California Winter


And how things change! Here I am in Los Angeles, looking out jalousie panes at the skyscrapers downtown, and a couple of towering palms. I parked the camper in the driveway and am having a try at communal living. Rent’s too expensive in the city to live alone, especially before publishing one’s first book, so I’ve been forced out of solitude. I’m going to use that for a few months, work hard, “make connections” as they say. The old house in Koreatown is teeming with different types: actor and producer, biofeedback psychologist, injured war veteran, students, artists, travelers.

Art is a profession in this city, and people commit to it as hard as finance guys commit to their long hours in New York. People don’t blink if they hear you’re working on a novel, they don’t question your motives or assume you’re up to some kind of voodoo—they’re too busy thinking about their own success. Enough people here have trust funds, enough people have great connections or an unhinged, narrow-minded drive in the business of art, that if you don’t produce something you’ll be starved out of town before anyone notices. In other words, a lovely place to spend my winter.

If you’ve been unhappy with this blog, so have I—there have been no people in it. I hurried across the country in a sheet-metal cocoon, bedding down at night and leaving again in the morning, talking to few, thinking about my engine or myself. I lived alone in Philadelphia, watching friends come and go, sitting in my comfortable living room or working at my desk. On weekends, I went alone to my childhood home where I worked alone in the barn, solving problems and putting things together. Once I had built a serviceable home for one, I took it off into the countryside—not exactly alone, but self-sufficient. It was a graceful exodus, all considered… but once I covered enough ground, something had to break.

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Break Time


I’m sitting on a mountain bluff overlooking Phoenix, Arizona, after some heavy driving through New Mexico and the border region. So much has happened that it hurts to think of how far I’ve come in so little time. I met some new friends at a campground in New Mexico, explored underground caverns, and drove for hours through staggering wind, racing a freight train and dodging cow-sized tumbleweeds. I’m taking a little break from writing notes as I make my last progress to California, then I’ll come back and revisit some of the things I’ve seen.

High and Dry on the Texas Plains



I’m at the far western edge of Texas, about 10 miles from the New Mexico Border. I’ve been in the state a little more than a week, which took me from Louisiana to Galveston up to Austin, then Dallas, then… west. There’s little out here for someone like me. Out of Forth Worth the road rolled over hills and what I’m pretty sure is called chaparral, then the ranchland heaved up into some wide mesas which, over the course of a smooth afternoon of 65-mph highway driving, shattered back into flat nothing. We’ve gained in elevation but lost features. To the north are the endless plains of the Texas Panhandle; just to the south are the oil riches and fracking boomtowns of the Permian Basin.

I camped at an RV park in Lamesa, full of seasonal workers. I felt out of my element there, as I have in similar bare-bones farming communities in the far west. The park was nearly full, and as best I could surmise most of my neighbors were seasonal workers involved with the cotton harvest. I arrived late and left early, so I didn’t have a good conversation with anyone. The recurring note of this trip appears to be cotton, though I might now be seeing the last of it as I enter the true West. I also passed through vast wind farms with slow-moving turbines that tower over the brown-and-white fields.

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Wind Chill


I took refuge for the night on the Texas coast, next to Galveston, because there was a freeze warning out for pretty much everywhere in the South. I figured it would be warmer near the water. Apparently the polar air had the same idea, because all night long it whipped and gusted over the campground on its way across the road to the Gulf of Mexico. I’m staying in a large campground around a lake. There are cows grazing about 200 feet away. The houses along the beach are built on stilts a story high.

I did avoid a freeze, though. Yesterday I hoofed it along 1-10, skipping the bayou country and heading straight west. I took a quick detour around Lafayette (laugh yet) where the interstate turned to chunky cement and the truck started bucking. The roads of Lafayette weren’t any better, and I cursed the complacent attitude toward decay, perhaps born of necessity, that they seem to have in Southern Louisiana.

Anyway, all problems were solved when I hit the Sabine river and entered Texas. The road turned to solid gold and the speed limit climbed to 75 miles an hour. I stayed mostly in the right lane, except when I passed a slow-moving convoy of school buses. It wasn’t until I got to the front and saw a truck full of coaches that I realized what it was: a high-school football team headed to a Friday away game, somewhere else in the vast state. I smiled: here we are. A bit down the road, I saw a sign that was very Texan indeed. It read:


What more could you ask for? East of Houston I left I-10 at a town called Winnie and headed south on a state road where the speed limit was 65. The scenery was ranch land and wildlife preserve until I hit the beach and turned right. Then it was more ranch land and a few stilt-houses (if you’re looking for a beach house, it looks like a buyer’s market around here), until I hit a small settlement of RV parks and gas stations scattered over the thin peninsula. Today I need to pay for my spot, see if I can find a way to access the beach, and take the ferry down to Galveston. Then I’ll head up to Austin, trying to stay warm.

Mobile Home


The really strange thing, at first, was how the camper changed from a thing I was working on, in a place, to a place of its own, where I live and do things, that itself is in a different place each night. The little wall by the bathroom door, which I pass as I flip off the lights and go back to the hallway, used to be the same wall I gripped as I jumped down onto the barn floor to grab my drill. The little countertop is the same one I leaned over to patch the rotten spots in the corners. The windows, which now give a dark view of a streetlight and a 40-foot motorhome, used to look out on the wood piles and lightbulbs and tractor in the barn. Every once in a while, though it’s happening less often after a week, I’ll look around in here and be thrown by how I’m in the same space that was up on sawhorses for months.

I blew out of Mobile on I-10 after a restful couple of days with some good family. Slept in a soft feather bed and ate in restaurants. Now I’m stopped in Louisiana. Tomorrow maybe I’ll go down the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, so long it disappears in a streak of light over the flat water, and skirt New Orleans to grab breakfast in Cajun country. That sounds like it would be nice. I’m drinking Abita and listening to B. B. King’s Midnight Believer. By some miracle this park has WiFi, though it’s very slow. I bought two new books today, after finishing Lonesome Dove last night. Maybe I’ll start one of them. Got some steak, string beans, and a potato for dinner.

Cold weather is coming in. Supposed to be around freezing all over the Gulf Coast tomorrow night. I’m going to try to get to Austin by this weekend and do some maintenance and recovery. I also want to buy a small radio to keep in the camper. I’d like to be listening to New Orleans jazz on WWOZ right now, and it would be nice to follow local news reports. And weather—though it seems like nighttime lows of 40 have been steady the whole trip. It was -19 this morning in Casper, Wyoming, an all-time record. At least I’m not there.

J. C.


The truck travels best at 55 miles per hour, which is the speed limit on the undulating roads that take you from I-16 into the heart of South Georgia. There were few people driving on a Saturday at dusk, and I swung past pecan orchards and 40-foot cotton bales while the sun colored everything a golden pink. Angels were singing—I cued up Thomas Tallis’s “Spem in Alium” for the cruise through Americus toward a kink in the highway called Plains. The cotton balls I first spotted in North Carolina were still on the roadsides. In fact, they have followed me all the way into Florida. It’s the middle of harvest season all across the South.

At the Hometown of Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th President, I turned right at the only stoplight in town and went up to an old gas station where the price signs were two digits that didn’t seem to refer to anything. Around the back was a driveway to a grassy RV park, my home for the night. I got out of the truck to look for the owner, and a wiry blond man came out of the house next door to calm some dogs. The dogs weren’t his, or anyone’s really, and he wasn’t the owner. But he greeted me all the same in a thick accent I could barely understand, said something about Gone Off to a Barbecue Supper. He said to go along and find a spot, and not to worry about paying Mr. Moss: “He’ll find you.”

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Full Moon Rising


Charleston, South Carolina is dark at night. Weirdly dark. They have some new streetlights that look like they save energy, but the streets are tight and dark and it’s hard to drive a big truck around. I got trapped on rough cobblestones and dead-ends near the waterfront. I creaked and braked through Saturday-evening crowds crossing the dark streets to bars and restaurants. Finally, in the process of giving up and heading out to Walmart, I found Colonial Lake with plenty of parking around it. When I got out of the truck the full moon was rising over the flat, still water, behind palms and old verandaed houses, and my ass hurt from driving for so long. Took a walk but didn’t stay for dinner.

I came in on Route 17, which is a modern four-lane lined with flimsy wooden stands for sweetgrass basket weavers to sell their wares. I liked the outskirts of Charleston more than the inside. Passed through a national forest and wide openings in the low country off toward the ocean. People burn things freely in South Carolina, and smoke hovered over the marshes in the sunset.

About 10 minutes out of downtown there’s a park run by the county with a huge campground that’s as modern and tidy as can be. I stayed in the extra lot with a couple other campers, as it was Friday night and everything was booked solid. The temperature got down near 40 at night but I refused to turn the heater on until 5 a.m. Now the sun is up, I made some coffee, and the dog has thawed out. Off for a shower.

Getting a Feel for It


I have been on the road four days now. Outrunning the winter weather, but trying not to go too fast, lest I end up at the far side of the country with nothing but amnesia and a bucketful of gasoline receipts. It pays to take it slow.

First thing I did was drive through the NJ-29 tunnel at Trenton with a bottle of gas on board, which you’re not allowed to do. I wanted to break a law right away to give the trip a sense of rogue adventure. Plus, heading down South Jersey was better than bearing the 95 traffic, and weather forecasts early in the week called for freezing temperatures around the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I ruled out 81 from Harrisburg.

I stayed in a state park in Maryland, which was fine except it was in Maryland, which is my least favorite state in the union. If you disagree, please email me. The state looks like a diseased crab, and if you look a little closer you see why: it’s just a haphazard cluster of land grabs from other states. I think we’d all do fine with a solid Pennsylvania-Virginia border out to the ocean (perhaps with allowance made for Delaware, for historic and sentimental reasons). Thanks to the closeness of DC, people in Maryland seem to be hurrying about aimlessly in a maelstrom of filling stations and misplaced political ambitions. Waking up to rural Maryland on election day, I will admit, was something of a treat. Nowhere in the country will you see such large campaign signs, or so many ladies posted outside a school building, waving, waving into the sunshine, urging everyone to stop and vote down their ticket so the crops will grow and the sun can rise again tomorrow.

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Here We Go

Camper in Massachusetts

Well, the camper is finished. I took it on a shakedown run from New Jersey up to Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts last week, and the weather was obligingly horrible. Only problem was some concentrated leakage due to bad seals and driving in rain. Now, while my doubt and laziness might compel me to stay on mom’s farm in Lambertville forever, at least the freezing temperatures in the forecast will get me to hit the road.

I plan to be mobile on Monday. It’s been a year and a half since I bought this thing, an old wreck. I’ll be heading toward the vague idea of something new: south through Virginia and North Carolina, Alabama and Texas, toward southern California for a family Thanksgiving. If you’re a friend located somewhere along the way, give me a shout and I’ll be sure to visit.

Now that I’ve patched some leaks, I have to get it back on the truck and stock up with all the things I need, plus put away the stuff I’ve dumped at my mom’s house since moving out of Philadelphia. I’ll be writing here, of course, about the things I do and see. Enough of the private repairs and working in the barn. It’s time to roam the public roads.

And now, a partial explanation of my absence.

If you look at my previous posts on the subject, you’ll see that they’re few and far between—separated by months at a time. I’ve been largely silent during the rebuild process. I haven’t taken step-by-step pictures, posted my progress to forums, or given timely updates on social media. The lone exception is some documentation of the process over on Instagram.

This might seem strange for a writer, especially one who went and bought a camper during a particularly dry period, partly as a vehicle for whatever story might come next. The truth is, though, I just wanted to keep some things to myself. The early, dewy mornings when I flung open the barn doors, turned on the lights, sipped my tea and put the country station on the radio. The failed attempts at building a floor or fixing the windows. The mildew, the rust, the dumpsters-full of postwar Made-in-USA parts all broken or filled with mouse droppings. The chilly days sitting inside the gutted shell of an old recreational vehicle, wondering what I had gotten myself into. During the whole process, I have come to the unsettling but firm belief that not everything should be written about. Sometimes, it’s okay to be alone with things, building on one’s own.

That first post I wrote about the camper, when I stopped in Virginia, came out like I was talking to a friend. Because I was—I wanted to tell you all about the crazy thing I’d done, the new places I’d seen, the hope on the horizon. When I pulled back into New Jersey in April 2013 with a moldy old camper on the truck, I honestly thought I’d have it fixed up and ready to go in three months’ time.

Turns out I missed the mark about six times over. What came after that was a long period of living half in Philadelphia and half at “home home,” spending nights in my childhood bedroom or in the barn, cutting myself off from social contact while I made multiple trips per day to the hardware store or mulled over different varieties of plywood. Some of it was grim, some of it was deathly boring, all of it took a long time as I traded in parts of one life for another, and vacillated between writing fiction at a desk and driving very real screws into very real metal, one at a time.

None of that made me want to write about it. But now that some time has passed and I’m road-worthy again, maybe we can talk about it. Just invite me over to park in your driveway. I’ll tell you all you want to know.

Getting Lost

Steinbeck's traveling home, not so unlike mine.

Steinbeck’s traveling home, not so unlike mine.

Something interesting is happening as I ready my traveling rig for departure in two months’ time. I am beginning to feel a hum of possibility, which is a kind of antidote to preparedness (which would make sure every screw was in and seam was sealed before I rolled out into the meadows). When you are getting ready for a long journey, this transition is crucial and sacred. You wait for it like a visitation in the night. Because for a long time all the assembled parts and to-do lists and ideas have looked like a disorganized pile, a flood of things to go wrong. They don’t stop looking like this, but somewhere along the way there creeps in another feeling, one that says, you know, you could take this pile moving, and reminds you that you’ll never truly be finished, so one of these days you’re just going to greet the sun a little differently, tie up, and hit the road.

I’m thinking of these things as I finally get around to cracking Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, a well-known account of his trip around the country with a slide-in camper and a French poodle. There have been a handful of periods in my life that I regard as major transitions, which take on something of an epic biographical quality. Perhaps the most intense of these took place in the weeks after I left a study-abroad session in Paris, at the end of college, and flew back to Chicago to graduate and then back to the east coast to deal with some family issues, before packing my bags one last time and moving to Portland. Throughout all this I was reading a small paperback copy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It is one of those books whose content I recall in step with the places where I read it, and whose general involvement in my life is hard to overstate.

So it’s funny to see the aging writer, on the heels of that success, trundling about the country and cataloguing his gripes and dad-jokes, watching his dog pee, cooking corned-beef hash over an asbestos mat. The year was 1960. Steinbeck put aside the saintly discipline that built his novels, in favor of the dictates of his itinerary and a few overarching threats: nighttime marauders, suspicious locals, complete nuclear annihilation, and getting his directions wrong.

That last threat is no longer with us. It’s a made point now, that you can’t get lost anymore. Smartphones and satellites and all that. But what strikes me is the immensity of the difference. Can we even remember the feeling of driving around at night, seeing nothing but darkened, flat road and encroaching vegetation, and having absolutely no idea of where we were headed? I remember a trip through Georgia, late one spring night a couple years ago, when my Portland friend Matthew and I traveled on small country roads into Plains, Jimmy Carter’s hometown. The land was black and the stars were shining. A dark barked somewhere, miles away, as though he could sense our presence. Inside the glow of the car, we were close to our phones, watching a dot move along the empty map. How different would we have felt without that?

There are other kinds of not knowing, which are going away. Almost every time I work on the camper, I do something I wouldn’t have guessed at on my own. Next week I’m going to try plastic welding, to get the old waste tank in order. I looked up videos and instructions on the internet in a few minutes, and ordered the necessary Chinese-made tools on the internet. It’s tempting to be nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have precise bearings at every moment, and were subject to the whims of our perceptions. But this was a limitation as much as anything else. Steinbeck didn’t have what I have, and besides, he ordered his carriage new from the manufacturer.

The truth is, once you actually plunge in and get going, you still have to figure out all the little things for yourself. No map can tell you when it’s all right to pack up the tools, stock up the aluminum repair tape, and start moving that dot across the screen. I’m headed up to the farm to take some measurements for gaskets. All approximations and good guesses until the water holds, or doesn’t.