Touring on Tour (Part 1): Hello Cleveland
Our friend James Joiner is currently touring across the United States with Modest Mouse, accompanying the band as their photographer. Along the way, he’s trying to sneak in as much riding as possible between live shows and travel days. Find his first in a series of reports from the road here…
Words and photos by James Joiner (@jjamesjoiner)
My feet hurt.
I mean, they should. I just finished the first leg of a cross-country tour, now beginning a day off in Cleveland, Ohio. I’m ready for a break – we left Eugene, Oregon, what feels like months ago, meandering our way across Nevada, into Los Angeles, back up through Utah, and over the Rockies. Almost lost someone to hypoxia near Telluride. Then Denver, across the plains to Saint Louis. Mostly hugging highways, mostly hung over.
All without once getting to throw a leg over my bike.
Oh, wait. You thought I pedaled that whole way? Ha! Not this time. I do have my bike with me, though, and fully intended to be riding the heck out of it until someone (you know who you are) lost the keys to the monster “New York Proof” padlock and chain securing the bike rack and bikes to the back of our tour bus. Which, naturally, happened on day one.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the road as a band/tour photographer and always try to bring my bike. It’s like having tours within a tour, exploring everywhere we stop. Plus, the added mobility does wonders for my mental health. One of the best and worst things about only working a couple of hours a night is having endless free days. Best, because who doesn’t love free time? Worst, because a combination of idle hands, sometimes heavy boredom, and a general lack of good judgment make it all too tempting for me to over-indulge in the ever-present self-medication options.
Contrary to Almost Famous, touring with a band is actually similar to bikepacking.
Your world becomes smaller, inwardly focused, and self-sufficient. People’s true character is revealed. You want to really get to know someone? Get ‘em on a bike and off the grid for a few days. Alternately, live in a tin can together for a few weeks sleeping stacked in bunks, waking up in foreign – yet eerily similar – parking lots while sharing a single much-abused venue shower day after day. Even the most rigid façade will crumbles quickly. Eventually, though, just as with a long bike trip, the brain adapts to insularity. The stress and concerns of ‘normal’ life fade in the rearview. There’s you, the road, and your crew. It’s life, simplified.
Some people are really good at it. Others, well… You’ve seen VH1 Behind the Music.
Without a bike it’s easy to fall into a rhythm of not leaving the area directly around the venue – you may cover thousands of miles, but you aren’t really seeing anything new. Having a bike changes that. To someone who loves nothing more than wandering aimlessly looking for weird stuff to take photos of, it’s a perfect pairing.
Like bikepacking, touring with a band has its own set of rules and etiquette.
Just as we’re taught to leave no trace in the woods, rule number one on the tour bus is “no number two on the bus.” Yes, there is a full-service toilet (and even a shower, though I’ve never seen one used for more than storage) but once you see what a couple of days of even the most meticulous number-oneing can do to it, it becomes crystal clear… well, more of a yellow glaze, why number two is a no-no.
Don’t worry, in emergencies, this rule can be circumvented with a hack called “hot bagging,” AKA pooping in a plastic bag and waiting for the next stop for disposal. That’s definitely a last resort maneuver, however.
Both types of touring are built around self-sufficiency.
On bikes, you resupply at convenience stores, or, if you’re lucky and have the cash, Whole Foods. Likewise, touring bands raid truck stops and especially a venue’s backstage green room, which is stocked with goodies from a pre-agreed-upon shopping list called a rider. The rider’s opulence is directly tied to the popularity of the band: smaller acts in smaller venues may get a 12 pack of Schlitz, a couple of bruised bananas, and a dodgy cold cut sandwich, while more established artists in larger rooms, such as the one I’m with, will have a treasure trove of healthy snacks, nut milks, and top-shelf booze.
While the former evokes the romance of rock ‘n’ roll subsistence, this 47-year-old heartily recommends the latter if given a choice. Remember bus rule number one? Multiply that suspect salami sandwich by 8-10 rugged rock and road dawgs and do the math. That’s a lot of urgently nocturnal nuclear number two with nowhere to go.
Okay, back to Cleveland.
A looming, industrial city. The architecture here leans heavily on brick and concrete, intensely constructed structures with an air of weary permanence. The last time I was here was to cover the RNC in 2015, a mission into the heart of darkness that went about well as you’d expect. I still wake up screaming sometimes. Today, I wake up to the bus parking in front of our downtown hotel – it’s a day off, so we’ll get to sleep in normal beds, shower, and set our bowels free. Stumbling into relative daylight and misty rain, someone presses a key into my hand.
After days of gathering road grime, our bikes are freed.
Energized by a six-shot latte and the thought of exploring, I rip the protective tarps from the bikes, fumble with locks, disentangle platform pedals from spokes, and pedal off toward a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
I have to admit that I had been fostering a fairly negative notion about Cleveland, calcified by my RNC experience. The first sign I was completely wrong came from the amount of space carved out for bikes on nearly every road, even downtown, coupled with the general courtesy shown by drivers. You can tell a lot about a city’s culture by how they treat their bikers and pedestrians, and Cleveland seems to be doing it right.
You can also tell a lot from their local bike shop.
It’s there, at the wonderfully named Joy Machines, that my wrongheaded perspective on Cleveland and, indeed, probably Ohio, was flipped. A Crust sticker and Tanglefoot frame in their window first caught my attention as I pedaled past and I almost rode into a parked truck mid-triple take. Pushing my bike through the front door, I immediately felt the comforting warmth that comes with finding your people in a strange place.
Owner/mechanic/bicycle evangelist Alex Nosse was quick to call out a cheery hello from behind row after row of in-the-know gear. Swift Industries and Ortlieb bags were piled on a table by the door, Voile straps cascaded down a slatwall. Brooks saddles, Safety Pizzas. The usual bike shop stuff was there, too, plus a ton of rad bikes, including their gorgeous Wilde cyclocross team frames. But it’s the little things in between that caught my attention. Locally made valve stem caps, the “no bad rides” stickers, the thoughtfully designed shop swag, plus artwork, stickers, and photos on every available surface. Joy Machines isn’t another corporate sales boutique designed to upsell cyclists into space-age rides they don’t need. They’re doing this out of love, and it shows.
One of my favorite things about exploring by bike, and I’m sure you’ve noticed this, is how, if you let them, rad things just sort of happen at the right time. Joy Machines and crew appeared out of nowhere and managed to completely alter my take on Cleveland, and in doing so definitely opened my eyes to seeing it in a new, far more enjoyable way as I spent the rest of the day pedaling around. It occurs to me as I write this that sort of thing has happened so many times. Admittedly a fault, I tend toward a cynical worldview, and yet am consistently surprised by how wrong I am. Lesson learned? Probably not, but I’m trying.
The following, morning we packed it all back up and bussed off to Lewiston, New York, a small town tucked in near Niagara Falls. More on that next week.
Rider’s Lens Grant
This piece was shot on Fuji X cameras. If you’re interested in photography and want a crack at getting some excellent camera gear and more, check out our new Rider’s Lens Grant! We’re giving away a FujiFilm X-T4, four Fuji X100Vs, a complete Tanglefoot Hardtack bicycle, photographic storytelling mentorship workshops, and cash to aspiring photographers who are passionate about documenting their bike travels and adventures. Full details here.
Stay tuned for a Rider’s Lens with James on Friday and more installments of Touring on Tour soon.
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