We had a once-in-a-lifetime trek on our way to denver a few weeks ago. our timing couldn't have been better (not) as the shows we had booked in colorado fell during the worst snow storm the state had seen in nearly a century. prior to our departure, i received many emails from fans and friends asking if we were still coming out there to play and telling me of how bad the weather actually was. not one to often heed warnings and always one to have to learn the hard way, i replied, "of course we're still coming out there." our conversion van packed beyond capacity and our spirits never faltering, off we went from omaha toward the western sky to colorado.
the first 7 hours of the trip was as expected: long and dreadfully uneventful, but smooth sailing. james was immediately off to taking a nap in the back seat we affectionately call "the doghouse", and bob and i sat up front in silence gazing out the window contemplatively only occasionally speaking about a sighted roadkill or a nasty smell we'd drive through or possibly a change of music in the CD player. but seven hours into the trip with only 2 more to go, we were made suddenly aware of the changes in climate as we hovered unknowingly on the outer edges of the most massive atmospheric disturbance anyone currently living had ever seen. from the interstate road opposite our direction, the traffic grew oddly thin until it seemed we were only seeing one or two vehicles come our way every 5 or 10 miles. the air held an eerie chill, the sky an unsteady gray.
we were cruising behind a semi-truck at a cautious 55 mph when out of nowhere as if tethered to puppet strings at the hands of god himself, the back end of the semi leaped 10 feet in the air throwing the truck's head off course, left then right then left again. the trailer came pounding back to the ground with a force we could feel in our van 40 feet back. and only a few seconds later we too were launched into the air by the same force. both the truck and our van fought to maintain course and control over the road that was suddenly and frighteningly no longer an interstate. instead, as though we had passed through a portal to a past or future ice age, we were now precariously driving on a one lane patch of ice and snow mounds, some 2 feet high.
we slowed our pace considerably. our van was now bouncing over snow embankments, down into ice holes, and randomly sliding five feet in either direction over patches of ice masquerading as interstate highway. this couldn't be america. the three of us now wide awake grabbed onto whatever we could to help us keep from falling over sitting down. for miles this continued as our equipment rattled and shook in the back and our shocks and chassy squeaked and hummed with every turn of the wheel.
in the distance, through the dangerous haze of the coming of eve, we saw the red and blue lights of safety... and dispair. there were police and road crews ahead diverting traffic to the off-ramp and away from the barricade signs that read simply, "road closed." the interstate was formally and rightfully shut down. the thousands of vehicles heading to denver were detoured into a small town with no hotel or restaurant or anything at all aside from one small convenient store gas station that was presumedly having the greatest financially profitable day of its long and meaningless life.
we were undoubtedly in a jam and feeling quite defeated. it had taken us over 2 hours to travel the treachery of the last 25 miles and to head back in the direction from where we'd come... well it just wasn't something we wanted to do. it was not an endearing prospect to any of us as we were now only 50 miles outside of denver and, but for an earthquake that would shake the earth so violently as to create a cavern larger than the grand canyon itself, by god we were going to get to denver. exactly how, we did not know. in every direction cars littered the road like road kill itself -- casualties of the storm and snow. talk of death and jackknifed semis filled the air as casual conversation among the thousands of stranded strangers herded in and around the gas station.
i hadn't eaten since early that morning and with no restaurants open and nothing but snow 5 feet high in all directions i was forced to stomach a luke warm gas station hot dog that had surely been spinning round and round for days in its greasy, self-containing warmer. in front of me, as i stood patiently waiting to pay for my dog in a long line of buyers, were two country boys who claimed to be residents of the entire northeast corner of colorado and panhandle of nebraska. they knew their way around every back road in the area and weren't shy about letting everyone know it. they drove what amounted to a street-legal monster truck and were having the time of their lives cruising past the hoards of stranded vehicles and rolling over 5 foot snow banks to remind themselves and all who were witness that they indeed were men and no storm of the century was going to tell them otherwise.
i turned to one in quiet confidence asking, "so is there any way in hell we can make it to denver from here? ...we're driving a conversion van." the crooked-toothed 'man-of-men' looked at me curiously, almost admiring my bravery in even asking such a question, knowing of the troubles the storm and snow had already brought thousands. he seemed to admire the spirit of the question which cast aside all fears of disappearing quietly into the snowy night to meet the same fate as jack torrence in his final moments in "the shining". he proceeded to scratch me out a map on the receipt for my hot dog consisting of service roads and back roads that did not exist at all on the detailed maps in our atlas. but, while he couldn't promise anything, the map he gave me was, according to the man, "the best shot we had." it was all we needed.
off we went, leaving the thousands of possibly smarter, possibly less-spirited people behind... only success or failure of our determination to make it to denver would tell us which. over a bridge, onto a service road, and past the road blocks and police we drove. the road to come proved nothing more than a one lane patch of ice leading to the belly of the abominable snowman. any two cars unlucky enough to meet face to face were left with the unnerving decision of who would move over into the precarious embankment at the road's edge and allow the other vehicle to go through. this did happen to us on more than one occasion as we were the ones from nebraska in the conversion van, and all who we came face to face with were in four-wheel, mini-monster trucks. common sense and common decency would dictate they concede to the road's edge and allow us to move forward unrestricted.
the roads were violent and the sight of pavement was but a memory. our van moved up and down and side to side like a lumbering boat in heavy seas. twice we nearly slid like a burdened sled into the ditch, many times were forced to accelerate in order to bash through drifts that would surely be enough to high-center us at slower speeds, and once we missed clipping a woman's front end by millimeters as our back end lurched uncontrollably in her direction. bob's fingers were embedded in the passenger side dashboard, mine were embedded in the steering wheel and even james, who sleeps through 90% of all minutes spent on the road, was wide awake and freaking out to meet the occasion. we all teetered on the edge of terror, and hope, with every passing second and every passing foot of treacherous terrain.
it was now on the darker side of sunset though a soft light still loomed. we had made our way further towards denver approximately 20 miles and it had taken us over 3 hours. we were now 10 hours into our trip with around 30 miles to go and we had traversed over what felt like the entire southern seaboard of antartica. as the soft, reflective light of the evening turned to darkness, we could see off in the distance a low-lying golden hue of artificial light and, moreover, the populus of denver. it was a light of hope, a goal, a chance for redemption and accomplishment. it was where we had to be, yet the obstacles ahead would prove to be much more formidable as darkness fell. the final road to that golden hue in the distance would mark our prior paths as mere molehills compared to the mountains that lie before us.
more indeterminable moments of time passed and at once, we reached a crossroads. we were told by a passer-by and driver of yet another mini-monster truck that the road to the right was backed up for miles with stranded cars which had failed at their attempts to make it to the elusive golden hue, and the road to the left hadn't been driven on at all since the snow hit. we were feeling quite defeated, yet our collective spirit and will to carry on was stronger than any obstacle placed before us so far, so why should it stop us now? we opted for the road less traveled - or not traveled at all - hoping that the sheer weight of our equipment in the back of our van would be enough to guide us through the tundra that lie ahead.
we proceeded with cautious optimism, hopeful that the spirits that had taken us this far would not leave our side in this -- our most desperate -- time of need. we all wondered to ourselves but dare not say it aloud, "what was it that could have taken us all this way only to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere?" we searched our souls for meaning and comfort as to why we, out of thousands of stranded, ditched and detoured vehicles, were able to make it this far... or was there no meaning at all? to admit such a thing would go against fate and destiny... our destiny... our fate... and would speak volumes about everything we had done and everything we are. to admit there was no meaning and no purpose to the treacherous events of the recent past, would be to admit the universe is nothing but a series random events all of which eventually and inevitably lead to dead ends regardless of a foreseen future and successful past.
we pressed on. but slowly the snow got deeper and deeper and as much as we hoped against hope, the heavy drifts dragged across our under-belly until it became sadly and quietly clear that with all we had done to get there, it was there that was the end of the road... our own, personal dead end. slightly high-centered, i slammed it into park and we all sat staring out the windshield at the golden hue in the distance once again. it was still. no sound at all. not even the wind was blowing nor birds were chirping. no car engines hummed, no sound of the road moving beneath our wheels. no stars or sky. only the cold quiet reminiscent of death. it was as close to nothing as we had ever been.
after a brief discussion on our prospects of moving forward, it was agreed upon with heavy sighs that we would indeed put the van in reverse and head back from whence we had come. now, even we were as quiet as the world outside. deeper meanings swirled in our heads and questions surrounded even the fate of our togetherness. we returned to the crossroads, stopped, sat still and, again, stared out the window. we concluded our only reasonable option was to turn back and head east to the nearest town large enough to have a hotel. but with all the thousands of people who were forced to turn back many hours earlier, we were certain we would be backtracking at least 200 miles to find respite. it seemed all but over.
as we began our departure and the golden hue in the distance became but a barely remembered dream, there came a hum from beyond the snow. it grew louder like a well-timed and beautifully written crescendo right before the climax of the symphony. then there came lights, spinning yellow and white lights rising above the snow, flickering and reflecting in the sullen whites of our eyes. was it god? in some ways i suppose it was. the machine came rumbling toward us and showed itself: a super-sized caterpillar snow plow with enough diesel and hydraulic power to pull even noah's ark off of mount Sinai its driver, an ordinary farmer. fate's devilish little angel. "where ya headed!?!" yelled the farmer from out the king's throne atop the plow. we pointed and stared towards the golden hue in the distance yet again but did not need to speak. the farmer waved us on and like william wallace, leading us into the belly of the beast, and forged the battle ahead. the roar of the engine was nothing short of music to our ears. we smiled, there was sound again. we had hope and the meaning we thought lost a mile back in the mountainous drifts that had once scraped our underbelly with dragon claws, had now returned in a way that we had never felt before. the plow blasted through snow banks once our enemy and made way for we who now carried destiny's fiery torch. the long miles ahead were 'slow' but 'sure' but now having spent five hours traveling 30 miles, 'sure' was all that mattered.
the huge drifts on the road ahead parted like the red sea from the tip of plow's pointed nose as we followed close behind to the approaching safety of cleared roads and, moreover, redemption as it was now more apparent than ever: the universe did indeed have a purpose. the final moment neared when pavement would show its beautiful black and gray face and we grabbed for some money, a CD and our thanks to give to the farmer to express our great appreciation. we longed to tell him how he had single-handedly pulled us from the belly of the beast and saved us like no other before. but it would not be possible. as like any true hero his deed was done, no thanks was needed, and he drove away into the infinite night sky.
we did make it to denver that night. we found the one open bar in the entire city and reminisced over a few beers about the moments in time that made the broad accomplishment possible. while we have told this story to as many people willing to listen, it could never be told in a light that did our experience justice.
the experience was not simply one that recalled the near misses of a band on the road caught in a tough spot. nor is it one that speaks of the spoils to the victor having overcome adversity. it is, to us, about the meaning of life -- our life -- and whether, i suppose, there is any meaning at all. it is a fateful reminder that all that you do counts; your spirit soars; your dreams are real; it is the journey and the destination; it is real; it is here and now; it is fleeting and momentary; it is beautiful and amazing... it is life.
Spread your wings and fly,