My Apocalypse series has been successful, and in May 2015 I used some of the proceeds from it to do something I’ve always wanted to do; I took a long trip. I stayed in the United States, but I went up the eastern seaboard to Washington DC and New York City, across the Northeast and Midwest to Chicago, then through the heart of the Midwest and Rocky Mountains to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and then along the southern border to New Orleans before finally circling back to Atlanta.
We’ve all heard it; go travel. Let me tell you, go travel. It was such an amazing experience. Just seeing and being in so many different places was eye opening. Not merely the sights, the touristy things; but the people and how they differ, the character of cities and towns in different places. I had it in the back of my head while I was roaming the country that this would be useful in future work, and it definitely was in Grift Girl Gone.
I purposefully took buses and trains on my trip. Partly because something else on my bucket list was that I’d always wanted to take a very long train trip. But also because I wanted to be able to look out the window and have a gander at the places I was passing through, rather than being thirty thousand feet above and flying past. Traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans took two days by Amtrak, but I loved every minute of it far more than I would have spending three or four hours clearing airport security and then another four or five aboard a flight.
The best way I can describe the Amtrak portions of my trip, especially, are that they were so … civilized. You’re not crammed into a narrow tube with fellow passengers’ elbows in your ears and ribs You can get up and move around. There’s plenty of room on the train to stretch out in. There’s specific cars that are designed with seats that swivel directly to face floor-to-ceiling windows so you can admire the scenery direction. There’s a dining car where you can sit at an actual table — not a seat back travel tray — and have a real meal if you like. You can walk around. You can mingle with people, and not just the two on either side of you. It was so relaxing.
Amtrak took me from Chicago to San Francisco, via Denver so we went right across the Rocky Mountains. Let me tell you, that was an amazing experience. It was like so many movies I’ve seen where a train winds through the mountains, except I was really there and seeing the vistas. We saw cliff faces and bald eagles and trestle bridges and snow. Snow, in the middle of May. Sure, it’s an academic fact that higher elevations tend to have snow longer, or even year round, but in the space of about two or so hours the train went from late spring to snow back to late spring. Neat! The other Amtrak portion of my trip was even longer, from Los Angeles to New Orleans. It took nearly an entire day to cross the breadth of Texas. Sure, we all hear Texas is big; but that made it real in a very different way than just academically acknowledging it.
In New York, I met a British couple who were as interested as I was in one of the most famous cities in the world. In Washington DC I got to see so many common settings that show up in tv and movies. Let me tell you, standing in front of the USMC War Memorial, actually standing there, was something I will never forget. We’ve all seen it, because it’s the kind of thing directors want to point a camera at. But standing there in the dark, with spotlights casting the sculpture into shadow and light, it was very moving. In Chicago I got to see a city that is built right astride a major river. That was really fun, in a way that even circling New York City on a sightseeing boat wasn’t, a river that goes through the heart of the city.
San Francisco is cold. I bought a sweatshirt about ten thirty my first morning, and the shop clerk asked me if I wanted a bag to put it in. “Fuck no, I’m cold!” I told him, “I’m putting it on.” He just laughed. “We get that a lot.” I’d actually missed that in my research, but I bet I probably still would’ve underestimated it. Until you’ve been to a city that is surrounded on three sides with water I’m not sure it’s possible to fully appreciate how much heat that can suck out and drive away with constant offshore breezes. And I met another couple there from New Zealand who were on the first leg of a trip similar to mine, except they’d crossed an ocean to start it.
That sweatshirt was useful once again in Los Angeles. Academically, I know that “deserts get cold at night.” And I knew, academically, that Los Angeles is more or less a desert city. But I’d never put those two things together. Instead, for decades, I’d watched movies and shows set in LA and wondered why such a sunny and beach-strewn setting always had characters bringing jackets and wraps with them for when the sun came down. I can tell you now; it gets chilly at night in LA. Not cold like San Francisco, but chilly.
And the LA weather, we’ve all heard about that, right? Not a lie. The climate there is beyond fantastic. I now completely get why so many people are willing to put up with the legendarily bad traffic that sucks hours out of each day to deal with; it is such a beautiful and comfortable place to live in. Sure it’s a desert and its sunny; but the ocean breezes whisk most of that heat right away and leave it just fabulous. High noon and it wasn’t driving people indoors, but encouraging us to all stay out and about.
The Hollywood Sign. The Griffith Observatory. Hollywood Boulevard. They’re fighting constant battles to keep from devolving into spots enclosed by the standard tourist-trap wrappers like most ‘tourist hot spots’ in America are bound up in, but they were just so textured and great to see in person. The Stars on the sidewalk, the hand and foot prints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now the TCL Theater, sadly; booo for corporate buyouts). Actually seeing a movie in Grauman’s; now that was so cool. Think opera house, and you’re on the right track trying to picture what it looked like inside.
And Vegas. I’m not a big gambler, but I’ve always wanted to go to Vegas to see the spectacle. And Vegas, let me tell you, is a town that specializes in spectacle. That was the one place that came the closest to matching exactly what I envisioned it would be like to be in based on everything I knew and had seen prior to the trip. But it’s still worth going to be able to see it first hand. All the neon, all the sights. So much is going on. More even than New Orleans, which (the parts I visited there) shares the same design outlook when it comes to visitors, Vegas is a city specifically designed for visitors. To make simply being there fun. The way I’d put it is like this; you’re not necessarily going to Vegas to see things in Vegas, but to see Vegas. And it’s worth the trip.
I rode a real paddle wheel boat up and down the Mississippi in New Orleans, with a jazz band playing. A brass jazz band. I sat in Times Square in New York and watched the sun go down and the lights come up. I saw a Broadway show in Vegas (Rock of Ages) and had one of the best experiences of my entire life, and not just because I’m a child of the 80s. I had a real Chicago style hot dog in Chicago, and it was amazing; I’d never guessed a ‘simple hot dog’ could taste so good as that one. I stood on the end of the Santa Monica Pier in LA and stared across the Pacific Ocean as the sun set. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I walked through the Library of Congress, which was an incredible experience; even cooler than seeing space capsules and the Hope Diamond in some of the Smithsonians. I went to Disneyland, and I promise you that it’s like no other theme park, not even Disney World. Disneyland is … Disneyland. Worth the trip just by itself.
It was such a liberating experience. I’m doing another long trip later this year, and can’t wait. I’ve definitely moved into rambling territory, but it’s just so hard of a subject to condense down. Traveling is … an experience. If you go to visit the area and place, rather than showing up with a list of “we have to go here, and then we’ve got tickets for that, …” you’ll get what I’m talking about. Having plans is fine, but be flexible. Be prepared to kick back and just take in the vibe of a spot. Because whoever you are and wherever you’re from, it won’t be like that. You’re somewhere different when you travel, and that’s really cool.
The trip helped a lot as I wrote about Tabitha and her father Hank in Grift Girl Gone. Because I knew, when crafting that story, that her father would have gravitated away from airlines and onto the less security-theater shrouded trains and buses as a way to move around the country. No one ‘ran’ my ID as I boarded buses and trains. In Chicago my bags were swabbed and tested for explosive residue while waiting for the train, but that was about the extent of any checks I had to endure. And with so many police departments around the country stopping any car for any invented reason imaginable, I knew Hank would never drive one around and be subject to that kind of scrutiny. I didn’t plan my trip knowing I would get home and write Grift Girl Gone, but I knew it would inform things I’d be writing. The first is this story, the tale of a career con man.
Hank might be a smooth crook, but he’s lived a lot more than most of us. He’s been places, and seen things. I encourage everyone to get out and away. Modern Americans have fallen out of the habit of vacations, except for those few of us who take a long weekend that’s bookended by flights we hate and can’t wait to be off of, where we check into a hotel for two days and watch some tv. Go travel, and do it the ‘old fashioned’ way. Plan a trip, spend a week or even two, and travel.
It’ll open your eyes.