The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



I've always been fascinated with the idea of vision quests, of walkabouts, of going out into the world, living on your own for a time, seeing things, learning things, becoming a man. BLUE HIGHWAYS, by William Least Heat Moon, is one of my favorite books, and another is TARAN WANDERER, by Lloyd Alexander. I used to read that book, in fact that whole series, every year over Christmas vacation, and dream that someday I, like Taran, would ride off to the Free Commots, learn to forge my own swords, weave my own cloaks, raise my own armies to battle the forces of darkness.

It never happened. In college I kind of thought I'd just hop in the car one day and keep on driving, just like that. Later, I thought I'd plan it as a vacation, not quite so carefree but still the same idea. But the world has ways of tying you down. There's the need to keep your grades up, the need to pay your rent or mortgage, the need to please a loved one. The need to work evenings and weekends, earning back the money lost to misplaced trusts. Manhood comes not from a single mythic journey, but through a series of little defeats and little victories, a gradual chipping away of our childhood selves. Like Taran, I've certainly been forced to become a man, but I feel something missing, feel that somehow, something has been forgotten along the way.

Oh sure, I've traveled. Been to Japan and the British Isles and France and Canada and Mexico, been to every U.S. state except Alaska. But these were all family vacations and pleasure outings of one sort or another. Not vision quest material at all, though I suppose they do constitute a sort of preparation, survival training for the wilderness of airports and truck stops and World's Largest Concrete Groundhogs.

Jump ahead to the present. It's August, 1996, and I'm on the brink of both my thirtieth birthday and the second anniversary of my second marriage. It's a time for reflection, for introspection. I'm not afraid of my thirties, or at least, I think I'm not, because I've tried to live a full, dense life, and to a large extent I've succeeded. Although I've fallen short on a hundred minor goals, I feel I've met all the important milestones I could reasonably have expected in my twenties. Moving on a step doesn't bother me. And while bachelorhood was fairly kind, marriage is kinder, and I'm happy to look on the shared future I see ahead.

However, I still feel the need for that walkabout, that vision quest, that solo trip down the Blue Highways of America, and it seems all the factors are lining up, all the cycles of my life falling into sync to make this possible. My two publishers have helped me arrange a signing tour, in connection with the release of my third and fourth novels. My employer of eight years, currently known as the Lockheed Martin Corporation, has granted me a four-week leave of absence; not a wanderjahr by any means , but it is nonetheless the largest chunk of time I've had to myself this decade, and possibly the decade before it, as well. Twenty-one bookstores in six different states have invited me to sign books for them, and in some cases to read before local audiences. There's no plausible way this can be accomplished without some driving, without some serious time alone on the road.

My wife, Cathy, is supportive. My bags are packed. My PDA is loaded up with maps and telephone numbers. I have a financial stake in the trip, which makes anything and everything easier to arrange, and it's all research as well, because some of the characters in a novel I plan to write someday will be traveling along the same roads as I, and I need accurate detail with which to fill their senses. And perhaps most importantly, I want this right now; I want it to happen more than I've ever wanted it before. I am at long last spiritually ready for my journey.

Here is the plan: a flight from my home in Denver to far Houston, where I will rent a car and drive west through Texas, stopping and signing as I go, and thence to Albuquerque for a science fiction convention. That's what I write, by the way: science fiction novels.

At this point, I will proceed alone to California, where I'll work north from San Diego to Los Angeles, there to catch the World Science Fiction Convention over the Labor Day weekend. From there, it's San Francisco, Eugene, Portland, Tacoma and Seattle, then a quick visit with some old and very dear friends in sunny Puyallup (which for some reason is pronounced Pyoo- wallup), and then a flight back to Denver. There's more after that, some signings and conventions in Colorado and Minnesota and Illinois, but they're scattered over the next few months, and I don't consider them a part of the vision quest.

If travel can make me a better, more complete person, it will have happened by then.


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