The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



After making good time all day, I had to decide whether to stop in Roswell, as planned but several hours early, or press on for Santa Rosa and risk losing the sun (setting up camp in the dark last night was a real drag). 285 runs right past the UFO Museum and Research Center in downtown Roswell, though, and the sight of that pretty well decided things for me.

I parked, entered, signed the guest book, paid a dollar into the donation jar, and sauntered in. My report: about what you'd expect. The pro-space-alien "evidence" is mostly artwork, newspaper and magazine articles, and videotaped accounts by elderly ramblers and their children. These are mostly very credulous of the UFO mythology, but on one wall there is a display on the now-declassified "Project Mogul," an Air Force A- bomb detection program that used B-17 aircraft and tall "radar target" balloon trains made of materials like those described at the 1947 Roswell "crash" site. The balloons were also held together with balsa wood and white tape covered with pink designs, apparently made for the Air Force by a toy company during World War II. This handily explains the "purple heiroglyphs" and foil found at the site, and declassified documents show that just such a balloon train ("Flight 4") was launched on the day of the UFO crash... Pretty cut and dried.

So one display actually tries to answer the mystery with actual, reproducible journalistic research. Nobody hung out by this display, though, and the museum clearly knew which side its bread was buttered on. I felt I should be wearing a foil hat or something, lest the crowd suspect I was One Of Them Governmint Scientists.

Afterward, I stopped for a not-too-awful Chinese buffet dinner, and then, feeling suddenly quite tired, pulled into a campground for the evening. It was a non-KOA, meaning you get less for more, but it still beats by ten or twenty bucks the deal they offer at Motel 6. Once camp was set up, I sat at my squeaky, splintery old picnic table typing up some notes for this chapter (including these very words), and then getting in a bit of work on my novel. I was behind on that, and getting behinder with each passing day, so every little bit of progress helped.

Then, as dark actually began to fall, I attempted to call home from the laundry room pay phone, found the line busy, read an RV magazine for half an hour, found the line still busy, and so surrendered and went to bed. I managed to get the rain flap secured this time, which is good, because it rained. This night was cooler and more humid than the last.


23 August: The noisy animals this time were cows, cicadas (thumb-sized insects with built-in stereo tweeters that are literally as loud as trucks), and a rooster who insisted on crowing the dawn starting two hours before it actually began. Still, my night's sleep could have been worse, and it was not too bright and early when I found myself back on the road.

The morning drive was peaceful, through scrub and rolling prarie under a sky of hazy gray. Just for kicks, I went 50 miles out of my way to visit New Mexico's "Blue Hole," a geological oddity around which the town of Santa Rosa is built. Not so much a hot spring as a never-freezing one, the 'Hole is a round, tennis- court-sized crater in the desert floor that goes eighty feet straight down through amazingly clear water, and is a favorite training and practice site for landlocked scuba divers like me. Originally, my friend Walter Jon Williams and I were going to dive here today, but it turned out he had too much to do this week, and I had too much gear to haul aboard the plane, so there I was, standing on the edge in my street clothes, watching a lone diver suit up for an ill-advised solo trip to the bottom. How I envied him, and told him so! The Blue Hole Dive Shop, which might possibly have been able to rent me enough gear to join him, was unaccountably closed. Grumble. I did offer to be shore monitor for him, though.

Thanks to dissolved minerals, the water in the Blue Hole is really blue, like Tidy Bowl water. It's also full of colorful fish, and clear enough that at noon, with the sun straight overhead, I could clearly see this fool diver hanging out on the bottom. I got my certification here six years ago, and it really was the perfect place to learn to dive, with all the best aspects of a swimming pool and a body of open water. Enough, I can't bear to type any more. Walter or no Walter, I should have brought my gear.

In several ways, Walter Jon Williams is who I want to be when I grow up. He's only twelve years older than I am, but as a writer and as a person, he does things I know I could never do. I sometimes do things he probably couldn't, though, so it does kind of balance out. And I sure wouldn't mind having a writing career like his, despite grumblings and warnings to the contrary. I first came in contact with his work in 1987, when I picked up HARD WIRED, his eighth novel. It left a big impression on me, and I've been a loyal reader ever since, so the college kid I was back then would really be surprised and tickled to learn that Walter and I now hang out together. (A lot of that kid's friends also read HARD WIRED, and would be even more surprised. One thing about "gonna be a writer" syndrome is that nobody really takes you seriously about it when you're young.)

Anyway, once my new diving friend was safely up again, I left the 'Hole and rustled up some lunch. As an entity, Santa Rosa makes rather a to-do about having been along the historical Route 66, that Oregon Trail (or in this case, Santa Monica trail) of the early 20th century. Indeed, in everything but the style of automobiles, the city seems trapped in that era. It's very quaint and charming, but I doubt I'd want to spend a Saturday night here, or even a Tuesday. The 1950's are gone, let's let them be.

At the Bubonicon hotel, a Howard Johnson's just off the interstate in Albuquerque, I called "the guy" over and got the damned windshield repaired. There were many pessimistic warnings -- "this is a big star, it may not fill in all the way..." -- but the final repair looked great, moreso from the outside than the inside, which was perfect since fooling or placating the rental company was my aim. I also spent over an hour mesing with modem stuff -- this was my first encounter with a truly "unfriendly" hotel phone system, with no way in but an acoustic coupler plus manual dialing plus very low baud rate and other silly precautions... The phone was noisy, too, so my software kept losing the carrier tone and hanging up. I thought hard about simply surrendering, but I figured if I couldn't work it out here, with lots of space and time and energy available for the task, I might as well hang up my techie hat, not to mention my promise to stay in touch while on the road. So I kept at it, and was eventually able to download my email and upload some replies.

By agreement, my wife has been contacting me with daily email, while I've replied on an as-can basis with faxes, since the address she was mailing from was not her personal mailbox, but that of her employers, who are also my parents. Not exactly the people you want reading your love letters!

Somewhere around this point, the sky opened up, and there was torrential rain and wind for basically the rest of the evening. How glad I was not to be oustide or on the road, or -- God help me -- camping again!

As evening drew nigh, I joined several of the local writers for a Vietnamese dinner, then got started with the usual convention stuff, including a trip through the art show and dealer's rooms, a stop at a late evening "meet the authors" party, and thence -- a bit early -- to bed. I had the feeling, suddenly, that I was famous in Denver after all -- even this close to home, even though this was my third time in attendence here, none of the science fiction fans really seemed to notice or think about me all that much. They hadn't heard of me, they hadn't read my work... The surprising part, I think, is that I was surprised by this.


24 August: Cathy and I pre-celebrated our anniversary this year, before I left for Texas. Which is good because today, Saturday, is both the height of Bubonicon and our second wedding anniversary. I tried to call, but again found the line busy. In my absence, I guess she's spending a lot of time on the phone. I finally did get through, though, and spoke for about a half hour.

I made a quick side trip to Target for a $4 sleeping mat (I had no room for one in my suitcase, but the ground has been leaving bruises), a towel, and -- on impulse -- the PRIMITIVE RADIO GODS album Rocket on audiocassette. Other than that, I was conventioneering all day; panel discussions, readings, a mass book signing with all the other authors, and of course much animated conversation over meals and drinks (non-alcoholic for me, I'm afraid -- I was still a bit nervous about this stomach business).

These conventions are a strange thing, I suppose, but the fans seem to like them, and the writers sort of glump together and chit-chat all day. The Bubonicon experience is not the same without Cathy, though, and while the dealers' room carried my two backlist titles, nobody had any copies of the two books I was actually touring on. At times, I kind of had to wonder what I was doing there, and so, feeling somewhat tired and lonely, I went to bed at the shocking hour of 8:30 PM, watched VIRTUOSITY on HBO (not a great movie, but about two orders of magintude better than I would have imagined from the ads), and went to sleep.


25 August:Only one program item today, a morning panel on artificial intelligence. I washed up, ate beakfast, did a very welcome load of laundry, then did the panel, which discussion proved very animated and interesting, with much audience enthusiasm. I then hung out for a bit, had lunch with the local writers again, and took my leave of the convention.

This proved a surprisingly warm moment, with many hugs for luck and wishes for safe driving, all of which made me feel much better about making this stop on the tour. In all, I'd guess I recruited five or six new readers directly, plus favorable word- of-mouth that could potentially follow me for a long time to come. Doing the math, it's easy to conclude that conventions are a waste of time, but authors who attend them regularly still seem to do much better than those who don't. There's definitely a leverage effect going on there somewhere.


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