Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nina Revoyr's Midwest Tour Diary

Akashic Books asked Nina Revoyr to compile entries for a tour diary
while touring Wingshooters throughout the Midwest.
Read the wonderful results below!

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.

Wrigley Field

The event was at Women & Children First, and it was great to start my tour there; the store was every bit as wonderful as I’d heard. Afterward, for dinner, I was hoping to find some famous Chicago deep dish pizza--but I ended up at a place right near the hotel, eating the first of many satisfying but super-unhealthy meals. I also had a tasty local beer, and I’ve decided that I’m going to try a different local, microbrewery beer at every stop on the trip. I’m in great spirits and looking forward to crossing into Wisconsin tomorrow. It has begun!

Beer of the Day: Three Floyds Alpha King Pale Ale (Munster, IN)
(I know this is not a Chicago beer but I hadn’t figured out the “local” part yet.)

3/31 - Oconomowoc, WI

I woke up to an unbelievably crisp and gorgeous day. It was also cold--so cold that I bought gloves from the store across the street. I headed out of the city around 11:00, with my dad calling me what seemed like every ten minutes. I think he is as excited about this trip as I am. He grew up in Wisconsin, and we still have family in the area; he wanted me to have coffee with some of his cousins before my reading tonight. At the state line, I stopped and took some pictures. And there I was--in Wisconsin for the first time in 27 years!

Crossing the state line into Wisconsin!

I drove to Oconomowoc, the only town in the U.S. that has 5 “Os” in its name. Before checking into my hotel, I took a cruise through the town, and the first dog I saw in the state of Wisconsin was . . . an English Springer Spaniel, like the dog in my book! This too seemed like an omen.

Oconomowoc reminded me of the small town where I lived as a kid, except that it had lakes, still mostly frozen, right in the middle of town. There was one random, fake-looking hill sticking up out of the flats, and I was further confused to see that it had a ski lift on it. Later, someone referred to this hill--which was indeed man-made--as “the ski pimple.”

The weather was supposed to get worse overnight, so I wanted to make the most of the gorgeous day. I headed south to Kettle Moraine State Forest, where the landscape had been carved by glaciers, and I was struck by how much glacier terminology appears in place names here in Wisconsin. I had some trouble finding a wilderness trail and didn’t have much time, so I circled back to a trail I’d passed on my way out of town. I parked the car and took off on a run, making my way through woods and fields, skirting the edge of a small, pretty lake. The landscape was totally familiar to me, even though I hadn’t been in Wisconsin in a quarter of a century. Here’s what it looked like:

Path south of Oconomowoc

Lake just outside of Oconomowoc

On my way back, I noticed a kid who could have been me at ten years old, hanging out at the side of the lake. As I approached, he exclaimed, as if he saw me every day, “Look at the size of that Northern!” I rushed over to look, but the fish was gone. There were snakes, though, tons of them, green and black, coming out of a den by the side of the path. The kid--his name was Tyler--held one up for me to examine. I could have stayed out there at the lake all afternoon.

But I had a reading to go to, and family to see. In a coffee shop next to the book store, I spent a couple of hours with five relatives I’d never met before. They came with pictures and family stories, and I was amazed at the amount of family history they had compiled--history I’d not known anything about. It turns out that one of my relatives was a big time bank robber in the 1920s; he had shootouts with the police in his convertible car and even broke out of jail at some point. We have a running joke in my house about Bonnie & Clyde, so I was excited to learn that I’m related to an actual bank robber. It was wonderful to meet my relatives, who could not have been kinder or more welcoming.

Family--Dad's cousins in Oconomowoc

Then the reading, at Books & Company. I was a bit nervous about doing this first event in Wisconsin, but the evening was perfect. Great turnout, and more than half the people who came had already read the book, thanks to the amazing Lisa Baudoin, who’d arranged for several book clubs to read it. Lisa has a gem of a store in Oconomowoc, a real center of the community. I met some people who have stayed on my mind--the middle-aged women who were teary-eyed as they spoke of their own stories; the young teenager who clearly felt like as much of an outsider as I had as a kid. I feel welcomed here, and am humbled by people's responses.

Book display at Books & Company

After the reading, Lisa suggested that I go to a place called “The Pub,” an Irish bar in downtown Oconomowoc. It was as much a trip through Irish history as a pub--there were great displays of Irish writers, pictures of the proprietor's family, furniture, even a band that featured someone playing a harp. I sat next to a guy named Larry, and we talked about the Packers and Brewers, who’d lost their season opener that afternoon. A great day, followed by a cold, tasty beer and sports talk. I am one happy cheesehead.

Relaxing at "The Pub"

Beer of the Day: Lakefront Cream City Pale Ale (Milwaukee, WI)
(My favorite beer of the entire trip!)

4/1 - Mequon, WI

Another full day in Wisconsin. After a hearty breakfast, I checked out of my hotel and drove to Mequon, a suburb north of Milwaukee. Since this was only 90 minutes away, I had extra time and decided to explore. Of course, with signs pointing to Green Bay, I was tempted to go up to the home of Packers. But I made a more reasonable choice and drove to Port Washington, an old blue-collar port town on the edge of Lake Michigan. I saw old shops, like Bernie’s Fine Meats, in the beautifully preserved downtown, a lighthouse, and tons of Catholic churches. Alll of the churches had signs inviting people to Friday Fish Fry.

Downtown Port Washington

One of many churches offering Friday Fish Fry

(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.”

and remembered that I was indeed in Wisconsin. From Port Washington I drove up to Belgium with the intention of visiting Harrington State Park--but it cost $10, and I had little time, so I just drove to the end of the road until I reached Lake Michigan. It was amazing to see farmland against the backdrop of the lake. The beach was beautiful, and there were still a few patches of snow.

Lake Michigan

Belgium was a cute little town, with a grand old church, and John Deere tractor mail boxes.

Mailboxes in Belgium

There was also a soccer field next to a cemetery. I felt bad for the folks who were buried right by the field; I’m sure that errant balls hit their headstones. They were probably the same people who'd had their windows broken when they were alive by neighborhood kids playing baseball.

Before the reading, I checked into my hotel, which was decorated in a bird hunting theme. There were duck decoys everywhere, and this piece of furniture decorated like a hunter's mudroom. Notice the springer spaniel in the corner!

Decoy at hotel in Mequon

Hunter's Mudroom

My event tonight was at Next Chapter Bookshop, an amazing store that was celebrating its second birthday. When I pulled up, there was a woman protesting in front of the store, holding up a poster that said “Recall Alberta Darling.” This was just one of many signs I saw of the political turmoil in Wisconsin. There's a huge judicial election coming up next Tuesday, and everywhere I've gone, people are divided about the governor and issues affecting public employees.

Next Chapter, like Books & Company, has been incredibly supportive of Wingshooters, and I was excited to see owner Lanora Hurley and book buyer Dave Mallman again. There was a great audience, many of whom--again--had already read the book. One middle-aged guy in a Packers jacket told me he’d skipped a hockey game to come to the reading. His last name was Revoy--almost the same as mine.

After the reading, I went with Dave and Valerie from Next Chapter, and my friend Liam Callanan from college (a writer and professor at UW Milwaukee), to an old family-run joint called Ferrante’s. I was craving old-fashioned Fish Fry, and they were happy to indulge me. The food was great, just like I remembered.

Next Chapter's Dave Mallman and me, eating fish fry

Liam, who grew up in California and spent several years in Washington D.C., joked about the diversity on his block in Milwaukee--they have Irish Catholics, German Catholics, Polish Catholics, and Italian Catholics. I laughed, but mostly I was contemplating the fact that I have not eaten a vegetable in three days.

Beer of the Day: New Glarus Spotted Cow (New Glarus, WI)

4/2 - La Crosse, WI

I am safely in a hotel in La Crosse Wisconsin, looking out at the Mississippi River. What a day. I got out of Mequon this morning about 10 a.m., caffeinated and excited. My plan was to meander through southern Wisconsin, no end point decided, but with one main destination for the day: the farm near Portage where John Muir lived as a boy, when his family first came to the U.S. from Scotland. I took small country roads, passing dozens of farms. Some of the beautiful red barns had stone foundations that were the height of a person. I wondered about the foundations, which looked sturdy and hand-built. Were they constructed that way to resist tornados? I wish I’d gotten a good picture of one, as these hand-built foundations disappeared as I went further west.

I also got caught behind a tractor.

Tractor in the fast lane

And saw some other interesting signs.

Sign in southern Wisconsin

Portage was a small town, and here I had my first real moment of feeling like a big-city outsider. I stopped at a gas station for directions, and encountered three middle-aged men inside, wearing worn caps with agricultural insignia, listening to someone on the radio warning of the dangers of foreign students in U.S. schools. Above them, just behind the cash register, there was a deer head on the wall, an 8-point buck. Usually I get along fine with blue-collar, hunter types--that describes one side of my family, after all, as well as the people I spend time around in rural California--but I did not feel so welcome today. I was taller than all of these guys, and darker, and wearing a bright red hiking jacket, and they looked at me with great suspicion. I asked how to get to County Road F, and they directed me--probably happy to have me gone.

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.

Indian Agency House

The other was the old Surgeon’s Quarters and school from Fort Winnebago, which was active from 1828 to 1845. A young Jefferson Davis served there for about two years, thirty years before he became President of the Confederacy.

Surgeon's Quarters, Fort Winnebago

County Road F was a tiny two-lane road through countryside even more remote than where I’d been. I drove for ten miles or more, and there was no indication that any special destination was ahead--until I came across this sign about a mile from the farm.

Sign for Muir Farm

You really have to want to go there. And I really did. Once I arrived at what’s officially known as John Muir Memorial Park, I had it to myself. There was a small glacial lake, and a few signs explained who Muir was and how glaciers shaped the land. There was also this monument.

Monument at Muir Farm

That was really it. The farmhouse itself had been across the lake to the northeast, but all the structures were long gone. The land was beautiful, but also cold and harsh, and I imagined what it was like for young Muir to live here, the toil and the hardships, the struggles with his punishing father, and how all of this toughened him for his later rambles through the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere.

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.

Clouds and ice at Ennis Lake

Nina at Ennis Lake

As I sat there, a little furry head popped up out of the water--was it a beaver? A muskrat? I grabbed for my camera but he noticed me and scooted back under the surface. I thought about John Muir, about how his interest in nature, in land preservation, and in the work of glaciers, had started right here, in Wisconsin. He was the first to discover living glaciers in the Sierras, and was ridiculed at the time. The mountains of California are so different from the landscape of Wisconsin, but both are beautiful. I felt at peace at his old home, and wanted to stay.

But I kept going, on to the next town, Wisconsin Dells, which is known both for the bluffs that line the river, and for being one of the capitals of kitsch. The bluffs, at least what I could see of them, were impressive. (The boats don't start to run until May.) But there were also weird shops and tacky souvenir stands, and places like Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the Torture Museum. Just outside of the main strip, I passed roller coasters, fun rides, a giant Trojan Horse, and other frightening sights. The contrast with the quiet where I’d just been was dramatic. I got out of there as fast as I could.

As I drove across the state, the land started to change. Southwestern Wisconsin was much more hilly; during the Ice Age, glaciers didn’t reach this area, and therefore didn’t smooth out the land. I passed through tiny, tiny towns, or more accurately, clusters of a few buildings that called themselves towns, each more small and desolate-seeming than the last. I kept thinking I might find lodging in the next town, or at least a gas station, but it was like John Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charley: on the roads I was driving, there was no next town.

But I did see some interesting things along the way:

A giant mouse, advertising a cheese company

Giant mouse selling cheese

A giant ear of corn

Giant ear of corn outside La Crosse

A couple of dead deer, but no live ones. Also a place advertising “deer processing,” a service through which hunted deer are turned into meat.

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:

some organic and yoga places, even an LGBT center.

After breakfast I went to see the hospital where my dad was born, and took some pictures, which I immediately sent to him. I also bought some required Wisconsin gifts and souvenirs, including a cheese wedge-shaped pencil eraser, and this:

Me in my new favorite T-shirt

I also considered buying a new cheesehead for my dad. His old one is inflatable and not very strong, and since the Packers won the Super Bowl (and since we own one of 112,000 public shares of the team), it seemed like a good time for an upgrade. But I couldn't figure out how to fit one in my suitcase.

Originally I had planned to go to Grandad’s Bluff, the highest point in western Wisconsin. From the top, you can see into three states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. I’ve been going a bit nuts from not having hills or mountains to hike up--but these are not easy to find in the Midwest, of course! Plus, this landmark seemed fitting because of the grandfather character in my book. But I’d heard the night before from the bartender that the road to Grandad’s Bluff had been washed out, which indeed it was. This is why it’s important to go to bars.

I checked out and took the gorgeous Great River Road up the Western edge of the state, following the Mississippi River for more than 100 miles. There were cute little towns tucked among the bluffs and hills, with great river views--not the flat Wisconsin I’d known as a kid--and there were also thickets of trees and plants growing right in the river. I saw several big eagles’ or blue herons’ nests, although none of the great birds themselves.

About an hour out of La Crosse I reached Pepin, Wisconsin--the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I turned off onto a country road and eventually came upon a small log cabin.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's birthplace

I spent a few minutes out in the cold and wind and thought, why would you settle up here on an unprotected rise? The Muirs chose much better. Even the more modern farms and houses nearby were in poor shape, falling down, and the whole effect was bleak and haunted-feeling.

Fallen barn

Still, it was fun to see this place, and on my way out of Pepin a beautiful, big red fox crossed the road, which cheered me right away.

Beer of the Day: No local beer, as Minnesota is a “dry” state, so you can’t buy alcohol on Sunday. Had a Stella and a great homemade dinner.

4/4 - St. Paul, MN

Good, restful day in St. Paul. Julie and Steve have been wonderful, laid back and sweet, and I am happy for this homey break between stints of the more transient life of hotels and driving.

This morning, Finn took off running across the back yard and treed a raccoon. A French Bulldog running at full speed is a pretty funny sight--like seeing a little beer keg shoot across the ground.

Finn and Bug

My college buddy and basketball teammate Paula Pardy drove in from Sioux Falls, South Dakota--a 4-hour drive!--and we had a great time hanging out, reminiscing about our college days, remembering her wedding in Brookings, SD (where the locals were freaked out by all the 6-foot-plus basketball players invading their town) and catching up on our current lives. Paula reminded me that she had basically ended my basketball career by breaking my finger in a way that it couldn’t heal properly. But that’s ok--when I stopped playing basketball, I started writing.

Paula and me

Speaking of school days, my dad went to college for one year at St. Thomas College (now University) in St. Paul--which was literally down the street from where I'm staying. So again, I took a picture and sent it off to him.

Tonight, a lovely dinner with Julie, Steve, Stu from Abraham and Associates, and Hans, the owner of Micawber’s Books, a sweet, homey bookstore in a charming area of St. Paul. A bunch of people from Consortium came to the reading, and I was glad to meet them, to put faces to the folks who have been doing so much on behalf of my book. They've been unbelievably supportive, of me and of so many other writers published by independent presses, and I was glad for the chance to thank them in person.

Afteward, a quiet beer with Jim Nichols from Consortium. Then, it was home to a really boring men’s final game. But I had two dogs on my lap, and I was happy.

Beers of the Day:
Bell’s Amber Ale (Kalamazoo, MI)
Summit Northern Porter (St. Paul, MN)

4/5 - Dubuque, IA

What a full and wonderful day! It was freezing in St. Paul this morning--there was frost on the windshield of my little Ford Focus--but I was excited to get on the road (although sad to say goodbye to the dogs). Avoiding the freeways, I took Highway 52 into southern Minnesota and was happily surprised to see several Amish farmers driving their beautiful buggies and horses. Others were selling honey from their houses. This was near Harmony, Minnesota, and I was amazed to see how close they were to a town, not at all sequestered in the country. Right outside one Amish farm, I also saw the biggest, most gorgeous pheasant I’ve ever laid eyes on, with colorful showy plumage. This made me miss Russell, my springer, who loves to flush birds and especially pheasants, even though I never do anything about it. I tried to get a picture of the grand bird, but he was too fast for me.

Soon afterward, I discovered that in the Midwest, “grilled” means “fried,” when I ordered a "healthy option" chicken sandwich and received one caked in batter.

In Southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, I also started to see a few more religious signs, like this one.

Once I crossed over into Iowa, I happened upon another Laura Ingalls Wilder house--the place where she lived from the ages of nine to eleven--and another Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway.

Another Laura Ingalls Wilder house, in Iowa

Because my stepsister is a huge fan, I stopped and picked up some souvenirs, and looked at the map of the Ingalls family’s travels.

Map of the family's travels--look familiar?

They started out in Wisconsin, and went to Minnesota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas--the same states I was visiting, except for South Dakota, but I did have someone from South Dakota come to me. Was I being sent on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Book Tour? The person at Akashic who set it all up, Johanna, does have the last name “Ingalls.” Coincidence? Hmmm…

I went through more farmland, and got stuck behind tractors several more times. As I drove farther south, and the temperatures got warmer, there was more activity on the farms--big machinery tilling the earth to prepare for the season's planting. People work hard here--I've seen it everywhere I go--and I wonder if my time in the Midwest, and being raised by my hardworking dad, shaped my own feelings about the value of work.

Eventually the 52 swung back around toward the Mississippi river, past a bunch of towns with German names, and then I was in Dubuque, the oldest town in Iowa. It was prettier than I’d expected--with hills and bluffs, old Victorian buildings--and it reminded me of Ithaca, New York, except for the river.

I’m staying at the beautiful Redstone Inn, a B & B that was once a private home built by a wagon company mogul in the frontier days--a guy who got rich during the Western expansion. The Inn is now run by a Chinese man named Mr. Chu, who lived for many years in Japan. It made me happy to see him and his family, and it also made me reflect on the strange ways we end up in the places we do.

I had two events today, one at the University of Dubuque, and one at River Lights Bookstore downtown. Both were organized by my friend, the wonderful poet Lauren Alleyne, and both were a lot of fun. The kids at the university were a pretty diverse bunch; they were adorable and it was great to be around their energy.

Lauren and me

At River Lights--a great, active, welcoming store run by Sue Davis--most of the people who came to the reading had already read my book in their book clubs. Have I mentioned I love independent books stores? And book clubs? I also love bookstores with cats, like this one at River Lights, appropriately named “Indie.”

Indie is not sure what he thinks of this book

Nina at reading

I learned today, to my complete unabashed delight, that much of the baseball movie Field of Dreams was filmed in and around Dubuque. A couple of scenes took place at the university (including in the room where I read!), and a street in downtown Dubuque was dressed up to look like a neighborhood in Boston. It seemed like everyone in town had been touched by the movie in some way, including a woman at my reading who’d been an extra in the PTA scene where the parents fight about censorship. Tomorrow I will go check out this street, and then visit the actual Field of Dreams film site, which is about 20 miles out the country.

By the time we were done with everything, all the restaurants in town were closed, so Lauren, her sister, her sweetheart and I drove out to a Perkins and ate unhealthy diner food. Now, I am back at the B & B, exhausted, but a super happy camper.

Beer of the Day: None. Everything was closed!

4/6 - Iowa City, IA

I am sitting in the front room of the Bostick House, which was Iowa City’s first City Hall, and then served as a recruiting office and gathering place for the Union Army during the Civil War. My rooms extend front to back on the first floor, and you can feel the history here; I can almost imagine the young recruits coming in, scared and excited, before they head off to training and battle.

Bostick House

It’s been another great day in Iowa. I woke up this morning and went for a long walk through downtown Dubuque, admiring all the late 19th-Century buildings with their owners’ names still visible on the tops of them, testament to successful masters of industry now a century gone. I also saw this statue at the local art museum.

American Gothic

I did make it to the street that stood in for Boston in the movie. The most prominent storefront now belongs to Planned Parenthood, and there were maybe half a dozen anti-abortion protestors out front, another reminder that--college town or not--we were deep in the Heartland.

Dubuque continued to remind me of Ithaca: the old industrial buildings, the slightly worn down neighborhoods (both black and white), the architecture, the mixture of blue-collar grittiness and new-age vibe--the yoga shops, massage parlors, a few little boutiques.

About 11:00, I headed out to the Field of Dreams, which is near Dyersville, not too far out of my way. I was a bit lost on the country roads, and approached from the back side, but when I saw the baseball lights out in the middle of unbroken farmland, I knew I was in the right place.

I know this is utterly dorky, but the place felt magical. I think it had special meaning because of the baseball scenes in my book, the opening description of the grandfather’s team way back in the 1920s. Those guys were playing just after Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox’s travails, and wearing the same old-school uniforms as the players in Field of Dreams. The movie site has been perfectly preserved--the gorgeous white farmhouse, the red barn buildings, the diamond. The farm is set in a little nook of a valley surrounded by other farms, and there's beauty in every direction. I was completely by myself, the only visitor. I circled the bases, stood on the pitcher’s mound, went across the outfield to the edge of the corn fields (dormant now, in early spring), and stood on the famous bleachers.

Field of Dreams

If you build it, nostalgic sports-loving fools like me will come

Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa!

There was (inevitably) a little gift shop off to the side, and after I’d had my fill of the field I talked to the woman in the booth, whose daughter is in graduate school at the University of Iowa. She told me, among other things, that Moonlight Graham was a real person, which delighted me--and indeed they had a copy of his baseball card.

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:

Southern Iowa was flatter and less pretty than the area around Dubuque, and as the landscape started to look the same in every direction, I began to feel weirdly claustrophobic. No hills, no bluffs, not even a ski pimple. This area was just flat as hell.

I did, however, see six more dead deer (after two the day before), lots of crosses, and many more religious and anti-abortion signs. There was even an anti-euthanasia sign. Until now, I’d thought that the rural Midwest had nothing on rural California for anti-abortion and religious signs, but now, in southern Iowa and northern Missouri, the scales were starting to tip toward the Midwest.

I had one main stop before St. Louis: Hannibal, Missouri, birthplace of Mark Twain, and the setting for many of his most famous works. I was pretty thrilled to pull into Hannibal, another charming-looking town of mostly brick buildings on the edge of the Mississippi. It was undeniably cool to see the places where Twain had lived, where the models for Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher had grown up, the majesty of river.

Grant's Drug Store -- Twain lived upstairs for a few years

Twain House -- one block from the river

Lighthouse overlooking the Mississippi

Twain and Twain-related references were everywhere. I passed by Puddn'head Antiques, Becky's Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium, Mrs. Clemens Shoppes, Hotel Mark Twain, Mark Twain Fried Chicken. There was even an image of Twain on a soda machine.

Vending machine in Hannibal, Missouri

I was a bit saddened and taken aback by all the blatant commercialism. However, this didn't stop me from buying a Huck Finn floaty pen.

Before hitting the road again, I got a caffeine fix at “the first coffee shop west of the Mississippi." It was a strange place. The patrons included a scary biker dude with long white hair in a red leather jacket, and a tiny, drawn-in nun dressed in light blue. I kept thinking that they could be the start of a joke. “A biker and a nun go into a coffee shop in Hannibal, Missouri ….”

Between Hannibal and St. Louis, as the highway got wider, there were many more big rigs. Also some interesting signs, including this:

But soon enough, I reached St. Louis, where I was pleased to find myself in a great walking area near Washington University. I had Asian food for the first time in week at the Chinese Noodle House, and watched while a diverse cross-section of the city came in to eat. As I walked along the “the Loop,” I saw African-Americans, Asians, whites, and Latinos, and felt glad to be swept up in this crowd.. The lush sounds of a saxophone floated down the street, and it was a clear, balmy night, and people seemed energized, happy for spring.

Then it was off to Subterranean Books--another great, funky bookstore, and another place kindly organizing book groups to read my book. I met a mixed-race Japanese-American woman, a lifelong resident of the Midwest, who was wearing a pin and a bracelet in solidarity with the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. I'd seen a few such items, and Red Cross ads, in my travels, and it struck me again that both my places of origin--Japan and Wisconsin--have been in the news so much lately. (My own relatives in Japan, who all live in Kyoto, were fortunately all o.k.) I also remembered the cousins in Oconomowoc telling me about one of the granddaughters who is obsessed with anime and wants to move to Japan. Because of things like anime and manga, kids in the U.S. who have never met a Japanese person feel connected to, and distressed by, the events in Japan. This is mind-blowing to me--so different from when I was a kid--and I found it sweet, and hopeful.

After the reading, I went and found a place to have a beer, and now I am back at the hotel. I am really glad to be here. It's strange--in the city, I am happy to have a break the country. In the country, I am glad to be out of the city. But that's how it is for me in my regular life, in California.

Beer of the day: Schlafly Pale Ale, St Louis. (Yes, that Schlafly—although apparently she married into the family.)

4/8 - Wichita, KS

A long day of travel--I covered 442 miles today between St. Louis and Wichita, trying to get in ahead of a big storm.

This morning, in St. Louis, I wanted to check out a gorgeous residential area close to my hotel, so I walked over there and found that it was “private, no trespassing.” This annoyed me, so of course I went in. The houses were stunning, and the whole world was green, fresh and clean from the overnight rain. A few blocks in, I noticed a pro-union Wisconsin sign, and I was struck by the seeming paradox of this labor sign in front of such a big, fancy house. Right after I took this picture

the door opened, and a cat ran out, followed hot by a bellowing beagle. After them came a white woman of maybe 60, and a Latina girl in a private school uniform who was maybe 11 or 12. The dog chased the cat into the street, under a car, back into the yard, and the cat turned and scratched him and then ran on. Finally, the cat escaped over a fence, but the dog was still bellowing and running, and the exasperated woman, the girl, and I went after him down the street. They kept calling out, “Yadi! Yadi!” to no avail, and eventually he ran into an unfenced yard, where an old collie was standing, gentle and unmoving and kind. The beagle said hi to the collie, then ran off into the corner of the yard, with the poor girl still chasing after him. I’d tried to catch him a couple of times, but finally I just knelt down to pet Bailey, the old collie, who couldn’t understand the commotion. Yadi came over to the collie almost sheepishly, and I grabbed him by the collar and handed him back to the lady. Then we had the following exchange:

Me: “Is he named after Yadier Molina?” (the Cardinals’ catcher)
Frazzled Lady: “Yes. It was either that or Charles Barkley. We chose Yadi.”
Me: “The real Yadi doesn't move that fast.”
Frazzled Lady: “Oh yes he does!”
Me: “Oh. Ok, well. I don't know. I’m an Angels fan, and we had both his brothers, Benji and Jose. They were good, but they couldn’t run.”
Frazzled Lady: “They were good.”
Me: “I think Yadi is the best of the lot, though.”

This whole episode made me really happy.

After the adventure with Yadi and a good cup of coffee, I took off toward Wichita, not sure how far I’d make it today. It was an interesting drive, and the land was lush and green. I know that Missouri is not considered part of the South, but it doesn’t quite seem like the Midwest either. Missouri was a slave state, and you can feel that history everywhere. There’s a Confederate memorial, for those lost at the battle of Lexington. There are ads for an upcoming Civil War reenactment. And although I didn’t stop there this time, I visited the Jesse James Museum during another trip to Missouri and found Confederate flags in the gift shop.

Entering Kansas, I noticed that the religious signs got more directive. One said:

“Righteousness makes a nation great but sin is a cancer to all people.” Another, “Accept Jesus Christ as your savior or regret it forever.” But the writing on these signs was in about the same font as the signs announcing souvenir stands. It was a weird parallel, like you could get off at the next exit for gas, hand-made furniture, and to have your soul saved.

Heading southeast from Kansas City, I entered the Flint Hills. There were fires everywhere, low-burning but wide-spread, and this startled me--in California, a brush fire is generally not a good thing. And I wasn't sure this was, either--especially when we got close to some oil derricks.

As I approached the city, a beautiful, huge blue heron flew right across highway, and that put me in good spirits. It was 89 degrees. Since I only had winter clothes (there were frozen lakes when I started!) I needed to at least buy a shirt--which I did, at the Gap. Driving back to my hotel, I heard a program called National Native News on the radio--which made me think about the history of Native Americans in the Midwest. I want to learn more about this. I’ve wanted to learn more about so much that I’ve seen on this trip.

After my big, bland, not so healthy meals, I was craving some spice, so I decided to go to a Mexican restaurant across the street from my hotel. And how is Mexican food in Wichita? Let’s just say it made me miss my mother-in-law. A lot. Especially her incredible mole.

As I was sitting outside eating, the wind suddenly picked up drastically and the sky went dark. People rushed inside, saying that there was a tornado warning. But I ran back to my room, got my camera, and went back outside. The sky was beautiful, dramatic; it looked like a living thing. Hopefully we will make it to morning.

Wichita Sky

Wichita Sky

Beer of the day: Boulevard Pale Ale, KC (Kansas City, MO)

4/9 - Wichita, KS

I am back at the hotel after the last event of my Midwest tour. My work is done!

It's been a good day. I woke up early and went for a run while the temperature was still bearable. Again, the world was fresh and green after a big rain--later, I learned that there was “baseball-sized hail” that actually destroyed the car of someone who came to the reading. I ran through a beautiful neighborhood with lots of sweet Craftsman style houses, and spring has sprung here big time, with bright red tulips and purple trees everywhere. Then, in reading in my little guide book, I learned how many companies originated in Wichita and are still based here, including Beech, Cessna, Coleman, and Pizza Hut. Who knew?

Most thrillingly for me, I discovered that one of the first lunch counter sit-in protests of the Civil Rights Movement occurred right here in Wichita on July 19, 1958--a full year and a half before the more famous student sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. It took place at the Dockum Drug Store--an affiliate of Rexall Drugs--in downtown Wichita. A bit of web research yielded more information: the students succeeded in getting the place integrated after three weeks. The sit-in wasn’t widely reported because local papers didn't want to scare businesses away and because the NAACP had not yet sanctioned this method of protest. The history of the Dockum Drug Store Sit-In is being resurrected a bit--there was a recent story on NPR, as well as a documentary. There is also a commemorative sculpture, "The Lunch Counter," at Lewis Reflection Park downtown.

So of course I went down there immediately to see the sculpture. It was haunting and beautiful. And again, no one was there except for me. I got chills as I approached the life-sized sculpture.

The Lunch Counter

The physical reality of the piece, and the detail, just increased the sense of immediacy--like the bus at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The sculpture had no marker, nothing identifying what it was or what it commemorated, which somehow made it feel more poignant. Also, the area of downtown where the park was felt deserted, and all of the storefronts were empty. This was all so interesting to me. Kansas is the Heartland, not the South, and yet some of the most important events of Civil Rights Movement happened here--the first sit-in, and of course, Brown vs. the Board of Education, which originated up in Topeka. I sat and contemplated all of this for a good long while.

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.

Me in front of the authors’ wall at Watermark Books & Cafe

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.

Sign at baggage claim

And this, just in case someone was planning to travel with hand grenades:

Prohibited items

My trip is drawing to a close. I’ve been to six states, nine towns, and covered almost 2000 miles. I’ve visited some incredible, historic sites, seen important places from my father’s life, met all kinds of interesting people, traveled through various landscapes, and remembered--although I didn't need to be reminded--of what a beautiful world this is. I’m glad it’s over, and also sad it’s over--I’ve gotten into a rhythm of travel, something new every day, and the travel itself has become its own routine. But now, today, I’m off to my last stop, and headed to the best destination of all: home.

1 comment:

  1. Not fond of beer, but sampling the beer of the day sounds really interesting and fun. And the names of the cities, towns, had very odd and cool names. Happy Travels.