Oregon is looking pretty brown and dry.
Long, monotonous road trips are inspiring for me as a writer. Taking a journey clears my brain like nothing else and empties my head, leaving a wide-open, inviting space for new ideas.
Early this month, I took a quick trip down to California for my high school class reunion and to visit my sisters. I got there Thursday afternoon and left early Sunday morning. The reunion included a beach party and a banquet. We managed to squeeze in dinner at Jack London’s in Carmel (their fish and chips were the best I’ve had in years), a reunion beach party, my sister Carolyn’s writers’ group, and the reunion banquet. My class reunites every September, but this was my first reunion. My sisters, Rosemary and Carolyn, both joined me and we had a great, though brief, visit.
I left Portland Wednesday as the sun was coming up. It was a beautiful sunrise, all pink and golden over the hills. It made me remember that old song by Melanie that goes, “Watch a baby day be born.” I found it on my iPod and listened to Melanie as I drove past Salem. I hadn’t played her stuff for years, but I like to keep endless choices on that iPod, soundtracks for whatever I’m doing or writing. I decided to play stuff I hadn’t listened to in a long time instead of my usual sounds. After Melanie, my car sang with Eddie Vedder’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack; then Enter the Haggis, Scottish rock with highland bagpipes; Glen Hansard; and The Frames, also with Glen Hansard.
Oregon wasn’t very green anymore. I dug my pocket camera out of my bag and took a few photos through my car windshield along the way.
I thought about the plot elements I’m having trouble with. Ideas don’t come to me in any particular order. More and more threads need to be tied up before I’m ready to start Part Two–yes, I’m still winding up Part One. In Part Two, a couple of my characters seem to have gotten married. How did this happen? I can’t just have them suddenly married. He has to propose… This is what happens when you’re a “pantser.” It can get extremely messy, and this book, “Zen Flowers,” is the messiest one yet. I write the same way I do road trips. I never make hotel reservations. I decide on the spur of the moment which town I’ll stay in, and then I pull over and consult the AAA Tourbook and see which motel/hotel looks good and what amenities they have that I need right then. A coffeepot in the room and free wi-fi are absolutely essential.
The drive took longer than I thought it would–there was so much road work going on. Interstate 5 was squinched down to one lane in a lot of places, crawling along at 20 miles per hour in first or second gear. I still drive a stick shift. There was plenty of time for new ideas to creep into my head. I asked my characters questions. I had three issues I needed to know about in order finish Part One. I voiced my questions out loud, and then I let go and just enjoyed the drive. I stopped at the Valley of the Rogue park and rest stop south of Grant’s Pass and ate my lunch. A woman joined me at my picnic table and we chatted. She and her husband were staying in Ashland and going to plays. In between, her husband was trout fishing in the Rogue. That park is usually my last Oregon outpost unless I stop in Ashland.
Leaving Oregon. This sign always makes me cry.
I drove south into California. I was too busy looking at the effects of the ongoing drought to think about writing. Shasta Lake was nearly empty, and Mt. Shasta was without its usual mantle of snow. The forests and mountains were still beautiful, though.
I pushed on past Redding and on to Red Bluff. By now, I had been driving for 10 hours, much of it stop-and-go traffic, and I was tired. At the last rest stop before Red Bluff, I checked out the AAA book and chose the motel with pillow-top mattresses, a Best Western. I found the motel, checked in, and cranked up the air conditioner. It was 102 degrees outside.
The rest of the drive down I-5 was miles and hours on end of hot, dry, barrenness and 90-plus degree temps, briefly interrupted by Sacramento and Stockton, which looked like oases by comparison.
Grain elevators in California’s heartland.
Hours later, when I turned off onto the Pacheco Pass toward Hollister, more episodes had downloaded into my head, including the marriage proposal, which was not what I expected. When scenes pop into my head like little movies, I don’t know where they come from. They feel like they’re coming from somewhere outside me.