Wednesday, April 20, 2011
On Wednesday, March 30, I flew from Los Angeles to Chicago to begin the Midwest swing of the book tour for my new novel, Wingshooters. I rented a car in Chicago and visited six states in eleven days, taking mostly back roads, and returning to Wisconsin--the place where the book is set--for the first time since I was a teenager. What follows is a decidedly unscientific and subjective account of my travels. Special thanks to Akashic Books, Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, the amazing booksellers I encountered, the readers who came to my readings, and the many other people I met along the way who made me feel right at home.
3/30 - Chicago, IL
I arrived in Chicago this afternoon, got to the hotel around 5:00, and just had time to shower and change before heading out to my first reading. Not two minutes after I left for the bookstore, I passed Wrigley Field. Seeing this venerable old stadium unexpectedly--the night before the opening day of baseball season, the night of my first tour event--seemed like a good omen.
(Later, the book store folks would tell me that this week-ending custom is so prevalent here that even Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants offer some version of Friday Fish Fry.)
I also saw a sign at an auto repair shop:
“Hit a buck?
We’ll fix your truck.”
4/2 - La Crosse, WI
But there were a couple of cool things to see before I headed out of town. One was the old U.S. Indian Agency House, built in 1832, when Wisconsin was still a territory.
I walked completely around the lake, taking in the views, the snow, the frozen ice, which was just starting to melt near the shore. It was quiet except for the sound of birds, and I saw only one other person in the time I was there, a guy with a dog, walking the other direction. Once I completed the loop, I sat on the dock and did something that Muir never did--ate a Clif Bar. The clouds were breaking up and the sun was coming through, making reflections on the water.
A little help for hunters
--Horse poo on the road, which was evidence of the Amish who live in the area--but no actual Amish
--A “We Support Governor Walker” sign
--A lodge at a working dairy farm that called itself a “Moo-tel.”
--Several big factories or production plants, in the middle of nowhere
--A & W root beer stands in the "bigger" small towns--just like there were when I was a kid
With the dearth of lodging options, I decided to drive all the way to La Crosse, which is a real town--a small city, even. It is also the place where my father was born. As I arrived, the choice felt right--there was a great old downtown section, bustling with people who were heading out to the restaurants and bars. After a couple of very low-key hotels, I was happy to get a room at the Radisson; the conveniences of a big hotel--and the proximity of the river--were suddenly appealing. I soon discovered, though, that the place was overrun by middle-school basketball players who are here for a state tournament, which seems like poetic revenge for all the adults my hoopster buddies and I tortured as adolescents on our own trips to out-of-town tournaments. I took a walk and ended up back at the hotel bar, where I watched the NCAA men’s semi-final game, had a beer, and ordered a plate of spinach--my first green vegetables in four days.
I’m happy to be here. It’s a pain to do these nightly entries on my iPhone (purchased for $19, during a product dump from AT & T) even with a portable keyboard. But then I think of the early travelers who wrote letters and journal entries in rainy tents, with cold hands, and I remember how easy I have it.
Beer of the Day: Pearl Street Pale Ale (LaCrosse, WI)
4/3 - St. Paul, MN
I am sitting in Steve and Julie’s place in St. Paul, Minnesota, two French bulldogs snarfing antler bones at my feet. I’m happy to be in a comfortable house, in a city, watching the women’s Final Four, getting some dog love from the sweet and hilarious Finn and Bug.
This morning I woke up in La Crosse expecting a big thunderstorm, as the news had predicted, but the rain had stopped overnight and left us with a moody gray sky. I went for a run along the river, disturbing a bunch of sleeping ducks, but I couldn’t get far because parts of the path were flooded. Still, it felt great to be moving.
I found a fantastic little place, Jules’ Coffee Shop, in an old, re-done brick building downtown, where I had a delicious chocolate raspberry scone and the best coffee I’d tasted in days. Walking through town, I saw signs that this was a more politically progressive area than the areas I’d driven through the day before. There were posters like this:
I finally dragged myself away and drove on, at one point passing a group of maybe 30 huge, wild turkeys in a field. In Iowa City, spring had sprung, it was sunny and warm, and it seemed like everyone was outside. I changed clothes and went for a run, taking the same route I did three years ago when I was here last. My spirits were pretty low on that last trip, but now I am happy, and I really enjoyed feeling the difference. At one point I passed a young Asian man coming out of a house with a Lakers cap on, and I yelled "Hey!" and then pointed to my Dodgers shirt. He looked at me as I gestured excitedly from my shirt to his hat, and then turned and fled back into the house.
The reading at the legendary Prairie Lights went well, and I am always glad to be there. Jim Harris at Prairie Lights has been hugely supportive of my work, and has become a friend--maybe inevitable considering our shared love of sports and springer spaniels. There were a good number of bright-eyed undergrads, several of whom ultimately had more questions about my day job; they want to come out to California for internships. A young professor from the university, Naomi Greyser, also came to the reading. She’s taught a couple of my books and just recently discovered we have a mutual friend in L.A.; she was kind enough to sit with me later as I had spinach and beer.
It's been a great day, and I am feeling--as I have this entire trip--my incredible good fortune. But I also miss home, the actual space and geography, the easy intimacy of my family. Still, how lucky I am to have such a home to go back to. Even in a moment of feeling tired and worn, I know that I am blessed.
Beer of the day: Millstream Iowa Pale Ale (Amana, IA)
4/7 - St. Louis, MO
I am sitting at an actual computer, at a well-appointed, urban hotel!
Again, it’s been a day full of sights and a few adventures. After a quick breakfast with Jim Harris at the Hamburg Inn, I left Iowa City. Just south of the city, there’s a town called Riverside, which claims to be "The Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk." It even says so on the atlas! Check it out:
Then, this afternoon, a great event at Watermark Books & Cafe, which is owned by the tireless Sarah Bagby. Watermark Books is known for--among other things--its basement walls, where dozens, maybe hundreds of authors have scribbled their names.
The store had arranged a private lunch before the reading for about fifteen people--a mix of teachers, librarians, older ladies, some writers, and some book store staff. Again, it was a very kind gathering of people. They told me about Wichita, and I learned more about the fires I saw yesterday. The fires are intentionally set, as I had already surmised, and are very controversial. Private landowners burn off much of the range, ostensibly because it will make for healthier grazing for livestock later in the year. But the smoke is thick and drifting, and this practice--not surprisingly--causes bad air quality in Wichita.
As we were having lunch, several older, balding, bumbling men burst in, looking for a meeting. They were directed by Beth, from the bookstore, to another room. I felt patient towards these guys, because they seemed a little out of sorts and kind of "special." Later, when I went back down with Beth to sign the author wall, we could hear them fighting through door. We went upstairs and learned from one of the other bookstore people that all the bumbling guys were there for a MENSA meeting! This reminded of the line from the Michael Cunningham story where he describes kids who can solve complex mathematical equations but can't manage to tie their own shoes. Somehow it seemed like the perfect note on which to leave.
This evening I went out for barbecue and beer, and now I am in for the night. I have a movie from the hotel's collection: Field of Dreams, a fitting end to my travels.
Beer of the Day--Shock Top Belgian White (St. Louis, MO)
4/10 - Wichita Airport
I am at the Wichita Airport, waiting to board a plane for L.A. I’ve returned my trusty rental car and checked my bag. Even at the airport, there are reminders that I’m not in L.A.