New York to Kansas City (2015)
Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 2
Can someone just confirm for me that Zippo lighters cease being alight when the lid is flicked shut?
It’s obviously much too late to be asking that now. It was too late when I heaved my guitar case into the dark and ominous hulls of the four o’clock for Knoxville and climbing aboard and turning it over and over in my head – they do switch off when they’re closed, don’t they? If not then I’ve just put something of a molatov cocktail into a man’s jacket pocket and conveniently boarded a Greyhound bus bound for the state line…
I’ve just passed my half hour wait at the bus terminal outside of Asheville, North Carolina lighting cigarettes for a man with hooks for hands who wants to “chain smoke and talk to pretty girls”, because he’s riding all the way to Memphis. At first I wonder if this is a scam, involving lighter stowed down deep in his jeans pocket and a good deal of heavy breathing. But no, the Zippo is respectfully kept in the breast pocket of his jean jacket. Sure, he has blotchy green tattoos on his face – but there’s nothing unreasonable about him. I’ve had sleazier experiences in Newport Pagnell. I watch him from the corner of my eye as the Greyhound carries us through the last stretches of Carolina. He’s quite incredible really – talking on his mobile phone, eating a sandwich – heading out for a new posting as a truck driver in Tennessee.
I meet a lot of truck drivers during this bus travel heavy quarter of my trip. Just the other day I’m there chatting with Herman who’s heading for Charlotte and had come out of retirement because he misses the road. Herman’s CB radio name is Easy Lover. I make no comment, except a secret solemn vow that I’ll shoe-horn that into a song before I retire.
So let me go back a few days… I leave Norfolk, Virginia early on Friday morning. The Greyhound terminal is a small one and it’s a dark stagnant cave inside. The ticket teller is easily wasted but friendly enough. I look carefully for a place to sit because it’s clear that people have been sleeping here – maybe even all night. Sitting too close would be like walking into someone’s bedroom when they’re not ready to get up – noisily yanking back the curtains and shouting ‘wakey wakey rise and shine!!”
I catch the eye of a guy sitting across the way from me. He’s travelling with a lot of kit – the green duffels with black initials on them suggest the military. He’s looking at my guitar and asks me if I play. I tell him I do and ask the same question back. He says yeah, he’s a uniformed musician – French Horn. Jeff is twenty years old, just through basic training and heading for his first post as a French Horn player . He tells me he used to play guitar in a heavy rock band back home in New York. I asked him if he’d given it up to join the military. He said “nah… Our drummer started taking heroin.” Well, I think, at least it’s more original than ‘Jimmy quit, Jody got married.’
As I scroll through pictures I’ve taken of road signs, beaten up cars and misassembled restaurant-strip typography and I replay the discourses of these one off exchanges with complete strangers, I wonder whether the novelty of being surrounded by so much real life Americana is going to wear off. With no sign of the wonder dwindling, I drift into something of a lee. I’m staying in the Warehouse district of Durham in an apartment that used to be a part of a tobacco factory. I have a clear view over the street toward the campus of Duke University and what will be my route for a run the following morning. The weather is spring-like and I pass (and admittedly I am over taken by) a number of preppy looking joggers in their Duke gear on a wide sandy path that circles the grand campus under huge oak trees.
The Nasher Art Museum is accessible by a short cut through the campus grounds and I treat myself to a ticket for the Juan Miro exhibition. Miro lived a long and eventful life and painted almost right up to the end it seemed. I am particularly struck by a set of huge great canvasses that he painted in the eighties. Of the pieces in the room these are probably the simplest in composition and the typed words on the small white plaque adjacent tell me that the artist’s aim was to paint movements that are infinite… by allowing the imagination to do half the work. I’m paraphrasing of course. I admire his bravery – in keeping it so simple – and I wonder whether the same is achievable in songwriting. I wonder if I have had my head buried in the sand a little, trying to write songs that are like photorealistic pictures… when there has always been and will always be a place for simplicity too.
It’s just one straight bus leg from Durham to Asheville and it’s pretty uneventful. We get a rest stop in Hickory and I join a long line for one restroom. I’m busting, so I wait the good wait watching the minutes tick away and the other passengers climb back on board outside. The engine is roaring by the time I step on, the zig-zag doors snap behind me so fast they would have caught my coat tails and we’re moving before I sit down. Close call.
Outside of Asheville the drop off is again on the outer city limits in sight of the usual strip of chain eateries and motels. I dial in my first Uber ride to take me downtown. I’m staying this time in a beautiful turn of the century house the kind with a porch in the front and a deck at the back and would be an incredible place to spend a Spring season. The rain really does hammer down over the next couple of days, but the real attraction this time for me is the house. I’m getting a lot of writing done and it feels terrific.
On the last night I go out for a bite to eat with Elaine, another guest in the house and when we get home I play her a couple of songs across the kitchen table. It’s off the cuff and not rehearsed or over-thought and there’s something either in my songs as I’m singing them or maybe it’s in my voice or both, that feels newer and somehow refreshed. Besides the end game of the Folk Alliance conference in ten days time, I’ve come to America with very little agenda except to regain some of the spirit that had seemed for a long time, so very lost. And I think it’s working.
Last bus for a while now. We cross over into new time zone in the dark as the woman in the seat behind me continues in a soliloquy in which she has recently got out of prison, there was definitely something about being abducted by aliens and ultimately losing her “noodle.” I can believe that. Her doctor, it seems, took a piece of her skull, kept it for three years (until she she got out of prison) then put it back in. Our bus driver is winning the award so far for best announcements. She’s entertaining and her intonation could easily get score her a tidy sideline in making self-empowerment hypnosis tapes. Rest stops are snappy and there’s “time to git it… and git it to go… if you wanna git it.” This woman takes no shit – off-a anybody.