|refrigerated road warriors|
Keeping a vehicle suitable for touring isnít an easy thing to do for a blues artist. Gigs donít pay much, and vans donít come cheap. Simply put, there are a lot of expenses involved in touring. Most bands are lucky if they can scrape together a thousand dollars or so to get a van to travel in. I canít tell you how many hours Iíve sat broken-down on the side of the road ó several times in sub-zero weather, nearly freezing to death.
Hereís a classic example of life on the road with a blues band. In December of 1983 I went on tour with Valerie Wellington and her outfit. At the time she booked the tour Valerie didnít possess a driverís license, but that wasnít gonna stop her. In fact, she didnít own a van either, but that wasnít gonna deter Valerie either ó no way. In the course of a couple of short weeks she got her first driverís license (although we were all afraid to let her drive) and bought her first vehicle, an older Ford Van. I was a little leery of heading out in a truck that God only knew what kind of shape it was in, but Valerie assured me it was a very good truck, and she even brought it by the house to show me. It looked OK and sounded like it ran pretty well, so I agreed to go.
The day came for our 6,000-mile journey to begin. We were to head up to Minneapolis, then west across Montana, on to Seattle, down to San Francisco and L.A., then back up again through Salt Lake City, Denver and east to Lincoln, Nebraska. Almost all one-nighters, 500 miles apart and across the Rockies in the dead of winter. Man, when did she think we were gonna sleep?
Only Maurice John Vaughn and I were experienced drivers, so we did the main share of the driving. We were headed to our first gig in Minneapolis when, after 30 minutes or so, someone in the back of the van hollered up, "Hey, how about some heat back here!" Vans are usually colder the further back you sit in them, but it was getting really cold up front, too. Someone switched on the heat.
Ten minutes later and still no heat. Damn, the heater was broken, and here we are about to head across the Rocky Mountains in December. We arrived in Minneapolis pretty cold, but otherwise everything was copasetic. While we were there Valerie got the van checked and they changed the thermostat. That should do the trick. Now off to Montana.
Off we headed. About 30 minutes into the trip, we realized that the thermostat wasnít doing the trick. It was cold. Freezing cold. There was nothing we could do at that point ó the heater core must have been bad, and with no time between gigs, we just had to suffer with it for a while.
The first town we stayed in was just in the foothills of the Rockies. We really hadnít even begun to get into the mountains yet. Coming out of the motel for breakfast, I pointed out to Maurice that the steel cord was coming through both front tires and ó bald as the tires were, and with all the ice on the road, it just wasnít safe to go on without replacing the tires. Maurice agreed, but Valerie said no, we would have to wait. She didnít have money for tires ó she had bought new dresses instead.
Valerie had never seen the Rockies and thought it was just a little hill we would be going over. She had no idea that it would take a day and a half to cross the mountains. Finally Maurice and I refused to go on without new tires. Maurice broke down and lent Valerie the money. We got the tires and made it though the Rockies safely, although we still had no heat. Everyone had at least two pairs of pants on and were covered up in blankets and anything else we could find to keep warm. Somebody even bought a pair of electric socks.
All went well once we got to the West Coast, although no one thought to have the heater fixed. Our gigs in L.A. fell through, but luckily I had a friend in Oakland who put us up for a couple of days.
Heading out of San Francisco for Salt Lake City we decided to stop in Reno for awhile. Everyone lost money, but we had fun for a couple hours anyway. Valerie didnít want to be seen in her dirty traveling clothes, so instead of going to a real casino, we spent our time at the luxurious Dennyís Casino and Restaurant. Nothing but first class for us!
Man, was it cold in Salt Lake City! By the time we got out of the gig and stopped for Valerie to get some food first, it must have been 4:00 a.m. It was snowing real hard, and there wasnít a single car or truck on the road. There is a long hill heading out of Salt Lake City towards Denver that seems like it lasts forever. You just keep climbing and climbing. Well, the van just keep getting slower and slower. Finally I had to pull over to the side of the road. The truck would idle fine, but it wasnít going anywhere under a load.
There was no one around for miles. It must have been about 10 degrees out, and we still had no heat. I had to do something quick before we froze to death out there. It was then that I had the bright idea that the motor wasnít getting enough oxygen because of the high altitude. I opened the motor cover ó Valerie was pissed because I ripped her stocking doing it ó and managed to remove the air-filter cover and cleaner. I started the truck and that was it ó we were up and running. Valerie was still mad, and I was even madder because we could have frozen to death out there and I get no respect at all. Next time, call a mechanic.
We made it to Denver about an hour before showtime. The roads were solid ice, traveling was slow and no one had slept. The gig in Denver was okay ó now off for Lincoln, Nebraska. I was exhausted. I had been up two days solid and had driven 90% of the way. Time for me to lay down.
I hollered back for Vince Agwada to let me take his bench for awhile so I could get some sleep. No way ó he wasnít gonna let me have his precious seat. I could have killed him right there (and I was probably packing), but for some reason I didnít. I just let Maurice drive the rest of the trip.
Still no heat. Man, it must have been below zero all the way to Lincoln. We made it, though, and while we were unloading the van Valerieís panty hose flew out of the truck in a gust of wind and froze to a parking meter. Nothing she did could free them. Thatís a sight Iíll never forget. For all I know theyíre still flapping in the breeze in front of the Zoo Bar 17 years later.
We left right after the gig to head back to Chicago. If it was cold on the way to Lincoln, it was even colder now ó 91 below zero with the wind chill. The snow was blowing so hard we had to drive over the white line in the middle of the road so we could tell where the road was. It seemed like every half-mile there was a car that had run off the road into the ditch. I still remember when we stopped for gas and I got a can of Pepsi, took one sip, set it on top of the motor, and five minutes later it was frozen solid in the can.
We did make it home safe and sound in the van with no heat ó just in time for Christmas. But if you ever hear me talking about going on the road again in the dead of winter, please remind me to read this article before I go. Never again for me, Iím afraid ó not in the refrigerated part of the year anyway.