Russ Ringsak

Three for the Drama

February 15, 2007

We took a week off after our Nashville New Year and then rolled smartly out to Frisco, a voyage more interesting than one would like but thankfully less so than one could stand. At the Petro Truckstop in Laramie, Wyoming, at 4:30 AM on a cold January tenth I climbed out of the sleeper, put on my boots, pulled around through the lot to the pumps, fueled the truck and was on Interstate 80 before 5:00. It was utterly dark, no moon, and about twelve miles down the road a pair of headlights came around a broad curve from the left. They looked wrong, aimed too directly my way, and then it became awesomely apparent that it was a car coming at me on my half of the freeway.

I was in the right lane and there was truck in my mirror, about a block back. I put on the brakes but not too vigorously and flashed the headlights a few times. I committed to maintain my lane no matter what they did. They stayed left and slipped my flank quietly, without slowing, to become a problem for the following driver. He too flashed his headlights off and on, and I saw the taillights sail by to the left of them. I called 911 and told the State Patrol they had an eastbounder in the westbound lanes at about milepost 302, and never heard any more about it.

Next morning I left Winnemucca, Nevada, at about the same time. I found it had snowed overnight and the road was patchy slick with snow and black ice. Eighty miles, it went on, to just past Lovelock. I tiptoed daintily westward at under 55 miles an hour and got passed twice by guys going about 70. Young drivers, I surmised, who were not all that concerned about reaching old age. They made it through. I saw no wreckage along the way.

Our show was in the War Memorial Opera House, a gorgeous big stone building in the civic district of San Francisco, across the street from the incredible city hall with the golden dome. A city hall bigger than most state capitols. The opera's stage was big enough to back our entire rig inside. Going in was easy and coming out was easy, and we did a fun show in between.

A hundred miles east of Frisco you rise again into the Sierras and the long climb to Donner Pass, where it always seems that it has just snowed or is expecting snow or is, as it was again this time, in the act of snowing. Wrapped in a ghostly shroud, that place, and you feel lucky to be in a warm cab moving through and not having to spend the night. You don't feel that way during the actual climb, because of the necessary wet salt on the road and the stiffness of the grade, but once achieving the historic summit sheepishness sets in about thinking that having to grind uphill an hour in tenth gear (out of thirteen) is any sort of misery. (A drummer later asked me if I was eating beef jerky on the way over the Donner. Some of those drummer guys actually live up to
their stereotype.)

The fifty-mile climb leads naturally to a fifty-mile declination, putting a heavy six-percent downward urge on the rig. It's equipped for it, though, with the best engine brake this old guy has ever enjoyed. Putting it in connoisseur terms, it is a far better thing to drive a good Jake brake and drink lousy whiskey than the other way around. I laid up until Tuesday at a combination truckstop and casino in Sparks, just east of Reno. They had a couple of Texas Hold'Em tables in there.

The ride to St Louis was fairly easy. Straight across toll-free Nevada, Wyoming and Nebraska to Lincoln, east to Nebraska City, south to Kansas City and Interstate 70; east across Missouri to St Louis.

Our show was in the Fox Theater there, a 5000-seat opera hall, a Siamese-Byzantine over-the-top knock-you-right-down beyond-anything-you-can-think-up-yourself fantasy that sits right there on Grand Boulevard where anybody can just walk in. If you don't find the gigantic close-together stone columns and the jewel-eyed lions flanking the grand lobby staircase outright stunning, and the monkeys and the maidens and the full-sized elephant head over the proscenium arch, all just plain jaw-dropping; well, there's probably not much more I can do for you as a guide to these fabulous United States. It's extravagant, elegant, overwhelming, dark and more than a little sinister. A great place to see any show, even a radio show.

St Louis also has a grand old city hall. It's designed after the Hotel de Ville in Paris; the name has a little mustache, a circonflexe, above the 'o', which makes it mean 'city hall.' It's done in the lavish French Renaissance Moody Revival style. A few blocks east of there the famous Eads Bridge spans the Mississippi, 1500 feet across, and is notable for its three very graceful low-arched steel box trusses; but mostly for the fact it bought rails west across the Big River. Another of those historical points from which there could be no turning back.

Overlooking all the city's significant old stone and iron arches is one newer shining stainless steel arch, of course; the Gateway, an equilateral catenery 630 feet wide at the base and 630 feet tall, with a stressed skin only a quarter-inch thick. It would clear the Washington Monument by sixty feet. Its delicate proportion belies amazing strength; the top sways only an inch and a half in a 50-mile wind, and it shrugs off being whapped hundreds of times a year by lightning. It would be hard to find a pair of more contrasting tours-de-force anywhere; this and the Fabulous Fox.

Without launching a travelogue I'll have to say I like St Louis. Just downstream from the meeting of the Missouri and Mississippi, it has a powerful sense of place to it, and lots of great buildings. I meant to leave there Saturday and run a quick 630 miles to Minnesota for a couple days off before heading to Philadelphia, but a snowstorm was coming on. Hank's big and heavy and has eight drive wheels with deep-lug tires, and for all of that he's utterly inept, helpless, as an off-road utility vehicle. So I stayed a couple extra days in the city and came away in a good humor. It turned out to be the correct call. Avoided an icy nightmare.

The short way to Philly is of course Interstate 70 across snowy Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but I took the low route; I-64 to I-24 on down to Nashville, from where fast and friendly I-40 will take you east through Knoxville to I-81. You curl northeast through Virginia and hit the Penn Turnpike near Harrisburg, just a couple hours west of the City of Brotherly Whatever.

The extra mileage on this southern runabout was compensated by the tolls not paid to the turnpike and by an ice-free passage. One could have stayed on I-64 through Kentucky, a most beautiful freeway, but the dark comes on early and the mountains of West Virginia can turn on you in the winter. And I learned a long time ago you don't go trucking for the scenery anyway.

Wednesday night I took a motel room in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to pass the extra time before load-in. I had called ahead for a place with parking for a semi, not always that easy out east, and ended up on a hill overlooking your standard franchise carnival. Contemplating a walk down to Denny's, I checked the hotel instruction manual. They had a steakhouse right there, at the Quality Inn. I had a real steak, and then a blues jam broke out on the other side of the bar. (!) I got my guitar and they took me in. What a great time. Pennsylvania is a friendly place; I've known that for a long time, but had never hit anything as much fun as this. They were the Skyla Burrell Blues Band — www.skylaburrell.com — and they work hard and sound great, 225 gigs a year. Skyla has no diva attitude, either. She hauls the speakers and gear at the end of the night just like the guys. I was impressed. Check it out. They have a schedule on the web site.

Philadelphia. It was probably not planned that way, but we did the trip as a voyage backwards through time, ending in this most remarkable First City. A terrific place and a fitting beginning to all the actually livable metropoli we have in the nation; those big enough to have spirit, bustle, hustle, major league sports and noteworthy architecture, and not so big you feel like part of a teeming clot of bugs.

Philadelphia was more than one could have imagined, more than one can even start to list. It is above all the city where the movers and shakers of the new colony, the landowners, put their very lives on the line to sign a document that would have caused them to literally swing from the end of a hemp rope had the British been able grab them. You can go into the actual room where this happened; the room where our world changed. Where it became written that we were cutting the cords with Europe's royal monarchs and that an individual American citizen was henceforth the equal of his government. That he had rights the government could not abridge; a stunning idea back then.

Amazing. And while you're there, check out the gigantic ornate white stone city hall, the biggest building anywhere when it was built and still the world's largest occupied masonry structure. Check out the buildings along Broad Street and then branch out. It'll surprise you, the whole place. You'll probably drop most of your Philly stereotypes, but you know what? They won't really care if you do or not. There is a distinct spirit there.

The hall we played, the Kimmel Center, was new and dramatic, in the same league with Frisco and St Louis only done up modern; a great hall and a great crowd, and Mr. Keillor was able to coax them into a fine Philly raspberry, much to the entertainment of all. It was a real hoot.

The return trip was easy. The snow let up and I got the truck washed in Portage, Wisconsin, and then I went home and came down with a great case of the flu. Weeks later the truck still looks good and I still look like hell.

Nice to have some time off. Thank you for your patience.

© R.Ringsak 2007

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