In this Crazy Tour Stories segment, the electro pop band, What If Elephants, shares one of their stories from being on the road. You can check out the story, after the break.
I was a pretty good student in college (Cegep in Quebec). I was studying music in a 3 year jazz performance program because I thought it was something pretty cool to do outside of high school, but ever since I was 12 I had my heart set on the road. All I ever dreamt about was touring – I had vivid daydreams of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy and the mad Beat Generation hitch hiking their way across America. I would space out for hours wondering what it had been like for the Sex Pistols to tour in the U.K. being banned from venues, and venturing off to America for the first time. Even today, I get sentimental and lost in my thoughts when I hear Matt Healy of The 1975 sing, “The first time we went to Japan, it was the best thing that ever happened.” It feels to me, like the brief periods of time when I’m present, when I can genuinely disconnect and be in the moment, only happen when I’m on the road.
There was a time when I was in between bands, and there were alarm bells ringing in my head – I always took that at a sign that it was time to shake things up. My body had gotten tired and I needed to wake it up. I called up my friends who were coming through Montreal on their way to the East Coast leg of their tour. They were heading up to Alma, QC, and as far east as Halifax. I asked if I could hop in the van for the 10 days as a ‘tour manager’ – but really I was just acting as the band dad.
When I’m on the road, it’s like every part of my body in engaged and I’m afraid of missing anything so I sleep very little, always excited to take the wheel, or hang in the front seat to make sure the driver doesn’t fall asleep. I’ve gotten to know some of my friends in such a deep way through conversations we would have, driving for hours in the dead of night and slowly revealing truths that we’ve kept locked up tightly for most our lives. There is a divine spirit that makes itself available when the rest of the world is asleep.
I was pulling my weight on that tour. Before we left I bought cans of soup, beans, and anything that I could heat up on a hot plate. After shows I’d cook soup for the band, I hustled merch, and by the time we were halfway through the run, spirits were high, bellies were full and there was actual money in the money-box.
I may have exaggerated my relationship with sleep on tour. We stayed for a few days at a friends place in Halifax and for reasons that I will not share, I could not stay in that house. Last time I was in a house like that on tour, I fell sick for 3 days and there is nothing more hellish than fighting off a fever in the back a van not knowing when your next shower will be.
So for those few days, I slept alone in the van. It was Halifax in November and it was terribly cold at night. The van can get warm and cozy when there are others there with you – but alone, you’re basically sleeping in an ice box.
I would wander the streets until about midnight, try to sleep in the van, freeze all night, and make my way to a local cafe that opened up at 5am to watch the university kids hustle to class while I would sip coffee, imagining what my life would have been like had I grown up here.
After a night in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on our way back towards Montreal, I was completely exhausted and running on auto-pilot. It was one of the few times in my touring history where I relinquished the front seat, climbed into the back, and laid down to get some sleep. I must have slept 10 hours in the past 3 or 4 days and I was ready to pass out.
It must have only been a few hours when I hear the guys up front, “Oh man, what are we going to do.” “How did we end up here?” “This is not good.” “Collin, Collin, wake up.”
“What is it guys, everything alright?”
“Dude, we’re at the U.S. border.”
None of us had passports, and there was no way the border guards were going to be happy with a van of 7 greasy 20 something’s showing up at 3am. This band already had had some bad experiences crossing the border and they did not want to do deal with that again. Also, I get incredibly anxious crossing borders – no idea why.
We pulled over about 200-300 yards from the border. It was dead quiet (it was like a Tuesday night at 3am at what I would guess was not a popular border crossing), so it seemed like no one was looking at us.
“Okay, what if we throw out whatever we can’t bring across, and just tell them we got there by accident? We took a wrong turn and we just want to turn back.”
Silence. Half the band was tired-eyed, setting in their bench, unfazed by the whole thing. They were not throwing anything out.
The van was a 12 passenger Ford Econoline in navy blue, with a black trailer attached to it to store the gear.
“Or, what if we just turn around?” I brought up.
We were on a highway that was 2 lanes leading to the US, then a grass ditch separating the two lanes that headed into Canada.
“It’s pitch black, it’s going to be super hard to turn this thing, and no one will be able to see us. If a car comes, they’re going to smoke us at 70km/h – we’ll be invisible. Then we’re going to drive against traffic for who knows how long.”
“Fine, then let’s throw out the stuff out and tell them we made a wrong turn.”
“Fine,” the driver said looking at me, “you guide me and let us pray nobody comes.”
It was decided, we’ll be doing a u-turn in the black of night with this giant van and trailer. It was a death trap but we were confident. It was the invincibility of youth and honestly what was the worst that could happen?
We had shut off our lights long ago in fear that a border guard might get curious and drive out to see what the hell was going on and thus it began.
For 3 of the longest minutes of my life, I helped the singer turn the van around.
“K, go” He’d advance then stop right before the ditch. “Back up!” As he’d try to get the right angle the van needed so that the trailer would be able to make the turn with out us breaking the hitch. “Forward.” He’d advance, no more than a few feet at a time as my heart raced and my eyes jetted down the highway looking for cars, and then to the border to make sure no one noticed – how was no one noticing this very obvious suspicious and insane act taking place this close to the US border?
The minutes passed so slow, the van even slower until it finished its wide turn that appeared to stretch across the entire highway the way a hand desperately grabs for something out of reach and with one last hit of the gas it was done. “We did! Let’s go!”
He pulled over to the side, facing traffic, and I hopped back into the van. The other guys were still, unfazed – I thought they were nuts. “How are you guys not freaking out right now?”
“What’s there to freak out about?”
We drove slowly on the shoulder, lights off, hoping that no US patrol car was following us. That’s last thing we wanted to do was have to U-Turn the van back around and pass customs. We crept slowly on the shoulder for a few minutes until there was a break in the ditch. It was a road that was used by snow plows or patrol cars that cut across the highway so we went for it and just drove in silence for 30 minutes towards Canada, finally on the right side of the road.
Suddenly the van stops. The driver gets out, takes the GPS and proceeds to smash it in eerie silence at 4:30 in the morning. No one said a word and we continued our drive in silence.
It was in a time where we all only had flip phones with no internet connection, and that was our only GPS.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Someone asked.
“I’ll figure it out.”
Written by Collin Steinz