Dispatches from the Road: Made to Break NorCal
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I’m nine days into my tour now, but it feels like ninety.
Probably this wouldn’t be the case had I not hit the four-day extravaganza that was AWP, though I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never been on a book tour, much less a book tour across and around the country. My fatigue this morning might also derive from the workout yesterday with my North-West tour pal, Cari Luna: a five-hour drive from Vancouver to Olympia, from which, after the debacle at Orca Books, we drove (thank God we ditched that town) two more hours to Cari’s home in Portland, where she and her family (husband and two fantastic kids) were gracious enough to host me that night. But waking up after insufficient sleep in the strangeness of her boy’s room — surrounded by superhero action figures and model ships, her boy’s many drawings and Vietnamese kites — might have something to do with my fatigue, as well. The unknown is crafty. Strangeness, like a needy dog, won’t let you be. And while strangers need less than family and good friends, they need something family and good friends often don’t, the courtesy to meet them, a formal thoughtfulness and attentiveness without which the world might very well end. Take away the familiar, I’m learning afresh, and the energy that gets you through it isn’t half enough.
But it doesn’t matter how beat I am. I’ve got work to do, and in spades: checking in with my future hosts; completing written interviews; corresponding with the writers I’ll soon be reading and conversing with; re-reading their books in preparation for those conversations; knocking out the grant-writing work that pays my rent; composing an update for the Indiegogo campaign I’m running to help fund my tour; doctoring the pictures I’ve been snapping; networking via social media; and so on and so forth — none of it seems to end . . .
After introducing me to the four chickens she and her family keep in their back yard, Cari sends me to her favorite haunt in South-East Portland, a house that was converted into The Rocking Frog Café, famous for the donuts it makes to order. I drink copious amounts of coffee in a quiet room and attend to my work, then, hours later, drive crosstown through the rain to Charlie’s, my host for the next two nights.
Charlie is a landscape architect and designer and builder of ponds for koi. His home, which he brought back alone from near collapse, is both peaceful and gorgeous — like Charlie himself, a consummate human being — so very much what I’ve needed. Charlie sees my state. Solitude and rest are in order, he knows, and he gives them to me gently, along with great comfort: a queen-sized bed appointed with the camel hair blanket under which I nap for two-and-a-half hours . . . I wake up with a start, though, believing myself late for a reading, only to realize with relief that for the first time since I left home, I’ve no obligation for the rest of the night to any but myself. I eat Charlie’s homemade chili with tortillas then drive to the store for a piece of cheesecake.
Most of today I spend re-reading Christian Kiefer’s gorgeous book, The Infinite Tides.
In the afternoon, however, I take a long shower, groom a bit more than usual, and roll into town to eat dinner before the reading at Powell’s, my first solo gig ever — as in, I’m the only reader, it’s just me reading, and when I’m through Cari Luna’s going to ask me questions about my book, because — purportedly, anyway, on the face of it, anyway — I’m an interesting enough guy that, first, someone would want to talk to me, and, second, that someone would want to listen to someone talk to me — whoa! — an audience, in other words, is coming specifically to hear me read a book I wrote and answer questions about me and the book I wrote, and that is really weird, that is really freaky, I am like totally wacked, in other words, way the fuck out.
That I’m a published author, now, with an honest-to-goodness book out in the world, that people are paying money for, strikes me here for the first time in a way I haven’t anticipated. I’ve worked a long time for this moment, and now the moment doesn’t seem part of this world. I can’t go on, I must go on, I can’t go on . . .
At Powell’s, my book’s on display in the front window, together with the store’s events calendar, yet another surreal moment. And hardly have I got past that surprise than Jeremy, the events coordinator, greets me with what has always been to my mind the sort of respect an author on his book tour should command. He shows me round the store, then tells John, the barista in the store’s café, to make sure I get whatever I need, on the house, which John does with genuine cheer.
The reading and conversation are incredible, as well. An audience is there. The audience consists of living people. These people, moreover, dig my read and applaud unreservedly. And Cari, too, dressed to the nines, is a champion, asking me a number of questions that reflect insight, thoughtfulness, and care. When we’re finished talking, and I’ve fielded questions from the audience, people buy my book, and I sign them, yet another instance I’ve not anticipated will feel as alien as it does.
Then comes the moment, later, as we’re leaving, that Cari’s friend tells her I look like “a dirty Don Draper.” Wha??? Told Goldberg had said something similar when introducing me for a read at AWP, and now this. I can’t understand it, this comparison, not at all. It doesn’t matter, though, whether I understand, does it? It must be a thing. It is a thing. I know it is, because more people in the days to come, unrelated to the people before, will continue to connect me in some form or other to Don Draper. A guy can’t make up his own nickname, I think. There’s nothing to do but take it.
This marks the first day I’m on my own for the rest of my tour, another solid month of driving town-to-town across the country before anything like a breather comes. Today I’ve got an eleven-hour haul — 607 miles — from Portland to Oakland, where I’ll sojourn for a night with Megan, a dancer, choreographer, and professor at USF who’s a friend and colleague of my wife, Jeanine, and then with two other friends, and then at an Airbnb. But this isn’t just the first day on my own. It’s the first day I’ve had a moment to reflect with any concentration on the magnitude of my endeavor.
Down the I-5, in NorCal, now, I’m crushed with emotion. I grew up in Oakland, and together with Berkeley and San Francisco, these are my stomping grounds, these are the places I lived and loved and broke and robbed and fretted and wept and howled for most of what I remember as a life of hardship and cruelty and despair, the places I left at the end of all that, at the start of 2003, in a state very near to disgrace and definitely one of madness. But now I realize: I’m going home, I’m in the midst of what we call a homecoming. And yet it’s not in disgrace that I return, nor is it in triumph, either, as it were, but rather, simply, in good standing. I’ve changed my life. I’m not the man I was. And, for all that it’s worth, I’m true. The mist of nostalgia had begun to gather round me in the south of Oregon. I sense this mist as I move south without placing it and feel the intensity of its creep, but it isn’t until I spy for the first time, in the far distance, peeking through the corridor of canyons and trees, the enormity that is Mt. Shasta, perennially snowcapped at over 14,000 feet and fraught with so much personal history.
As a teenager, and then as a young man, I spent many summers backpacking in the mountains of this country. Even before I had a car I’d take Greyhound busses up here, or hitchhike up to the town of Mt Shasta, then hitchhike again out to the trailheads themselves, from which I’d set off alone into the mountains for five to ten days at a stretch with just my flyrod and pack and for company a bottle of booze and bag of weed. The only other place I loved as much back then was Yosemite. Now, seeing the mountain again, from this vantage, I’m cracked hard with this thing, it smashes me hard like an anvil from the sky — knowledge, certain, clear, profound: this country has been my salvation, this country has saved me, many, many times, when I was a boy, and when I was a man, as well.
The last time it saved me, I’d gone to the mountain itself, or to the monastery at its foot, Shasta Abbey, in the fall of 2002, groping my way through an immensity of loss. Another marriage was destroyed. I was penniless and sick and bereft of all but the loyalist or stupidest of family and friends, and I was a few months shy of losing my mind. The mountain saved me, though, the monastery saved me, what I learned in the monastery, what I saw in the monastery, it all saved me, though I didn’t know it then, and wouldn’t for some time, the way I do now, for instance — again — and I know it now with the conviction of ancient, ancient stars. I’m not coming home merely to a place. I’m coming home to a life, which, patient as Penelope, knowing me better than I’ve known myself, has been waiting all these years, sentinelian at the door, knowing I’d come home, and more, knowing I’ve known, too, however lost, however much confused. I’ve been freed of the old shackles, I realize. I’ve been purged of the ghosts. I’m coming home, now, in clarity and relief, to a life and to myself. Old friends are waiting. New friends stand close by. I gaze in awe at the mountain in the distance, rising from the northern plain, magnificent in its solitude. The mountain never moves — it is a mountain — and yet, I also know, held up by the sky itself, the mountain does nothing ever but move, walking on with the rest, stone by stone, pebble by pebble with the rivers to the sea — it is the way. Satisfaction courses through me. The purest of joys courses through me. I’m filled past sense with more than I can speak, with sadness, too, I realize, with the memories of shame and the memories of days no deeds can repair, and with relief, as well, that those days are far behind me, now, I’m myself, now, I am myself, and I am good.
The mountain rolls by. The miles roll by. Familiarity surges through me, the pull of days gone by, and soon I’m in the midst of traffic on I-80, the bay to my right, the bridge across it through the distance, into Treasure Island, on to the city of Kerouac and Bierce, and the city of London is nearby, too, Oaktown, my old familiar, and now the traffic thins, now I leave the big road for smaller roads, I’m in the city now, College Avenue in Rockridge, just south of Berkeley, where I became a writer and went to school, it’s dusk already, this day’s gone, too, I’m hungry among my old haunts, there’s a place I loved, I can’t believe it’s yet there, unchanged after years, Cactus Taqueria, and I go in and eat a meal before heading on to Megan’s place around the corner, the comfort of her generosity and kindness, a stranger before and now a new friend. It’s true, I know, I’m a writer. And this is the life I’ve been given, this is the life I’ve made. Offer me anything different, and I promise, I’ll refuse.