Over the course of four months in 1988, I took a road trip with three friends in which we covered nearly 6,000 miles across 26 states. I have spent five years writing a memoir about that journey, which we took in a 1977 Dodge Tradesman van. We never parked the van "down by the river," but we did avail ourselves of a few campgrounds, a bank parking lot and a quiet residential street in Athens, Georgia.
The book has changed quite a bit since the first draft. I had previously outlined the basics of the story on my old blog (DaveBrigham.com, which is still active although I haven't posted anything there in years), but was unsure how to launch into my story or how to frame the tale for a book.
Initially I thought I would treat it as "how-to" guide for college students and recent grads, imploring them to postpone joining the working world and explaining to them the good, bad and ugly of taking a road trip. I quickly abandoned that idea.
Next, I worked on a thread in which I compared the difficulties I had on the trip, and have had all my life, with some of what my son, Owen, has gone through in his young life. I've always been a shy guy with low self-confidence, and Owen suffers from anxieties, and I saw similarities in how we deal/don't deal with things. But again, I gave up on that idea before too long as I realized it wasn't fair to Owen, and didn't make for great reading. I didn't want my memoir to get bogged down in too much self-analysis.
During the trip I kept a journal and recorded plenty of late-night thoughts and conversations on a tape recorder. I used these sources to write two articles for the hometown newspaper (the Farmington Valley Herald, R.I.P.) where I'd worked before embarking on my trip. I used all of those resources to create the basic framework for my book.
My memory is notoriously poor, but as I wrote, little details would emerge from the dark corners of my memory. I looked at Google Maps to refresh my memory of what landmarks we passed on our way south from Connecticut. In one case, I used Google Street View to cruise along the main roads of Athens, Georgia, and instantly an image popped into my head: driving into a bank parking lot after hours, as far away from the main road as possible, next to a retaining wall, where we'd be able to see anybody (cops, thieves, R.E.M.) coming our way.
About two years into the process (obviously this has been an on-and-off project) I felt I needed a break. I solicited friends and family to read what I had and give me honest feedback. I had half a dozen takers, and each in his or her own way provided me with comments, criticism and praise that helped move me along.
One of the comments touched on a major issue that I'd already been aware of: "you write too much about things that you didn't do, and not enough about things you actually did. You either need to fictionalize this book or make the reality of it come alive a lot more."
I had a camera with me on the trip, but I didn't learn until we landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after three weeks that the damn thing hadn't worked. Having a few dozen pictures of the trip would have sparked my memory. None of the other guys on the trip had a camera, and their recall of events was often as fuzzy as mine.
I didn't want to fictionalize my story, so I knew I had to dig deeper, use bolder language, inject some humor and make a few conjectures about conversations that the four of us had while hanging out waiting to get into Graceland, for instance.
I am not done with the book, but wanted to share an excerpt with you, my faithful reader(s?). I've made great progress of late, and feel confident that I will put this book to bed before the year is out. So, without further ado, here are slightly more than 1,000 words that kick off the book, which as of right now is titled, Great/Dismal: My Four-Month Tour of Duty on the Battleship Patchouli. I've added links to some stuff, to give you that e-book experience all the kids are talking about.
CHAPTER ONE: I WANT A WELT
Cruising west along I-84, I was as close to carefree as I’d ever been. My buddies and I were heading for the mysterious Parts Unknown, home to certain professional wrestlers, and the place where so many others outside the ring seek adventure, knowledge or escape.
The four of us rolled in a mobile man cave filled with junk food, cigarettes, soda cans, guitars and warm clothes, leaving behind everyone we knew, our compass pointed toward freedom. Andy and Pete sang Joe “King” Carrasco’s “Buena,” which, with its sunny melody and Caribbean groove, helped us forget the bleak, late-winter scenery whizzing by the windows.
John and I sat in back, legs fully stretched, reading books and flipping through what Hawkeye Pierce called nudist magazines. While pondering certain thoughtful passages or ogling anatomical wonders, we gazed out the window, happy knowing that we were a few dozen feet lower on the latitudinal scale than when we’d started out.
Since lunch, we’d made it from Simsbury, Connecticut, where Andy and I grew up together, through the southeastern part of the Nutmeg State, and across New York’s Putnam and Orange counties, a distance of nearly 200 miles.
I barely looked out the window for the first 90 minutes. I knew the route – flat highway, small cities, suburban sprawl, the occasional old stone wall -- from childhood trips to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins in Westchester County.
Once we passed the I-684 split, however, I started paying closer attention. Almost immediately, I was rewarded with a stunning vision straight out of a Monet painting: through a hole in the clouds I spied a vivid patch of rainbow-colored sky.
Oddly, there had been no rain, and the familiar arc was nowhere in sight. This was just an anomalous, multicolored slice, like somebody had hung an LGBT flag from the heavens.
My first thought: any second now, UFO’s will dive through this seemingly innocuous little stretch of water-colored beauty and strafe us poor, defenseless humans. I imagined cars veering off the highway as saucers flooded the horizon, little green creatures zapping to and fro, military jets screaming in from nowhere to defend the planet.
Something of a UFO nut since reading Chariots of the Gods as a kid, I knew the Hudson Valley had a recent history of UFO sightings.*
Five years earlier, in 1983, hundreds of Hudson Valley residents reported a football-field sized, V-shaped craft moving silently through the night sky. The sightings made the news, and at some point I either read the story, probably in the Hartford Courant or Time magazine, or saw a report on local or national news broadcasts.**
In 1985, novelist Whitley Strieber (The Hunger, The Wolfen) claimed he was abducted by aliens in the Valley. He turned this account into the non-fiction, 1987 New York Times bestseller Communion. I read the book a few years after it came out.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Hudson Valley has been a hotbed of UFO activity since at least the 1920’s.
I kept my eye on the colorful patch of sky, willing, almost daring, a saucer to descend. After a few miles, however, the tropospheric curiosity faded away. There would be no intergalactic battle.
My fellow travelers laughed at my enthusiasm for alien spacecraft. I’ve never seen a UFO, and don’t know what I would do if I did spot one. I just love the mystery, the sense that there’s something out there that we can’t know, that scares people in power.
I was a huge fan of “The X-Files,” and believe that if we’d traveled through the Hudson Valley at night, we might have seen something extraterrestrial. I thought, just for a moment or two, our trip was going to begin with a massively HUGE event that we’d be talking about until the day we died.
“If we see a UFO on our first day,” I thought, “then this is gonna be an unbelievable trip. Who knows what else we’ll see? Bigfoot? Ghosts? The Creature From the Black Lagoon?”
The rainbow patch was amazing but ultimately a letdown.
After the brief excitement died down, we found ourselves making “penal” jokes.
On one side of Route 84: Fishkill prison. On the other: Downstate, the place where new prisoners have a cup of coffee and a few smokes before shipping off to their new homes for, say, the next 1 to 5 years.
Located in Beacon, New York, Fishkill was constructed in the 1890’s on several hundred acres of farmland. The facility, which was originally known as the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, spreads along the highway and is creepy and imposing, the way prisons are supposed to be. And that name… ***
With its red brick Victorian buildings, Fishkill looks like the kind of place where Freddy Krueger might have been born – “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.”
The four of us chewed over what it would be like to be in prison (“Don’t drop the soap, you’ll get penal-ized!”), and cracked wise about orange being the new black.****
Whizzing past signs warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers, we imagined what excuses the escaped cons would give in efforts to hide their identities.
“Relax, dudes, I’m a gas station attendant.”
“This look is all the rage in Soho.”
“Nah, man, I’m in Devo.”
We agreed that of the four of us, Andy would look coolest in an orange jumpsuit.
Eventually I switched seats with Pete. In the passenger seat shooting the shit with Andy while he drove, I felt really good. We talked about girls, music, cars, baseball, girls, books, professional wrestling, girls, philosophies of life, girls, food, beer and girls.
We were on our way to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, specifically to Bucknell University, to see our high school buddy Steve.
*Some day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to purchase vinyl, cassette, CD and download versions of my long-in-the-works concept album, “Starhole,” about alien abductions, government conspiracies, pyramids and romance. I think you’ll find “Area 51 Is for Lovers” to be a particularly radio-friendly unit shifter.
**Syracuse Newtimes, November 7, 2013, “UFO’s Over the Hudson Valley” by Cheryl Costa, and BJ Booth in UFO Casebook.
****This may or may not be true.