We’re home. In five weeks, we logged 8,433.3 miles, 17 performances of GIFTS, countless hugs and reunions, and our donation hat was very happy. It’s lovely to be home, and yet something changes in a journey.
The geography: shows in Charlottesville & Norfolk VA. Then Baltimore, DC, Bethlehem, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Lawrenceville NJ, Philadelphia again. Then Bloomsburg PA, Manhattan, Holyoke MA, Portsmouth NH, and Toledo. And many sojourns with friends.
A daily chronicle would be unreadable, yet the story accumulated day by day, small pebbles of gravel as well as brilliant gems. No dramatic climax, except perhaps the two hours of driving on a pure ice Utah freeway. It was no action-adventure romp, just transcendental business as usual.
Thursday, Oct. 17, we’re up at 6 am after unsettled sleep, out the door by 8. I-80 to Reno, then southwest on US 50 across Nevada and into Utah, connecting with I-70. En route, we enjoy the virtues of the iPod: when public radio blitzes out, just flip on Beethoven and coast into the night. We pull into a truck stop at 10 pm and find a distant spot where we’re not beset by wheezing dinosaurs.
The challenge of a Rubik’s cube: To cram the Prius with set and props for Gifts, clothing for five weeks, ice chest, mini-kitchen, and a bin full of sales stuff — and sleep in it. We did.
With the back seats folded flat, my short frame had just enough room to stretch out, while CB stuck his feet between the two front seats. The little oriental rug for the set was the perfect size to cover two foam camping mats, and with a sleeping bag and two pillows, it made a very sweet boudoir.
Everything else went up front, stacked on the seats, the floor, and the dashboard. With practice, we could convert it in five minutes. Back in our days of heavy touring, I loved sleeping in our big Dodge van, but Sheba only got 17 miles to the gallon. Now, long-haul touring depends on good gas mileage.
We struggle out of bits of clothing, mindful that it’ll get damned cold overnight, pull out the whiskey and our brass shot glasses, prop ourselves against the backs of the seats, and breathe deeply.
We ramble on as we sip our booze, then at last, reverse ourselves, bumble into the sleeping bag, me donning a sleep mask against the parking-lot glare, Elizabeth hiding her head. Then we drift off.
We wake to the sun through windows iced from inside. It’s started to melt, dripping on our foreheads. We struggle out of the sleeping bag, stash props & luggage into the rear, use the service plaza bathroom, and think about coffee. Friday’s stop is past Denver, Saturday’s after Kansas City, Sunday’s past Louisville, and Monday into Charlottesville, VA.
A total of $241 took us from Sebastopol to Virginia, with Elizabeth’s frozen gourmet dinners letting us thumb our noses at the franchises.
Omigod, this is a beautiful country. We had the full moon with us both ways. Outbound, that lonely two-lane blacktop of US 50 was the perfect way to feel the majesty of Nevada and Utah, sudden vistas of basin and range, then the strange rock formations, and the eerie night-time sight of a huge wind farm with blinking red lights atop dozens of turbines, lined up like an extraterrestrial army.
Odd show for theatre students. The space was available for less than two hours, so no time for follow-up interchange — everyone off to supper or to rehearsal. They seemed to enjoy it, but it was as if we’d done it on TV. But a good dinner with our hostess, and gratifying feedback. “One girl said her fears about the future subsided watching you, because she realized that she could devise and tell stories that she wants to tell. Another said he was surprised at what he caught himself laughing at.” Our sponsor said she’d brought it to her students because she felt our performances are “open, present, and genuinely vulnerable” — something young artists needed to see.
Hearing that again, yes, vulnerability isn’t always warm and cozy. If you don’t get the full-blown, joyous response you’ve gotten before, it’s still for you to offer it and be fully present to what’s there.
I am 73 years old. Many of my joints hurt, making their complaints unpredictably, and sitting in one posture for a very long time really pisses them off. I go to the gym six days a week to keep in trim, along with violent gardening, and I love my daily rituals. So why leave the fireplace, hot tub and garden to sit in a car for 8,433 miles?
Part of it is the old gypsy itch, that rambling habit that started with our first trip to Europe in 1969. It’s not just the kick of seeing different places every day; it’s the sneaky tricks of making do with the minimum, eating real food, figuring where to sleep — coping.
And re-weaving the old tapestry where the threads have come apart, checking in with old friends and new. A friend in Philly dates back to 1963, our Stanford days. A beloved in Milwaukee was an incredible actress in South Carolina, 1966, and continues to be. A resident of Skagway (Alaska) showed up, and we celebrated the old days of 1975 at the Baltimore Theatre Project, where he saw our daughter take her first baby steps. Friends from our days in Lancaster, dancing partners from our nights at pagan festivals, fans from our Sunday morning shows for Unitarians. Lotta hugs.
The biggest pull is the performance itself. More than half our work is in living rooms — everyone up close and personal. We’re unmasked, and every flicker of response is visible. I’m addicted now to the imperative in these spaces to be totally present every moment. It’s a precious gift.
And I got to revive a lady who lived in my heart 25 years ago. Back then, we created a solo curtain-raiser for a 55-minute play, and that’s what we needed for the theatre in Portsmouth. Edna returned, selling her lunch counter and all her worldly possessions, getting ready to head west on the bus and then walk down the road in search of the unworldly ones who changed her life by listening.
The fringe benefits are more at the core of things than the revenue. The late nights over wine or tea or single-malt scotch reconnecting with life-long friends. A duo whom we knew slightly in Lancaster and who, 25 years later, we suddenly realize are “tribe.” A woman whose life and loving has intertwined with ours, and whose toddler is suddenly in college. A colleague who traveled with us many years, many thousands of miles. Several pairs of the unlikeliest souls to cohabit yet who somehow bring a blessed yin-yang dynamic to the table. Friends from our earliest days in independent theatre to whom each time we say, “This wasn’t nearly enough time, not nearly enough.” The painter who gives us a painting, the radio artist who gives us his new CD, a cashmere sweater from a fashion designer, those who give us food and bedding, those who give us long hugs.
And in places we lived a long time — Milwaukee, Lancaster, Philadelphia — there’s something unique about people and place together. A whole span of life history brought back for a re-run.
We were heading north from Baltimore and stopped to hit a McDonalds restroom. I got out to fix us a hearty lunch salad, apples and salmon and greens, using the hard-shell suitcase in the trunk for a workspace. Then onto the road again.
During CB’s driving shift, I’d been sorting out money and papers into the pouches of my “office,” a 9×12 portfolio that holds envelopes of cash from the shows, checkbooks, phone pad, my solar-cell calculator — everything. After about ten minutes of driving, I felt a sudden twinge and asked CB if he could see the portfolio. No. I pulled over, and we searched. Then I had a memory-flash of having put it on the roof of the car as I got out. Oh God.
Back to McDonalds, but it hadn’t been turned in. CB searched the parking lot under cars, no luck. We turned back out onto US 40 to retrace our path, and there it was, plastered against the center divider. It had been run over multiple times on the high-speed four-lane and was scattered out like road kill. We parked, and CB waited for a break in the traffic and rescued the corpse.
The money survived. Likewise the checkbooks, with tread marks. The phone pad was totally scattered, but we spotted pages along the road, and I gathered up about half what I’d had. The calculator now belongs to Gaia — had that little thing for twenty years, and I’ll miss it.
Never put anything on the roof. Never.
Mostly, we lived by The Hat. After each show, we’d make a pitch, crafted to get a laugh and to encourage gifts. We did very well: there’d be two bucks, but then there’d be a twenty or fifty. And we sold our books and DVDs. In several venues that weren’t set up for donations, we received a straight fee, but the “gift” mode added a special flavor.
As did the locales. Of the 17 shows, 9 were as house concerts in living rooms, with audiences ranging from 6 to 25 — up to 45 in theatres. Hosts served drinks and snacks, guests brought bottles, and in varying degrees a party atmosphere prevailed long after the show. The intimacy of the space and being in the same light together made us fully present to one another. They haven’t purchased “aesthetic distance.” And we can play on a level that draws their energy to us rather than shoving it out at them. Without their knowing it, they’re interacting with us on every breath.
There are the technical challenges. Two hosts get caught in traffic and arrive after their guests have started arriving. Care needs be taken to avoid a pet cat coming into the action. At each space we must chart our entrance through the audience, dodging legs and furniture. And there’s the discipline of socializing before the show with people who are enjoying their wine, but having to wait yourself until after.
One show nearly went up in smoke. We were slated for a 6 pm curtain in an arts center, a converted industrial space — a weird curtain time, but the later evening was scheduled for a tango class. The sponsor was dubious about the turn-out, but we gave our usual assurances that a small audience wouldn’t be painful. We completed our set-up.
As we were leaving for a dinner break, they discovered that the tango was earlier than they’d thought. Instead, they offered a bare side room with fluorescent lights and a recently varnished floor giving off heavy fumes.
Our friend who’d arranged it came to the rescue. We moved cross-town to his ample, beautiful living room. He hit the phone to friends and neighbors; the first arriving guests made calls, and by show time we were a small, jolly group. Disaster became a lovefest.
Sleeping accommodations were many, all offered by friends and hosts: guest rooms in every sort of dwelling, a futon in a living room, a bed & breakfast, a hotel, a pull-out couch in an office, the floor of a stage, and six nights in the back of our Prius. I’m able to sleep anywhere, at least have no more insomnia than I have at home. Amazingly, we left little loot behind us. Each time before departure, we regularly do an Idiot Check through every room, and in all our stops we only had to return once to reclaim a stray wristwatch.
October 17 to November 17, thirty-two days when the news featured violent weather all over the country, but here we were, blessed with beautiful roads. Except for the final Saturday. We left our overnight Nebraska truck stop and headed west with a gorgeous sunrise behind us, and by the time we found an espresso stand in Laramie it was warm and sunny.
Things changed. By Rock Springs, the wind came in violent gusts. Several 18-wheelers had been blown over flat on their sides, lying there like dead elephants. Then the snow. At first it just skittered in the wind, making pretty paisley patterns. By Utah, it was sleeting, and the road became black ice. The trucks slowed to 20 mph, then slower, then about one truck-length per minute. You could see the ruby chain of taillights far into the distance. I saw the barriers go up in the eastbound lanes, but we crept west by fits and starts down the slopes toward Salt Lake City, doing periodic tiny brake-taps to see if we’d skid.
And then the magic moment: coming onto level ground, the temperature was just above freezing and we had traction. The truck stop on the far side of SLC is called “Love’s,” and that was appropriate. We didn’t even get rained on as we made our bed.
Now we’re home. Discoveries: The depth of friendships. Our continued capacity for travel. The potential of living rooms. The beauty of the road. The changed aesthetic of room lighting shared with the audience. The inexhaustibility of discovery.
On the trip we managed only sporadic writing, but this week we’ll finish a long short story and get back to work on a novel; we’ll do a lot of weeding and plant more garlic; we’ll return to King Lear; we’ll head for the ocean; and we’ll stretch out on a king-size bed. We’ll be looking for more gigs with Gifts hereabouts and in Southern California. Next summer, we have an invitation to perform at a festival in Massachusetts, so we’ll be on the road again.