The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



The drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona would take five or six hours at the old 55 MPH speed limit, but with it up at 75 as of a few months ago, the trip is considerably shorter. Alas, as a major freight artery out of California, I-40 is busy on a Sunday afternoon, with at least half the traffic being large trucks that think nothing of running side-by-side at considerably less than the new speed limit. It got sort of frustrating at times, especially when I found myself too boxed in to see the road signs or even the scenery.

Still, I made good time, and couldn't resist a quick stop at Meteor Crater, which is the first conclusively identified impact crater on Earth's surface. I'm sure you've seen pictures of it, a big-ass hole about 550 feet deep and half a mile across. No small reminder of our vulnerability, here on the surface of a large-ish planet! Meteor Crater being lots more famous than my other tourist stops, I'll say less about it, but I will observe that when you're down inside it, the crater looks a lot deeper than the usual aerial photos would lead you to think. It's hard to get perspective on the view, though; it's just a bit too far off the human scale to register accurately.

Just before sunset, I pulled into the Flagstaff KOA, which thanks to its mountainside location was a lot colder, wetter, and more foresty than my previous sites, and thanks to proximity to the city and the many highways that meet in it, was big and sprawling and relatively crowded, by which I mean that about half of the spaces were filled. This isn't really the peak season for camping, especially on a Sunday night.

Once dinner was eaten and the camp set up, I crawled into the tent with a headband flashlight and stayed up writing for several hours, while a light rain pattered down. Eventually, I got tired enough to turn down the light and let the highway sounds lull me to sleep. My last two camping nights were sleep-in-your- underwear-with-the-windows-open warm, but even with the tent sealed up, I had to curl up fully clothed in my sleeping bag to stay comfortable, and even so my face felt the cold. A damp forty degrees, I'll guess, though it might have been less; I could clearly see my breath.

The other thing I saw, when I crawled outside at 5 AM to use the restroom, was the stars. Millions of them! I grew up in a Colorado valley with this sort of high, clear air, but light pollution has gradually eroded its celestial view, and anyway it's been years since I went outside there in the middle of the night and looked up. I live in Denver now. Here, even with the KOA streetlights and the highway so close by, the stars were breathtaking, the Milky Way very clearly visible as a cloud rather than an indistinct smudge of light. The Plieades were also clearly visible, and near them Orion, the hunter, and Sirius, the dog star. These stars play a supporting role in my first and fourth novels, so it's always nice to have a look, but really I think of them as features of the winter sky. Even as the cold forced me to don and zip my jacket, I found myself thinking it wasn't time for this yet. Go back, go back, it's still August for God's sake!

In honor of the morning chill, once roused for good I opted to skip my shower and simply strike camp, after which I hit the road and almost immediately got a speeding ticket. Apparently, I'd wandered into a 65 MPH zone without noticing, and got nailed at 75.0 by the radar. Turns out the cop was a science fiction reader, though, and after questioning me on the purpose of my trip, got pretty interested and asked to see copies of the books. I produced these, and he examined them and said he'd buy both if he saw them. And he let me off with a written warning, too, so who says this job has no perks?

After that, I spent the entire day on the road, viewing a wide variety of desert terrain and vegetation, from pine-dotted mountains to saguaro dotted hills (a saguaro is that tall, many- armed cactus you see mainly in cartoons), then hardpan and sagebrush marked by palm-tree oases. Finally, as I-8 fired through western Arizona and into California, the ground gave way to broad, flat plains of not very much at all, and finally to windswept dunes completely devoid of life. These gave out too, though, and the sagebrush was back for a while before the horizon rose sharply into rocky hills. These, like the sagey hardpan, went on for a long, long while.

On a drive like this, it's hard not to think about what an absurdly large place the Earth really is. One common failing in science fiction is "small planet syndrome," in which sweeping, galactic-scale events somehow manage to take place in the space of a few square miles, or even a few city blocks. And the small planets are single-scoop when it comes to landscape, too. The desert planet, the swamp planet, the ice planet, the water planet... I've seen all these terrain features and more in the month of August alone! By the time I pulled into San Diego, I'd covered 1900 long miles, fully half the width of the United States, watching every single inch of it roll by. There was nothing small about it. And yet, on an actual globe (or the world map feature on my Brain), my path is the merest hiccup, smaller than the distance from New Zealand to Australia. The Earth is a big, big planet!

By the way, I did try to do without air conditioning again, but by noon the mercury had already topped 100, and the wind through the car was becoming an eyeball-searing blast of dry furnace heat. So the A/C went on, which had the side effect of allowing me to try out the Contour's tape player. In Rocket, PRIMITIVE RADIO GODS seems to have turned out a pretty good album, though the second side doesn't do much for me. The hit song, STANDING OUTSIDE A BROKEN PHONE BOOTH WITH MONEY IN MY HAND, is interesting in that Chris O'Connor recorded it in his basement, while working as an air traffic controller. That it languished for five years before selling to a record company and then soaring up the charts just makes the story that much better. Indeed, it would be a slice of American Dream even if the song were a derivative potboiler, which it isn't.

The other tape I picked up in Albuquerque was a semi-proffesional collection of folk songs about space travel (known as "filk" among science fiction fans, for reasons I guess I won't go into). Not unexpectedly, these were mainly pretty campy and melodramatic, but they did have a lot of genuine heart and soul behind them, and two or three I found genuinely moving. The best of these, a tune called NEVER TOO OLD TO DREAM, turned out to be written and performed by someone I know, a writer named Robin Wayne Bailey. I made a mental note to let him know how much I'd enjoyed it.

Foodwise, I'd been eating almost exclusively fast and cheap for over a week now, so in San Diego I decided to splurge on a Japanese dinner, both for variety's sake and because that was the only place I could find that seemed likely to give me more vegetables than meat. One California roll, eight gyoza, one salad, rice, miso soup, and two teapots later, I was feeling infinitely more in tune with the cosmos. So I checked into the neraby KOA, set up my tent, and was asleep even before the sun had set.

This time, the noisy animals were German teenagers.


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