For years, my band, the Mountain Goats, would tour Europe in the classic punk tradition: crashing on people’s floors, piling into a van for all-night drives, tired and always either sick or fighting a cold. But by 2004, after we’d made seven albums and signed to 4AD, I expected our European tour to be easy and non-eventful. Instead, it brought me to a state of profound, transcendent travel fatigue, one that yielded the kind of scintillating vision you find in poems.
Right after we finished touring the States, we began our European tour in Paris, and we just kept on going, nonstop: Paris to Amsterdam to Rotterdam to Saint-Ouen, France, then to Hasselt, Belgium, where, right after we finished playing, around midnight, our driver said, “We have to make the 2 a.m. ferry to England!” Since those European tour vans have no place to lie down, I just stayed up, but I kept nodding off as we got to the ferry, went through checkpoints and assorted rigamaroles, and finally settled in for the crossing.
I had a Discman with me and was listening to an album by Phill Niblock, an experimental composer who specializes in drones. As we sailed over the waves, at around 3:30 in the morning, I was listening to this one track, “Yam Almost May,” in which this big, expansive chord modulates slightly over the course of 20 minutes. I was doing that thing where you nod off for a few seconds and a twitch snaps you back—just this loose, liminal state where you’re very open to stimuli. I was so burnt, so truly ready to sleep, but I was getting nodded along by the waves, with this epic post-Serialist drone filling my head. The sun was just barely beginning to hint at coming up. And in this state, I had what I took to be some kind of mystic vision—a glimpse of some stately, massive, spectral presence off in the distance ahead of us. The White Cliffs of Dover emerged. I’d never seen them before in my life. I hadn’t clocked that we were going toward them—I only even knew about them from a Jimmy Cliff song—and as I saw this incredible, vast, white-milky expanse forming before me, impossibly, with the music droning, it became this moment I’ll never quite feel again.
It’s what Robert Frost talks about in a poem, where the speaker’s looking down into a well, seeing its water reflecting the sky, leaves, himself, “looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.” And he recalls this one time—once—when he perceived something else down there. “Something white, uncertain,” as the poem says. “Something more of the depths.” And in a second it’s gone: A drop of water ripples the image and leaves the poet wondering, “What was that whiteness? Truth? A pebble of quartz?” Then it closes with the poem’s title: “For once, then something.” It’s that split-second moment when you discern something “beyond the picture, through the picture.” That’s my Cliffs of Dover moment. I can’t put a name to it—other than to call it some majestic experience brought on by profound fatigue—but there’s something beyond it too.
Our shows in London were incredible. We played a room where The Birthday Party and Joy Division had played. I was in a kind of emotional collapse because my stepfather had died, and I was processing all this trauma and writing the songs that became the self-exposing album The Sunset Tree, but that moment on the ferry was something else. It was this holy and contemplative state, one you can’t reach on purpose—but travel will bring it to you sometimes.
Musician and writer John Darnielle is the leader of the indie-rock band the Mountain Goats, whose new album, Bleed Out, is available now. His latest novel, Devil House, was published in January.