Tales from the Road: Moongrass: Forever etched

Published in the January 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine

by Tom McKay

This fall, I spent six weeks in a van with four other dudes. We drove through nine states, played 22 shows, burned through thousands of dollars in gasoline, and walked away with a small financial loss and a handful of strange memories. The following is the tale of one 24-hour stretch about a third of the way into the tour.

We had been camping in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, outside of Redding, CA, for a few days now. We had some time between shows, so we jumped on the cheap accommodations and the chance to drink lakeside and work on our tans. It had been gorgeously sunny, reaching into the upper 90s as we sat around drinking wine all day and reading. We were about two weeks into the tour and were coming off of a really rough string of Oregon shows ranging from ill-attended to completely empty, so we were happy to take the opportunity for a break. Gear was reorganized, attitudes were readjusted, weary spirits were rested.

We played a show that Wednesday at Vintage Wine Bar in Redding, which was fairly well-attended. One particular audience member was quite enthusiastic, and invited us to his home in the canyon for steaks and beers. Needless to say, we accepted the invite, driven by his warm response to the music and our desire for free meals. Michael was a lovely host, showing us around his gorgeous home and feeding and drinking us well. His children were energetic and hilarious, taking us down to the creek and showing off their bridges and swings. A fine evening with fine company, we swapped stories and drank beer until well past dark, then retired to the camp.

The next night, our last in Whiskeytown and the start of our fateful 24 hours, was again clear, warm, and altogether unlike weather we have become accustomed to in our small damp burg of Bellingham. A few clouds had gathered earlier in the afternoon but soon blew away leaving the hot sun alone to glare down on us. We set up Settlers of Catan and uncorked a giant bottle of cheap wine. The sun was down by the time the game got underway, but most of us were equipped with headlamps. We finished the wine, polished off the whiskey, burned up all the firewood, and drifted off to our tents. I remember laying in my sleeping bag shortly before falling asleep, glad I left the rainfly off so I could watch the stars.

At 4 a.m. I was awoken by a drop of cold water to the face. I opened my eyes sleepily as the bottom dropped out of a tremendous thundercloud above us. In a panic, I lept from the tent in my underwear and dashed through the mud and rain to find the rainfly before our tent was totally flooded. By the time I dug it out of whatever bag it was in and wrangled the fly over our tent, I was soaked to the bone. Unfortunately, our tent, sleeping bags, and everything else inside was soaked as well. Taylor sat sleepily in the puddle gathering up important objects.

I covered as much of the crap we’d left outside as I could, toweled off in the rain, and put on all my dry clothes against the chill. I lay down in my sopping bag and did my best to sleep out the rest of the night amid thunderclaps and pounding rain. In the morning we tore down camp, packed muddy tents into bags and drove off cursing Whiskeytown and our false confidence in California weather.

That day we had a show with our good friends Be Calm Honcho in Davis, CA. Despite the lack of sleep, we were all very much looking forward to the show. They draw a great crowd in the Bay especially, and are a blast to play with. We set off down I-5,  the sun again beating down on the van.

I had left my jacket outside in the downpour the night before, and spread it out over my lap to dry some during the drive. I sat like this for about 20 minutes when I felt an uncomfortable scratching on the inside of my knee. Thinking nothing of it, I shifted the jacket slightly and resumed staring out the window. About 20 more minutes drifted by when I felt the same scratch, but a little further up my thigh. I lifted the jacket to reveal a hellishly big, yellow, scrambling insect crawling up my shorts. It was a Jerusalem Cricket, as I later had to nauseatedly google. It had stowed away in the pocket of my coat overnight, and chose to emerge now as we flew down the highway at 70 mph.

Obviously, I flipped out. Thank god I wasn’t driving. I squirmed and made quiet groaning/retching noises and knocked it off my leg and into my food bag, then slapped at it until it crawled out of my snacks and up onto the door. We finally pulled off into a McDonalds parking lot and kicked the terrifyingly unexpected passenger out. As we pulled the van around to get back onto the freeway, the front tire rolled over him with a shockingly loud crunch. I am sorry for how it ended, I think we both deserved better.

We arrived at the Motel 6, shaken and exhausted, and hung tents, bags, and jackets by the pool to dry. Once all this was done and we had all showered, it seemed like things were back on track. A terrible morning had turned into a fine day, as the sun shone on downtown Davis and we searched for parking.

Davis was congested with college kids, and we circled the venue for a good 25 minutes before finding a spot that would accommodate our van. We slogged our gear a few blocks to the venue, Sophia’s Thai Kitchen, through a mess of young people having a good time. Load in was also a bear, since the stage was covered with people eating dinner when we arrived. Our pile of gear has grown immensely in the last few years, and takes concentrated effort to store for any period of time. We managed to successfully wait out the diners, set up, soundcheck, and eat dinner before we went on at 9:30.

When we walked up on stage, we were surprised to find a whole crowd of people there to listen. Our set was short, tight, high-energy. The crowd was comprised mostly of young beautiful women who danced and cheered enthusiastically. What a morale boost!

Be Calm Honcho took the stage after and destroyed us with a blistering set of their surf-psych-art-pop. They were a well tuned machine, and held the crowd in the palm of their hands. It was a wonderful night, in which we made lots of money and were adored by adorable young people.

The next day we would drive to Santa Cruz, and then on to LA, and on and on through the American West circling our way slowly back to home. We experienced many peaks and many more valleys, morale waxing and waning regularly as we continually played shows and drove through towns. The highs and lows of that one day in the central valley of California, however, are unmatched in drama. I’ve been home now for a month and the emotions of the trip have faded, but the face of the Jerusalem Cricket will remain forever etched upon my mind.