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Category — Life

Route 20 Report #2

What lies between the coasts? That question is at the heart of this 3,365-mile trek, Pacific to Atlantic, along Route 20. It is now the end of day 14, and I am writing this sitting in a tent in a campground on the shores of Lake Erie. The sunset over the lake was vermillion. The crickets have started in. Every 30 seconds an acorn drops from a tree. I can hear a train way off in the distance.

I was born on one coast, and I’ve made my life on the other. Before this trip, I was not ignorant of what lay between west and east. I had put in time in the Midwest. I had crisscrossed the country on I-80, I-90 and I-40 at various times in my life.

But then 2016 happened. And, like so many people, I all of a sudden didn’t think I knew my own country anymore. So that’s what this trip is about.

I’m discovering too much to write about here. And my ah-ha moments come and go, from attempting to understand gun culture to thinking about the meaning of family to wrapping my head around the place of corn in U.S. agriculture—and I don’t mean “sweet corn.” I mean corn used for ethanol, corn used for high fructose corn syrup, mono-culture, endless fields of it.

But one simple (maybe self-evident) thing I’ve discovered is that small towns (that is, most of the towns along Route 20) are more alike than not, whether they be Shelley, Idaho, or Thermopolis, Wyoming; Rushville, Nebraska or Elizabeth, Illinois; or (today) Westfield, New York. The places you never heard of. The places you would never visit unless your great aunt lived there. Some are more prosperous than others. Some are more beautiful than others. All are pretty proud of themselves. All are populated by people who mean no harm (speaking as the white, traveling-through person I am, you understand). The people seem genuinely friendly. They seem to care deeply about each other. The kids—contrary to what I thought—choose to STAY. They all have newspapers, most dating back to the late 1800s. In the cafes, they play the same country music.

(Celebrating Selma’s 92nd birthday.
Breakfast at Friendly Corner, Laurel, Nebraska)

September 13, 2018   4 Comments

Route 20 report #1

It’s day 6 of the #insearchofamerica #route20 #carcamping #coasttocoast #roadtrip (because,  you know, Instagram).

We’re in Thermopolis, Wyoming, where we stopped to soak our tent-sleeping bodies in the largest natural hot springs in the world (who knew) and soak our camping-grimy clothes in the Thermopolis Wishy Washy Washateria.

There is too much to write about. When you have a different, vastly different, experiences every day, when the landscape changes hour by hour, when random conversations with locals open your eyes to our similarities and our differences, when you spend every night in a different spot, when the thrum of the two-lane road gives you ample time to think…there is too much to write about.

But here are a few thoughts and a few images from the road.

People out here are not “pro” guns the way others (like me) are “anti” guns. It doesn’t appear to be an “issue” one reasons through. I don’t mean people out here are not thoughtful. I mean guns are so embedded in the culture, so much a part of daily life that you’re not “for” them. They just are. Like a pair of shoes. Like a hairbrush. The issue comes in when we attempt to (in ANY way) regulate what they take for granted. A few days ago, outside Nyassa, Idaho, we passed a huge billboard on route 20: “Any regulation takes away freedom.”

You talk to a person in one of these one-street towns along the way, maybe she’s the waitress serving you eggs and sausage at the Abacadabra Café or the guy giving you advice about which washing machines are the best at the Thermopolis Wishy Washy Washateria, and you ask them: “What do you love about this place?  Why do you live here?” And they look at you uncomprehendingly. “My family is here,” they say. It’s that simple. Ask someone in Portland, Oregon the same question.

And just one more thing: The only Starbucks in Cody, Wyoming is in an Albertson’s. We stopped there. The soft-bodied, super-friendly woman behind the counter took our order.  “Okay,” she said. “We’ll have that for you in…” she looked over at the woman working the espresso machine. “In a while.” She laughed. And it did take a while. And that was perfectly fine. Because it gave us a chance to have an impromptu conversation with a woman whose daughter runs the Meeteesi Labor Day celebration. Which we really should see. Because it’s really something.

September 4, 2018   6 Comments


It is one day, almost exactly 24 hours, before we leave for our “we’ve all come to look for America” “discovering the land between two coasts” “what’s up with this country anyway?” “deTocqueville meets William Least Heat Moon” cross-country trip. We’ll be car-camping across the northern heartland on the only non-freeway, old-style 2-lane road in the U.S. that runs from coast to coast.

No, not Route 66, the “Mother Road.” That ran only from Chicago to California and is now chopped up anyway. I’m talking about humble route 20, which starts in Newport, Oregon, traverses the vast, sparsely populated, deep Red width of Oregon, then meanders through the girth of Idaho, dips into Yellowstone, makes its way across the sandhills of Nebraska, into Iowa (Fort Dodge!), then a snippet of Illinois (beginning with the lovely town of Galena, birthplace of U.S. Grant). Then it’s northern Indiana and Ohio (can you say audiobook) before ambling through the New York Finger Lake region (and Seneca Falls, birthplace of the woman’s suffrage movement) and into the Berkshires of Massachusetts (yes, the Camp Tamarac of my youth). Route 20 ends, 3,365 miles later, in Boston.

Am I excited? Buoyed by anticipation? Hell ya.

In fact, research shows that this is the happiest I am going to feel about this adventure. A study by Netherlands social scientists (they interviewed more 1,500 people) found that vacationers were most happy before their trips. Planning, anticipation, thinking about all the fun and adventure—that’s the best. The trip itself? Who knows? Tedium, bad diner food, frigid mornings in the tent, domestic squabbles. Just sayin.

So right now, this moment, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this trip.

More to come.

August 29, 2018   7 Comments

Hiking the PCT

Approximately a zillion years ago, I wrote a book ON A TYPEWRITER. It was a brisk 20th century history of U.S. political dissidents and cultural outsiders, and the newspapers and magazines they started to promote their causes. Each of these groups was itself a subculture—abolitionists, utopianists, feminists, war resisters—but within the subculture, there were invariably splits, splinters and “purges.” I wrote about Marlenites and their little newspaper. The Marlenites consisted of a few members of the Marlen family. They were a splinter group of a splinter group of a splinter group of the American Communist Party.

Oddly, I was thinking about all this as I hiked a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) these past few days. We (son, daughter-in-law, son) had already played twenty questions, name that tune and Stinky Pinky, and there were many miles to go before we made camp. Trudging through scraggly pine forests (I am a Doug Fir girl) with a 28-pound pack on my back, what else was I to do other than contemplate dissident journalism?

Thinking about these splinter groups, these sub-cultures of sub-cultures, my thoughts turned to the PCT subculture. For those who’ve never been on the trail—it stretches 2,650 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian borders (and no, Cheryl Strayed did not hike its entirety)—let me give you a snapshot: PCTers are overwhelmingly white, educated, moneyed, late 20s to mid-30s, and, not surprisingly, leaner and healthier than almost everyone else in America. Of course, there are exceptions. Me, for example. (Just the age thing. Oh, and the lean thing.)

As I learned the lore of the trail from Zane and Liza who had started at the Mexican border back in late April, I began to understand PCTers as less homogeneous than I originally thought. Yes, they were mostly white, educated, moneyed, lean and thirty, but there were thru-hikers and section-hikers and day-hikers. There were SOBOS (southbound) and NOBOS (northbound). There were slack packers (someone else transported their packs for them). There were ultralight folks (base weight of pack 10 pounds or less). There were yellow blazers (they cheat by hitchhiking), blue blazers (they take short-cuts) and pink blazers (they’re on the prowl for, um, tent-mates).

And it seemed that people within each group had strong opinions about people in the other groups. Thru-hikers were the real deal. They considered section-hikers inferior beings. Repeat thru-hikers were really the real deal. They considered everyone else inferior beings. SOBOS ranked higher on the PCT-o-meter than NOBOS. Ultralighters were admired by others, but not as much as they admired themselves. And so it went. A tiny subculture (a few thousand hikers, maybe 700-800 who attempt thru-hiking ) splintering into sub-group after sub-group.

If you don’t see the connection between PCT culture and dissident journalists, you would about 17 miles down a hot trail with a (did I mention?) 28-pound pack on your back.

(photo: Camp feet with Jelly Bellies. All hail Darn Tough socks)

August 22, 2018   No Comments

I believe

What do you do when something you believe in, something you really really believe in, something you need the support of others to make happen—oh, okay, a book project—gets a lukewarm response from the person it needs to get a white-hot, jumping-up-and-down response from—oh, okay, your agent? Who, to be honest, has never been seen jumping up and down, at least not about any of the five books of mine that he has found homes for.

Just a little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog about leaning into the yes in which I talked about a moment of “no” that caused me to reevaluate how I spent my time and with whom.
That moment also made me appreciate anew the people who have believed in me and helped me do the things I believe in.

Reading that post now, I am struck by how externally oriented it was, how it was about the environment(s) in which I existed or exist, and the impact others have had on what I’ve been able to do. It’s true: Some people pave the path for others. Some people throw boulders in the path. Staying away from the boulder-throwers and cleaving to the path-clearers makes for a better, happier, saner life.

But sometimes, like now, it’s not about others clearing or obstructing paths. It’s about me. It’s about me leaning into myself, me repeating “yes” to myself even as my agent sends me cautionary emails that describe boulder-strewn paths. I wish I could get a resounding “yes” from him. I wish I could get him to jump up and down. But what is more important, I am realizing, is fueling that momentum in myself. I am the one who needs to believe. Not just in the project but in myself.

I believe.

And not out of arrogance. Rather out of respect for the power of story, of this story I am compelled to write, to connect, to make a difference.

August 15, 2018   4 Comments

The Work

I wrote a book a while ago. It was about ballet. But what it was really about was what one has to sacrifice to be extraordinary, what one has to give up to excel. Because excellence comes at a price. The dancers whose world I immersed myself in gave up normal lives. They gave up (for the most part) relationships with anyone outside the dance company. The women, many of them, would give up having children. Childbearing years are peak dancing years. Most of the dancers would give up a pain-free, joint-healthy future. They so intensely, single-mindedly loved what they did that they made these sacrifices. Or they were so young still that they didn’t yet realize what they were sacrificing.

I’ve been thinking about what one might sacrifice to be an extraordinary writer. Or even just a pretty good one. It is not just a sacrifice of time. It’s a given that writing well takes all the time you have and then demands more. It is also a sacrifice of spontaneity. I don’t mean the spontaneity of prose. That is the heart and soul of the enterprise. That’s the juice. I mean the spontaneity of life. Because good writing (not to mention extraordinary writing) takes focus and discipline. It means applying the seat of the pants to seat of the chair. Staying indoors on a summer afternoon. Saying no when you wish you could say yes. Working after work. Taking your computer with you on vacation. Thinking story when maybe you should be, well, living life.

I’m remembering that Marge Piercy poem that begins: A real writer is one who really writes. And that’s it. That’s what it takes: really writing. And some days it feels like a sacrifice. And some days it feels like a great and glorious privilege. And some days you long for the time when you sold batik on the Embarcadero.





August 8, 2018   4 Comments

Concept Creep

Is everything completely terrible – or is the world actually getting better? I just read an interesting take on this in The Guardian.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking the same thing: How can this even be a question? Of course everything is completely terrible. Here in the US of A things have gone to shit in a big way. Every day brings new horrors, new rips in the social fabric, new threats to the values so many of us hold dear. Every day there is new evidence of the brutishness and stupidity of the man in the White House, and the cowardice and hypocrisy of the people who surround him. Every day there are new harms being done (or planned, or threatened, or tweeted). So what in the world is The Guardian, a thoughtful and intelligent newspaper, talking about?

Here’s how New York-based Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman poses the question: Are things getting worse or does it just feel that way? The article is not about the shit show that is contemporary America but rather about our broader perceptions about the world in which we live. Are we safer or less safe? Healthier or sicker? On one hand, the statistics show that, globally, poverty, hunger, violence and disease are actually decreasing. On the other hand, it sure the hell doesn’t seem like that.

Maybe, posits the article, we are suffering from what’s known as “concept creep.”  An Australian professor of psychology argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” Thus, the argument goes, we think more is wrong not necessarily because more is wrong but because we’ve expanded the definition of “wrong.”

Now it’s common to call a behavior like excessive shopping an “addiction,” or consider transient, situational unhappiness “depression.”  This is not to say that new problems or concerns are fake or are overreactions. That’s not the point of the article or the research on “concept creep.” It is to say that our universe of what to worry about seems to be constantly expanding because our definitions expand. Which does not mean that the world is getting scarier and more brutish. It just means, as one researcher put it: “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

Or, maybe it means we are getting increasingly sensitive in a good way to what we used to ignore or sweep under the rug? I’m not sure. Is this indecisivenessness of mine a problem? IDS (Indecisive Disorder Syndrome)?

July 25, 2018   No Comments

Ups and Downs

Life is not a carnival. Life is not a bowl of cherries. Life is a rollercoaster ride. We all know that.

One day you learn that one of your books has been optioned for film. The next day your agent shits all over your new proposal. One day one of the guys you work with at the prison wins first place in a national writing contest. The next day another of the guys you work with is denied parole. One day you watch four hummingbirds feast on the crocosmia. The next day the deer break into the garden and eat all the lettuce.

You can choose to be on the rollercoaster, which means that when lovely things happen, when good luck befalls you, when the sun shines, you are ecstatic. But when the tide turns, when the clouds roll in, when the shit hits the fan (choose your cliché), down you go. You ride the rollercoaster, alternating between various degrees of bliss and despair.

Or not.

You can adopt a detached attitude. You can watch the rollercoaster but not get on. You can appreciate a turn of events without yourself turning. You can note that life has its ups and downs without losing your lunch over it. No expectations. It is what it is, as they say.

They say. Not me.

I am a rider. I know that sometimes this makes me anxious, cranky and unhappy. But I also know that sometimes I can really soar.

Years ago I noticed a small lump on my shoulder. Since, as everyone who knows anything (and many who know nothing) knows: lump=cancer, I immediately imagined all of the kinds of cancer it could be, including ones I made up. I imagined going to the doctor, who ordered a full body scan (or maybe exploratory surgery). I imagined the doctor coming back after the procedure to tell me that there were tumors everywhere, that there was nothing to be done. During the week I waited for the actual doctor’s appointment. I ate little, slept little, worried incessantly, mentally sorted through my possessions to decide which kid would get what.

A week later, an actual doctor, not the one in my head, looked at the lump on my shoulder. For a split second. She declared it a lipoma (a completely benign rather common lump of fat that occurs between the skin and the underlying muscle) and asked if I’d like it removed.

An hour later, lump-less,I treated myself to breakfast at The Glenwood. I ordered a mushroom, onion and cheese omelet. It was the best omelet I have ever eaten in my life.

July 18, 2018   3 Comments

For granted

You know when you’re sick and then you get better, or when you’re in pain and then pain goes away, how you have this moment of pure exaltation, this blast of unfettered happiness, this glorious sense of goodness, wellness, rightness… and you tell yourself: I’ll never take my health for granted again? And then, a day later (an hour later) there you are, taking it for granted again.

This morning, early morning, I was sitting outside on the deck reading a manuscript, a first novel by an old friend, and the birds started singing. I mean singing. Not tweet-tweeting. I’m talking lilting melodies. And there was this soft breeze with just a hint of coolness. And I looked up from the pages on my lap at the intense green that is mid-June in Oregon. And the peace of it, the beauty of it, the privilege of it washed over me. It staggered me. And I thought: I will never take this for granted again.

But I will.

June 20, 2018   5 Comments

The cost of being beaten

I know someone who’s been battered. Attacked, punched and kicked.

When those of us to whom something like this has never happened think about it, if we think about it, we think about the psychological cost. What it means to have an intimate partner hurt you. How it changes the way you look at relationships. How it curdles love. How it erodes self-esteem. How it destroys trust. Women who are battered often stay with their batterers. The batterers apologize and swear it will never happen again. Or they tell the women that they deserved the beating. Or they threaten to do something worse if the women try to leave. Imagine living with someone you are terrified of.

Now suppose, on top of all that, as you are struggling to make sense of your circumstances and think about your life and fight the fear you feel and try to gather the strength to leave, you get five separate bills in the mail, from urgent care, where you went that first night, and the hospital emergency room, where you went the next day when you couldn’t breathe, and the ER doctor who saw you and the technicians who X-rayed and MRI-ed you, and the lab that did the blood work. And the bills total $11,699.

You did not spend a night in the hospital. You did not have a procedure or surgery or get a cast. You were not given any medication. You were simply examined. This is what it cost to find out that you didn’t have broken ribs or a concussion. This is what it cost to find out that, in addition to the multiple contusions, you have a spinous process fracture of a lumbar vertebra. Where he kicked you. When you were on the floor.

(And yes, thanks to Barack Obama, there is insurance. And the insurance will cover a significant portion of it. But what it doesn’t cover equals more than two months take-home pay. You know, the money you need to save so you can leave.)

With deep thanks and profound respect for the person who allowed me to tell this story.

The photo is cropped from a Google image. It is not the person I am writing about.

May 30, 2018   1 Comment