This kind of truck, is what I’m talking about. This kind of gas station.
Friends. I cannot believe it. Somehow I have made it to a Moth Grandslam Championship in Portland, Oregon. How?? I qualified at a Moth Story Slam in September by telling a story about how I can make a strange snapping sound with my index finger. It’s that thing people do when they say booyakasha! or pack tobacco while sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck in the town I grew up in. I was not one of those guys on the truck. They would not let me hang out with them because — at the time — I couldn’t do things like drive stick shift or pack tobacco with a “limpy.”
But now I get to speak at The Moth, which is even better than the tobacco and the pickup. The theme is FIRED UP. And I am. You can get tickets for $25 here or just kindly leave me a comment to bolster my courage. Woohooo!!!
To promote WILDMAN’s release, I attempted to drive from Eugene, Oregon to New York City in a ‘93 Buick Century – the same car that broke down, stranded me in rural Washington, and inspired me to write the book in the first place. I drove 5 miles for every copy of Wildman sold, and 1 mile for every $5 donation to the American Library Association.
The entire 10-day, 4300-mile journey was live-streamed using two phones and a Chromebook.
All day. All night.
It’s amazing the trip worked at all. But here’s what surprised me even more:
1) A ‘93 Buick Century makes an amazing concert venue.
Sometimes you get lucky and one of your musical idols (David Wimbish of the Collection) happens to be in a town you’re passing through. You somehow convince him to climb into your ’93 Buick. With his guitar. And that’s when the magic happens.
2) Traveling with a mannequin is a good conversation starter. And probable cause for a police stop.
As a joke, my friends from Eugene put a mannequin in the Buick to keep me company. Viewers quickly dubbed her “Silent Barb,” and she became considerably more popular than me. After I noticed the second police car tailing me in Texas, I took off her wig and shoved Silent Barb farther down in the back seat. Which was somehow even creepier. In this clip, the mannequin has locked me out of the car after keeping watch on the Buick in Boise all night.
3) There’s a whole lot of nothing out there.
Eastern Oregon, West Texas, and a big chunk of New Mexico offered up little more than tumbleweed, armadillos, road kill, and abandoned vehicles. A good incentive that it was important to JUST. KEEP. DRIVING.
4) During a live stream, an empty seat is more compelling than me.
After a few days live-streaming on the road, I noticed a pattern. If I put my camera on the empty seat of my Buick, I’d attract YouTube viewers. The longer I recorded the seat, the more people showed up. As soon as I climbed in the frame, I’d lose up to 50% of my audience. A user later explained: “The empty seat just gave us this great sense of anticipation.” I understand there is a movie deal in the works for “Empty Seat.” I have yet to be contacted.
5) Friends and family will ambush you with kindness and light sabers.
I expected people to like my Facebook posts. Maybe retweet some pictures. I did not expect friends to arrange places for me to stay, make me a road trip mixtape on Spotify, keep me awake on midnight drives through West Texas, print flyers for their schools and neighborhoods, and – at one point – ambush me in North Carolina with light sabers, costumes, and beer. The Wildman Road Trip reminded me I know some AMAZING people. There was a lot of love out there, folks. A lot of love.
6) I would be convinced to appear on a children’s show.
It turns out Danny Joe’s Treehouse is filmed in Baltimore, MD. And Danny Joe, himself, invited me to be a guest on his show. He planned to broadcast to his loyal audience of children and families with some puppeteering and a classic road trip song. Until he got a surprise of his own.
7) The finish line will be mind-blowing.
I wasn’t 100% sure what the team at Disney thought of this trip — or if they expected me to make it. So when they greeted me with a checkered flag, road snacks, and a trophy, I thought maybe I’d died somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike and ended up in Debut Author Heaven. This video, like all of them, was recorded and broadcast live.
My mission is to climb the hill, but the Bookmobile dies half a block from the home of the original owner. To be fair: I killed it. I’m tilted backward on a slope, foot on the brake. I’ve been told this is the worst possible situation when driving a stick. I can only assume this is true, since I don’t really know how to drive stick.
I remove my foot from the brake and the vehicle lurches backward – 15,000 pounds of books and steel. I’m back on the brake. Leg shaking. I’m trying to avoid destroying this legendary vehicle. I’m also remembering what my letter says, waiting for me at home. I contemplate the term “learning curve.”
I turn the key, rev the engine, and slide backward. I stomp the gas, release the clutch, and the engine dies. Rolling back, faster — I’m back on the brake. Literally, standing on the brake.
One hand on the wheel, I slip my phone out of my pocket and call the original owner.
“I’m a little stuck here.”
“I know. I can still see you from my house.”
In the side mirror, Ezra waves. He walks uphill. He’s breathing hard, looking up at me.
“Use the emergency brake,” he says.
“I’m trying,” I say. The handle jiggles in its housing.
“Oh,” he says. “Okay. Stand on the brake. Don’t move until I say so. Then, I’m going to need you to jump.”
“Passenger seat.” He leaves out where you belong, but I still hear it. Ezra lifts himself into the doorway and puts his foot beside mine. We’re splitting the small brake pedal between us. “One. Two. Go!”
I leap out of the driver’s seat and crash into the passenger seat. Ezra takes my place and grabs the wheel. We breathe for a moment. He turns the key, guns the engine and the Bookmobile lurches to life. He makes it work, engine roaring up to the stop sign where the vehicle idles like:
See? Not that hard, kid.
“I suppose I should give you a driving lesson,” Ezra says.
So we tool around the neighborhoods together. I get the hang of things – my turning radius training and stick-shift practice have paid off a little. The only truly embarrassing spectacle happens in front of my entire neighborhood, when everyone I know with kids has come out to see the Bookmobile. They don’t leave and go inside like they should. They stand on the sidewalk, waiting to see me off.
“There Jeff goes! Wave everyone!”
Starts – dies.
“Everyone wave again!”
Starts. Lurches. Convulses. DukadukdukaKA-CHUNK.
Finally, we make the corner and turn out of view. Now it’s time for Ezra to go home. There are two ways – one way is up a nice, back and forth switchback on the elegantly-named Story Road. The other is called Chambers Hill. As in torture Chambers. Or the Chamber pot you may need when you’re about to piss yourself trying to drive stick shift up this false-summited, sadistically-graded motherplucker of a hill.
“You want to go up Chambers,” Ezra says, staring at me.
“Oh yeah,” I say. I have to. When I wrote myself my risk letter at the BRAVA Breakfast, the question was Did you drive up the hill? not Did you drive up the road?
The stop light green and we’re climbing. Ezra gives orders: Gas! Stop! C’mon! Don’t kill it!
“What gear should I be in?!” I say. “What gear!”
“Figure it out!” he shouts back.
Another stop sign. We’re titled back. All that steel and paper. You come to realize books are made of wood, and you’re driving a glorified logging truck with a tricky braking system.
In with the clutch and I hammer the accelerator. Revving, roaring, and I’ve finally learned something. The Bookmobile climbs and glides and the power is there and Ezra is nodding. We’re going up and up an finally the hill smooths out.
We stop and my leg is jittering, hopping up and down by itself.
“Had to do Chambers Hill, didn’t you?” He shakes his head.
I backed in the Bookmobile without damaging people or property, then rode the ’93 Buick back down the hill and opened my letter.
I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it. -Pablo Picasso
Here’s my first recorded outing with the bookmobile.
I knew the Bookmobile was a manual transmission when I bought it. I knew it was 15,000 pounds of books and steel, parked on a giant hill. The thought of climbing behind the wheel scared the hell out of me. The vehicle was older than me, the brakes had just been readjusted, and things could go badly.
I’m accustomed to making mistakes in writing. I’ve written dozens of the sappiest, shitty endings imaginable. Hundreds of wasted pages. Offensively flat characters, racial stereotypes, and sex scenes that would embarrass any literate person.
But when you mess up a scene, your computer doesn’t go DADUNK-DUNK-CACHUNK! It does not alert every other writer in the neighborhood that you’ve just written a terrible sex scene. Aborting a bad plot line doesn’t leave skid marks. No one dies as a result of a poorly-written cliffhanger.
Failing at driving is very obvious to everyone. It’s loud and jerky and produces smoke and sometimes fire and casualties.
But I wanted to learn. And, ultimately, there is only one way to learn. Whether you want to write a novel or drive the damn Bookmobile, you just have to get in, start the engine, and relentlessly fail your way across the finish line.
And I DID IT. I SURVIVED.
It was ugly. Embarrassing and and messy and scary as hell and most of all — a huge THRILL. Strange to think something as mechanical and straightforward as driving would make me break out in a cold sweat and stop breathing and flood my bloodstream with buckets of adrenaline, but it did.
It was a good personal reminder that the best thing I can do as a writer is fail repeatedly, lead the most interesting life possible, and pay attention. Even so, this one was tough. I needed help to get it done, and that’s why I needed this letter:
More to follow on the letter. For now, enjoy the video. I, for one, am glad to be alive.
The subject of this post may either refer to: 1) the pace at which this short horror film was put together or 2) what happens to my neck at the end of the movie.
As part of a grand tradition, Eugene actors, writers, and filmmakers gather in Eugene around Halloween weekend to conceive of, cast, shoot, edit, and deliver a 3-minute horror film in under 72 hours. Teams submit their films for a jury and audience prize, which are awarded after a screening at Regal Valley Cinema.
Due to the inclusive kindness of Matt Cornelius and Michael Sargent, my sister and I were dragged out to remote railroad tracks where we screamed and flailed on wooden ties in near-freezing temperatures. We were then shoved into the backseat of a car with a boom microphone, and whisked away to a magical “Murder Shed” in Lebanon, Oregon, (“everything in here is covered with spiders”) where I was doused in fake blood and asked to convincingly drop to my knees and make choking sounds for fifteen minutes.
These are the kinds of friends and magical experiences you never forget. The film is great, and you can see it here:
It is an honor to be invited to give the keynote speech at ABAE’s BRAVA Breakfast on Friday, November 4. My topic will be: “Where the Wild Things Are: Taking Risks in Business and Art.”
The event takes place from 7:30 AM – 9:00 AM. Early, right? So I am making a No Bullet Point Promise ™. No small fonts. No terrible handouts. No Death by Power Point. There will be risks, interactive mayhem, music, and — naturally — a few references to the work of Mr. Sendak. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. If you’d like to attend, there may still be a few seats available. I’ll let you know how it goes!
I suck at taking potentially epic video and photographs.
I need a jack in the back of my brain where I can plug in and just beam my Photoshopped memories out into the world. Except I’d end up trying to price memory plugs from all available providers and protection plans and surgery fees until I said SCREW IT I’m just using my Verizon Wireless phone, which I would continue to fail at.
Take last weekend. I headed out to Crescent City on the northern California coast to observe the supposed MONSTER STORM which turned out to be pretty much like any other winter storm on the coast. Wind lashing the windshield, pooling water, forest misting like it’s on fire and — oh, landslides, mudslides! Fun!
I’d often noticed the giant, thatched-steel blankets draped over California hills and mountainsides and ominous rockslide signs showing a Buick-like car about to get bitched by a boulder. Never seen one up close and personal.
UNTIL, friends. UNTIL.
By way of context: Without kids and wife in tow, I like to hug the hills and curves like a shitty racecar (PALINDROME!) driver and go to fast in a windows-down, music-blaring fugue, sometimes making a nnnrrrrrrrrrrr sound as I do it. So I’m nnnrrrring around a bend to a sudden flare of brakes from the truck in front of me and – egad!
Rocks. Falling from above. Big, lazy arcs. Basketball sized. Baseballs sized. Then pebbles. Tree pieces. Chunks, calving off the side of the hill right in front of me. Smashing the guardrail. KABOOM. I stopped. Holy shit. I looked up at a suddenly suspicious section of clinging mud and rock above me.
To my left, a flash of moving bodies. Two guys clad in what looked like emergency gear hauling ass to the site of the slide. Emergency, right? I jumped out to help. The guy in the white truck also got out. He had a foot-long beard, a gray hoodie, and shovels. We’re near the Lost Coast. Of course this man had shovels.
SO THERE I WAS. Grabbing chunks of rock, logs, hauling them over the guardrail with a heave-ho clatter. Laughing, bantering, having a grand ol’ time until someone yelled:
Fear. Leg-shaking heart-jolting fear that sent me scrambling to the other side of the landslide. We stood. We watched as two football-sized rocks smashed onto concrete. A skitter of pebbles, like crabs with stony feet. Tickticktickticktick.
And we inched in. We picked up more. Shovel, scraping concrete. Less laughter. And then:
The guy with the shovel, sluggish. I’m halfway to Idaho and this crazy motherfucker is just standing there. Big rock whhhzzzz right by his head.
“Dude! You almost died, man!” someone screamed.
Shovel Man continued to shovel.
Then I looked around at the other rock-pickers. These guys weren’t emergency workers. Those were wet suits. These idiots were KAYAKERS. Kayakers who, by the way, came out on the stormiest weekend in recorded history to kayak in the ocean. And Shovel Man.
A word of advice: If you ever find yourself surrounded by storm-chasing sea kayakers and Shovel Man, you are probably going to die soon.
I waited for more skittering rocks to stop. Then sprinted across the mud and talus to the ol’ Buick.
“Got decent tires,” one of the kayakers said. He winked. “I think you could make it across.”
But I could either take their advice, or hang out and get pancaked by a boulder. So I jumped in and nnnnrrrrrrrrr! away I went. Epic.
As per usual, I’ve got no pictures to prove this. It would’ve either been a killer selfie or one hell of a Darwin Award. Maybe next time. Maybe not.