By SHAWN COLVIN
WE WERE CALLED the Dixie Diesels. All five of us hailed from Illinois and none of us had ever wrestled an 18-wheeler, but we could dream. Playing western swing music in dance halls and dives across America was our trade. Steel guitars and fiddles were our tools. The road was where we lived.
The road is freedom; it is escape and redemption; it is flight from sins and sadness, a new place to start over. Yet for all its sweet mysteries and seductive charms, the road can become a brute, a bully insistent on demonstrating just who the boss is at any time. On land or sea, or in the air.
It was 1976. I was 20 years old. The band was somewhere in Utah, rolling along in the old van we used to shuttle ourselves from one gig to the next. It was around midnight and a beautiful moon illuminated the nearly empty two-lane road. We drove in fair weather and foul—the show must go on! We forged through prairies, badlands, mountain passes, bayous, followed coastlines and rivers. We crossed innumerable borders. And we traveled through deserts, as we were doing that night.
We were 100 miles from the nearest town when our battered van barreled over some lumber strewed across the tiny highway. Tires blew, metal screeched. We hobbled to a stop and crawled out to inspect the damage. Two tires gone, no spare, no cellphones then (although I doubt there would have been service anyway). We were stranded. Just like that, the road, our home, turned on us and laughed, in the middle of that silent, empty moonscape, black but for the heavens.
Eventually we were able to hail down a pickup truck, possibly the one that had lost the two-by-fours. It was full of visibly drunk locals. One of us—I believe it was the drummer—made the long trip into town with the drunkards, risking life and limb to see to it that we were towed in. The van got repaired, and by dawn we were on our way.
“We drove in fair weather and foul—the show must go on! We forged through prairies, badlands, bayous, followed coastlines and rivers.”
I've spent the better part of the 37 years since then on the road, playing music in theaters and arenas, coffeehouses and churches. Just last winter a calamity of a different kind than I'd experienced all those years ago in Utah befell me. I live in Austin, Texas—a rather convenient location for somebody who travels to both coasts as much as I do. I was booked to play a concert in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as part of a January weekend event called—what else?—"The in the Dead of Winter" festival. Getting to Halifax from Austin by plane wouldn't be that hard. Only one stop, in Chicago.
I made it as far as O'Hare. It being the middle of winter, there was a blizzard, and the Chicago-to-Halifax leg of the trip was canceled. The next flight to Halifax departed the following morning. Getting my bag and my guitar was a lost cause, and I had no place to sleep. There I was, alone and stranded. The road had reared its devil head.
Back in 1976, I was pretty rough and tumble. But I'd developed a taste for comforts over the decades. Knowing that sustenance would be key to surviving whatever might come next in Chicago, the first thing I did was buy a very large bag of chocolate-dipped popcorn with almonds. Then I booked the best hotel I could find near O'Hare—a sort of oxymoron—and took a cab there.
My missing suitcase housed my overnight essentials, without which I am lost: Egyptian cotton pajamas and a small electric fan for white noise. I was condemned to polyester sheets and a night filled with the ringing bells of the elevator that was right outside my room. The popcorn was wonderful, thank goodness.
Outside my window, the snow swirled and sparkled in the dark. The wind whooshed and whined, a buffer against the lonesome quiet of my strange hotel room. I was wearing my Wolford tights and Hanro undershirt, with my shearling coat settled over me like a big, warm hug. I stopped fighting the almighty road and its dark humor and fell asleep.
Come morning, the skies had cleared. I caught my plane and made it to Halifax in the dead of winter. The road dealt me a new day, as it always does.—Ms. Colvin is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter. Her memoir, "Diamond in the Rough," was published by William Morrow last year.
A version of this article appeared January 19, 2013, on page D8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: On the Road Again, and Again, So Help Me.