRIGGER WORDS COMING!) they yanked the pipeline out of my pecker and sent me on my way.
It was late June before I got back to Atlanta. I felt it was important to get back on the horse at exactly the point where I’d been bucked off. So, I went back to Padriac’s, plunked myself down at the bar and told the bartender, “The last time I was here, I left in an ambulance.”
I did not order the queso. Just in case.