Thursday, August 11, 2005

Home again

My odometer says I just finished 9,516 miles, but the GPS trip meter says 9,634 miles, and I set them at the same time. Personally, I trust the GPS. Every since I got new tires, the speedometer has read low. If the needle says 60, the GPS reads a point or two higher. It makes sense. New tires have a greater circumference than the old ones. More inches per revolution that the speedometer has no way of knowing about. Actually, I had expected more of a difference. Maybe since the tires are now ten thousand miles older, it's evening out. I suspect it's the older two tires, the ones that I had rotated to the rear that make the difference.

Roswell or Bust

Today I finished the last locations on my novel research loop ending up at the rest area north of Roswell that I had scouted out on the first days of the trip.

Driving to Show Low, Arizona, I passed within a stones-throw of Petrified Forest National Park. It was tempting, but my characters didn't stop, so neither did I. Scouting Show Low was difficult. There were three locations I wanted to review, but I could only get to two of them. The first, the airport, was easy, and looked much as I had expected from the aerial photos. They even had rental cars, which eased a minor plot point.

The second location was the Thunder Raceway, a stock car place I needed "Our Heroes" to drive into. The problem had been that fences never show up on aerial photos. Luckily, on weekdays when no racing is going on, the place is mostly deserted and the parking lots are wide open. I took some photos for color when I write that scene.

The third location is where the main character is captured, and I would have liked to have driven up that road, but the highway crew were re-paving the highway, and using that very road. It's the entrance to a gravel quarry in the aerial photos, so that's not very surprising.

Exiting Show Low, I took highway 60 east, and a couple of hours later realized another feature that should be in the story, but was missing from the outline -- the Very Large Array radio-telescope. That will be corrected.

North on I25 a few miles, I stopped and photographed a rest area, and then continued on 60 east. I don't think I had ever taken this route before, and was pleased that it provides just the right color for that sequence in the novel.

Ending up here in this rest area. Now all I have to do is worry whether the NM state police will come and bother me. It's confusing. It is clearly marked with camping features and areas, and also warns that there is no overnight parking in the truck area. I'm in a Jeep. I think I'm okay, but who knows. I'll be posting this in the morning -- no internet service here, so if anything interesting happens I'll add a postscript.

- Posted from the UFO themed McDonalds in downtown Roswell

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


When I left the conference, I debated whether to go immediately to my next research stop, Kingman Arizona, or return to the point where I left the loop several days before. Hmm. Sweltering desert interstate, or loop back through the Sierras on highway 120 again. Hard choice. Ha!

I took 405 and then 5 north, eventually climbing into the mountains. Before sunset, I had reached Yosemite and opened the top of the Jeep again for the scent of the forest and the granite mountains overhead. The route even looped through the valley and I refreshed my memory of Bridalvail Falls and many of the other vistas that make Yosemite so famous. Crossing over to the western side of the mountains, I spent the night on the shore of Mono lake. I'm really going to have to do a little research on that place. The rock formations in the water and on the shore look very strange.

Since I was up at dawn, and there were signs of rain in the distance, I took the familiar route on highway 190 down into Death Valley. I even stopped at the gas station that doesn't sell gas at Stovepipe Wells. For being off-season, they were doing healthy business. The guy behind the register remembered me from our previous visits.

The road out to Parhrump was completed and aside from the scoured look of the valley floor, the route out looked in good shape. The spring flowers were all gone, but there was a blonde fringe of grass everywhere from the rains. There was even water flowing down the valley. On the way out I saw a road crew scraping the mud off the new road, left from the overnight rains.

Once I reached Las Vegas, and attempted to rejoin the route my characters take, I realized a significant change I had to make. You can't drive trucks and busses over the Hoover Dam. I knew that, but I had forgotten while outlining the novel. I made the route change.

Rainwater was everywhere. Salt flats around Las Vegas were now shallow lakes, hundreds of acres in size. Part of Highway 95 was even closed because of flooding.

But I reached Kingman and attempted to locate the secret base. After a couple of false starts and checking the map again, I drove right up to it. It was perfect. I took some photos of the tall rock piles and headed down the road. I couldn't have chosen a better spot if I'd lived in the town.

The SCBWI Conference

Four days, packed. This wasn't like the science fiction conventions I have attended over the years. Starting at 8:30 every morning, there were back to back presentations. I have 15 to 20 hours that I have recorded on my iPod, and it will take a while to go back and cull the jewels from the talks.

The first morning, I walked into the LA Ballroom and I thought, 'Uh-oh.' It looked like a thousand middle-aged ladies, all listening raptly to another up on the podium. I suppose I knew that the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators was likely to be female dominated, but I hadn't given it much conscious thought. Through the events, I had to gradually change my first impression. They weren't all middle-aged ladies. There were some older ladies, and many younger ones. And if you looked very closely, there were a few men scattered through the crowd. The only time I attempted a sample count, I came up with a one in six ratio, but that was just in the area where I was sitting.

The first talk was a bit of a cheerleading session, and I had fears that this very expensive trip would be wasted, but that quickly changed. There were real professionals here, both on the writing and the publishing side of the fence, and this 30 some year old organization was quite well run. They handed out a lot of timely and useful information. I made a few contacts, and learned the personal preferences of some people who might buy my books. I also talked to an agent who is looking at my work.

But so much of the information didn't apply to me. My novels seem to be sitting on the fence. They are written with the language and length of a regular adult-level science fiction book, but the protagonist is high-school aged. Is it a YA children's book or not. I've gotten opinions on both sides of the issue. I guess the only way to tell is to sell a few of them and see which shelf they end up on.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Thornhill-Broome Beach

I've had a couple of nights at a campground on the beach, just 40 miles from Los Angeles, getting some of the road stress eased out. For the next few days I'll be at a hotel, being a writer with a bunch of other writers, so it is an entirely different environment than driving hundreds of miles and sleeping in the jeep day after day. The first thing I'll do after checking in is to scrub the road dust off me.

Yesterday I did a little scouting in LA, finding the hotel, buying a little food. It brought to mind one of the flaws in my GPS.

The GPS does road routing. Enter a starting point anywhere in the country, and tell it where you want to go, and it searches its massive database of roads and speed limits and calculates how to get you there the fastest. On the little screen is a map, with a gray line overlaid showing your route. As each turn approaches, it will notify you and give you a countdown in tenths of a mile and then feet, where you should turn.

The problem is with the map. As the map-makers composed this grand combined map of the country, they must have patched together many smaller maps, and sometimes, they don't get the seams straight. I've seen this a half dozen times in the few years I've used the GPS. Near my house, on the border of Travis and Williamson counties, there is a section of road that doesn't exist in the mind of the little gadget, so although you can see the road right in front of you, the GPS attempts to route you several miles out of the way to get to the next block.

It happened again yesterday. I was driving down Farfax toward the I-10 and suddenly, there was a very curious order to turn left. I checked the next turns, and sure enough, the GPS wanted me to turn off of Farfax for less than a block, and then turn back onto Farfax. There must be a little section of Farfax, no more than a couple of feet, that doesn't exist for the GPS.

I was onto it this time. The route on the little map display was at a bigger scale and I couldn't even see the diversion, so I drove right on through the dead zone. Poor little gadget, it took another mile or so before it could understand and go back to its business.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Hearst and Denali

One of the reasons I began this trip so many days in advance of the conference was that, in addition to the novel research, I wanted to do a few things in California that I might not be able to schedule, now that Debra has returned to Texas. While she was in Malibu, we made several California trips a year. But, in all those trips, there were a few things I never got to do, like check on San Andreas Lake, or visit the Hearst Castle. Traveling with other people means adjusting your priorities to match. So, after driving the 120, and seeing the San Andreas lake, I drove the last stretch of highway 1 that I had missed.

In previous trips, Mary Ann and I had traveled the coast road from Seattle to San Diego, with one exception. Due to scheduling, we had never taken the section from San Francisco to Monterrey. It was always more important to get on a faster highway to meet some deadline in L.A. So this time, I took it.

The traffic was heavy, and while scenic, it wasn't anything more dramatic than what we had viewed on other sections. There was a nice photogenic lighthouse, and there were lots of windsurfers of various technologies, but if I had to do it again, I just might skip this section.

South was the Big Sur section of the highway, and I won't willingly bypass those high cliffs and long sea vistas. However, this time, the summer traffic was horrible. I was almost ready to chalk this time up as a failed experience, but daylight ran out and I found a nice section of cliff and parked for the night. Once the light went away, and the traffic dwindled, the charm of the place came back. The fog rolled in and I listened to the surf crashing below.

And then the seals called. I hopped up, grabbed my night-vision binoculars and, carefully, went to the edge of the cliff. I scanned the water below, but I couldn't see them. But, there was another sight that kept me watching. The surf crashing on the rocks growed. It was quite distinctive in the night-vision, but once I let my eyes dark-adapt, I could see it well enough without them. Luminescent plankton, I've been told. In any case, it was an entrancing sight.

Dawn came, with thick fog, and I drove on south to the Whale Watcher's Cafe. I had to park there until they opened, but I had a nice omelette and a chat with the gas station attendant. This place, from time to time, has the highest priced gas in the nation. Today, it was $4.09. We talked about how people reacted and he gave me a couple of examples. From the motorcyclist who bought $10 of gas and wanted to file a complaint, to the Englishman who put 56 gallons in his RV with a smile, and then tipped the attendant $10. Personally, I had filled up earlier, not wanting an empty tank so far from any other station. I just like to check the pump price for entertainment value.

Farther on south was another item on my list, the Hearst Castle. I had seen the movie Citizen Kane back in my early twenties and had always wanted to tour the real life estate that had been portrayed in the movie.

However, I stopped first at the Elephant Seal viewpoint. They are my favorites. This time of year the massive solitrary males were out in the surf, bellowing their calls that could be heard for a mile or so. The females were in packs on beaches a half-mile or so away. I watched and listened while I made a call home to check in with Mary Ann.

After that, I drove up to the Hearst Castle, now a California State park. I didn't even get out of the car. All that Big Sur traffic from yesterday, and more still from down south, had all arrived here, and I knew that I would have no luck taking a tour this time. What's sad was that the fog had turned into low clouds, and even in the parking lot, I could see nothing of the castle itself, just the fancy modern visitor center. It reminded me of our trip to Alaska, when we went to Mt. Mackinley National Park and although we were there for days, we never saw the largest mountain in North America, called Denali, because it was constantly shrouded in clouds.

So, I came back to the viewpoint and am quite content to watch the surf, and the seals. Hearst Castle can wait for another day.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

San Andreas Lake

For many years, on our family trips, I would drive and Mary Ann would navigate. Or vise, versa. Especially in cities, I like to have a navigator. The turns and the traffic happen too quickly to be bothered by a map. The past few years I've had a GPS unit mounted on my dash, just above the steering wheel. The latest of these, a GPS V by Garmin, has software that can navigate. It works pretty well, except when I need it most. When the turns come fast, and I can't spare a second to second guess the instuctions, I can still take the wrong turn.

Luckily, that was just what I needed. A couple of novels back, I wrote a scene where the driver was being directed to San Andreas Lake in San Francisco by the second character who was in a trance. That was just as I felt as the GPS told me to take this turn, and then that one, and I had to just react on faith that the navigator knew what it was doing.

I found it, but my original directions were wrong. But, since that novel hasn't sold yet, I fixed it up just a few minutes ago. One more error squashed.

HWY 120

Weather and circumstances had always kept us from taking California highway 120 on previous trips. It crosses the Sierra's and is closed in snow season. It also has a few stretches that discourage RV's. But this morning, I had my chance to take it.

After only a few miles, I stopped and opened the sunroof. After 240 thousand miles on my Jeep Wrangler, I've just gotten the third canvas top. This time I bought a Bestop version that allows you to fold back the first section of the canvas like a sunroof. It's a lot easier than folding down the whole top as I've done before. No stowing the zip out windows or door sections. It can be done in under a couple of minutes. And since it was still cool this morning, I could keep the windows in place and run the heater. I pulled out my tweed cap and was perfectly comfortable as I drove the twisty mountain road through the granite peaks.

The road was your typical National Park road -- two lane blacktop with 35-40 miles per hour the whole way. Being a Tuesday morning, the traffic wasn't bad, but I did see that every campground I passed was filled. There were lots of cars, but most were parked at hiking trail parking lots.

The land, with its peaks and forested lakes was plainly Mary Ann country. I'll have to get her back here with her camera gear.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Hot and Dry

Today was a long driving day, and most of it was in desert heat. Once I reached Las Vegas, NV, the first leg of my novel research was over. I'll pick up the rest of it on the way back from the conference. So, I took US95 north out of Las Vegas and cranked the air conditioning up all the way.

Several times, we've been in this territory, but usually on a photo excursion to Death Valley. I had considered taking that route, weighting the pleasure of seeing old favorite locations vs. taking the round-about route for speed and because I hadn't taken it before.

About the time I had to make my decision, whether to turn west and go down into Death Valley, the thermometer on my dashboard was reading 107, and the air conditioner wasn't quite making the heat go away. Now my elevation was about 2000 feet, and I know from experience that the temperature goes up as you go down. It would be even hotter down in the valley, and I have vivid memories of the long steep grades it takes to get out the other side. There are several road signs that warn you to turn off your air conditioner to keep your vehicle from overheating, as well as regular roadside tanks for radiator water.

So, I took the loop up 95, joining 6, and then connecting to California 120. The first two were just more hot and dry. The two times I stopped, once for gas and once at a roadside park to check my maps, the air-conditioner didn't restart immediately. I had to drive with it off for a minute or so before I could get it blowing again.

And it didn't help that Mary Ann was having car troubles of her own. I have a feeling that car troubles are a natural part of the order of things. Even when you spend the cash to get a new car, things still go wrong.

But California 120 was a refreshing change. Starting in the desert, I climbed over a couple of mountain passes to come out at Mono Lake in the forest. There was even a restaurant where I had a nice large grilled salmon salad for not much money. I'm stopped now for the night right next to a rushing stream, surrounded by tall pines. There's snow on the mountain outside the window.