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November 2010 Entry
"The Power of Magical Thinking"
We all have our own brands of magical thinking, and mine brought me to this “pass,” as it were. While my supernatural beliefs do not include skygods or “visualization techniques,” they do embrace the equally irrational pursuits of dreaming, daring, and hoping. Those are the very qualities that made me believe I could do a concert tour of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, by motorcycle.
When the South American tour was being planned, for October, 2010, I started to dream about riding it; then I dared to think it out loud, and from then on, it was a matter of hope. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. My longtime riding partner, Brutus, would handle the route planning and logistics (even traveling to Brazil ten days early to do “advance reconnaissance”), and ride with me. For myself, I would provide the opportunity, by performing on the drums with Rush in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Santiago (to earn our “gas money”), and I would provide and prepare my two BMW R1200 GS motorcycles, with fresh oil and tires, heavy-duty luggage cases, kits for tools, tires, and first aid, and spare gas cans.
In the past Brutus and I had both done a considerable amount of adventure traveling by motorcycle, often together. We knew how to prepare for a trip like that, and how to improvise around various obstacles along the way. But still—we would also need to be lucky. That’s where the magical thinking came in.
It would be my first time motorcycling in South America, and the first time I had tried to combine “adventure travel” and “business travel.” A bicycle tour in China in 1985 introduced me to adventure travel, and led to further journeys on pedalled two-wheelers, in Europe, North America, and many countries in West Africa. On concert tours, I had used bicycles and motorcycles as a kind of “getaway vehicle” for many years, but until now I had always kept the adventure travel separate from the business travel.
As the dates in South America drew nearer, I admit I was increasingly nervous about it, defining my feelings as “anticipation and apprehension—in about equal measure.” Hope and fear, in other words. In the van from the airport to the first hotel, in Campinas, near São Paulo, being driven (and armed-guarded) along the dark highway, I even felt a little dread. After the first show, in São Paulo, when Brutus and I started riding, it felt like I had a knot in my stomach, and I carried that anxiety with me the whole way. There were many times when I thought, “This was a bad idea.”
Many others would have agreed with me, and had always thought it was a bad idea—my wife, Carrie, for example. When she got wind of my plans to ride to the South American shows, she was appalled and incredulous. My mother didn’t like the idea either. My American riding partner, Michael, who I have also described as my “Director of Homeland Security” (which surely includes me) tried to discourage me. Manager Ray and bandmates Alex and Geddy must have had their reservations, but wisely left them unspoken (they know I can be impossibly stubborn, perhaps especially when I am in the grip of a bad idea). Agents and promoters and crew members would have felt concern for their livelihoods.
But what could I do?
Seriously, as soon as I saw the itinerary, with four days off between the Brazil shows and Buenos Aires, and once Brutus had done some preliminary mapwork and determined that it could be done, it seemed like I didn’t have a choice. It was a perfect example of the kind of decision that just seems obvious to me: I have four days off between those South American shows; what’s the most excellent thing I can do in those four days?
Why, ride my motorcycle there, of course.
As if it would be that easy.
I conceded to my well-wishers (and my own selfish preference for survival) that we wouldn’t ride in any of the big cities, or to the giant soccer stadiums where we would be performing. Apparently Brutus and I had more than traffic to fear there—like robbers, muggers, and kidnappers (oh my!)—so we would stage ourselves somewhere within an hour of those job-sites, then shuttle in and out of the cities by van, accompanied by Michael.
It all ought to work, as long as nothing went wrong. That was the act of faith—and magical thinking: dream; dare; hope . . .
Brutus and me in Argentina’s Wine Country
As mentioned, Brutus and I had shared many adventure travels on motorcycles—to Arctic Canada, around Mexico, and even from Europe to North Africa, and the edge of the Sahara. And on each of those journeys, something unexpected had occurred—a mechanical problem, bad weather, a crash—that had delayed us for a day or two, and changed our plans. When an adventure trip is interrupted like that, you just stop and deal with whatever you have to, and make new plans to suit.
But we had no flexibility for anything like that this time.
On the “business travel” side, I have been motorcycling to concerts for fourteen years—hundreds of shows and tens of thousands of miles—and have yet to be late even for a soundcheck, let alone a show. However, this time I would not have the “support crew” of a bus and trailer in the general vicinity (following the interstates while I explored the back roads). No spare bike, no BMW Roadside Assistance and well-placed dealers, none of the “easy” rescues available in North America and Western Europe. We would be pretty much on our own.
As I wrote to Brutus early on, when he was painstakingly researching and planning the journey (for about six months), “You know that a lot is ‘riding’ on this little venture of ours, and NOTHING can go wrong.”
He needed no reminding, of course, but perhaps it was another kind of magical thinking to state it so plainly—a talisman to ward off the Evil Eye.
We did have a real “guardian angel” watching over us. Michael installed satellite tracking devices on our bikes, and while he traveled by air, with the band and crew, he could check his computer screen and follow our “breadcrumbs” (that’s what they call the electronic tracks we left, in that curious, playful imagery that sometimes emerges from high-tech language—a contradiction that has fascinated me at least since writing the lyrics for our song “Vital Signs” in that style, in 1980).
It was kind of eerie to feel that you were being watched like that (once a day at least, I would look up at the sky, raise a fist, and say bad words at Michael), but it was reassuring, too. If any trouble did come our way, we would want as much help as we could get, as soon as we could get it.
The first day, navigating through the teeming traffic of Campinas, I felt like we were riding two ponies through a vast buffalo herd of cars, with trucks like elephants towering above, and swarms of gnat-like little motorbikes swarming all around.
From Campinas to the Rio de Janeiro area, then back through São Paulo and south, we traveled mainly four-lane motorways for long stretches, because we had so much distance to cover. As Brutus had warned me, trucks outnumbered cars by about ten to one, but the drivers seemed good, and we were able to pass easily on those roads. However, there were a lot of tollbooths (fifteen in just one day’s travel), and in negotiating those, Brutus and I followed the same ritual that Michael and I always did in the U.S. Brutus pulled up by the toll window, and I stopped on his right. (Roadcraft tip: Avoid the greasy strip in the middle, where cars and trucks have dripped, especially on wet days.) While Brutus paid both tolls, the attendant raised the barrier once and waved me through, then a second time for Brutus—while he was collecting change and receipt, pulling on his gloves, and getting the bike in gear.
Away from the freeways (well, tollways), things were much more lively and picturesque, of course. Here is Brutus on the road up to Petrópolis, a beautiful colonial city nestled in the mountainous rainforest north of Rio de Janeiro.
Typically, perhaps, things really started getting interesting when we became horribly lost—in southern Brazil, on the second day of our four-day odyssey to Buenos Aires. Back in Campinas, before we set out, Michael and Brutus had spent many, many hours (and many caipirinhas—Brazil’s national cocktail) working on our GPS units (a trio known as Doofus, Dingus, and Dork, while the computer program that maps their routes is called Mother).
After all that online work, and several long telephone calls to the manufacturer, the units worked fine for the 515 kilometers (322 miles) from São Paulo to Petrópolis, then 550 miles (a long day) south to another good-sized city, Curitiba. But shortly after leaving there, they began to “wander.” Something similar had happened to Brutus and me a few years previously, in Poland and the former East Germany, and then as now, the purple line of our route remained on the screen—if not exactly on the road we were on, then near enough that we could navigate by it. This time we just figured we were riding through another poorly-mapped area, and the GPS units would eventually steer us right. (Magical thinking again.)
We knew that generally we had to work our way west-southwest, toward the Uruguay River. There was only one bridge in that part of the country, where we would cross and carry on west-southwest to the Argentina border. As we rode along, we glanced occasionally at the purple line on the little screen, or switched it to the “compass” function, to see that we were still tending in the right compass direction. We figured we couldn’t go too far wrong.
Until about this point. Riding out of one small town, the paved road petered out into a dirt track running along the wide brownish-green river to our left. It was late in the day, with nearly 400 miles behind us, and the shadows were growing long as the sun headed for bed. Still there was no bridge in sight—and no bed in sight, for us. Of course we had paper maps with us, but they were no use just then—because there were no towns, no signs, nothing to go by, and no people to ask. The best idea we could agree on was to make our way north toward where the paved road ought to be, and take it from there. The knot in my stomach was growing, and I said to myself, in roughly these words, “We are fornicated.”
Even once we found our way to that paved road, we were confused, thinking we still had to go farther west along the river. So we headed that way, following a delightful winding two-lane along a ridge overlooking green valleys of woods and farmland, with only occasional trucks to pass. We didn’t realize yet that we were still very lost, so we were enjoying a lovely late-afternoon ride. The Uruguay occasionally appeared in the distance—to the south, just where it ought to be. And yes, the purple lines on Dingus and Dork continued to assure us we were headed in the right general direction. (Idiots—them and us. They also often showed us riding in the middle of the river—a motorcycle icon in a field of blue—which should perhaps have alerted us to the machine’s utter lostness. Michael would tell us later that as he watched our wandering breadcrumbs, he wished he could shout “down” at us, “You’re really lost!”)
As we rode through a small town called Itapiranga, the road suddenly dwindled to rough dirt once more, the trees shadowing darkly overhead, and we stopped and opened up the map again. Now that we knew where we were, exactly, we could see how badly we were lost, exactly. We had missed the turn for the bridge some hours before, and now were in the farthest corner of Brazil, with the river to our south, and, immediately west of us, the Argentina border running north and south. No roads crossed that frontier, or that river—and I knew right away what we should do.
“We’ll stop here,” I said, pointing back up the road to Itapiranga, “It was a nice-looking town—it might have a hotel.”
“Yeah,” Brutus said, “Then tomorrow—”
I cut him off, “Fornicate tomorrow—let’s look after today first.” (Roadcraft.)
As I led us back along the main street, I pointed up at a sign, in Gothic script, “Hotel Mauá.” For a town of only 13,000 people, laying “at the end of the road” in more ways than one, the hotel was absolutely fine—small, austere, and scrupulously clean, much like you might come across in rural Austria, say, and with safe covered parking for the motorcycles.
I had noticed a couple of restaurants in town, too, and we walked to a casual outdoor place, much like you might come across in small-town Italy. Speakers played music in a fetching hybrid of Brazilian and West African styles, and I had to ask our waiter to write down the names of the artists—handing him my notebook and making him understand about “música.” Subtropical night, good hotel, outdoor dining, intriguing music—everything was working out all right now.
As I stood on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant talking to Carrie on my cell phone (which miraculously worked perfectly in that remote corner of Brazil), Brutus was talking in pidgin Portuguese with some locals. He learned there was a balsa—a ferry—right in Itapiranga, and in the morning we could take it to the other side of that major barrier without having to backtrack several hours. From there we could try to navigate (the old-fashioned paper way) to our border crossing, San Borja.
On the hotel’s balcony, Brutus and I had arranged a still-life array of all of our “handheld devices” (still would have made a great tour name, as I have remarked before): cell phone, satellite phone, Nextel radio-phone, satellite tracking device (Michael’s “eye on the breadcrumbs”), GPS idiot, paper map, and camera. (For “verisimilitude,” we also added a whisky glass and a pack of Red Apples, as other important handheld devices.)
In contrast to that display of high technology, Brutus stayed up late with the paper maps, copying down village names, distances, and (where possible) road numbers onto sheets of paper, for the tankbag map-holders. (That’s the kind of GPS I call “Get a Pen, Stupid.”)
My room, with its little balcony, upstairs at the Hotel Mauá, Itapiranga, Brazil—
In the foreground, the idiot Dingus displays the motorcycle icon, representing me,
in the middle of the river
Up at sunrise, as we were on so many of those long traveling days, we had some bread and coffee at the hotel, loaded up the bikes, and headed down to the ferry landing. The balsa was just a small barge driven by an outboard-powered launch, but within a few minutes it had carried us across the expanse of river, shining blue over greenish-brown on that sunny morning, and we were immediately—lost again.
There was no there there, just a few small houses and a two-block grid of narrow lanes, brown dirt and rocks (not gravel—rocks). We immediately resorted to the most primitive form of GPS—finding a person and saying the name of the next village we were trying to find (“Gaucha Vista?” in this case) repeatedly, and pointing up the road interrogatively. Basically, looking like idiots.
The only downside to that method is that you need people to ask, and they were scarce along the little dirt road, indistinguishable from driveways and farm tracks leading off in different directions. We often paused to consider choices—and look at our GPS compasses (“the idiots,” as I routinely called those units now, and Brutus sneeringly referred to his as “the thousand-dollar compass.”) There were no road signs, of course—not one—and as I have remarked before about such unmarked tracks in Africa or Mexico, even when you’re on the right road, you have no way of knowing it.
There was a certain extra anxiety about that day, too, as we really needed to get to the border crossing, in San Borja, as early as we could. The promoter had arranged to have an agent meet us there and help with our “formalities,” and we were supposed to be there by noon. And there was still such a long way to go to Buenos Aires in the next two days.
But soon we encountered an important truth about Brazil—several truths, in fact. Sure, we were lost on a rough road in an isolated rural area, but Michael and I had found ourselves in that exact situation many times right in the United States. And similar to what happened then, once Brutus and I flailed our way out from the “beaten tracks” of that isolated rural pocket, we were on a nicely-paved two-lane, with little traffic, passing through pretty countryside.
One telling detail: along that dirt road, near the river, I saw a man driving a single-furrow plow with a pair of oxen, yet less than an hour later, along the paved road, we passed huge farms, and I saw many big, modern John Deere tractors and shiny green combine harvesters with sixty-foot blades. Subsistence farming might be the economic reality in such isolated, backwater areas, but even in the same region, those Iron-age corners coexisted with large-scale mechanization and urbanization along the main roads and towns, all very much of the present day. Brutus and I saw undeveloped pockets in Brazil, and later, in Argentina too, but you certainly wouldn’t say the countries were undeveloped—quite the contrary.
Most stories of motorcycle adventures in South America I have read have been concerned with getting through it—marathon riders traveling the Panamerican Highway from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, for example. But I soon realized that you could certainly make a nice tour around South America. Those thin red roads, as they were shown on the GuiaQuatroRodas maps, were the key, and unlike São Paulo and Rio, the smaller cities and towns were entirely civilized and welcoming.
My own capsule definition for what some term “the Third World” is: “any place where the air is redolent of human waste.” (The reader may translate that freely.) Such a definition necessarily includes much of China, sub-Saharan Africa, and even parts of southern Europe—rural towns in Italy and Greece, for example. (It doesn’t mean I don’t love some of those places—I do—it just means they smell.)
In Latin America, only the biggest cities seem to fall under that rancid rubric—São Paulo, Rio, Mexico City—and then only because they are such magnets for hopeful young people. Magical thinkers. They dreamed; they dared; they hoped.
In the late ’90s, I visited Mexico City fairly often, and I learned that every single day, 1,000 new people arrived there—leaving their villages and towns and seeking a better future, carrying nothing but strong arms and hope. One thousand people a day—how could any city handle that sort of influx? To their compassionate credit, Mexico City tried—bringing electricity and piped water to the ever-growing shanty-towns (as opposed to burning them out, as the U.S. government did in the 1930s)—but it could never be enough.
In such a confused megalopolis, expanding daily beyond any possibility of equal infrastructure, there will be bad smells—and bad behavior: crime. On the one hand, the cities are helpless to provide the necessary “facilities” for their new citizens, while the very rootlessness and helplessness of the newcomers alienates them from the sense of community—of home—that would otherwise govern, or at least moderate, their behavior.
All in all, it’s pretty much a perfect recipe for disaster—stewed in its own smelly juices.
Brazilian Cruise photo by Brutus
A tiny town like Itapiranga does not appear in the tourist guidebooks. Even in the vast and seemingly all-inclusive online resources, the most information to be found is that Itapiranga is “the westernmost municipality in the Brazilian province of Santa Catarina.” Yet it was a clean, pretty, friendly place, with entirely adequate accommodations and nourishment for visitors, and Itapiranga lay at the end of some pretty nice motorcycling roads, too.
More than anything, it seemed like a miracle that we found Itapiranga just when that long, wearying day was growing dark. We had nowhere else to go—and there it was.
As stated at the outset, I believe that everybody has their own version of magical thinking. My own “dream, dare, hope” approach to life is not based upon reason; it’s a kind of faith—that I will be able to accomplish something about which I dare to dream. I once called it “Tryism,” believing that if I tried hard enough at something, it would eventually yield and come to pass. The fact that such an approach sometimes works is no empirical proof of its truth, per se. I am reminded of a conversation I had after I hit a deer on my motorcycle (“Every Road Has Its Toll,” June, 2007). After that scare, I did some serious research about defensive measures such as deer whistles, which emit a high-pitched sound that’s supposed to repel deer. I soon learned that those devices had been proved ineffective at best, and an actual lure at worst. When I reported that to one friend, he said, “Well, I’ve got them on my van, and I’ve never hit a deer.”
Well, that settles it, then. (Like a doctor who was dismissing suspected links between vaccinations and autism: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’”)
But of course that kind of subjective warp is just one variation of a human theme that ranges from four-leaf clovers and curative bracelets to skygod temples like this one, in Petrópolis, Brazil.
In the incredible scope of impossibilities embraced by human faith (by definition, whichever one is correct, the others are thus “impossible”), it seems that the more outlandish those beliefs become, the greater are the cries of “intolerance” and pleas for “respect.”
During the North American part of the Time Machine tour, over our post-ride cocktails and dinners, Michael and I had discussed that topic at length—the scale and power of magical thinking. (Our conversations aren’t all gay banter and profanity—or at least they also contain the names of German philosophers and English metaphysical poets). The subject of faith often came up when we had been riding in southern Tennessee, say, or even Pennsylvania (something of a southern state itself, I’ve come to think, outside of the cities). We would feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of churches and church signs, and the in-your-face billboards and bumper stickers, plus the prevalence of “boutique churches.” Sometimes it seemed like every rural crossroads had three or four cinder-block churches, mostly different splinters of the Baptist cross.
“Tax them all,” Michael says, and I would agree—churches are products, after all, like alcohol and tobacco, that provide a service which some find comforting, and others find reprehensible. Call it a “sin tax.”
As for tolerance and respect, we agree that tolerance is necessary—people can believe the crazy fecal matter of their choice—but we’re not sure about respect.
Those who attribute spiritual power to geological formations, a humorless deity, or articles of clothing (think Catholic, Hasidic, Mormon, or Buddhist) are difficult to respect—not so much for their “magic,” but for their vanity.
Fundamentalists of every stripe, and likewise conspiracy theorists, are pretty much impossible to respect, especially if they preach violence—pain to others, the real first deadly sin.
In terms of my simple moral compass (though like Dingus, it too was expensive to acquire!), if the greatest evils to an individual are pain, fear, and worry, then it stands to reason that the worst things you can inflict on another human being are pain, fear, and worry.
(One admirable part of the “gentleman’s code” I ran across somewhere years ago was, “A gentleman never inflicts pain intentionally.” Likewise with fear and worry, I would think.)
Non-believers are always admonished to “respect” the beliefs of others, but are not respected in turn. Likewise, I don’t believe for a second that Mormons “respect” the beliefs of Scientologists, say, or that Jehovah’s Witnesses give equal weight to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Put ten believers from the major religions of the world in a circle, and their “thought balloons” are going to read the same as mine: “You believe that?”
I’m afraid tolerance is the best we can be expected to offer. People like that will just have to respect themselves . . .
But let’s return to the flying carpet ride of magical thinking in action, and the bridge across the Uruguay River between Brazil and Argentina at San Borja. It would be our first South American border crossing, and we were a little nervous. (Well, a little extra nervous.) We were met at the border gates by the tour promoter’s agent, Sergio, an amiable, bearish man, who spoke the necessary English, Portuguese, and Spanish. He had an assistant on the Brazilian side, and one on the Argentinian side, and they seemed to do the office-shuffling and line-waiting, which made the process much easier for Brutus and me—we just had to wait.
For a while we watched the computer monitor through the window of the Argentinian customs office, which was showing live footage of the rescue of the miners in Chile. For anyone not included in the estimated one billion people around the world who watched the events live, the short version is that in early August, 2010, a notoriously unsafe copper mine in northern Chile collapsed, trapping thirty-three miners half a mile underground, three miles from the mine’s entrance. A technological collaboration between NASA and the Chilean navy drilled boreholes down to the miners’ shelter, at first delivering food, then winching out the stranded miners, one at a time, in cylindrical pods, up a perilous fifteen-minute ascent.
Over the previous few days, Brutus and I had come to feel we were deep in South America. (Nothing like getting really lost to heighten that sensation.) At that point, we were also close to Chile, both geographically and with its appearance on our itinerary in a few days. For those reasons, the story felt even more poignant—more part of our world.
In the ongoing bureaucratic process that presently defined our world, even with three people on our side, it still took two hours for the officials to decide that all of our papers were in order and properly stamped and signed in triplicate. (Sergio told us the Argentina border controls were the slowest and strictest in South America.) By the time we were free to ride into Argentina, it was four o’clock, so we decided to run south for a couple of hours, then find a hotel before dark. The sky was gray, the air cool, and a few scattered showers were starting to spatter our windscreens.
(Of course, mid-October was springtime in the Southern Hemisphere, which took some getting used to mentally—and both Brutus and I had taken for granted that as we rode south, the weather would become warmer, when of course the opposite was true. Everything was all upside-down!)
Many things were immediately different in Argentina. We rode across the grassy plains called the Pampas, and the landscape resembled West Texas after a bit of rain—flat green grasslands patterned with occasional stunted, mesquite-like trees. A four-lane highway had been surveyed and partly constructed, but no recent work appeared to have been done. Traffic was almost exclusively trucks on the existing two lanes, and they often had to be passed in clumps of three or four at a time, as they bunched up in crawling, smoky convoys. But at least in flat, open country like that, visibility for passing was perfect.
Early in our Brazilian travels, tollbooths had been a constant interruption, but on the toll roads in Argentina, motorcycles were given free passage. However, we traded that for frequent barricades with soldiers and policemen slowing or stopping traffic. We were never questioned or searched, but a lot of truck and car drivers ahead of us were, some of them pulled aside for further scrutiny. As another indicator of the “undeveloped” (read “uncivilized,” I think) world, any country that interferes with the movements of its citizens, and gives its armed officers the right to stop and search any vehicle they choose, is corrupting freedom. The worst examples of such countries I have encountered were in West Africa, China, northern Mexico, and . . . the Southwestern United States. (Derek Lundy’s book Borderlands goes deeply into something I have experienced myself—the abuses the U.S. and border-state governments are perpetrating in the name of their citizens, and “Homeland Security.”)
Even though we were not personally bothered by the armed roadblocks, of course traffic was slowed every time, and we had to wait behind it. The other obstacles for us were many construction detours, leading us through muddy off-road loops, a slippery mess, often potholed and puddled from recent rains. We slithered around the trucks, which loomed over us like hippos in a mud-bath. Soon our bikes and lower extremities were painted in brown slop, and the situation was even worse in places like this—a gas station’s driveway.
photo by Brutus
We found refuge for the night in a somewhat run-down border town along the Uruguay River, Paso de Los Libres. Across the river was Brazil’s Uruguaiana, a major city with tall modern buildings and many more lights reflecting in the water. It was not quite a Ciudad Juárez-El Paso contrast, but the difference was striking.
Our hotel was a slightly shabby high-rise called Alejandro I (after Alexander the Great, apparently, judging by a huge bas-relief sculpture in the dining room). The ancient elevator was tiny, and had the old metal scissors-style gate, so I only rode it once—up with the luggage. From then on I used the stairs. I wasn’t afraid of riding it, but did fear it might seize for some reason—they had earthquakes around there. And when I woke briefly around 5:00 a.m., with my curtains open, I noticed that the entire town was lightless—a power cut—while Uruguaiana glittered across the water. I definitely never used the lift after that.
The Alejandro I was a quaint old hotel, the kind where the front-desk guy handed us the TV remotes with our keys. The bellman came to our rooms to ensure they worked, and left us both with a different Spanish-language station on, each reporting on the successful rescue of the miners—all thirty-three of them aboveground by then. After more than two months of darkness, they all wore dark eyewear, but smiled very brightly—all shaven and groomed for their celebration. As I watched those fortunate souls being reunited with their loved ones, and stirring music playing behind, it started to get to me, and soon tears were rolling down my face. Even Brutus admitted to feeling a little moisture in his baby blues.
The rescue was already being called a “miracle,” and if ever the word was apt, it was hard to argue. However, those who called it an “act of Divine Providence” were begging a question like the one put to one of Voltaire’s characters in Candide. “If God saved the thirty-three, why is it that, every year since 2000, an average of thirty-four other miners have died in Chilean mines?”
“Ah,” goes the reply, “The Devil killed those ones . . . ”
As Brutus and I worked our way closer to Buenos Aires, the four-lane highway was actually completed, so traffic was easier to handle (easier to pass). However, navigation became more difficult. As in any metropolitan area, you can’t predict what information will help you make the correct turns—it might be a route number, it might be a town name (even one that’s much farther away, and only coincidentally in the same direction you’re aiming for), or you might get nothing at all. One set of ramps onto a major highway had no signs whatsoever, leaving us to compass and instinct. Both failed us a few times, but eventually we circled our way to a unique destination, the Resort Campo & Polo (always using the ampersand, rather than “y” or “and”)—a polo club!
I knew from my friend Stewart Copeland’s fine memoir, Strange Things Happen, when he was writing about being a keen polo player, that Argentina was the only place in the world to buy polo ponies. Near the town of Lujan, we started passing many vast horse farms and polo clubs, and arrived at our own destination, set amid wide green polo fields and lush gardens. Much like a country club hotel in the U.S. or Europe, it offered an elegant hotel and restaurant, but instead of golf courses, it was set amid polo fields.
And unlike most country club hotels in the U.S. or Europe, the Resort Campo & Polo (“campo” means “field,” so I don’t know why it’s “field and polo”) was unfazed by our wish to perform a couple of oil changes in their forecourt.
photo by Brutus
Brutus arranged for the perfectly-sized drain buckets, and Michael came out early with the van and driver from Buenos Aires, bringing our toolbox and the fresh oil and filters we had packed with the band gear. I was glad to handle the mechanical part of the operation, having performed so many oil changes on my motorcycles over the years. (The service notes I keep in the back of my journal always tell an interesting story of where oil and tire changes have been done. For the Time Machine tour of summer and fall 2010, the list for one bike includes Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Chicago, Quebec City, Toronto, Nashville, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Columbus, New Jersey, and Lujan, Argentina. The second bike lists Toronto, Quebec, Omaha, Tulsa, Atlanta, and—Lujan, Argentina. It was satisfying to add that name to the end of both lists—in the sense of a worthwhile job done, and in a very unusual location.
The driver of our van gave us a tour of Buenos Aires on our way to work, and though the cloudy day cast everything in a flat gray light, the word that occurred to me was “monumental.” French, Spanish, and Italian influences dominated the older buildings, while sleek modern skyscrapers were set off with artful metallic sculpture, like the stunning, giant polished-metal flower that opened and closed mechanically at morning and evening. The main boulevard, 9 de Julio, is said to be the widest in the world, and Brutus counted twenty-four lanes of traffic.
The venue, unfortunately, was far from “monumental”—a squalid old stadium with box-trailer dressing rooms and portable toilets. The audience, as in Brazil, was large and enthusiastic (32,000 people in São Paulo; 13,000 in Rio—where we had a “magic show” that echoed the one in 2002 that became our Rush in Rio DVD—and 10,000 in Buenos Aires). But the biggest show, in every way, awaited us in Santiago.
And it was one Brutus and I—and everybody else—were worried about getting ourselves to in time. We only had one day off to get there, and would have to ride 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) the first day, to Mendoza, Argentina, to be close enough to the Chilean border to be sure of getting to Santiago good and early.
Up in the dark and away by sunrise, we rode off across the Pampas again . . .
photo by Brutus
In Buenos Aires, Brutus and I heard that “somebody” (probably the promoter) was sending a car to follow us across Argentina. Brutus passed the word back, “Just make sure we don’t see the guy—at the hotel, or on the road.” He and I agreed, “We don’t want to be like Ewan and Charley” (referring to actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, who have made a couple of amazing motorcycle journeys, around the world—Long Way Round—and from Scotland to South Africa—Long Way Down—but they traveled with a van carrying a film crew, medic, and security officer). Actually, of course we did want to be like Ewan and Charley (who wouldn’t?), but without the “retinue.”
Knowing we had a long way to go, we attacked the day that way. Brutus and I fell into the rhythm we had established on our first motorcycle tours together—changing the lead at every fuel stop, and hardly stopping otherwise. Several times on that long ride we had to use our spare gallons of gas to reach occasionally far-distant gas stations, but—that was why we carried them.
At one stop I told Brutus that this ride reminded me of one earlier in that tour, across Western Kansas with Michael. At the time, I had described it to Michael as “flat, featureless, and fast,” and Michael shot back, “Sounds like my ex-girlfriend.”
I laughed and said, “Now that’s why I keep you around!”
The goal was to arrive in Mendoza before dark, and we made it with an hour to spare. Brutus hadn’t mentioned anything about the accommodations there (in previous weeks he had sent me a lot of Web sites to view, but being deep into the American tour at the time, I hadn’t had time to look). Along the way that day, he told me it was something called a “Wine Lodge,” and the woman he had spoken to on the phone for directions had told him to look for “a dirty road.”
Brutus cracked to me, “I’m always looking for that.”
(Of course, she meant a “dirt road.”)
Casitas among the vineyards—Andes in the distance
After our longest day yet, over 1,000 kilometers, 633 miles, I was completely unprepared to be overwhelmed by the splendor of the Cavas Wine Lodge, a marvel of adobe-style architecture with fourteen separate casitas set apart, amid tidy vineyards, with the snow-streaked Andes to the west. Our casitas were perfectly appointed, organically-shaped plaster, natural stone, and ultra-modern plumbing, lighting, and furniture.
I stood in the middle of the stone floor, gradually shedding my riding clothes among my scattered luggage, and thought, “This would be beautiful—if I wasn’t too tired to enjoy it!” Though I did add in my journal, “Still—better than being tired in a dump!”
After a drowsy, but excellent meal and a short, nervous sleep, we were up at 5:00, packing the bikes, having some bread and coffee, and setting out at first light for the final ride.
(One postscript to the Cavas Wine Lodge, which had so impressed me that I was raving about it to people, and recommending it to some friends who lived part-time in neighboring Chile. After Brutus and I returned home, he discovered some disturbing stories about armed gangs robbing guests at upscale hotels in that area, including the Cavas Wine Lodge. Apparently such robberies had occurred at least twenty-two times in recent years. Brutus said, “I’d say we dodged another bullet there—without even knowing it.” So I’d better qualify my recommendation.)
Brutus and I expected that morning to be cold, where we were headed—above 10,000 feet—so we basically wore everything we had: long underwear, sock liners, electric vests, thermal gloves, and plastic rainsuits over everything.
The grades started gently on the Argentinian side, with enough straight stretches to pass the few trucks we encountered on that Sunday morning. Soon enough we were above treeline, then into the nearly barren, snow-patched rocks of the highest peaks—glimpsing the white shoulder of Aconcagua, at 6,962 meters, 22,841 feet, the highest in the Americas, or anywhere outside the Himalayas.
The border crossing was near the summit of the pass, Los Libertaderos, at just over 10,000 feet. The promoter’s representative at the border this time was a soft-spoken, bespectacled young man named Carlos, and he translated for the soldier asking if I was the “baterista” (drummer). Carlos told me that the previous day’s Santiago newspaper had reported that I was arriving to perform there in this unusual way, and a couple of fans showed up, too. I shook their hands and greeted them, but when they went on snapping photos with their handheld devices again and again, Brutus and I waved them away. Enough was enough, and we were plenty nervous already without any extra fuss.
Border crossings are always uncertain ordeals for anyone, even between Canada and the United States, and a lot was “riding” on this one. However, in contrast to the two-hour border crossing into Argentina, this time processing the paperwork for us and our motorcycles only took twenty minutes. Meanwhile, Carlos explained to me that the soldier was telling him we were to be escorted all the way into the city—150 kilometers. Earlier, through Michael, we had asked if someone could meet us just outside the city, maybe, to help guide us to the stadium (the bikes were headed home from there, with the band gear, so this time we needed to deliver them right to the venue), but it seemed the officials had “over-reacted.”
I soon understood that there was no graceful way out of such a situation, and as we pulled away from the border, we followed a police 4x4 pickup. Brutus and I stopped for “action photographs” at the top of the steep switchbacks pictured at the beginning of this tale, then I swooped down ahead of the rest of them, leaning into those tight turns with the commitment they required, pulse rate climbing. Where the road straightened, I let out a deep breath, parked my bike at the roadside, and waited for a shot of Brutus riding down. The pickup stopped beside me and one of the officers leaned out and waved his hand downward, saying, “Piano! piano!”
I guessed he wasn’t suggesting that I should change instruments, but that I should slow down (the word actually means, “softly, with slight force”), as he seemed to be explaining that our motorcycles were too fast for their truck.
Well, yes . . . but never mind. Accept the inevitable.
As the pass descended and opened up into scrubby woodlands and small towns, we were picked up by another set of escorts—two soldiers, carabinieri, on little dirt bikes—and the pickup turned around.
It sure looks like trouble . . . Photo by Brutus
They led us to the city limits, pulling over by a toll booth. The attendant leaned out and asked me, “Baterista?” I nodded as he pulled out his cell-phone camera to commemorate the event. A pair of Santiago officers on big BMW motorcycles took over from there, leading us through the nice-looking city, with the snow-frosted Andes still visible to the east.
Finally, we were pulling into the stadium, and parked in a tunnel inside. Brutus and I stepped off the muddy motorcycles and shared a strong hug of relief. We had survived 5,000 kilometers, 3,000 miles—and made it to all of the shows. Our work was done.
Well—not mine, exactly, because now, at last, we come to the final show . . .
I had already decided that I wanted one more photograph to complete all the motorcycle and scenery shots I had taken: I wanted to take one onstage. In thirty-six years of touring, I had never once taken a photograph myself like that, and I thought it would make the perfect complement. Just before the show, I asked Michael to take my camera out to the stage and give it to my drum tech, Gump, with instructions for him to pass it up to me just before we played “Stick It Out.” That was the fourth song, after “The Spirit of Radio,” “Time Stand Still,” and “Presto,” and the point where Geddy talked to the audience for the first time—so they were lighted up for each of us to look at all of them.
When I talked with my bandmates at soundcheck, I learned that they had also been moved by watching the rescue of the Chilean miners. Geddy planned to dedicate that very song, “Stick It Out,” to the miners, while a photo of them would appear on the giant screen behind us. Also, Alex’s guitar would be decorated with the symbolic number of the rescue, “33.”
So all of that is part of the “background” of this photo, the magic unseen but surely felt, in so many smiling faces among the 36,000 people, the flashing cameras, the Chilean flag in the middle, a hilarious sign to the right, and one to the left that I had Michael enlarge and enhance. It reads, touchingly, “All My Life/ For Rush.”
(“Me too, buddy—me too.”)
At the end of forty-four shows for me, my bandmates, and our incredible crew, and at the end of 23,132 motorcycle miles for me and my riding partners, Michael and Brutus, Alex and Geddy and I stood (or sat, in my case) on that stage and looked out at that cheering, heaving, chanting crowd, and saw, heard, and felt . . . the power of magical thinking.
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