On Digging In

“I think you can never really do something well unless you’re able to leave it and, you know, have a family and have a home, and have a place that you’re from that you’re really dug in, you know. I once–when I was in college and just starting to write, I sent a tape that I had made to Pete Seeger. You know, he didn’t know me from Adam, but he wrote me back and he said the most important thing you could ever do is to choose a place and dig in.

–Josh Ritter, singer-songwriter, 2006

I’d been working as a musician for a while before I decided to start touring full-time.  I’d been out of college for several months, living in Boston and finishing a CD called “Yankee Division” while working various odd jobs and playing a lot of cocktail piano in local restaurants.  I graduated to feature sets at coffeeshops after that, and then to clubs and small theaters, all around the New England area.

In a way, my touring started by chance.  In 2011, I began working on a piece of writing that required me to travel to several major national parks, all of which were far from each other and even farther from Boston.  In order to minimize the expense of driving sometimes a thousand miles a day, I planned my route out in advance and arranged to play a short set at some venue in whatever town the map predicted I’d fall in on a given night.  I had never really performed so regularly before, and I fell in love with it.  It was liberating to play in places where I didn’t have to worry about ever seeing the audience again, and my live show became more confident and consistent as a result.  I sublet my apartment in May and then formally moved out when I came through town again that fall.

I found that it was easier to get gigs and remain solvent by traveling constantly from town to town, club to club, coffeehouse to coffeehouse.  It removed the risk of your local audience tiring of you, and more importantly, it turned out, it offered a way to go almost anywhere on the continent without any net expenses.  It made it easier to diversify too: I could alternate between long stretches of solo shows and joining up with a touring bluegrass band I befriended, who would hire me as a multi-instrumentalist for a week or so at a time in North Carolina or Minnesota, Vermont or Tennessee.

I kept touring long after I finished my parks research, which is when I became more or less a functional nomad.  I stayed on friends’ couches.  I camped in national forests.  I slept in my tiny car itself, snuggling in the cramped back seat with my keyboard.  I subsisted largely on instant oatmeal and peanut butter.  I loved every minute of it. I loved the zenlike state that one enters while proceeding down a long straight stretch of empty interstate.  I loved moving across the country fast enough to be able to watch all its different landscapes morph into each other: again and again I watched the Appalachians melt into the heartland, and the heartland into the plains, and then all but feel the earth move as the Rocky Mountains heaved up from under them.  I drove down the Mississippi River and watched New Orleans come into view as a distant glow above a hundred miles of swamp.  I drove east across northern Illinois and watched Chicago slide towards me like a stack of groceries on a conveyor belt.  I sped under Baltimore Harbor and soared over San Francisco Bay, climbed in the Alaska Range and the Sierra Nevada, canoed in Minnesota, and walked the length of Manhattan.  I swam in a Pennsylvania reservoir. I looked west into the Missouri sunset from the top of the Arch, and east into the sunrise from an island in Maine.  I crossed the Great Plains nearly ten times in two years.

Lots about this model has worked really well for me.  I primarily write and perform instrumental music that has been inspired by the experience of landscape and place.  These were my interests long before I started traveling, but moving around the country to play has given me more subject matter than I could ever have dreamed of.  Nothing is more affecting to me than watching the countryside gather, widen, or shift to become a new place as you move into it for the night.  I love watching the names roll past and transform gradually into new ones.  Having the chance to see so many different regions, to approach them from so many different directions, and to traverse them all so frequently, has had a tremendously positive effect on my music.

I didn’t realize that I had grown so used to this as to make a crutch of my traveling until I was offered the opportunity to take a year-long artist residency back in Boston.  “Artist-in-Residence” was an extremely attractive position: I would be given a free apartment in Harvard Square so long as I could be In Residence enough that my title would not be a misnomer.  I accepted the position gratefully.

I was surprised at how hard it was to give up rootlessness.  Without being aware of it, I had developed a dependency on the geographical noncommittedness of the lifestyle I’d fallen into.  I’d been defining myself in relation to people and places that perhaps should not all have been so easily accessible to me at once.  I had a long-term girlfriend, for instance, who had been living for one year in the Everglades and for another in Wyoming.  This was never a problem, as I passed through both places with enough frequency that it hardly even seemed like a long-distance relationship.  It never occurred to me that any of this was that unusual.

After I moved into Cambridge and set up the first apartment I’d held in some time though, it became clear to me.  In the first months of my residency, I felt imprisoned, watching helplessly as Idaho, New Mexico, and the Dakotas fell farther away from me with each day that passed.  Now if a friend moved out of town, I was more likely to see less of them, rather than more.  My girlfriend still lived in Wyoming; the distance became difficult and the relationship crumbled.

I won’t pretend that I’m used to having a home base yet, but deep down this feels to me like the way things probably should be.  It seems reasonable to think that the more completely you live your life where you are, the happier you’ll be, regardless of what you do for a living.  And committing to some kind of base for a little while does seem like a necessary step in figuring out how best to operate a life that includes a job like “touring musician.”  I still tour quite frequently, and I love it as much as I ever have.  But it’s not constant anymore, and I suppose it probably ought not to be.  Now I’ll go off for a couple weeks at a time, I’ll see the people and places that (I’m often reminded) remain big parts of me, but I’ll return at the end of those weeks to Boston where I now have a home and, increasingly, a life of my own.  A bed, a desk, a group of local friends, a place to do work.  Non-instant coffee.  The ability to refrigerate food.

It’s common, in modern America, to think of the road as a symbol of escape.  It’s always where some archetypal figure full of angst and restlessness goes, searching for something unknowable and unwilling to plant his feet until he finds it.  The highway is there, anonymous and infinite, as a symbol of promise and redemption for anyone running from something within or without himself.

It never would have occurred to me to think of my touring that way.  Not only was it practical for me to be moving around so much, but I didn’t feel I was taking to the road to escape anything.  If anything, I was refusing to let go.  I had fallen desperately in love with all these different parts of America, and even more so with the idea that they were all linked together by a system of asphalt that would allow me to keep my arms wrapped around all of it at once.

I was probably misleading myself if I thought I could be a full-time nomad forever, and I was certainly misleading myself if I believed I was doing it for purely professional reasons.  But again, I may have been unlike most highway people in that during in my years of perpetually moving around, my delusion was never that I could run away from anything: on the contrary, I was convinced that if I kept going far enough and fast enough, I could always keep everything I cared about close at hand.  My thinking seemed to be that if I never stopped running, I would never have to let anyone or anything go.

I had somehow never learned to trust that the things I loved would remain part of my life even if I wasn’t constantly able to access them.  That philosophy, whether it was entered into consciously or unconsciously, was flawed. I would have reached exhaustion before I ever reached satisfaction, and one can never run faster than loneliness.  Sometimes, I guess, it can be useful to let go of everything, just to see what stays with you even when you’re not dedicating your life to holding it there.  And just as importantly, to see what grows up in the spaces left behind by what doesn’t.