The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



19 August 1996: There comes a moment, when mother Earth breaks contact with the airplane wheels and falls away, that possibility is maximized. You've broken the constraints of gravity, broken free of your two-dimensional existence on the planetary surface, to hop through the sky to some new location. It could be anywhere, literally. It's possible, in that moment, that you won't feel ground again beneath your feet until you reach Asia, or Africa, or the North frigging Pole. Historically speaking, this event goes beyond the extraordinary and well into the magical; for all the millennia of recorded history and all the numberless years before them, we've only been able to do this for a few decades.

And yet, we're trained and pressured to make a routine of this moment, to deny its power, to react with boredom and familiarity. It is ideally, a non-event. Well, pish. Today was a big deal, and nothing was going to persuade me otherwise.

The trip itself might best be described as Modern Rustic -- the Delta flight from Denver to Dallas was okay, a big plane with not quite enough stewardesses. The ASA connecting flight from Dallas, though, was a prop-driven "ATR72" aircraft with only 4 seats per row. The cabin felt tight, miniature. Also, I'd had a cranky stomach all morning, but neither flight had air sickness bags in the seat pouch in front of me. In a life of frequent flying I had never once needed one of these, but I felt that today might well be the exception, so I had to ask for one both times, "just in case," to the visible alarm of neighboring passengers.

Didn't need them, as it turned out, mainly because nobody ever brought me any food. They brought me beverages, though, mainly orange juice, which turned the queasiness into a serious burning fist in the guts. Waiting in line for my car rental (a '96 Ford Contour with lots of toys) was an exercise in trying to look calm and reserved while sweat beaded up and stomach walls slowly melted. At the earliest opportunity, I obtained some Mylanta, a medicine I'd never before used or required.

My first strong memory of Houston is of standing under an overcast sky in the airport parking lot beside the open trunk of my Contour, cracking the seal on that blue plastic bottle and chugging down a few big swallows. The smell of medicine combined with the humidity and the perfumes of strange flora to create a sensory impression that was literally stunning, that froze me in place for several seconds to savor the strangeness of it. Pain relief came almost instantly, adding to the rush, and to this day I can't smell Mylanta without feeling instantly transported to that parking lot, that moment.

This accomplished, I unholstered the 100LX, pulled up its "Filer" program, and highlighted one of the maps I had stored there. The bitmap viewer was duly activated, and an annotated drawing of Houston appeared, leading me to the home of Sean and Christine Stewart, with whom I would be staying for a couple of days.

Sean is a fellow writer, a man of almost precisely my own age, whom I'd met on a computer network called GEnie, which used to stand for The General Electric Network for Information Exchange, but which was later sold and became simply "Genie, a wholly-owned subsidiary of IDT corporation." By this time, Sean and I had coresponded for several years, and "knew" each other well, though we'd never met face-to-face or even spoken on the telephone.

The drive was easy, uneventful, exciting. Finding a parking space outside the apartment building was simplicity itself, and I marched right in and knocked on the door. A man answered, a strange-looking man with funny hair and a funny moustache and a curious look in his eye.

"Wil?" he asked uncertainly.

"Sean?" I said back.

"Knowing" people electronically, you try not to form a mental image of them. You convince yourself that you haven't, and yet when they finally appear in front of you you realize they don't look anything like the mental image you didn't think you were carrying. It's an odd moment. And then you shake hands and say a few words, and the brain lurches through some mysterious adjustment, and suddenly everything is fine.

Respecting the Stewarts' privacy, I won't say much about my stay with them, except that they were excellent hosts from the moment I arrived. Unfortunately, my returning bellyache dominated the afternoon and early evening. Late evening was consumed by animated conversation, mostly about science fiction publishing. As I watched the two young daughters hustled off to bed, one of them after her very first day of first grade, I wrestled with the inescapable feeling of being in the way. But refusing hospitality is generally at least as rude as imposing on it, so, well, I tried to put the worry out of my mind and simply enjoy.

I wasn't sure how to handle the stomach: I went to bed hungry, and woke up mildly nauseous. Morning sickness? If I were a woman, I'd strongly suspect pregnancy at this point! As it is, this strange new stomach, alive with unfaimilar sensations, is just something that I may just have to learn to get along with. You hear every now and then about stomachs "going bad," although usually not all at once. First a little lactose intolerance, then a problem with onions... Every year, are there fewer foods that we can eat? Do old people die voluntarily, rather than spend another twenty years eating wheatina? Yeech.


20 August 1996: Once the kids had been hustled off to school and day-care, Sean took me to visit to the Rothko Chapel, a kind of nondenominational thingy tucked away in a residential Houston neighborhood. As we entered, he advised that it took "some quiet time to really see the paintings," and at first I took this for a joke; the walls were covered with huge, matte-black canvasses! Suspecting some elaborate ruse, I nonetheless sat still for a few minutes of quiet contemplation, during which subtle variations in color and texture became apparent. After verbal nudges from Sean, I saw that the placement of the canvasses themselves hinted at concepts like the trinity, the oneness of God, and stuff like that. Definitely an interesting gimmick for nondenominationality, and reminder that the true nature of an object or system may not be apparent at first glance. Important safety tip.

The next item on the agenda (aside from a small, barely digested meal of brown rice and vegetables) was to clear up a schedule conflict -- I'd somehow managed to book overlapping signings at two geographically separated stores. Oops. This turned out to be okay, though, when the folks at the first store that they'd never heard of me, that they had no copies of my books on hand, and the person who had apparently set up the signing was not there and could not be reached. The schedule mixup was definitely my fault, so it was something of a surprise to walk out of the store with the moral high ground! Very amusing. Two more signings -- one store specializing in mysteries and another in science fiction -- were lightly attended but otherwise encouraging. As a surprise bonus, I also got interviewed by a local TV station, though I didn't get to see myself on TV. And it turns out I also had my shirt unbuttoned to the waist at the time; I guess I'd done this unconsciously in response to the heat and humidity and high barometric pressure, which I found pretty oppressive after the high-and-dry of Denver.

Stomach pains followed me right through to the evening, too. Sigh. After dark, I borrowed a phone jack to send and collect some faxes and email, then went to bed.


21 August 1996: I bade the Stewart family goodbye as they went off to work and school, watched some tornado videos with Sean, played nine-ball at a local bar, ate lunch (with a stomach that was feeling much better, thank you very much), and then skeedaddled off to the grocery store for some driving and camping food for the next few days.

The drive to Austin was uneventful, though a bit longer than I'd been expecting. I found the bookstore, ADVENTURES IN CRIME AND SPACE, fairly easily, but again the signing was lightly attended. The magic number seems to be three people, although this time I did sign a number of books for people who weren't there but had reserved copies, which is something of an improvement. Anyway, the goal of a book signing is not always the selling of books right there and then. Obviously, that's the short-term, immediate goal, but even if that isn't met, you still get some long-term advantage from contact with the store's owners and staff. If they're encouraged to read your work, and if they find they like it, the reward can linger on for years.

Afterward, as dark was falling, I set out west on Texas 290 for Fredricksburg, where I'd planned on camping. The roads were very dark, with no lights, no services, many confusing signs, mucho road construction with elaborate detours... after a couple of hours, it dawned on me that leaving the interstate at night in the hill country was perhaps not the best possible move. Still, I pulled into the Fredericksburg KOA around 10:30 PM, chatted briefly with the owners, borrowed a towel (one item I'd foolishly neglected to pack), then went to set up my tent. The ground was way too hard to drive stakes into, more like sandstone than dirt, so there wound up being no separation between the rain flap and the tent's actual roof. I sincerely hope it doesn't rain! Observation: my tent fits in my suitcase, but my suitcase also fits in my tent. I can imagine a tent big enough to hold the car which holds the suitcase which holds the tent...

I am typing this in my tent, by the way. The weather is not too hot, but definitely too muggy for my tastes, and the area, being floodlit, is also somewhat bright for sleeping. And there are donkeys somewhere nearby that keep braying. How weird. The sound is unique in all the world, but it's also loud and hard to identify at first, and therefore startling when they launch into it. Realization: I have never camped alone before! The feeling is not scary, nor even particularly lonely, but very odd and out of place.

I feel a sense of amazement that this whole thing seems to be working! I haven't missed any connections, dropped a day, gone off in the wrong direction, or any of the other awful things I imagined might happen. This is thanks largely to the organizational efficiency of the Brain, though the "stacker" program I installed on the flash memory keeps causing it to hang...


22 August: I won't claim to have had a good night's sleep, without so much as a rubber mat between my bag and the hard tent floor, but what do you want for $15 and the contents of a suitcase? The key is to compare KOA (short for Kampgrounds of America) not to a hotel, but to sleeping in your car, which is the only other low-cost alternative when you're out on the road. And on waking, I had immediate access to a full bathroom, which - - believe me -- is worth the price of admission right there.

By light of day I could see that the donkeys were part of some sort of exotic animal farm; right across the fenced ditch were llamas, goats, and other south-of-the-border type livestock. At least 30 animals -- no wonder I slept poorly!

After breakfasting and breaking camp, I took first Highway 290 and then I-10 west to Fort Stockton, then 285 north into New Mexico. This would be my first full day of driving -- I felt alert and energetic all day, but spoke a total of about five sentences with my fellow humans. So it was definitely a solitary sort of pleasure.

Call me a nut, but in reading Kim Stanley Robinson's RED MARS books, I never clued to the fact that many of the city names were transposed from Texas, notably Sheffield and Odessa. The desert terrain, rocky and sandy and butted, was somewhat alien as well, so it was easy and amusing to imagine myself traveling across Robinson's terraformed Mars. This, in turn, made me think of Ray Bradbury, and his MARTIAN CHRONICLES. When we finally get around to putting real settlers on the red planet, I can't help wondering what, if anything, they'll make of these two works, one so lyrical and imaginary, the other so expansive and real. Worlds are big places, and need a mythology of their own. I have little doubt that these books will be counted among the early classics of Martian literature, for all that they were written on a whole different planet.

The traffic was low almost everywhere I went, especially away from the interstates, which made for a very emotionally cleansing drive. Radio off, windows open, just me and the infinite road... I was heading north all afternoon, though, and wearing shorts and shirtsleeves, I managed to sunburn my left arm and leg pretty well. And I did get stuck behind slow traffic in no-passing areas a few times, and most annoying of all, at a 150 mile-per- hour velocity differential between myself and the oncoming traffic, I caught a really fast pebble which left a pit and a broad star pattern on the windshield.

Crap. So much for refusing that eight-dollar-a-day damage wavier -- the rental company will probably want $300 or more for a new windshield. I asked a few places about getting it fixed, but none of the roadside stations could do it without calling "the guy" in, which could take at least a couple of hours... My only hope is to pray the cracks don't spread, get it fixed in Albuquerque this weekend, and count on the rental inspector not to notice the blurry patch on the glass. Sigh.


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