March 19 – Well, here we are. Almost.
We stand on the shaky precipice overlooking last stand canyon. For too many years I’ve nursed the quixotic notion, one I’m sure is common among aspiring writers, to chuck the grinding workaday job and spend a year wandering the country with my wife and son. This expedition would form the basis for a book that, improbable as it seems, would extricate me from a bitter cycle of routinized tedium and unrealized dreams.
The idea became a subtext of my everyday life as far back as the turn of the century. I got separated from my job at the Kitsap Sun in 2001. I never fit quite comfortably in the stultifying structure of the corporate newspaper universe. Sooner or later, for whatever reason, I always found myself on the wrong side of management. Perhaps I am not good at concealing looks of disdain.
I left my little shack by the water in Bremerton on June 29, 2002, and embarked on my first cross-country expedition. It was a sunny Saturday morning, and I was filled with a mixture of anxiety and freedom as I crossed the Cascade Mountains in my 1987 BMW 325. I headed north and west, dodging a juvenile black bear gamboling across U.S. 97 before crossing into western British Columbia north of Oroville. Soon I was in Alberta, marveling at this sign: Keep Alberta Knapweed Free. This was great, I figured. How could I miss? After touring Banff and Jasper, I came down through International Falls and Hibbing, Minn., and on to Chicago. I made it back to Pennsylvania on the last Saturday night in July.
Soon I would meet Rhoda, and fall in love, and spend three months chasing her from one end of the Internet to the other.
She lost her senses, moved out to Bremerton, and I got a job on the copy desk of The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Since then, we’ve crisscrossed the country numerous times, wandering east to west and north to south, racking up countless miles and filling up countless notebooks.
And, you know, the time she has a way of slipping through your fingers.
After surviving for more than eight years, I parted ways with my friends and tormentors in Tacoma in May 2011. I began to plan (such as I ever plan anything) for the big trip. I would chase the ghosts of Ernie Pyle and John Steinbeck, and follow the shadow of the incomparable William Least Heat-Moon, from one end of the country to the other. I would, to paraphrase an old, departed friend from rural Georgia, get that damn book wrote.
We set about looking for a suitable vehicle. We thought we’d found it in Lewis, a much-traveled former school bus that had been converted to run on French fry oil.
Then we got some good advice from a friendly mechanic, and all it cost was $60. It wasn’t for us. It was too loud, too awash in diesel fumes, too impractical for a family with a young son. So we kept looking. We nearly had a nice Toyota Coachman that would’ve netted us 15-17 miles per gallon. But we couldn’t come to a deal. I tried to low-ball the seller, and she got offended. Crazy. I just consulted the Googleator to check the model name, and it’s still for sale, nearly two years later. The ad hasn’t changed since the summer of 2011.
We got a little impatient and ended up, for better or worse, with a 1993 Toyota/Winnebago Warrior. It wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, but it’s reliable. The price was right, too. I’m still coming to terms with its lack of fuel economy, and I suppose I always will.
We set out on a couple of test runs, and even took aim at Yellowstone. Before we reached Spokane, I’d become thoroughly unhinged at the way we went through gas as if there was a hole in the tank. We stopped at Spokane and then rerouted our trip westward through the Northern Cascades.
Finally, we set out for San Francisco in late August of 2011, leaving behind a house heading to foreclosure and a cat nobody wanted. We planned to return to the four-walled albatross in a month or two to get things ready for a final departure before heading out across the country in earnest.
Then my sister got sick with head-and-neck cancer, which is skyrocketing up the malignant charts these days, and we made a straight dash from San Francisco to Spring City, Pa., arriving in mid-October. The great expedition was on hold.
We did what we could to help my sister, and got a harrowing look inside the billion-dollar cancer industrial complex. She went through a harrowing time. I suppose it’s impossible to absorb the nuclear horrors of radiotherapy while facing a life-threatening illness without a great deal of suffering.
But she’s doing well now, and we’re all thankful. We left here last March, and soon hooked up with the redoubtable Blind Charlie Stark at SXSW. Then with our house careening closer to foreclosure or at least it seemed so, we hurried back to Washington for Cassius Via’s birthday party in early April.
The house seemed to be on the fast-track to foreclosure, and we hurried back to see if we could salvage some of our worldly belongings and find a home for our formerly stray cat before the sheriff arrived at the door. We lingered for the summer, celebrated Max’s 5th birthday there, and prepared in our typically glacial way to make a getaway for good. There were a few comical starts-and-stops, but we got out shortly after the 2012 election. But, we promised to be in Pennsylvania by Dec. 16 to celebrate my mom’s 83rd birthday.
Now the window is closing .We have five months till we have to get back and stare reality square in the face. We’ll celebrate Max’s sixth birthday, maybe a little late, and then he’ll enter kindergarten. What happens then is anyone’s guess.
We’ve spent the past three months holed up in Berwyn with Becky’s parents. More gracious, sweet and forgiving in-laws a man will never find. Especially a 50-year-old man with no job nor discernible prospects. Somehow they summoned the restraint to not say what they had to be thinking: What the hell are you up to? When are you going to get a job? You realize you have a wife and a 5-year-old son, right? Think maybe it’s time to grow up?
But they never said it, though I wouldn’t blame them if they had.
I know many among our circle of family and friends are thinking similar thoughts. Wait a second: They’ve been sponging off the in-laws for three months. He hasn’t worked in two years. And now they’re taking off on a cross-country trip?
Must be nice.
I know it’s been said. I even heard someone, a person I’d only just met, say it. I met her the other night at an open house at the world’s finest house of beer cans. She’s my age, 50. Her kids are grown. I could see her wrestle with the strangeness of it all. It must’ve seemed like so much irresponsible nonsense to her.
“Must be nice,” she said.
Well, I guess it is. If I were her, I would be jealous, too.
It’s more than nice, though. It’s terrifying. Five months will come and go like a faithless lover. I will endeavor to get this book wrote, but even a successful completion promises nothing. More than a decade of idle dreaming and furtive plotting will reach an abrupt terminus. It will be time to face the music.
I can only hope it’s not filled with ponderous minor chords.
I’ve gotten depressed and given in to stress and considered chucking the whole odyssey and tucking my tail between my legs and taking the first available job on this side of the earth. Because, as one poet once said, I promised the good Lord never to dig no coal.
I know the odds are long, the incline is steep and the road to success is carved with the deep, perilous ruts.
But we’ve made it this far. Hopefully we can hold out five more months without suffering undue harm.
At least I won’t have to go to my grave accompanied by a host of mocking regrets, the way my father did.
March 19 – Well, here we are. Almost.