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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

Let’s do what’s hard

How do I stay (relatively) sane these days? Almost every night, I temper my temper, I calm my nerves, I lower my blood pressure, I (temporarily) blot out the previous 24 hours of egregious, sociopathic tweets that comprise US public policy these days by…watching The West Wing.

Yes, my days end with one episode of the political drama that ran for seven seasons, from 1999 through 2006, on NBC. And yes, I know no one except actors speaking crafted dialog are as clever and quick-witted as those West Wing characters. And yes I know Aaron Sorkin did not know how to write women. (Quelle surprise!) And yes I know the incessant walk-‘n’-talks can get old. And yes I know Jed Bartlet is an inveterate mansplainer.


Just for a minute, join me in a world inhabited by a smart, compassionate, decent, literate president who sees himself as a public servant. Who surrounds himself with other smart people whom he treats with respect. Imagine a leader who listens carefully. Who agonizes over doing the right thing, the ethical thing, the good-for-the-people thing. Who knows he makes mistakes and takes responsibility for them.

Just for a minute imagine the staff this president has chosen to support—and challenge–him: talented, bold, hard-working, ethical people who respect each other, people who research every issue, who strive to understand the nuances, who strive to create policies that do good, who agonize over doing the right thing.

A tonic, my friends. A tonic.

Last night, I watched season 4, episode 2 which ended with a scene of three exhausted staffers walking back to the White House hours after midnight. They are talking about Jed Bartlet’s bid for a second term. This is Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director:

“If we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas who’s connected to other people’s lives and cares about making them better, if we choose someone to inspire us, then we’ll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things we can’t imagine yet. Instead of telling people who’s the most qualified, instead of telling people who’s got the better ideas, let’s make it obvious. It’s gonna be hard.”

Josh Lyman, White House Deputy Chief of Staff answers, not missing a beat: “Then we’ll do what’s hard.”

Let’s do what’s hard, my friends.

August 1, 2018   No 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   5 Comments

Thank you, Emma

Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). If you read about her, the first thing you’ll read is that she was 67 at the time, and then, because she’s a woman, you will read about how many children and grandchildren she had.

But here’s the most startling thing about Emma Gatewood’s 1955 trek: She wore Converse sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. That’s how she hiked. Damn.

At this very moment, a year from now, I will be hiking the Oregon section of the PCT, all 460 miles of it, from the Siskiyou Summit north across the crest of the Cascades to the Columbia River. I hesitated with the verb tense in the previous sentence. I will be. I considered writing “I might be” or “I hope to be” or some other waffle-ly statement. But I want to declare this intention without wiggle room.

I made the declaration to myself yesterday as I trudged up our access road for my first practice hike, a five-miler over to and up Spencer Butte with a lightly loaded pack. I’ve hiked a lot, including some tough backcountry day hikes in the Kootenays of British Columbia and the red rock country of southern Utah. The operative word there is day hikes.

I have only once in my life hiked, camped and then hiked some more, and that was back before the invention of moveable type. On my various day hikes since that time, I’ve never carried more than one of those little Camelback hydration packs. Yesterday I hoisted on, cinched in, buckled up, etc. a serious through-hike backpack, one of several pieces of gram-shaving high-tech equipment I’ve been acquiring.

I plan to hike only the Oregon section – a third of Emma’s mileage – and I plan to outfit myself with ultra-light gear that will not include shower curtains.

Why the Oregon section? It’s my homage to the state I fell in love with at first sight, the state that’s been my home for pretty much all of my adult life, the state that continues to leave me breathless with its beauty (and generally the politics ain’t bad either). Also, hiking the entire PCT takes more than 5 months. The Oregon section… maybe 5 weeks. Note that one of my reasons is NOT “I couldn’t possibly hike the entire PCT.” Maybe I could. Maybe I couldn’t. After I complete the Oregon section, I’ll know better.

Why do this at all?

To see if I can.

Because of Emma Gatewood.

And because, as Gandhi famously said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” And I want to see the end of ageism.

July 11, 2018   No Comments

Declaring independence

You say you want a revolution?

Yes, said the colonists when on July 4, 1776, they declared their independence from England. In that same document, which we celebrate today and very few of us have read, the colonists listed 27 complaints against King George III, whom they viewed as a tyrannical leader. To wit: “He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our town and destroyed the lives of our people.”

Among the 27 complaints, this one that I thought was particularly relevant (and chilling):

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization for Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

Apparently, the King heard reports from his colonial agents about the great influx and rapid growth of German immigrants. The Germans had strong principles of political freedom and their military was very respected. The King tried to prevent them from gaining any positions of power in the colonies by placing barriers to prevent immigrants from owning land.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Our current president declares us not the nation of immigrants we are –and so many of us are proud of — but rather a country of walls and fences (literal and otherwise), of deportations and separations, of quotas and bans. Of fear.

As King George cited anonymous reports from his agents, so our president cited “public reports” that “routinely state great amounts of crime are being committed by illegal immigrants.”

As King George passed laws targeted against German immigrants, creating barriers to their success in the colonies, so our president finally, with the aid of the Supreme Court muscled through a proclamation (shot down twice by lower courts) that restricts entry into the US from (now) 7 countries. Our president continuously calls for a wall to be constructed across our southern border (a border created when we fought a war with Mexico and took their land). Across that border come bad people, criminals and rapists, he says. Also, our new America under this president doesn’t want people from shithole (his words) countries like Haiti, El Salvador and certain African nations.

We cannot let the daily assaults to civility, factuality, common sense, compassion and sanity dull  us to the monstrous activities and hostile actions of this administration and particularly our “king.”

We need a Declaration of Independence. Now. Help write it by contributing in the comments section ONE (yes, only one) grievance. The colonists had a list of 27. How long will our list be?

N.B: King George was determined to “keep the rebels harassed, anxious, and poor, until the day when, by a natural and inevitable process, discontent and disappointment were converted into penitence and remorse.”





July 4, 2018   2 Comments