The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



One thing you notice right away about Oregon is that you can't find a self-service gas pump. "Against the law in this state," a clerk told me. Well, hmm. I tend to be mistrustful of such weird market distortions -- who pushed this through, and what do they stand to gain by it? -- but for a social engineering boondoggle this seems rather elegant. Let's say that auto exhaust and unemployment are two pressing problems in your society. You want to discourage driving, and encourage the hiring of minimum-wage workers to do menial work, but you don't want to look like you're taxing and spending the income of the middle class. So you pass a law like this, on the pretext of safety or efficiency or some such, and suddenly every gas station needs "fuel transfer technicians," and the price increases are passed directly to the consumer with no government middleman. Hats off to whoever came up with that one, grossly authoritarian though it be. (And what's the penalty, I wonder, for failure to comply?)

Anyway, that discovery was the high point of my driving day. Maybe it was the hypnotic sameness of the hill terrain, so very like northern California's, but the time just melted away, and before I knew it it was 4:00 PM and I was in Eugene. Well, that last half hour didn't melt too well, but my butt was asleep and I had to use the bathroom.

Finding Escape Books proved no difficult chore, and before the signing I took a moment to sit on the post office steps, call some friends, and do some typing on the Brain.

I'd been in Eugene once before in my life, for the 1994 Nebula awards. I just came as a spectator, and to meet my editor, and to absorb a bit of the culture in hopes of learning the Secret of Success. Somebody must know it, right? But the Eugene I saw then was nothing but an airport, a shopping mall, a hotel on the river, and about a million lumber yards. Oh, and rain. I remember speaking with a writer named Leslie What, telling her what an armpit I thought Eugene was, only to find it was her home town. Oops! But I'd somehow missed the city's downtown on that trip, and glancing around at it now I decided it looked pretty okay.

I somehow suspected that Escape While There's Still Time Books might have forgotten about me, and I must be psychic, because that's exactly what happened. No copies of the new books were there at all. The day was saved, though, when a contingent of the local writers showed up and cleaned the store out of my backlist titles, five books in all. And we all hung out and chit-chatted for an hour or so after that, so I figured an impression was made, and once again, this would hopefully have some effect come reorder time.

The next thing was dinner, with hosts Bruce Holland Rogers and Holly Arrow, and former editor Amy Stout (the very woman I;d come here to meet two years ago), plus hubby Alan and a sufficiency of young children. Then a trip to a local playground, and then a retreat to Bruce's house where we traded off using the phone line to check and reply to our respective email.


Friday, 06 September: When morning arrived, we went off to eat blackberries right off the bush. Bliss! I'm a big fruit lover with a special fondness for berries, and the pint or so I gobbled down would have cost me five or six bucks in Colorado. As we ate, I tried -- badly, I'm afraid -- to explain something to Bruce: this whole trip was tightly, rigidly scripted, but didn't feel tightly or rigidly scripted at all. I didn't have to remember things more than a few moves ahead, and when an appointment came up, the beeping of the Brain was like a thought occurring to me. I just had to open the screen up to be sure what I was thinking, is all. And it wasn't like the cornered, collared, Big Brother feeling of carrying a beeper, either; the 100LX alarms were set by me, according to the dictates of my own thoughts, and they were, if anything, advisory messages from my past self to my present and future selves. Delayed-action spontaneity, if you will, with a desire to follow through but no particular need to. So far, my touring movements had felt very footlose and unconstrained indeed, as if I had nowhere in particular I needed to be, but simply found myself in all these bookstores at the right times. It's a strange thing, I know, but that's what happens when you offload organic brain functions to outside processing: you liberate the gray matter. Pursuit of happiness and all that.

After all that, I piled back into the car for the drive to Portland, where I met my Genie and Internet friend Bruce Baugh for lunch. Again, there was that strange feeling of knowing and yet not knowing each other, but lunch went a long way toward smoothing thst over. After that, I signed at Wrigley Cross books. It was an impossible time slot, the middle of the afternoon, but a couple of people showed up anyway, including one guy who brought along a copy of almost everything I'd ever published. Oh, and I'd taken another rock, and so had my windshield repaired again while I was there. Grumble, grumble.

After the signing, I had only a few hours to see the sights, so "BruceB," as I call him on Genie, navigated me up to top of Rocky Butte, a kind of observation fortress built on a high hill that affords a 360-degree view of the city, including Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens looming in the distance. This was a savvy move, as it was a very nice view, of a very attractive city, absorbable in the span of twenty minutes. Next was signing at Future Dreams, which was reasonably successful -- four interested readers, and only two of them recruited by BruceB. We had a nice chat.

Finally, it came time to return my rental car. What a disaster area the interior had become! I had to stop in a MacDonald's parking lot for nearly an hour to get everything straightened up, organized, repacked. My garbage was mostly waste paper of various sorts, though there was organic detritus as well, and to my rue it filled four grocery bags and a styrofoam cooler!

Returning the car proved a lot easier than I'd been expecting. Nary a flicker about the windshield dings (could I have saved myself seventy bucks in repairs?), and the price was exactly what I'd been quoted lo these many weeks ago when I'd made the reservation: one thousand fifty-two dollars. This is a substantial fraction of the value of the car, but then, I'd put on 3674 of its 4000-odd miles, stealing away its youth and newness and leaving it simply another fleet car. Taking my own car had never really been an option anyway, as its odometer was sitting at over 130,000 miles, and its chance of breaking down on a journey like this was somewhere around two hundred percent. Even a minor repair could run to $500 these days, and footloose or no I could not afford the delay of a breakdown at any point on the trip, and making Denver the starting and ending point of the trip would have added almost another 3000 miles, so really that thousand dollars was a pretty reasonable expenditure. And it was a fine automobile -- I felt a twinge of regret at parting with it.

After this I sat down and typed for a bit, until 8 PM rolled around and, right on cue, my friends Gary and Nancy showed up with my wife, Cathy, in tow. Reunion! We hung out for a few minutes before getting underway, and the decision was made that we should go to Powell's bookstore before leaving town. This echoed what I'd been hearing all along on the trip: "Not going to Powell's? Not going to Powell's? How can you go to Portland and not go to Powell's?" So Cathy and I talked and snuggled in the back while Gary and Nancy navigated the twists and turns of Portland, which is quite a spectacular city at night.

Powell's. Hmm, what to say? The store fills an entire city block, and is so full that the technical books occupy a separate building nearby, which is itself much larger than the average B. Dalton's. The technical bookstore is only open until 9 PM, too, which proved a blessing, because in the five minutes we had to race through it, Gary and I each spent over $50 on irresistables. The main bookstore proved to have an extensive SF section, including about a foot of Wil McCarthy books, which the SF clerk was enthusiastic about my signing. She stickered them and faced them out -- both actions being big sales boosters -- and then had me sign a concrete pillar where I saw the signatures of a great many colleagues. I was not the first traveler to come this way! So for three minutes' investment, this turned out to be a pretty good drop-by gig.

After a quick burger stop, it was finally time to drive to Puyallup, the Tacoma suburb where Gary and Nancy actually live. Too dark to see the scenery, so I read and slept and chatted away the hours, and fell gratefully into the guest bed they provided once we finally arrived. Such a luxury to ride in a car instead of driving it!


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