American Road Myth, part 1

Note: this episode was the seed for a more-developed treatment published at Piker Press.

I have mentioned a couple of times when I have been in one place too long that I am pining for the road. Some of my favorite moments on this trip so far have behind the wheel – just me, my machine, and my thoughts. And that’s what it comes down to. I think better when I’m alone.

The definition of alone can be squirrely. The old cliché ‘alone in a crowd’ certainly applies – I can wrap myself up in a little introspective ball in a raucous bar and pound away, while if I’m in someone’s house and they’re tiptoeing around trying not to disturb me I find that very distracting.

So here’s a theory – ‘alone’ is a synonym for ‘free’. In a crowded bar, the only time I’m distracted is if all the tables are full and people are waiting to eat dinner. I feel bad for hurting the bar’s and (more important) my server’s income. When I’m in someone’s house, it’s their house, dammit, and they should be able to act however they want in it.

That brings me to the road. It’s the thing I’m looking for out here, and sometimes I feel like I might just find it. The road has always represented freedom, but not, I have come to believe, because it takes you wherever you want to go but because when you’re on it you are nowhere. Lately I have been using the phrase “American Road Myth” to describe the romance our nation holds for the road, from Kerouac to Thelma and Louise to riding off into the sunset. We love the road, we love the freedom, but nowhere in the road myth is the idea of a destination. The road is about self-sufficiency and the unknown. It’s about finding stories, meeting people, but always moving on.

I take back what I just said: there is a destination in the road myth, it’s just not on a map. Paul Simon and an unnamed friend went to look for America, and never left the United States. As far as I know they never found what they were looking for. There is an implied quest for wholeness, for some kind meaning that is at the end of the yellow brick road. To find it, you have to be nowhere. You have to be on the road.

We Americans have created a new religion, an introspective and wistful belief system that few practice but all believe in. Freedom, solitude, the road. Independence and resourcefulness, hardship and thought. Hoppin’ a freight, sleeping under the stars, hitchhiking. Disconnecting. Escaping. For all our collective brashness and bravado, we yearn for the peace of the road and a glimpse of what’s over the rainbow.

If America has a heaven, it’s an all-night truck stop, with Mac in back cooking burgers and passing them up to Sal (you know by the embroidered patch over her respectable breast), who sets it in front of you, fries steaming and glistening, saying “Here ya go, Hon.” You haven’t eaten in 400 miles and the burger is perfect. There’s a trucker two stools down, and he’s flirting with Sal while the jukebox plays an old Hank Williams song you never heard before. Unlike any other heaven, though, this heaven is perfect because you are just passing through. You have a slice of pie, leave your money on the counter, and saddle up to move on to the next town. Sal says goodbye and tells you to come back in next time you’re passing through.

You just might do that.

When did you say you were leaving again?

Location: Buggy’s (map )
Miles: 1464.0

I have noticed that, between all the stuff I’m lugging around and all the space I need to set up shop, I am not the typical houseguest. On the good side, my hosts don’t have to worry about entertaining me, since I can always work or write. On the other hand, it kind of sucks when there is always someone working or writing in your living room. You feel the need to tiptoe around. (This is, in fact, completely unnecessary – I write in bars for crying out heaven’s sake.)

Then there is all the hardware I set up for my command center. Buggy now has wires all over his living room floor – power cables going one way, network the other, and a pile of hardware in the middle.

As a special bonus for Buggy, who has his own Web hosting business, his name server crashed for the first time in years soon after he set me up, and yesterday I broke the handle off his microwave. He took it very well.

Then, of course, there’s the Bad Influence Factor (BIF). having someone in your house who is more or less unemployed and on many days really doesn’t have to be all that responsible tends to make my hosts think of all sorts of reasons why they, too, shouldn’t have to work either. So instead we hang out, maybe have a beer or two, go do something fun, and generally enjoy the day at the expense of any pretense at productivity.

Take yesterday, for instance. Buggy shined work and we hopped in the ‘ol convertible for some sunny-day mountain-spring-drriving fun (SDMSDF). We hooked back up with John and enjoyed a Local Microbrew (LMB) (photo) and finished the day tired and happy.

When I put it that way, I’m not so sure my influence is so bad after all. Perhaps it should be named the WORIF (Work is Over-Rated Influence Factor). I know there’s a better name, but my attention span has not

Poetry Slam

Buggy invited me along and I happily accepted. I’m a writer now, right? I’m supposed to do all that literary shit. It was a lot of fun. If there’s one in your area, you should check it out.

It is a competition, with judges recrtuited from the audience. I was offered the “opportunity” to be a judge and I’m very glad I turned it down. More on that later, maybe. The qualilty of the performances was more uniform that usual, Buggy tells me. The eight finalists tonight had to win preliminary rounds to compete tonight, so they were all pretty good, but there was a uniformness of voice among the competitors that I suspect is a reflection of the taste of the audience in the previous rounds. Many of the performers made heavy use of a Hip-Hop cadence that has become a poetic stereotype.

Here is the one image I took of a performer, as she began an animated discussion of her unnatural love of peanut butter:

Lots of good ideas, soem expressed better than others, and everyone understood that this was just as much about the performance as it was about the poem. All the finalists attacked their work with great energy and honesty, and some of the things I heard really made me think.

Unfortunately, I had only a couple of seconds after each performance before the big goofy jackass MC hopped up on stage and started shouting his schtick into the mike. After listening to a woman tell us how she was coping with bring molested as a child and having a friend murdered while she worked in a peep show, the last thing I wanted to hear was some douchebag clown saying “Look at meee! Look at meeee!” Sure, his job is to keep the energy up, but the energy of thought and ideas moving is sometimes better than just “get everyone making noise” energy. (Buggy pointed out that as a crowd the poetry circle is pretty self-absorbed and no one listened to each other’s work anyway.)

The judges were, as I mentioned, recruited out of the audience, and while they took it very seriously, they weren’t prepared for the task. The guy who went first put on a very good performance but as time passed there became an unofficial minimum score that the audience would accept, and that floor kept going up. It didn’t matter who went first, they were doomed. Had I accepted the role of judge, I would have been taken outside and beaten for giving scores below 8 out of ten. Any explanation of scale attenuation would have been wasted.

While I have dwelt for a bit on the negatives of the night, my overall impression was very good. I heard several very talented and very brave people spilling their guts out to strangers and (scarier) friends. It made me think about my writing and got my juices flowing again. Tonight I made some important improvements to the first chapter of The Fish by imagining myself reciting it as poetry.

The four winners now go to St. Louis for the national finals. Good luck to them there.

Chez Buggy

Location: Buggy’s house, San Jose, CA (map)
Miles: 1378.1

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and already it’s hot outside. Had a little work to do, but now it’s time to go splash in the pool. This isn’t bad.

While I’m thinking about it, I added a photo I took in Oakdale to the album (photo). Signs say the funniest things. I think for the rest of the day I’m going to put the blog down and do some actual writing. (I’m still waiting for the message from SiteMeter that says, “Dude, you can’t go checking the stats every time you get a hit. Chill.”) We’ll see how that goes.

Big Day in Blog-Town

I’d like to say ‘hello’ to anyone who is happening by here because of the very nice things said about me (or at least the idea of me he has formed) here.


For my regulars (Yes, I have regulars too! That hit counter didn’t get over 300 all by itself!), Dr Pants is someone who checked “other” under Plan. We have a lot in common. Except the Norwegian girlfriend – I don’t have one of those. Damn you, Dr Pants! There I am thinking I’m scoring pretty high on the footloose-o-meter, spending my days pondering the American Road Myth, and then you happen by, and sure you’re footloose and everything, but on top of that you have me 1-0 in the Norwegian Girlfriend competition. Someday, buddy, when you least expect it…

You’re probably wondering who I am, but really, I’m the last one to answer that question. If you take my word for it, I’m exactly the right height, IQ in the 300+ range, ridiculously fit, raconteur, philanthropist, and poet. And modest. Modest like you woldn’t believe. You should probably ask someone else.

If you’re looking around, you’ll see that right now almost all the posts are about my homeless tour. It started April 2th, my 40th birthday (purely concidence – really. That’s the day the sale of my house became final. Absolutely coincidence. That you would doubt my word hurts me.) The starting point of the tour was San Diego, the end point is Prague. In between, it’s kind of hazy, but I’m doing a bit of work along the way, so I have to stay close to the Internet for the nonce.

Besides the homeless tour, there’s politics (I’m running for president), Get-Poor-Quick Schemes (if any of you know much about robotics, I’d love to get poor with you. I need a robot nuclear reactor on the moon.), and a bit here and there in the other categories. Once I’m in Prague, there’ll be more in the Writing category especially.

As a side note, I am approaching public beta with a word processor I created for writers (specifically novelists) who suffer from the same deficiencies I do. Currently just for mac. There’s a link over on the side there somewhere.

If any of you have more information on the explosive exposé Suicide Squirrel Death Cult please be sure to leave a note. The sooner this tragedy sees the light of day, the more innocent lives can be saved.

So that’s it. Welcome to Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas. If you lose the link, you can always search for “elevator ocelot rutabaga” and you’ll come right here.

Oakdale Dawn

Location: Best Western Rama Inn, Oakdale (map)
Miles: 1271.8

I can just picture Mom, shaking her head with a look that says “I’m being patient, but I really shouldn’t need to be” as she says to Dad, “I told you not to give the boy caffeine after 6pm.”

Now the morning is here, like there’s some big damn rush to get the day started. The sun’s shining and there’s traffic outside the double glazing. I’m as jittery as a field mouse at a hawk convention, buzzed on green tea and Froot Loops to carry me through the ante meridiem despite the profound lack of sleep. On the desk next to the ol’ powerbook is the remains of a loaf of bread, the last of the soft cheese, getting softer and cheesier as I watch, and empty coke and beer bottles. Poor Man’s Speedball.

In the tiny freezer is a package of frozen potstickers. Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. At least I’ll be able to take the fresh fruit with me, and the leftover beer will be appreciated tonight at Buggy’s place, I’m sure.

I cleaned up a little before I thought to take the pic, but it would have undermined my journalistic integrity to put the junk back.

I was taking some of my crap out to the car this morning and checking the mileage when some guy asked me, “Were you driving through Yosemite yesterday? With the top down?” They had been behind me in the line to get into the park.

My lower lip is twitching, the maid is knocking, I have packing to do, and checkout is in an hour. Then, it’s out into the world, on a quest to get to the bottom of the Oakdale Enigma. I’ll let you know what I learn.


Location: Mariposa Grove (map of approx. location of parking lot ) (album)
Miles: 1148.1

Groveland on Sunday morning is dead. D-E-A-D dead. Even the breakfast places are closed. I wandered the main drag, hungry and alone, looking for someone to make me some toast. That’s all I wanted, toast. And Eggs. And Potatoes. Maybe some bacon. Mmmm, bacon. And Tea, of course. That’s all I wanted.

I found a place, of course, with all those things, right across the street from where I started. Oh, well, I got to see the town.

Right, then. On the road. Beautiful day and all that. The speed limit in the park is 35 mph in most places, which makes going pretty slow, but I turned off the music and with the top down I could hear birds singing, so I just rolled along, stopping often to take pictures. The valley really is spectacular, and the trees are big. The signs on the hiking trail giving the distances to various points of interest were complete fiction. At one point I had 0.8 miles to go. I walked for a little while, dragging my sorry butt up a hill, and passed another sign. Distance to go: 0.8 miles. I’m slow, but not that slow.

There were people from all over the world there. There were some French people arguing with each other; when I passed them on the trail I said “excusé moi” (which I later realized was the wrong thing to say), but it sure made them self-conscious. On the way back down I passed two chinese women walking with their little girls. One of the women was talking animatedly to them, at length, and all were obviously having a good time. I understood only one word, but it was used more than once: Cinderella.

On the way back down the hill I took more small roads, and found my way back here, to the enigma that is Oakdale. Geographical schizophrenic. Last time through I spotted a billboard for a hotel that had free DSL and here I am now, DSLing away and watching late night TV. I thought I’d save some money and go to the grocery store for tonight’s vittles, and spent more than I would have in a restaurant. I am eating better food, though.

Sorry, I have to make a call now to make an appointment with a mobility specialist.


Location: Groveland Motel (map)
Miles: 1076.3

I’m sitting on the porch of my little cabin. I can see the moon, and it seems happy enough, happy as a slot car on an oval track. None of that figure-8 nonsense where you bash into another moon and your doors fly off. The highway is reasonably quiet now, but the occasional Harley does raise a ruckus. Overall, there’s not much to interfere with my peace. There’s a cricket chirping nearby, but far enough away that it’s therapeutic; any closer and I’d want to stomp the noisy little bastard.

I suppose, for those of you glued to your seats back home, that I should tell you something about my trip. It was a good drive.

The normally reliable California highway signage let me down, but I dealt with it. Had I studied the map a wee bit more closely I would have known that 280 south became, without announcement, 680 north. Goddamn number bastards. Even numbered highways aren’t even supposed to go north and south anyway. I had been looking for the junction with 680 as the queue to start looking for signs for the wee road I intended to take over the mountains. Goddamn road was long gone before I even realized I was on 680, dammit. [Note – I’m feeling fiesty tonight. There will probably be some more gratuitous dammits.]

One pleasent side effect was that I took a shortcut off the freeway that put me right through downtown Livermore, which looked like a pretty cool place. My fondness for the old downtown was profoundly (and not kindly) affected by the series of housing developments I passed on the outskirts of Livermore that looked like apartment complexes but were actually single family homes. Castles might be a better word for these things. Castles crammed together in a ‘Castle Zone’. Yes, sir, my kind of livin’.

So havig missed my ideal highway, which I will find on the way back to the bay area Monday, I struck West on I-580. Until is was 205, or something like that. Driving through California’s central valley I reflected on the fact that I was passing through the most productive farmland in the world – so productive that the ground water is poisoned by nitrates from the fertilizer.

In the valley is a town called Oakdale. I have appended it’s name – It is now “Oakdale, city of irony”. First, there was the huge sign, which said something like “Dammit! Oakdale is the bomb! Love them oaks!” I may not have that exactly right. What made this sign special was the enormous pile of firewood stacked nearby. I wonder what kind of tree that wood came from.

Second, there was the sign welcoming me to Oakdale. It showed a string of paper people like you cut out in preschool. The sign said something like “Welcome to Oakdale, a community united against drug abuse.” Admirable, I’m sure you’ll agree. 25 feet past that sign was one that said simply “cocktails”, with a picture of a martini. A few feet farther on was Whiskey River Saloon and Cocktail Lounge. Let’s all fight it together.

The trip according to music:
Scotts Valley to Freemont: Fluffy
Freemont to Livermore: X
Livermore to Tracy: Mary’s Danish
Tracy to ranger station: Havana 3am
Ranger station to hotel: Stiff Little Fingers

If you look to the west of Groveland (map), you will see a twisty, twisty road. I followed a stinkin little toyota mile after mile up the road as it crept along. Finally, at the very top of the road, it pulled me over to let me pass. I went through the last few corners and got onto straight road, only to have the goddamn little red car riding my ass. Yearrgh.

Had dinner at the Iron Door, and stayed for the band, the Wingnut Adams Blues Band. They were pretty darn good. I was impressed on the first song when the drummer did the singing. The guitarist was awesome, but the Spinal Tap facial expressions and some of his other histrionics were pretty silly in such a small place. It’s a fine line between showman and dork.

While waiting for the band to start, I was sitting at the bar having my buffalo burger and I managed to kick up a conversation with the guy next to me. OK, he kicked it up. He was taking a break from studying for the bar exam. When I told him what I was up to, it was almost embarrassing how much he gushed at first, but he proved good at asking questions and it occurred to me that I am very fortunate to be able to do my tour. Not many people will ever have the option to do something this dumb.

I’ll get some pics up here pronto, dammit!

Ooo! John! one more thing! There’s a company up here call Zoo-phonics. You could get a job there and move to the middle of nowhere!

Heading Out

Location: John and Janice’s house
Miles: 900.9

Everything’s packed except the laptop, and I’m ready to head out. Big, big thanks go to John and Janice for putting me up for as long as they did. I’ve had a great time here and I don’t care who knows it.

One trumpet lighter and with Winnebaggo (I had been calling my giant suitcase my mobile home, but John coined this much better name) looking more svelte as I redistributed my load somewhat, I’m feeling footloose and fancy-free. I honestly have no idea where I’m going to stay tonight. Not even what state I’ll be in. Work looms again on Monday, so I’ll have to find an Internet connection by then – most likely at Buggy’s place.

A little parting anecdote about life chez John. Changing the names to protect the innocent would be pretty useless. Yesterday John had a Job interview for a little educational publishing outfit in Santa Cruz. He spent the afternoon boning up on the company and he got all gussied up. Before he left, Janice made sure he had a little portfolio with working pen and paper, and asked him, “Do you have any resumés printed up to hand to people?”

What followed was well over half an hour of formatting, checking, and printing resumés, until John was properly armed to Janice’s satisfaction. John was getting increasingly antsy to leave during this process. Finally, time running short, he got himself together and out the door.

Janice turned to me and said, “He’s never going to make it in time. He should have left half an hour ago – traffic on Friday afternoons is really bad.”

Tweaking the ‘ol blog today

So I just noticed that on my Windows machine the titles don’t have the cool shadows under them. How’s it working for you guys out there?

And hey, was that gap underneath the category icon always there in IE? *sigh*

Coaxial Trumpets

If, that is, by “innovative” you mean stupid. John has some misguided added criterion that the resulting instrument should sound good. Now, that’s how to get poor quick.

John, being largely unemployed, has been spending lots of time on his music, and his love for unusual instruments is as strong as ever. He is even considering (in a vague, undirected kind of way) going to brass instrument repair school. I’m hoping he does, so he can get the skills he needs to execute some of our designs (although I doubt the school will cover explosive welding).

The cream of our instrument designs this time was the coaxial trumpet. (John had drawn a picture for me to photograph and insert here, but I used it to catch dog puke. I’ll get him to draw another.) The theory is that the standing waves in the outer and inner bores would reinforce and improve the efficiency of the horn. The catch is that if the tubing doubled back over itself the player would be staring straight into the bell. To overcome this the design gets pretty odd. Another possibility is the triaxial trumpet, so that the tubing doubles back twice, creating a short, fat-looking horn.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” they say, which in this case meant “quit waiting for John and draw your own damn pictures.” Here is the result of my attempt:

You can't stop the wheels of progress, baby!

I won’t bore you with all the details, but there are plenty of fiddly bits like the plate that caps off the tube where it doubles back. Brass players love to tinker with their horns, so giving all kinds of shapes, materials, and thicknesses of the various parts would create great aftermarket potential.

If, that is, by “Great Aftermarket Potential” you mean a pile of expensive-to-produce parts that no one wants.

We also discussed techniques for creating trumpet bells composed of various layers of different materials. Explosive welding could be the key there, fusing laminae of alloys that can’t be electroplated. Plus, we could sell with each horn the video of the bell being made. Blammo!

Sports Bar?

Location: Charlie O’s (map)
Miles: 845.6
Padres magic Number: 152

My fourth, and probably last, time here on this visit. Wednesday is cheap you-call-it night, and there are a few more people here. The bartender knows me well enough now to not need to ask me what I want. I have never had to correct her on the “need vs. want” question. I would not be in tonight except that the deadline was moved for the project I’m working on. I decided to allow myself false complacency and come and write rather than work late.

In the bar area there are four small tables, and I have sat at the same one each time. When The Fish or The Monster Within sells a bazillion copies they can put a plaque here. Over at the bar, they are talking an older lady into trying Patron, a better-than-average tequila. I get the feeling that it could be Tequila of the Gods and she’s not going to enjoy it. There is only a tiny bit in the glass. Her friends are saying things like, “you don’t even need a lime.” I don’t think that will be the issue.

Wait for it…

“It burns my lips,” was her judgment. Fair enough. If the others are disappointed, it is outweighed by their appreciation that she tried it at all. On the other hand, I suspect that any discomfort she suffers over the next week will somehow be the fault of the tequila.

I believe that the Padres are playing the Giants right now. Barry Bonds is threatening the all-time record for consecutive games with a home run. The Giants are worshipped locally. This is a sports bar – it says so right on the sign. The game is not on. I’m not complaining, mind. I could ask them to put the game on and I’m sure they would. It’s just an observation, is all. They’ve got Jimi Hendrix playing right now, and I’d hate to interrupt that.

The game is on now, but the music still takes precedence. Playing right now is “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Mott the Hoople. I’m pretty sure that the only time I’ve ever heard that song in my entire life has been when I was playing it. I threw away that tape, along with almost all my cassettes, April 2th, the day I began the tour.

Holy crap, what is it with dudes and cologne in this place?
Padres magic Number: 151

Suicide Squirrel Death Cult

Location: John and Janice’s house (map)
Miles: 805.3

I got my first inkling of the seamier underside of this quiet town a few days ago while a passenger in John’s car as we headed up the Glenwood cutoff toward Highway 17. It was a peaceful morning; we had a few errands to run – I needed ethernet cables, John had an item to drop by the tailor’s in preparation for his upcoming Polkacide gig. The sun shone down through the branches high overhead. Visibility was excellent, and the day quiet. Not even a Metro was going to sneak up on a woodlands creature on that day.

Yet, inexplicably, as we approached a tree (map) a squirrel leapt out of the foliage directly in the path of the car. John stomped on the brakes, but it was far, far too late. The squirrel vanished out of sight beneath the hood. John looked in the mirrors while I turned around to see the aftermath, but there was no obvious body. Perhaps he had got lucky.

John and I laughed about it, imagining the other squirrels on the side of the road egging that one on, but John must know. He’s been around here too long to not know about the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult. People keep their dark secrets to themselves in small towns.

It was today that the truth became obvious to me. Driving peacefully up Glenwood from the main town (map), two six-packs of beer placed carefully so that the side-to-side forces of the upcoming twisty road would not dislodge them, a squirrel came dashing out from the far side of the road and ran full-tilt to intercept me. I hit the brake, dumping bottles of beer out onto the floor on the passenger side, but as I slowed the squirrel changed course toward me. I cringed as my car passed over the squirrel. Once again, however, when I looked in my rear-view mirror, there was nothing. No squirrel guts, but no squirrel scampering to safety.

“Who trains the squirrels here anyway?” I asked the sky, as if every municipality had a squirrel trainer and the one for Scotts Valley just wasn’t very good. But after my initial innocent outburst, the terrifying truth began to dawn on me.

A hundred yards farther on lay the body of another squirrel. This one clearly had lost his bet with the gods of steel and rubber.

Yet there are eerie parallels between the two squirrel encounters, the most sinister being the complete disappearance of the mad rodents. Ghost squirrels? Perhaps it is an auto-matador squirrel club, keeping points among its members, who try to get as close to the car as possible without buying the acorn stash. Perhaps. But if had been something that innocent, then the locals would have been able to talk about it. No, the secret must be darker. It must be the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult.


Work Sucks

He has a point. There have been few posts lately because I have a release due Wednesday which is standing between me and the open road, adventure, and all that. Of course, getting paid is nice – if only LeapFrog had an address to send my checks to.

So unless you want to know what I had for breakfast yesterday, there’s not much to add. Now it’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting down in my command center trying to face fixing the last of the defects I have any control over, implement the latest design changes, etc. It’s not bad work, as work goes, it’s just that it’s work.

Now With Pictures!

I’ve started going back through the posts and linking to pictures where appropriate. There aren’t many links yet (you can find a couple of them in the sisters of perpetual indulgence entry), so if you want to see all of them you can just link on over to here;. I encourage you to take a look. I think you can leave comments there as well.

I’ll try to do a better job linking them up in the first place as I go on, and I’ll try to make it more obvious what is a map link and what is a photo link. We will all be much happier then.

I’m getting used to iBlog, but I must say that the way it handles links is most inconvenient. Still, I’m getting better at it, and before long I will only mutter under my breath as I create the links, rather than my current practice of cursing.