The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



From Anaheim, I took Highway 101 up the coast, and eventually came to rest at Vandenberg Air Force Base, which I'd never seen before but from which I'd helped conduct a number of rocket launches via Lockheed Martin's support facilities in Denver. I'd heard you could camp right there on the Air Force base, and somewhat to my surprise this turned out to be true. As night fell and a bitter wind and fog swept off the ocean, I fumblingly set up my tent in the picnic area. Signs warned that unauthorized civillians were prohibited here, but the guy at the gate had given me very precise and friendly directions on how to get here and camp here, and I presumed that constituted an authorization. At least, that's the story I'm sticking to!

Disconcertingly, the picnic area was set well back in the hills on a rutty dirt road, probably five miles from the nearest human being, in a deserted little valley filled with animal sounds and snake holes and numerous piles of what looked like dog droppings. Not quite wilderness, I'll admit, but I wasn't crazy about being up here by myself. Still, if Taran Wanderer could camp alone, without benefit of a car or a cell phone or a clean U.S. Air Force bathroom across the street, then I should certainly be able to in this much safer age.

Also it was free, so even if the local motels were really cheap, I was saving myself the cost of two good meals, and considering all those expensive days and nights in Anaheim, that sounded pretty damn good. So I settled down around 9:30 PM and fell hard asleep to the sounds of a hoot-owl asking its age-old question.

Snake holes and dog droppings, and always a noisy animal. Shit, you'd think I'd listen to my own instincts once in a while. Do people walk their dogs up here? Maybe sometimes, yes, but the volume of waste was pretty large to be explained that way. At 4:30 AM, after sleeping seven hours almost to the minute, I was snapped awake by yipping and yowling and shrieking noises that could only have come from some sort of wild dogs. I'd heard coyotes howl like wolves before, especially in winter, but I understood they could make a lot more noises than just that. Too, plain old domestic dogs can go feral and hunt in packs, especially in lightly policed areas like this one.

Anyway, I listened to the voices, judged their ranges at about a hundred meters, and quickly decided I was surrounded. Coyote attacks on adult humans are exceedingly rare, but not so for canni domestici or wolves or jackals, or hyenas, which is what these guys actually sounded like. Was I scared? Hell, yes.

Slowly, quietly, I eased out of my sleeping bag, put my shoes on, fumbled my swiss army knife's largest blade open. Then, all in a shot I unzipped the tent door, looked around, leaped out waving the knife wildly about, and sprinted for the car. Fortunately, I'd left the doors unlocked! Possibly, this behavior was a bit melodramatic, but nobody was looking, and anyway I find that even the remotest fear of being eaten alive sets my adult dignity back by decades.

Once safely in the car with the door pulled closed behind me, shaking with cold as well as fear, I grabbed my cellular phone and burned a good chunk of the night's cash savings calling Cathy at home. "Coyotes! Five of them, I think. Surrounded! I'm in the car!"

"Dude," she said, surprised and groggy but not really afraid on my behalf. Two thousand miles and four solid walls can put things in perspective, one supposes.

When I'd hung up, I checked my watch, and tried to remember when sunrise had been happening lately. Six? Seven? The sky here was utterly dark, with no hints of dawn in any direction, but I was not going to get out and strike camp in the dark! I had to go to the bathroom, too, and there it was, not a hundred feet away. I wasn't going to risk it, though, not until it was light enough to see. Feeling like a character in Stephen King's CUJO, I dug out my suit coat for warmth, and sat there doing nothing for two hours.

My antagonists shut up after about half an hour, which, if anything, had the effect of making me more paranoid. Had they gone away or hadn't they? Were they lurking just out of sight in the shadows? A thick mist fell with the morning, so that by the time I was sure the sun was up, around 6:30 AM, I couldn't see much more than a hundred feet anyway. Still, I felt much safer, and so hopped out of the car, did my business in the restroom, and hurriedly emptied and took down the tent.

This might well be, I realized suddenly, my last night of camping. Tonight I'd be staying with a friend in Campbell, and the night after that I'd be driving late and might not have the energy to find a campground and set up (though I had directions to three of them in the Brain's notetaker, just in case). Incredible though it seemed, the wandermonat was drawing toward a close already.

All that done, I started the car and drove around in the fog for a while before finding my way off the base, and then took a slow, foggy drive up the twists and turns of the Pacific Coast Highway. Stopped at one of the beaches for a much-needed nap, then lunch in Big Sur, which reminded me of any number of Catskill villages in upstate New York, where every business is a restaurant, gas station, general store, campground, and motel. The ocean was just over the ridge, I'm sure, but there was no sign or scent or other hint of this from the highway.

Next came a stop in Santa Cruz, just because. Another town like Boulder, all suburb and outdoor shopping mall, though there was a boardwalk and amusement park down at the shore. Seemed nice. I wouldn't mind spending more time there at some point. And as this was a book tour, I stopped by a couple of bookstores to sign some stock. Pleasingly, both had copies of some of my paperbacks, though neither had any hardcovers.

Next stop was FUTURE FANTASY in Palo Alto, a city with no visible personality at all. Well, I guess it resembles parts of New Mexico, being flat and filled with low, flat-roofed buildings, but I'm not sure that a common lack of character means there's anything noteworthy about either place. I did still have some time to kill, though, so I hit a couple more bookstores (again, finding paperbacks at both). As it turned out, the FUTURE FANTASY signing went really well. Only six customers, but four of these bought all four books, and the store stock pile was truly enormous, something like twenty-five copies each of the two new titles and ten of the backlist. "Will all these actually move?" I asked dubiously.

"We'll make them move," replied proprietrix Jean Schroeter. And I believe her. Jean and I first became acquainted a couple of years ago, when my first novel was coming out. I saw her name somewhere or other on the net, and emailed her a note to the effect that my book was something she might want to have a look at. This earned me a somewhat condescending mention in her next newsletter, followed by a much more upbeat inclusion in her list of 10 New Authors to Watch at the end of the year. This resulted in over a hundred copies of the book being sold over the Internet. So yeah, she does know how to make things move.

I stayed the night at the home of author Kevin O'Donnell, who proved a congenial host and terriffic cook. We stayed up drinking beers and eating Chinese pepper steak while deconstructing the Worldcon and all the gossip therefrom. His wife Kim was away in Singapore, I learned, working (of all things) for the palmtop division of Hewlett Packard. She is their head of marketing! Wow, what a small and convoluted world this is at times.

In the morning, we took tea and chatted some more, and then I set off on a leisurely drive to San Francisco and Berkeley, where I had a number of signings scheduled. This was to be my second and final Hell Day, in which there was no time to get anything wrong. Shrimp and noodle lunch in a Chinese cafe, and after that, things got a bit surreal. First off, Fantasy Etc. didn't open on time, and while waiting around I spoke with one would-be customer and two crazy people before giving up and trying the next store, A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books. Didn't I get their call, I was asked? Copies were on order but had not yet arrived, so sorry, no signing. Grumble. I met with their publicity rep just the same, figuring it couldn't hurt for us to visit face-to-face for a few minutes.

After that, I went back to Fantasy Etc. again. It was open this time, but the owner, Charlie Cockey, said something along the lines of "Oh, was that today? I wasn't sure, and unfortunately your new paperback has been selling so well I'm nearly out, and the reorder hasn't arrived yet." Sigh. I did sign at least one copy of all four books, though, and a customer who was there at the time bought two of them after reading the first page of THE FALL OF SIRIUS and saying "Ooh!" And Charlie and I had a pleasant (if brief) chat afterward, and he reassured me that TFoS would probably continue to move well, so in all the stop certainly wasn't wasted.

The next step was to find my way across the bay to Berkeley, which thanks to the maps on the 100LX proved as easy as finding my way into town that morning. And truthfully, it was a relief to get out of San Fran. Like all too many big cities, it's huge and loud and filthy, and full of angry beggars and sad lunatics and other assorted riffraff. The majority here seems nice enough, but I don't know how they can stand it for more than a few hours. The only good news is that I'd found a broken parking meter, which for twenty-five cents gave me "forty minutes" of parking that lasted three hours without any movement of the needle.

The view from the Bay Bridge sucks. I just want to say that. You get the sense that behind the walls there is stuff worth seeing, like the city and the bay and the hills, but you can't see them. Hard to believe a city would spend millions of dollars on a bridge and pay so little regard to human factors. Oh well. Berkeley turns out to be a city that does not resemble Boulder in any way, though I'd always heard it did. In fact, to my eye it resembled nothing so much as the trendy outlying neighborhoods of cities like Paris and Tokyo -- vibrant and cosmopolitan, but lacking any sense of small town charm. I stopped by for two more surprise bookstore signings, both successful, and dropped by Burger King for a quick bite. California is well blessed with a native burger chain called Carl's, Jr., and it occured to me that I should try it before exiting the state, but I hadn't been able to find one since the idea took hold. C'est la vie.

Since Berkeley is full of trees, one thing I couldn't help noticing was that the leaves were in full change, reds and oranges and yellows visible everywhere. The day was clear and blue and warm, but the chill in the breeze could not be denied. With some surprise, I realized it had been September for four days already, and I hadn't noticed. How the seasons sneak by!

The Other Change of Hobbit turned out to be a very pleasant gig. I only sold three books, but all were hardcovers, and Dave, the owner, was raving about MURDER IN THE SOLID STATE, and promised to press copies into as many hands as he possibly could. This kind of store-owner enthusiasm is very much to be desired, especially when the store is a major contributor to the Locus bestseller list! Weirdly, the proprietor of Dark Carnival, where my next signing was to be, called The Other Change of Hobbit to ask if they could spare some books, and so when I left it was with a paper bag under one arm. What a friendly business these two stores share.

Dark Carnival proved to be a much larger and more interesting store, with a toy and games section, a UFO section, and very large selections of SF and mystery books. Alas, there were no customers there at all, and complete catastrophe was avoided only after an hour's delay, when my great-aunt-in-law surprised me by showing up out of the blue. She brought a friend with her, too, and between the two of them they walked away with eight books. So, well, what can I say. Again, I got to speak at length with the owner, and hopefully this will help my sales at the shop when some customers actually do show up. Sigh...

After the signing, I headed east to Sacramento and then north along I-5. It was dark and I was tired as hell, though, so I pulled over at a Best Western that soaked me for sixty bucks. I should probably have saved the money and camped, but hell, at least there are no coyotes at Best Western. In the morning I was off early, driving with the radio off and the driver's side window cracked. I'd have liked to have it opened all the way, but summer was gone in these parts, especially as the elevation increased.

California north of Sacramento looks a lot like Colorado north of Denver. Until you get properly into the mountains, that is, when the rounded, piney contours take on a distinctly northwestern look, most especially because so much of the landscape is of clearly volcanic origin. When you get right down to it, Mount Shasta is damned scary looking. I sure wouldn't want to live beside it, as many thousands of people seem to be doing.

Oh, I did finally find a Carl's, Jr. on the Oregon border. Eh.


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