by Jenner Fox
Physically “hitting the wall” doesn’t happen on most band tours.
And the four musicians on the “Planet I’m From” tour were picked because they are some of the finest players and humans I know, not necessarily for any particular cycling prowess…
Day four of the tour found us riding 55 miles non stop from Santa Rosa, CA to an afternoon concert in Inverness. The final mile was a 20% grade hill, and on that hill each one of us “hit the wall,” completely unable to ride or walk our bikes any further. And there’s a certain beautiful and unforgettable look in one’s eyes when that line is crossed.
The tour goal: Perform 8 album release concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area, traveling roughly 40 miles per day with my four piece band from Oregon and Washington carrying all of our musical and personal gear on Xtracycle cargo e-bikes. And somewhere along the way, maybe convince ourselves and perhaps anyone else, that pedaling is a better way to go.
Initial reactions varied from, “That’s awesome, I wanna go” to “You’re nuts,” to “What about cars and safety, ” to “Why over complicate things?”
The fourth response gave me the most pause – is it not enough to wrangle a band into one-ness, to muster up a performance night after night that brings both joy and that ineffable sense of “I’m not alone?” Must we bike too?
Slow travel is counter-intuitive. Mapping software is designed to find the fastest routes from point A to B. And I think I too have been programmed to minimize the in-between.
A typical west coast tour is 4 nights – LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Interstate 5, gas station coffee, Subway sandwiches, staring at phones to pass the miles, maybe sleeping on a tour bus if you’re lucky. I’ve been there. I’ve showed up on some sidewalk in some city dazed and holding a bass amp. But what about the town of Sebastopol? What about the sleeping couple holding hands beneath their tarp by the side of the bike path in El Cerrito?
A two wheeled steerable machine that enlists the biggest human muscles to propel us slow pokes at four to five times the pace of walking.
Growing up in Palo Alto, CA I rode my bike everywhere. I can’t remember what kind I had, a bike was just a bike in those days.
My bike fell out of favor in high school when I got a girlfriend, a license, and a band with a regular downtown sidewalk gig. I took pride in packing drums and guitars into my mom’s old Subaru Outback, filling up $10 of gas at a time. Like many, I began to look at my bike as a toy, something you grow out of when you learn to drive.
Car-go bi-cy-cle (n)
An elongated two wheeled steerable machine made to transport loads.
Three years ago, my career as a van touring musician well underway, I rode my friend Jackson’s converted Xtracycle cargo bike for the first time in Massachusetts. He called it his “pickup truck.” It was smooth and maneuverable, and he assured me that a guitar and personal gear would fit easily. I returned a year later, strapped the guitar on, and toured by bicycle for three days through New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut. I remember I broke a chain between towns somewhere in New Hampshire. With no tools and very little “handiness,” I walked the bike and gear a few miles back to the closest town and asked around for help. I met strangers, I had to interact with them, we shared laughs. Eventually someone pointed me toward the local car mechanic notorious for cycling. After a generous dose of New England affection (shit giving), he fixed the chain and sent me off with his personal grease stained bike multi-tool to keep. Getting up on stage the next night, 90 miles of New England roads and trails later, I had a story to tell, something to give, and I was hooked.
Pe-dal a-ssist e-bike (n)
A bicycle with an electric motor that helps propel the bike in proportion to the force given to pedaling.
Xtracycle offered to sponsor my 2021 album release tour with four beautiful RFA e-bikes. As an avid cyclist, my ego immediately balked at the idea of an electric assist. Not necessary! But after talking with the band, the ultimatum was clear, e-bikes or no band. The electric assist allowed us to carry enough gear to be self-sufficient, and offset the 250-pound load making the 40+ mile days feel like we were riding regular bikes. I was quickly sold.
Our days focused on finding the balance between getting to our destination with enough time for four of us to shower and breathe before stepping on stage, and riding at a pace that could be maintained by everyone for 4-6 hours. I found it invaluable to have a physical routine on tour – to have to wake up before 9, hydrate, and ride. And the stage and the road began to mirror each other – looking over shoulders to check in, slowing down for anyone behind, digging in against crying quads to stay with the group, creating space in a song, listening intently to one another, giving it everything in those certain moments. Magic. 1+1=3. Camaraderie and trust are built quickly on bicycles, and it showed on the stage.
Xtracycle gave us a gift, they believed in the concept and the music, and asked essentially nothing in return for their bikes. And perhaps, the definition of a gift is the constellation of giving it sets off.
I remember stopping on a side street in Rohnert Park to pump a tire, and keyboardist Aaron Guest finding himself face to face with a red tail hawk, a silent staring contest, and what could only be described as communication.
I remember a lemonade stand in Santa Rosa that turned to beers when mom came out.
I remember the first time crossing the San Rafael bridge, the view too big and blue to comprehend.
I remember how easy and obvious it was to give all our snacks away to the person experiencing homelessness at the entrance to the Petaluma Whole Foods – no glass or metal separating our humanity.
I remember forgetting to turn on the plug strip for our bike battery chargers the night before a 50 mile ride from Palo Alto to Berkeley. Rain in Oakland. Arriving at the gig soaking wet and late. An hour later 90 people streaming in to sell out our final show. I remember Aaron Moore’s three minute bass solo that night, on his knees at the front of the stage, the audience howling.
I remember tears in a greenroom backstage, when the Jimmy Page edition Telecaster loaner guitar Jeremy Elliot had been using had a red bow on it, gifted to him by the stranger he met days ago. Jeremy’s face, that feeling of being seen and believed in.
I remember the hill that beat us in Inverness. I remember hitting the wall. But mostly I remember holding on to the passenger window of the car that towed me up still sitting on my bicycle seat, hooting and hollering at the beauty of being helped. I remember how it felt to be playing music together minutes later.
I remember the moments I couldn’t help smiling with self righteousness – passing bumper to bumper traffic on 101, not once looking for parking in San Francisco, all the frustrated and impatient horns outside the overstuffed grocery store in Woodside.
And most of all I remembered the immense beauty of the place where I grew up. The place I had left and come to associate with traffic and hassle. Along all the smooth bike paths I never knew existed, I rediscovered the redwoods east of Point Reyes, the oak trees and farmlands in Sonoma county, the islands that protrude from the bay and the skyscrapers shrouded in fog, the green hills, the smell of Eucalyptus, the faces of people, the burritos in the Mission District, and the little road I used to ride to high school.
Jenner Fox is a folk singer, river guide, and educator living in Sisters, OR. Visit jennerfox.com for more info, music, and tour dates.
Huge thanks to cycle.travel for the beautiful non-trafficked bike-friendly routes.
Even huger thanks to Xtracycle for the bicycles and belief.