The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



On waking and working through my morning rituals, I found that damn near everyone at this large and crowded campground was German. Adults, toddlers, college students, tenters, RVers, people sleeping in the beds of pickup trucks... I've been hearing a good bit of German around in the other places, as well, so maybe the Deutsch Mark is having a good year. That, or else Germans are simply more willing than other tourists to sleep at the KOA instead of the Ramada. Probably, both are true. Anyway, it makes the outing seem that much more exotic, as if KOA were some special, transnational refuge that ordinary travelers never hear about. Secret handshake, anyone?

My first signing here wasn't until noon, so I passed a liesurely morning, writing, reading, taking notes and snacking while the patchy fog burned off into a warm, clear sky. Quite a break, actually, from the pace I'd been keeping up until then. And it was good to get a few more pages down on that damned novel. Fun book, yes, but its slow progress had really begun to wear on me, make me feel anxious and guilty every time I did something other than work on it. Got four good pages done, though, and that helped my conscience a bit.

After hours of overheard conversation, something clicked in the high school language lobe of my brain, and I was able to strike up a brief German conversation with my next-door neighbors as the took down their tent. Yes, the agreed, there were an awful lot of Germans around, everywhere they went. Yes, many Germans did like to camp, but the hotels were full of them as well. "We just like America, I think," the husband told me, and it seemed as good an answer as any other.

After checking out, I found my way to GROUNDS FOR MURDER in a district full of bookstores and coffeehouses, did my drop-by signing, and then drove around for a while. From a highway standpoint, San Diego is an architectual marvel, with hills and canyons smoothly linked by sweeping, curving bridges and under- and overpasses of dizzying height and width. You learn a lot about a culture, I decided, by seeing what its architecture looks like in the areas where cost is simply no object. Cathederals, libraries, office buildings... in San Diego, it was these high, wide, amazingly beautiful highways.

I walked around by the bay for a while (and looking across at the naval station, couldn't help but hear Pavel Chekov's voice asking "where do you keep the nuclear wessels?"), and ate a fish lunch. One patron, yet another German, saw me typing on the Brain and asked a bunch of questions, which I answered cheerfully enough until he learned I was a science fiction writer. That seemed to displease him somehow -- maybe he'd been hoping I was a reporter or travel writer or something -- and he got up and left rather quickly. So I sat around a while, then drove around for another while, in a lackadaisical attempt to find the neighborhood for my next stop, THE MYSTERIOUS GALAXY. This proved to be a long, slow fiasco, as I had the wrong address for the store! Eventually, I figured this out, got the proper address from a phone book, and called the store for directions. After another series of wrong turns and such, I eventually found my way there. My flailings had been inadequate to burn the day, though, so I killed three hours in a nearby ramen shop, reading and writing and snacking. I sure did a lot of that today!

Ramen, incidentally, is one of mankind's most perfect foods. Not the instant stuff you get at the grocery store -- that's edible, makes an okay breakfast, mixes well with other foods to make cheap-o noodle casseroles, but it bears about as much resemblance to the real thing as a grilled cheese sandwich does to Chicago- style deep pan pizza. Real ramen is made fresh, eaten with both chopsticks and a spoon, and contains some unearthly drug I'd kill my dog to obtain. Well, not my dog, but probably my goldfish. I got addicted years ago, in Japan, and fd the habit for a while in Denver until my favorite ramen shop closed down. Now I get by on a bowl here and there, ordering off the menu or ordering the one flavor this or that restaurant sometimes carries. But here in Californy, ramen shops are as common as blondes. Heaven!

When my time finally came, THE MYSTERIOUS GALAXY turned out to be a really swell gig; there were people there, for one thing, about eight of them, and chairs arranged in a circle for discussion. Readers! Readers who'd not only read my work, but wanted to discuss it with me! Heaven again. I was there for about two hours, and really had a tremendous amount of fun.

Afterward, I drove to the home of Flane, one of my most eccentric friends, up the coast in San Juan Capistrano. "Flane" is actually a contraction for "Frank Lane," a name no one uses except his parents, with whom he lives. He is, among other things, an amateur physicist and a professional telescope designer, and while we were in college together he made a big deal of being Kiowa, something which struck the rest of us as funny, considering his standard-issue California Aryan features. But then we met his parents, a platinum Irish belle and a grizzled Kiowa horse trainer with some Irish of his own, and suddenly a lot of Flaney-isms made sense: he really did come from a non-Judeo-Christian background, one that emphasized visions and gut feelings and a stubborn respect for the land.

But even so, he's an eccentric, given to crackpot theories and cryptic pronouncements and a fondness for elevator music and Japanese anime. When I discovered he'd been sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor for over five years, I was only a little surprised. It's people like this, by the way, who come up with all the truly revolutionary ideas in this world, and who keep life interesting on a smaller, more personal scale. Everyone should have a Flane in their life.

What everyone shouldn't have is a $117 ticket for parking with no street permit, no license plate, and no current tags, which is what I got for parking in front of Flane's house. The outrage! I did have a permit, a huge purple thing Flane's dad had given me to slip on the dashboard, and while I suppose a cop might conceivably miss seeing that in the dark, he certainly couldn't mistake the fact that there was indeed a license plate, albeit a Texas one, on the car. And tags, too. Damned if I'm going to pay up on a bogus charge like that one! If I were local, I'd fight it. As it is, I'll let them find me, extradite me, try me, acquit me, then get their asses sued for false arrest!

After sleep and breakfast, we packed a full day with a trip to the seashore, lunch at a juice bar (how Californian!), and several hours betting on "the ponies," i.e., the horse races at Del Mar, thence to a swimming beach with much body surfing and swallowing of wave. We ate dinner at a little seaside restaurant, talking about life and such, catching upon old times. And after that, we went to Flane's friend's house to play this wacky robot game that involved programming a set of motions into your little cardboard robot and hoping the conveyor belts wouldn't suddenly switch on and slam you into a wall, or drop you in a bottomless pit. It was a tough game to win, and an easy one to laugh at. Everyone's favorite word was "oops."

Then it was back to the sleeping bags, just like some childhood sleep-over, up earlyish in the morning, some more discussion, goodbyes and then off to Anaheim. Nice to have had a day off, and nicer still to have made so much of it!


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