Some days, I am so far from where I want to be that the acute awareness of my own robotic biological functions is crippling. I feel hunger as a basic instinct and eat joylessly, the desire to impress others is a base function that I shirk fully, and despair is a second-tier response to recognizing my own basic needs.
Other days, I am driving across the Oklahoma plains at eighty-five miles an hour, a blue norther blowing into the passenger side of the car with winds twenty degrees colder than the ambient air. I take a sip of coffee from my trusted thermos, and it has reached a temperature just this side of lukewarm. The temperature that hits my taste buds and my synapses at the same time and invokes a hundred fuzzy memories—driving across a peninsula in Maine at sunrise, sitting on a glacial gravel bar in the Arctic Circle during a late lunch, running late to a business meeting in Dallas rush hour traffic. It tastes like motion and discomfort. It feels like possibility. You cannot see your reflection in moving water.
All-terrain tires hum loudly on the pavement, the wind howls and body slams the side of my truck, the stereo plays feebly at a volume that is audible but not distinct. I am, in this moment, whole. I know where I am going, but I do not know what will happen when I get there.
When you feel possibility, you can forget the slights, the near-misses, the utter disappointments. You silence your brain’s low-grade insistence that so-and-so was a perfect partner if only the timing or your own courage had been better. You forget that you only exist because your parents needed something to fill the terrifying time and space in their lives. You feel like the richest person on the planet with your dog by your side and a bike strapped to the back of your truck.
I let myself in to my favorite AirBnB in Tulsa, Oklahoma—a truly preposterous thing to even be able to say—and walk the block with Hank. Christmas lights twinkle and we discuss light-up dog collars with an older woman walking her small dog.
“I hired a girl today who I realized was born after I got my first personal computer. Windows 95, do you remember that? Back when you had dial-up internet and you were lucky to get a single page loaded in a minute.”
“I do,” I reply, and I mimic the unforgettable noises of dial-up internet which will soon be unintelligible to the majority of our workforce.
“Well, she’s better at computers than I am. And when I got frustrated at my internet moving a little slow today, I just paused and remembered the dial-up days. We have it so good that we think the smallest thing is bad, don’t we?”
I go to my favorite pizza restaurant in Oklahoma and eat an entire pizza and drink a beer at the bar. It is a packed Friday night and there is a long wait, but there is a solo seat wedged between a couple on a date and a group of women out having appetizers and drinks. Spending money you don’t really have on other people feels like a desperate post-capitalistic mating ritual. Spending money you don’t really have on yourself is a perfect reminder of the relative value of currency. Yes, I’d love the five-dollar imported mozzarella on that. What’s spending money if you don’t like how you’re spending time.
I wake up early and go to my favorite coffee shop in Tulsa; another thing I never thought I’d have. Hank is a celebrity here, and the owner is overjoyed to see him. He personally pulls my espresso and I start the day feeling that perfect balance of seen and anonymous. Just as Cirque Coffee won’t always be as ascendant-but-hungry, I cannot always be this perfect balance of here-today-gone-tomorrow, back-someday-sooner-or-later. But for now, we are all here, and we talk about dogs and coffee before I put on my bike gear on in the bathroom and head for a cyclocross race on the wind-whipped plains of Broken Arrow.
After a day full of races, I race across the state to see one of my favorite musicians in concert. Saturday night at the Tower Theatre, a plainsman singing songs in the capital of the plains. But first, Hank and I settle into our room. Outside, dogs bark and the wind whistles. Arriving in a new place under cover of darkness is always disorienting; we could be almost anywhere, and I have to remind myself that beyond the unfamiliar walls is the tangle of neighborhoods known as Oklahoma City. I walk down the street to a café and order a mezcal cocktail and a heaping plate of hot food. After spending all day in the elements with precious little food or water, this indulgence is even sweeter. When the mezcal is gone, Jesse the bartender asks what else I’m having. I consider the winter cocktail list while he interjects, “What I want to do is make you a White Christmas but with McLellan’s 15 instead of the bourbon. No extra charge.”
There is no phrase that makes a person feel more seen. For this meal, I get to laugh with the bartenders at the picky patrons of this quirky spot. I get nicer liquors, no extra charge. I am alone, so I can enjoy my extra round and watch The Abominable Snowman on the television above the bar in peace. My mind fills with McLellan’s and tiptoes through The Land of Misfit Toys. It seems like a place I would enjoy, somewhere on the far reaches of the earth, where only an anachronistic few can go.
I pay my tab and leave all of the money I saved—no extra charge—in the form of a large tip. There is no greater privilege than spending all of the money you don’t have on things that make you feel understood; the unappreciated craft of a cocktail, the music and words you treasure on vinyl and in hardback. Concert tickets and cheap beer.
I walk through the city towards the Theatre, right on schedule to be radically early. I step through the front doors and I am home. Everyone here shares an earnest appreciation for the complexities of Colter Wall’s music—the historically-accurate tales of Wild Bill Hickock and the riches of a man who has nothing but
My John B. Stetson
Got a bottle full of baby’s bluebird wine
And I left my stash
Somewhere down in Preston
Along with thirteen silver dollars and my mind
When he bursts into this chorus, there is a transcendent moment in the tiny concert hall in Oklahoma City. Cowboy hats wave, boots stomp, people holler. They know what it means to have nothing and to have everything. Hearty toasts are exchanged, and my new friend who is a union pipe worker (Local 419) brings another round of Pabst Blue Ribbon beers to me and his friend from their college rugby team. We will never be able to go back to this moment, when the perfect amount of drinks and songs and lonesome folk were gathered in one room, when Colter Wall was not yet as famous as he someday will be, when he was as overwhelmed by the crowd as they were by him. When the crowd disperses, my new friends share their phone numbers and invite me to their place to continue the revelry, but it is clear that the night is already over, the magic fading as quickly as the house lights turned back on at the end of the show.
The next morning, Hank and I are among the first five customers at my favorite coffee shop in Oklahoma City. I slip into a seat out front even though it is twenty-nine degrees outside; the sun is shining and I want to sip a cappuccino in silence with my best friend. When the owner steps out to bring me my sandwich, she apologies profusely for a micro coating of dust on the tabletop. I reassure her that I did not even notice, and that certainly nobody working there expected anyone to be sitting outside today. Besides, in the plains, there is a micro coating of dust on everything. It is why I have my lifelong habit of rinsing out even clean glassware before filling it with a drink.
Back in Tulsa on Tuesday night, I stop in to my favorite brewery in the country for a veggie burger and a beer. Another one of my all-time favorite musicians is playing in Oklahoma tonight, a mere five days after Colter, at what well may be my favorite concert venue on the planet. Work hard, ride bikes harder, drive a while, indulge in great food and drink, and completely forget my existential meltdown for a few hours in another honky tonk in another forgotten town.
If Colter Wall in Oklahoma City was a fleeting inflection point in an ascendant artist’s timeline, Tyler Childers at Cain’s Ballroom was a barnburner at the peak. From the moment he stepped on stage, the crowd was rowdy and sang every word in a way that made him grin in disbelief and made me believe that there are at least a few hundred other people who find sweet release in songs about heartache and metaphysics played over banjos. Standing on the legendary hardwood in Cain’s, I knew I was a part of something fleeting and beautiful. For a blissful few hours, there was nothing in the world but music and revelry and the priceless currency of knowing every word and singing in unison with other people who also value this music and lyrics.