"Why is everybody dressed up like witches and wizards?" I ask the guy in the bookstore's coffee shop. "Today is the biggest book sales day in history." He says, "Harry Potter six."
It's a hundred and five degrees in Bishop, California, and all the witches and wizards of Spellbinder Books are sweating. Gilderoy Lockhart is a local magician hired for the Harry Potter party. He's dripping beads down his forehead. The girl behind the counter in the black top hat says, "I'm so sticky." The lady stacking books, she says, "I can't believe I'm wearing polyester."
Bishop is the largest town in the Owens Valley of Eastern California, and while isolated, it feeds a steady stream of fishermen and backpackers. In such a still heat, this normally ordinary town feels enchanted. Most of all, Spellbinder Books, more literature and less self-help, is always an enchanted place.
Fiction writing fascinates me, because the process confounds me. While a fiction writer's incentive is to be creative and to make things up, the travel writer's incentive is the opposite - to not only report the truth but to report his own reaction to that truth. While the worst insult you can offer a fiction writer is to tell her she plagiarized, the worst thing you can tell a travel writer is that he was creative.
This is why, among acquaintances rather than readers, the most common comments I receive are:
'You don't really go to those places, right?'
'But it's exaggerated?'
'But none of it is actually true?'
Those comments are never mean-spirited, only curious. But they imply an innocence about a genre; one of the oldest styles of writing on Earth.
I leave Spellbinder Books with that thought on my mind - what is travel writing, how is it different from fiction and journalism, and why are travel writers so ashamed of calling themselves travel writers?
After college, I began to dream very odd. I don't remember many details. Every morning, I woke up and it was the same thing, if I dreamed, the dream was barren. Sun and parched earth; emptiness and some sort of a lonely world.
Around this time, I had never been to a desert. These dreams may have implied a curiosity about what was beyond Los Angeles; they likely also implied my personal struggles of the day. The desert was my mind's self doubt and lack of content.
Two dreams I remember clearly; likely because I told the dreams to friends in an attempt to amuse them.
Imagine my dream for a moment, and the sky is the blinding color of noon. The ground is white limestone; sand in hard granules. Old pieces of machinery stick up, half buried in sand. Wind propellers or oil canisters or John Deere tractors. Between all this were farm animals bleeding from open sores.
There may be a goat, his neck is bleeding or he hasn't a foot. And the animals made noises like screams and walked slowly. Never did these animals herd; they were just lone props in the setting of this dream.
This same dream there is water; a shoreline of hard, white sand. The water is virtually still. It just laps against the limestone gravel shore in small but excruciatingly loud ripples.
There is a city too, and it’s adjacent to the world of white sand. It rises up without suburbs; it is tall, ornamented in sleek ebony hues and endowed with lavish bronze-colored metals that rose as columns supporting these structures. Buildings were connected. Rather than ceilings, the interiors rise into spires and men and women hurry.
This dream had no inspiration. Entireley the fiction writing of my subconscious. The intricacy of it; its architecture and tension, its landscape, all of it astounded me.
What I wanted to know is: why couldn't I conceive of the landscapes that my dreams conceived of? If I could dream such a complicated world, why couldn't I imagine them during the day? So I wondered: do people have a literal other side to their brain, an independent spirit?
All those titles at Spellbinder Books; do these fiction writers just have a better grasp of that other person in their brain? And is sub-consciousness some real, controllable thing? Might mine have a name?
The coffee guy at Spellbinder Books warns me: once I reach the top of the Tioga Pass in Yosemite, the weather isn’t much cooler than down here. If it’s a hundred-and-five here, it might be a hundred there. This worries me, because I am driving my wife’s car from Los Angeles to Portland. Don’t tell my wife, but her car is a clunker. Already yesterday, I came near to overheating in the White Mountains.
It’s about twelve o’clock, and up the Tioga Pass, me and the temperature gauge are good friends. I had been dreading this climb for the last week, so much so that by the time I start talking to my temperature gauge, I’m already in the Tuolomne Meadows.
Back to those early years. I had another dream, and this one had plot twist.
It's an airplane, it's in the air. I'm in the seat at the front of coach. Next to me is a female fictional coworker or friend; brown hair, pale, of medium height. And then the plane is crashing. And I say something to her like, hold on, nothing we can do now, it won't be painful, it's all over.
And then we're in heaven.
Heaven. It's cloudy, it's cold, it looks like Brooklyn in the fall. The buildings are built on top of each other, courtyards are concrete. The hallways have litter; crumpled up paper, crumbs. The girl and I are shown to our room. Our room for eternity. The room hasn't been cleaned, it feels like the spare room at a fraternity house. The bedding is purple, the pillows are gold. Litter on the floor.
Now, this girl and I, we are instantly best friends in this dream because we know God made a mistake; her and I, we weren't bound for eternity. So we bust out of our bedroom-for-eternity and start belligerently tearing down the hallways of heaven.
Up stairs, on an elevator - I don't remember - down a hallway, maybe - and we enter a red brick room that's like a school cafeteria. Everybody's in medical clothes. There is a 'kitchen' in the cafeteria but on the conveyor belt and the food trays are human organs.
All these people, in lab coats they're working on these organs as they come out of the kitchen. They are assembling something, but they seem frustrated, confused.
What we find out is that all these people, they're trying to uphold the premise of heaven being this happy, perfect place. They’re exchanging and recycling their organs in a futile effort to preserve life indefinitely. Somehow, the culture of heaven is transfixed by the fiction of eternal life. But everybody is just a worker drone, just like back in real life.
So this girl and I, we tear off from the cafeteria. Down hallways now and there are more people in lab coats, holding hearts and kidneys and strings of intestines. So we start pushing all these people over, running through the hallways smashing the windows and tearing at the linoleum. We want God's attention and then I wake up.
At this point, I begin really getting into this idea of tapping into my subconscious. I want to be able to create.
In the end, this internal pursuit was fruitless. Certainly in me, that other person was locked away.
Although I always loved that sense of creativity in fiction, I was a severe critic of fiction with faulty premises. Even science fiction and fantasy - my favorites - required a world and characters that were realistic relative to their genre. I could see through Clive Cussler's egotistical characters and Terry Brooks' dwarves and elves as too iconic.
I needed realism in my fiction, because I found reality much, much, way much more strange and wonderful and shocking than fiction.
I started reading travel non-fiction by about age twelve. Paddle to the Amazon, about a Canadian father and son who canoe from Canada to Brazil gripped me. These two, they passed through my very backyard, down the Mississippi. They were shot at, snapped at by crocodiles, thrown in jail.
I was enthralled. But I questioned the book. I asked a neighbor about it. If it was fictionalized, exaggerated, it would be of no value to me, because fiction is stranger than fake non-fiction. 'How do we know these things really happened to them?' I asked my friend's dad. He said something like, 'that canoe trip was really followed by the media. All over the world they were writing about that. The events were independently verified.'
Fabrications and exaggerations are so engrained in so much of society, that at some point in life you realize that a lot of your acquaintances never learned to distinguish between myth and reality: words are so often taken at face value. All of us, we all have friends who even to this day send us hoax emails that had been discredited back in 1996. All the time people send us that picture of the guy on top of the world trade tower or a shark attacking the helicopter. So many people - college educated people - it's no wonder they get caught into weird religions and conspiracy theories and crackpot politics. People believe things just a little too easily.
Part of believing in real things and enjoying real events and credible history means having a profound sense of skepticism. It is a good value to have, especially as an observer. In life I became such a skeptic that I could sniff out any hoax, I thought. A few years ago, a friend of mine mentioned the story of Mike the Chicken.
Matt was the most literate person I knew. He read real books, he had sound theories about things. He could make people laugh, but his stories for real ones. He told me that a chicken, named Mike, lived for eighteen months after its owner chopped his head off in 1945.
I told Matt immediately, “Bullshit.”
We did the handshake. Five dollars was the bet. According to Matt, the chicken owner's aunt liked the taste of chicken neck so he aimed the axe fairly high up the neck.
Off with the head and Mike doesn't die. So the owner starts feeding the body of Mike through the hole in its neck with a dropper. The chicken, although obviously blind, socializes just fine with other chickens. He stands on fence posts, and instead of crowing, he gurgles. After a while, Mike becomes famous. Scientists test him. He and his enterprising owner leave their humble home of Fruita, Colorado, and with a chicken skull in tow, they tour America. They said the skull was Mike’s, but really a cat ate Mike’s real head. A sensation everywhere, Mike becomes famous and hometown Fruita erects a statue in his memory.
I was so this story is crap.
But all I had to do was get that piece of evidence to prove it to Matt. My five dollars, I would do anything for it. I started contacting scientists and I went to a library. I got in touch with the editor of The Skeptical Enquirer, tantalizing him with the taste of a hoax that had never been disproved.
Six months later I found the article in Life Magazine from 1946, and the editor of The Skeptical Inquirer had written me back. "We have every reason to believe this is a true story," he wrote. I had lost my five dollars; but in the end my skepticism was justified, and the process of realization was divine: all chickens primary motor functions operate from the command center of the neck. By some amazing combination of events, this chicken didn't die from the trauma of having his head lobbed off.
Some sort of skepticism is required for travel writing; for me without it there can be no story. But how does a travel writer compel his reader's to trust him?
When I first started writing about driving in the desert, I sent a travelogue on Mexico to the Los Angeles Times. I’d never submitted anything before. I didn’t consider myself a writer. But the Los Angeles Times jumped and said, ‘this is perfect for the Special Mexico Edition.’
Great! I thought. But later, an editor called and said, ‘We’re not going to run the Pinacate story. Look, it’s just a dusty desert down there and there are no hotels. No advertisers, and that’s where all the drugs come through, so its our policy not to support something like that.’
And I thought, wait a minute. Advertisers? This is travel writing…truth, perspective, subjectivity, history, social commentary, geography, memoir, natural history, culture!
I tried pitching my stories to an online magazine called GORP, which I admired for their lack of annoying advertising, commercialization or pop-under ads or marketing associations. Because the article was more or less a guidebook entry, I thought it appropriate to move our account of the pronghorn antelope to evening rather than morning. This would adjust the continuity and put the focus on travel tips, not our subjective experience. I then asked my brother Hans, who drove with me to Pinacate, to review the piece before I submitted it to GORP. He told me the following: This article is inaccurate. He said we saw the pronghorn antelope in the morning.
So I corrected it and realized there is never an excuse to fabricate or exaggerate, even in a travel tips story. If you stay consistent, credibility will be earned.
GORP accepted other articles and edited heavily. The editor said I should try to describe the water of Mexico’s Pacific Ocean.
I told him the water was unremarkable and it was unnecessary to the story, which was about people.
He edited the ocean himself. He used the word ‘aqua’. Then, ‘undulating.’
'Undulating’ is the one word that if you ever use as a travel writer, you should be shot.
That’s when I realized I could never write for somebody else. Travel writing is only travel writing if it is purely independent. Anything else, anything propped up by advertising has an agenda, and the travel industry’s agenda is anathema to the genre of travel writing. If the travel writer is not independent, he is not writing travel.
By the time I am done considering all of this, I have parked Jane’s car and gone walking. The Tuolomne Meadows is a large sub-alpine stretch of meadows, sedge habitats and flooded riverbed terrain high up in Eastern Yosemite. In the late summer months, these meadows bloom, making the whole place eden-like.
The meadows are so friendly to wandering that I continue for hours. I am about six miles along the river when I spot four deer. They are a mile away, chewing on grass in the meadow. Because I am so far from the road, there is nobody around me. It feels like a part of the meadows where nobody has ever been.
I approach the deer slowly, as if I’m stalking them. The wind is in my favor. The light is growing dim. Within about fifty feet of the deer is a ridge.
I approach the ridge bent on my knees. When I arrive, I get on all fours and quietly climb the ridge. When I make it to the top, I peer over the ridge. They are right underneath me. The deer so close I can see the hairy fibers of their antlers.
In the Los Angeles Times travel section, what they’ll tell you now is about how spiritual it was that they communed with the deer at sunset. But what I’m really thinking is, grownups don’t follow deer. I am thinking, responsible people don’t run around in meadows for a living. And this thought, I have to quench it, because I still have fifteen-hundred miles to drive, and work to get done.