My name is Bryan Starchman and I am traveling to all 50 states in 120 days in honor of the 60th anniversary of Travels with Charley. Follow my trip at www.unitedscenes.com
Article 1 – Tuesday, February 18th
Travels with Starchman
Mariposa – San Francisco
In the fall of 1960 John Steinbeck set out across the United States with his French poodle Charley. He had a custom-made camper fitted to a new GMC truck and named his home on wheels Rocinante in homage to Don Quixote’s horse. It had been over 30 years since the publication of his first novel Cup of Gold and now living in New York Steinbeck felt like he had lost touch with the American people who had inspired such literary classics as The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. For six weeks he drove and explored and wrote. Eventually his essays from the road became the book Travels with Charley: In Search of America and this book has inspired me to take a six month sabbatical.
60 years later I am emulating his adventure, heading East in a Mazda CX-3 that I have lovingly christened Rocinante Numero Dos. Over four months I will see all 48 contiguous states, take a cruise to the Bahamas, cross the border into Juarez, Mexico, and drive parts of Canada north of Maine as I drop down into Niagara Falls. In Seattle I will hop another cruise to Alaska and then after returning home to California I will fly to Kona to edit my essays into my own eventual book: The United Scenes of America.
The significance of the year is not lost on me. The 2020 presidential election is on the horizon and as I write this first article there are still 11 democratic candidates. When Steinbeck hit the road it was just before the Kennedy and Nixon election and while he was not looking to write about the election, it definitely flavored his book. I am not looking to get involved in politics but I will be hard pressed to avoid them all together. However, I hope to report what I, a lifelong resident of Mariposa, see on the road and what America looks like to me, a writer and a teacher. This is to be a book about the places and the people and hopefully the beliefs, traditions, and cultures that unite us.
So join me as I pack my car with every stitch of clothing I own, update the Roadtrippers app on my iPhone, and download enough audiobooks to last 15,000 miles. I plan on visiting classic locales from the Grand Canyon to the Alamo to the Capital Mall. There will be literary stops from the original courthouse that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to the Savannah cemetery featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And, being me, there will be a liberal sprinkling of the bizarre from giant balls of twine to rattlesnake museums to the Lizzie Borden Murder House. I’d love to hear your suggestions for music, books, local cuisine, and friendly relatives who will let me do a load of laundry.
You can follow my journey, contact me, check out my 50 states reading list, and find out more at www.UnitedScenes.com
Travels with Starchman Article 2 – Thursday, February 27th
The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Starchmen
San Francisco – Salinas – Pacific Grove – Big Sur
A couple of years ago I called in “sick” on a Friday and being the literary nerd that I am I spent the day wandering through the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The exhibits lead visitors through the bunkhouse from Of Mice and Men, the migrant camps of The Grapes of Wrath, and the lettuce farms from East of Eden. You twist and turn through Steinbeck’s career and end up at a replica of the camper truck Rocinante that he drove across the country in search of America with his dog Charley. Seeing one of my literary hero’s works laid out like that inspired me and I began planning my own road trip in search of my America.
I decided to reach out to the director of the National Steinbeck Center, Michele Speich and last December I got to sit down with her and her staff. We brainstormed how we could work together on my project and then I was led to the archives where I got to read handwritten manuscripts, see rare photos of Steinbeck with his French poodle Charley, smell the fragrant tobacco of his pipe, and even hold his still sharpened pencil that was retrieved from his New York desk after his death. As an avid reader and lifelong writer it was inspiring to say the least.
To start my journey I have been invited to celebrate Steinbeck’s 117th birthday in Salinas and as I write this I am staying in the Pacific Grove cottage where Steinbeck wrote The Log of the Sea of Cortez in 1940. Along with his longtime friend and scientist “Doc” Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck chartered a boat and spent months collecting and cataloguing specimens from the gulf of California.
It has been 80 years since Steinbeck started work on The Log of the Sea of Cortez and here I sit, looking out the same windows as I begin my own travelogue: The United Scenes of America. I wonder what advice he would give me if he knew that I was penning the opening pages of a new book, waking up on the first night of my journey in an unfamiliar room to be followed by nearly one hundred unfamiliar rooms, 200 miles into a 24,000 plus mile trip that will take me to all 50 states. (Including a cruise to Alaska and flights to Hawaii my total mileage will equal the circumference of the earth at the equator!)
He once quipped: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” I have put my life on hold for the next six months, willed myself completely out of my comfort zone, and with more than a little self-doubt, I head across the country into the unknown of Any Town, USA in 2020. But I also find courage in his words. Fortune favors the bold and while this is the biggest project of my life, I figure at 40 there is no time like the present.
So I leaf through my copy of The Sea of Cortez and I imagine what he must have thought about sitting in this cottage, searching for a ship to charter for what many thought was a fool’s errand, and I have to remember that in order to write about this country I have to get out there and see it. All of it. Or as much as I can in the time that I have. I’ve always been a playwright and so this narrative writing is unfamiliar to me but I am going to focus on listening and learning and observing as I put pen to paper for the first time like many who came before me.
Follow my journey at www.unitedscenes.com
Travels with Starchman Article 3 – Thursday, March 5th
Part three: Viva Las Starchman
Big Sur – San Luis Obispo – Las Vegas
I started my journey at my favorite place in all of California: Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. From their brochure: “The old, hand hewn doors have no locks or keys. There are no phones and no TVs at Deetjen’s and we do not get cell reception. Our historic buildings have single-wall construction and are far from soundproof.” Built in the 1930s direclty off scenic Highway 1, there are a dozen or so funky wooden rooms with thin walls, antiquated plumbing, and the occasional creepy crawler companion. And yet I always feel like I am invading the insect’s space. I spent twenty minutes one evening trying to usher a rogue moth out the front door and after many failed attempts, I decided to live with the little guy instead of smearing him against the linen lampshade. It’s that sort of a place.
The restaurant serves excellent meals, the nearest chain grocery store is 45 minutes away, and there isn’t even the slimmest chance of sending a text or answering an email. In short: it’s perfect. Five days and four nights away from politics and war and disease and Kardashians and social media and my beloved Warriors losing yet again. Instead I sat next to a seasonal waterfall and read Jack Kerouac , played warped and scratched Lawrence Welk albums on Grandpa Deetjen’s old record player, wrote a half dozen postcards to people who really haven’t had a chance to miss me yet. And in the evenings I’d watch a downloaded movie on my iPad (and feel a little guilty for it) before drifting to sleep to the sounds of my neighbors snoring, arguing, and using the facilities at 2 a.m.
By the third day I realized I can only see so much natural beauty until it all blurs together. I tried to find that last turn out that had that one amazing vista of the waves crashing against that large rock that looked like a pagan monolith rising from the depths, and I realized that there are dozens of turnouts with dozens of views, each more spectacular than the last. And soon I couldn’t see anything and had to close my eyes just so I could focus on the sounds of the sea.
Always the contrarian, my next stop was four nights in Las Vegas because I felt it was important to get a sense of these two extremes only to discover that in some ways these two places are remarkably similar. From the seemingly endless overwhelming expanse of the Pacific coastline to the seemingly endless overwhelming electric lights competing for my attention. The infinite stars above Deetjen’s to the invisible stars that the faithful believe hover above Caesar’s Palace.
When I look out my window at the Vegas strip I am assaulted by information. It’s vibrant and relentless and some advertisements are over two hundred feet tall. However, when I close the drapes to try to write or think or sleep, I can still see the high definition ultra 4k images burned against the insides of my eyelids…but I couldn’t tell you the specifics of a single one…or the specifics of a single cliffside carved out by the relentless pounding Pacific waves.
I don’t drink, I barely gamble (except a little video poker for “free” coca-colas), I don’t care for crowds, I rarely feel comfortable eating at the fancy restaurants with James Beard award-winning chefs on the marquees, and yet I find myself drawn to Sin City in the same ways that I am drawn to Big Sur. It is the scale of these places that pulls me in. A lifetime of living in a small town, knowing nearly every single person in the grocery store, having parent teacher conferences in the post office, and high school reunions in the pharmacy. Sometimes the anonymity I find in a crowd of strangers or the smallness I feel in a grove of towering redwoods is exactly what I need to find myself again
Travels with Starchman Article 4 – Thursday, March 12th
Page, Arizona – Monument Valley, Utah
I have spent the majority of the past 19 years indoors with the blinds drawn and the fluorescent lights flickering overhead. I am a high school teacher and I actually have two classrooms. In room one of the main building I teach English and in the auditorium I teach drama. And these two rooms are just down the corridor from each other so when I am in production directing a musical or producing a talent show I will often arrive to school around seven in the morning and leave at 6 in the evening without ever stepping outside.
Of course there are windows but they look out on the main driveway where constant distractions drive up and walk by. I learned long ago to keep the drapes closed so that I didn’t lose my students’ attention. They get excited about the UPS truck. About a squirrel. If it looks like it’s going to rain. Once it starts to rain. Once it has stopped raining.
I often joke that even if I was juggling chainsaws I would only have their attention for a few moments. Unless of course I cut off an arm. Then I might hold their attention a little bit longer. Until the ambulance arrived and then of course that’s all they’d want to focus on.
“Hey, look, an ambulance!” “Do you think it’s going to rain?”
I am not what you’d call the outdoor type. I have been known to burn in full moonlight. John Steinbeck drove across the country in a converted camper truck called Rocinante. Early in his travels he spent the night in a sanitized plastic hotel room and was so depressed by it that he chose to go out to the parking lot to sleep in his truck.
And while I love a plush hotel room with a fluffy white robe in the closet and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner, on this trip I have enjoyed being outside. Every day I get to see the sun. It’s glorious. My eye strain has disappeared, I find myself wearing my glasses less and less, and I just feel good. Better than I have in a long time.
Of course I’m seeing things that I could never see from the comfort of a hotel room or the safety of my SUV. In Page, Arizona I went on a tour of Lower Antelope Canyon. I’d always marvelled at online pictures of the slot canyons with their hypnotic curling orange walls but no fancy camera or High Definition screen can do them justice.
As my Navajo guide Jovan led me through the sacred canyon, it felt like a religious experience. He told me about musicians who would sometimes come and play traditional Navajo music in the canyons, the flutes and drums reverberating against the sandstone. He explained that entering the canyon as a Navajo is meditative, like church. I was intrigued and wanted to know more, but the children on the tour looked bored so he pointed out a rock that looked like a Storm Trooper and we moved on.
Jovan had recently graduated from high school and had never really traveled off the reservation. At the end of the tour I told him about the Miwuk Indians of Yosemite and how the national park also feels like a cathedral to me. I thanked him for sharing this place with me and invited him to come and see Yosemite. He got a faraway look in his eye and said, without even the smallest hint of irony, “I’ve always wanted to see Bakersfield.”
I got in my car and drove to Monument Valley…but even a week later I’m still kicking myself for not asking a very important question. Why…Bakersfield?
Follow along as I travel to all 50 states in celebration of the 60th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. More information at UnitedScenes.com or follow the journey on Instagram @UnitedScenesofAmerica and on Twitter @UnitedScenes.
And as Steinbeck said: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”
Travels with Starchman Article 5 – Saturday, March 21st
Page, Arizona – Monument Valley, Utah
Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
**Note: I have returned home (More articles on that later) and I am safely sheltered in place in San Francisco, California. The Steinbeck Center has graciously allowed me to submit my final articles from the road up to and including my four day, 2400 mile drive back to California after “shelter in place” orders were starting to be put announced. I could never imagine where we would be as a nation when I experienced this humorous moment back on March 9th**
I love novelty and gimmicks. I always have. I’ve jumped off the stratosphere in Las Vegas Nevada. In Japan I actively sought out the poisonous puffer fish sashimi known as Fugu. Some places even add a touch of the deadly neurotoxin so your lips tingle. Recently I took my mother on a Mediterranean cruise and in Malta we passed a man renting these dangerous looking little cars built for two. I got a glimmer in my eye and she said “No, I am not riding in one of those!” and we kept walking.
I don’t do these activities enthusiastically while pounding my chest screaming “CarpeDiem!”. I do them with apprehension and awkwardness and a look of discomfort on my face. But as a writer I feel like I have to put myself in uncomfortable situations. That’s where some of my best stories come from.
I was looking for a stop between Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso Texas. I pulled out the map and found a little town called Truth or Consequences and I booked a room purely based on the name.
It was the title of a game show and in 1950 they had a radio contest to see if a small American town would change its name to “Truth or Consequences”.
The first town to do so would be the location where the game show would record their 10th anniversary special. And so Hot Springs, New Mexico became Truth or Consequences.
I stayed at the Riverbend Hotel and booked myself a private hot tub looking over the Rio Grande at 7 in the evening. It was a very romantic spot for a solo traveler and as I sat there looking over the fast-moving river, the scrubby trees across the shore started to glow. Just a few pinpricks of green light at first but within minutes the entire shore looked like a tacky Christmas tree you might buy off the home shopping network. Then I realized what I was looking at: glow-worms!
I quickly dried off my hands and grabbed my phone. Google informed me that glow-worms had made a resurgence in New Mexico in the late 1990s. I was in awe and that’s when then the full moon started to peak its head over the mountain in the distance. You can look it up: March 9, 2020. Super Worm Moon.
When I was fifteen my high school English teacher Mr. Keller gave us an assignment to go and write about an aesthetic experience. At the time I rolled my eyes. The closest big city to my hometown is Fresno, California and no offense but when you look at a list of aesthetic places Fresno is not near the top.
And so I wrote about some museum that I popped into for 10 minutes and got the grade. But throughout my adult life I have realized what Mr. Keller was speaking about. Sitting in the front row of Hadestown watching the original cast on Broadway. Singing “Hey Jude” with Paul McCartney and 80,000 strangers at Desert Trip in 2016. Sitting in that private hot tub in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I was having an aesthetic experience…until the glow-worms started to move.
And then a few of them turned red. And a few more turned blue. And it was then that I realized that the hotel was projecting lasers on the trees to create some sort of ambience.
Oh well. The Hot Springs, the river and the full moon were real.
Follow along as I continue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. More information at UnitedScenes.com or follow him on Instagram @UnitedScenesofAmerica and on Twitter @UnitedScenes.
And as Steinbeck said: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”
Travels with Starchman Article 6 – Wednesday, March 25th
Magic in San Antonio, Texas
**Note: I have returned home (More articles on that later) and I am safely sheltered in place in San Francisco, California. The Mariposa Gazette has graciously allowed me to submit my final articles from the road up to and including my four day, 2400 mile drive back to California after “shelter in place” orders were starting to be put announced. I could never imagine where we would be as a nation when I starting writing this back on March 14th**
I’ve always loved magic.
I can remember the first magic trick I ever bought. I was 8 years old when I stepped inside Merlin’s Magic Shop on Main Street, Disneyland, USA. The same magic shop that my Three Amigos hero Steve Martin had worked in when he was a teenager. It was called Mystic Smoke and when the store magician demonstrated the trick, smoke seemed to rise out of thin air from his fingertips.
So I handed the magician my entire allowance of three dollars and ripped open the package.
Mystic Smoke was a little metallic tube full of a sticky substance. Like wood glue. And when you rubbed this substance between your fingers it would separate into sticky strands of hair that sort of…kind of…looked like smoke. I mean, it did when the magician rubbed his fingers together.
I walked around the magic kingdom rubbing my fingers together until they blistered, desperate to create flames or at least a little smoke because my allowance had magically disappeared. But the sticky substance got all over the place and soon I had magically ruined my shirt and pants. And when my mom discovered the mess I’d made back at the hotel room, I’d magically ticked her off.
I swore off magic. Content to just watch the professionals from the sidelines. I assumed that, like tap dancing or bull riding of Kung Fu, it wasn’t for me. That I was destined to live a mundane life.
Lately I’ve been thinking about magic because in my travels I interviewed a magician named Scott Pepper. He’s originally from England and has appeared on television shows like The Grand Illusionists. He runs a magic show in old town San Antonio and gave me a free lesson. He had more time on his hands than usual because President Trump had just put a European travel ban in place due to the growing cases of the Coronavirus and so he was playing to smaller and smaller audiences.
We got into a discussion about why people are willing to pay to be tricked. He explained to me that when we attend a magic show we go into a contract with a magician where we agree to be fooled. We like trying to figure out how it all works and even if the magician won’t divulge the secret, we appreciate that the world is a little more mysterious and interesting than we had previously thought it to be.
And as he taught me some card tricks and sleight of hand I started to think about how the worst kind of magic would be a trick that even the magician doesn’t know the workings of. Imagine if Scott Pepper were to make your girlfriend disappear and then said “I have no idea where she went” and packed up his set and went home. That kind of magic is dangerous. It’s terrifying. Because no one understands it. Not even the magician.
I have always been fascinated with the unknown but only with the understanding that someone knows. That if they were paid enough money or sweet talked or hung upside down by their toes that they’d reveal their secret knowledge. But right now on Monday March 16th, 2020 no one is in control of this pandemic. It is the worst kind of magic.
This is quite possibly the scariest time of my life. If I could show you how it all worked, to give you and me and everyone a little peace of mind, I would. But I don’t know how it works. No one does. It’s not just soapsuds masquerading as snowflakes. This is the real unknown.
And so all I can say is if you see an awkward kid, struggling to learn a magic trick, bugging you to watch again even after he revealed the gimmick, take a moment and be nice to him. Be nice to everybody. Because the one magic we do have control of is the ability to face this together and be united and be kind to one another. That’s the kind of magic that we can all get behind.
Follow along as I continue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. More information at UnitedScenes.com or follow him on Instagram @UnitedScenesofAmerica and on Twitter @UnitedScenes.
And as Steinbeck said: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us.”
Travels with Starchman Article 7 – Thursday, April 2nd
The United States of Texas
**Note: I have returned home (More articles on that later) and I am safely sheltered in place in San Francisco, California. The Steinbeck Center has graciously allowed me to submit my final articles from the road up to and including my four day, 2400 mile drive back to California after “shelter in place” orders were starting to be put announced. I could never imagine where we would be as a nation when I started writing the following back on March 17th**
In the words of John Steinbeck “Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”
And it felt like a nation. 800 miles from El Paso to Galveston and I drove it all in five days. I could’ve made it in two but I wanted to stop and look around a bit.
It was 7 1/2 hours between El Paso and San Antonio without any planned stops. But of course I had to stop for coffee and gas and to answer nature’s call but to keep myself entertained along the road I listen to audiobooks.
Over a year ago when I first planned this epic road trip I decided to read a book for every state to get me inspired. But some states deserve more than one book. For California I’ve read at least eight. Texas I’m up to four plus a lot of additional recommendations from my friends.
I followed Jack Kerouac down the Big Sur coast. Hunter S Thompson took me through bat country and into Las Vegas, Nevada. The haunting nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway led me up through Arizona. When the Emperor was Divine about the Japanese internment camps took me into Utah. Edward Abbey’s Fire on the Mountain guided me through New Mexico.
And now Cormac McCarthy was at the wheel, driving me through his terrifying version of Texas via No Country for Old Men. It was one heck of a way to see the Lone Star State, Friend-O.
I find that the more I listen to audiobooks the more ideas I have as a writer. As a rule when I am not reading I’m writing and when I’m not writing, I read. It’s the best advice I can give anyone who is dealing with writer’s block. Listen to a great book and it will inspire you to want to write your own great book. Listen to a crummy book and it will give you the confidence that you too can get published.
And a lot of books have dictated what I want to see. And what I want to do. I got to shoot a German Luger in Las Vegas because that is the gun that George uses on Lennie at the end of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (Do I still need to say “spoiler alert” for a book from 1937?) I’ve taught that book over 50 times in my career, sometimes reading the same chapter three times a day and now, I got to live a little piece of it. A very depressing, violent little piece of it, but still.
In Monroeville, Alabama I will visit the original courthouse from To Kill a Mockingbird, the film and book that encouraged my own father to become a lawyer.
As a kid if someone couldn’t pay for my dad’s services we would receive things like windchimes or someone would deliver a cord of firewood. My father is a modern-day Atticus finch. And like Atticus, a hero to his children.
In Salem Massachusetts I will walk the same streets John Proctor and 19 others walked as they were led to the gallows because the crazy children were jangling the keys to the kingdom.
I am crisscrossing this country inspired by the authors that have come before me. And it is my humble desire that one day another writer will look back on my observations and be inspired to see this country for themselves.
And of course I owe this all to John Steinbeck. He has inspired this entire trip. A crazy four-month 16,000 mile trek. From Cannery Row to Sag Harbor where he set out in 1960 with his French poodle Charley to rediscover America. I even have his face tattooed on the back of my right arm. That’s dedication. I don’t even have my mother’s face tattooed on me. And she’s my mother.
You can check out my reading list at bryanstarchman.com/50-states-50-books
Bryan has also started a virtual book club called “Book ’em, Bryan” and the first book they are reading is Travels with Charley in three parts. Next they will be reading “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride”.
Travels with Starchman Article 8 – Friday, April 10th
My Own Personal Cannonball Run
I have officially ended my epic road trip of 50 states in 120 days. After only 7 states and 25 days, I turned my car West and fled from Louisiana to California. 18 months of planning, a rare 6 month sabbatical secured from my school, 30 new pairs of underwear and socks packed away so that I’d only have to do laundry once a month, 50 books read for 50 states in anticipation of what I’d see and experience, over 90 hotel reservations in over 100 different locales.
And it only took one dinner at an abandoned restaurant to convince me to throw in the towel.
I have to admit that back in March I wasn’t taking this pandemic as seriously as I should have. Mostly because I was driving six to seven hours a day listening to podcasts and audiobooks and ignoring the news. I wasn’t living in it back at home but instead I was living amongst it out on the road. I arrived in Louisiana to stay at the Nottoway Plantation, an antebellum mansion located on the banks of the Mississippi. I was ready to experience this place and try to write something small and somber about our nation’s history.
When I checked in they warned me that breakfast wouldn’t be available in the morning because their Mansion restaurant would be closing for the foreseeable future due to the virus. I hurried to the restaurant before they closed for dinner and found that I was the only person dining. Twenty empty tables and me, chatting away with the wait staff who admitted that they had no idea how they were going to pay the rent this month.
I drove around Baton Rouge and it was the same story. Eerie storefronts and darkened restaurants with signs advertising “to go” only options. This was a few days before states started shutting down completely but already I felt like I was in a Twilight Zone Episode: California kid driving through the shuttered South, no services for 2000 miles.
I had planned on laying low in Savannah and even made some calls to see if I could get extended accommodations. Of course there were plenty of vacancies but after talking with my family I realized that this wasn’t going to blow over in a matter of weeks. And even if I laid low in Savannah for a month, what then? I still had to get home. Or worse yet, what if I got sick and I was all alone with no one to care for me? Or worse still, what if my parents got sick and I had no way to quickly get home because flights had been grounded?
And so, I packed my bags, set my alarm for 5 a.m. and prepared for an epic drive home.
The Cannonball Run is an unsanctioned race that covers 2825 miles from New York City to Los Angeles. In the fall of 2019 a team set a new record completing the race in 27 hours and 23 minutes. They averaged a speed of 103 miles per hour and hit a top speed of 193 miles per hour covering 13 states. They had a modified 2015 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG that provided 800 horsepower.
I drove 2400 miles from White Castle, Louisiana to San Francisco averaging 600 miles a day for four days in an unmodified Mazda CX-3 sporting 148 horsepower. I don’t know what my average speed was but in parts of Texas the speed limit is 80 mph and it is a glorious cruising speed. I also consumed far too many bags of cheesy pirate booty, Reese’s Take 5 candy bars, and my secret weapon to staying awake on the road: sour patch kids. What I saved on hotel rooms by cutting my trip short I will probably have to invest in dental work.
When I was a kid during Christmas 1983, there was mass hysteria as people tried to buy a Cabbage Patch Kid. For my little sister it was Tickle me Elmo. Later in life I remember visiting a combination of Wal-Marts and Costcos and Game Stops to see if the Nintendo Wii was available. And now, as I stopped at every Target across the country because they have the cleanest bathrooms and it was a safe place for me to stretch my legs, I’d make four or five laps around the familiar store and search the shelves for Lysol wipes and toilet paper. And like the much sought after toys of my youth, these too were “limit one per customer”.
On Thursday, March 19th when I was supposed to be watching WWE Live from the sixth row in Mobile, Alabama, I was flying across the Bay Bridge during rush hour with maybe a dozen other drivers. It was as if the Twilight Zone episode had just changed locales and now my favorite city by the bay was a ghost town too.
And while I must admit that I am in mourning for the trip that I have looked so forward to, I also have to honestly say that this was the right decision. I am lucky to have my health, I am lucky to be close to my loved ones, and I am lucky to have time enough at last to write to my heart’s content.
Travels with Starchman Article 9 – Thursday, April 16th
Things I Learned on the Road
When I first started preparations for 125 days on the road everyone laughed at me because of the Dude Wipes. I bought twelve packs of the pre-moistened toilet wipes on Amazon and wedged the packs in every nook and cranny of my car “just in case”. My friends and family reminded me that I was not going to a third world country or to Mars, I was just driving across America, and there would be Targets and Safeways and plenty of toilet paper. Well now that I’m sheltering in place in San Francisco, searching for toilet paper like others search for the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot, I think buying 360 wipes was pretty smart.
That being said, I did overpack. John Steinbeck had the same problem in Travels with Charley. His poor converted camper truck Rocinante was weighed down with far too many materials. “…I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes. Also I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading–and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading.”
In many ways things have changed since 1960 and my trip was very different from Steinbeck’s but when it came to packing a hundred and fifty pounds of books, both Steinbeck and I were on the same page, so to speak.
I have a kindle but even with its amazing ink-like technology, nothing can replicate the comfort I feel when I have the weight of a book in my hands. I can flip back and forth, I can highlight quotes with a real pen, I can drop it in the tub and not be out $130, and I can use it to kill spiders if need be. Whack a creepy crawly with a kindle at two in the morning in a strange motel room in an unfamiliar state that may or may not have native mutant brown recluse spiders and you might not live to see tomorrow. Whack the same creepy crawler with the full weight of The Grapes of Wrath and you can rest easy.
Like Steinbeck, I also packed far too many clothes. I bought some of the largest duffle bags known to man from REI and brought along 40 t-shirts, 40 pairs of socks, and 40 pairs of underwear so that I’d only have to do laundry two or three times on my trip. Everything was neatly packed in the back of my hatchback, snugly hidden to deter break ins under the rigid cargo cover…until it wasn’t. 40 neatly folded outfits takes up significantly more space after they’ve been worn and balled up and shoved into the mesh stuff sacks I brought to “organize” my laundry in.
Within a week my back seat was crowded with clothes and camera equipment and books and souvenirs and yes, dude wipes, so that I couldn’t possibly hide everything from the prying eyes of potential thieves. Each night that I had to park on the street I’d get up two or three times, nervous that my windows would be broken out, until I finally came to my senses and confronted my small town paranoia. Car thieves don’t want my dirty underwear. They may have wanted my dude wipes but this was all before there was a run on toilet paper.
Another thing I hadn’t planned for was the way my body would react to the road. My legs ached and the only thing that really helped was stopping every hour or so to stretch. I’d search for Target stores sprinkled along my route and enter those into my GPS. They always have the cleanest bathrooms and there is something strangely comforting about walking into one in Las Cruces or Dallas or Baton Rouge and always knowing the layout.
I’d park my car far away from the other shoppers so that I could take a nap and I’d have a few minutes to compose myself before making my next public appearance. I needed a few minutes because everytime I unfolded myself from my car I’d look like Bambi struggling on the ice. Pins and needles shooting up my legs and with herky jerky steps I would frighten small children with my Frankenstein walk.
Finally, I learned that just because something comes “free” with a hotel room doesn’t mean that it needs to come home with me. Confession time. I don’t use conditioner. I never have. And at 40 years old, I probably never will. So why is it that at one point I had a dozen tiny bottles of the stuff shoved in the side pocket of my backpack? Because it came free with the room, as did the decaf Keurig coffee pods, the sweet and low packets, and the universally malfunctioning ballpoint pens with the Hotel’s name emblazoned on the side. All things that I will never use. And yet…I paid for the room so I felt that these items had to come with me. Now that I’m home I still haven’t completely unpacked my car and that makes me fully realize what not to bring next time. That being said, the dude wipes have made it back inside the house.
Travels with Starchman Article 10 – Wednesday, April 22nd
Sheltered in Place in San Francisco
I have spent this week thinking about my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window. And while I do not have a broken leg and my window does not look out on a New York courtyard, I am stuck in San Francisco looking longingly out the window at the world that we maybe, possibly, have been taking for granted.
Whenever I need a break from writing or playing video games on my newly purchased Nintendo Switch, I wander to one side of the house and then to the other. Out the back I have been watching a tiny hummingbird in her tiny nest and through binoculars I try to catch a glimpse into her nest, hoping to see an even tinier baby bird. But…nothing yet.
Out the front I can see into the neighbors’ houses, but nothing too exciting has been witnessed or misinterpreted so far. There is a gentleman in his 30s who sits in his front window, basking in the sun as he works on his laptop…in his pajamas. But who am I to judge? It’s a rare day when I put on pants before noon, happy to write away in my robe and slippers. And a ballcap…because you never know when the mail might arrive and porch pirates can strike in a matter of seconds so I have to meet the delivery person at the gate…in my robe…and slippers…and a ballcap.
I’m sure they have seen much…much…worse.
The sun hits the back porch for only a couple of hours a day and lately it has been cloudy or raining. I was in the habit of walking a few miles a day before all of this and when I was on the road, driving around the country, I would try to arrive in the next city by 3 pm so I could explore. I can already feel the muscles in my legs weakening while the muscles in my thumbs strengthen from intense rounds of MarioKart.
I used to get so frustrated with how people in the city would bump into you on the street, lost in their phones. Or how I’d get stuck behind a group that was selfishly taking up the whole sidewalk as they slowly meandered to brunch in the Mission and I just wanted to get to the library or wherever I was going when things like that were open.
I actually had a strange tactic for dealing with this. Something I’ve used in big cities all over the world. When I’d see someone coming at me on the street or in a mall or a casino or a hotel and it was inevitable that they would collide with me, I’d make a little noise. I wouldn’t clear my throat or say “excuse me” because that did little to no good to shock them back to reality. Instead I’d just make a low, screaming sound. Like this….arghhhhhhhh! It was incredibly effective. No one wants to bump into a strange man going …..arghhhhhhhhh!
But now…there’s no need. People are very aware. Almost to a fault. A simple clearing of the throat can clear a sidewalk.
Incredibly there have been recent sightings of coyotes wandering the suddenly empty streets. They’ve always been there but now that people are staying home they feel comfortable to nap in the once busy public spaces. And while I love this idea of nature returning to the city, unfortunately, the quiet streets have also led to some terrible human behavior. As I drove across town last week to deliver some groceries to an older friend, I watched a black SUV barrel down Market Street, running three redlights. He probably went through even more but I lost sight of him. There were still pedestrians trying to cross the streets and it was dark out. But he didn’t care. Traffic was light and he could run the reds, so he did.
I’ve also noticed people being more lax about leash laws. While the CDC does not believe canines can carry Covid-19, I still don’t want your dog, with its collar and little coat that was put on by your human hands, running up to greet me. But I can also understand the desire to let your dogs run wild. After all, if the coyotes get free reign, why not Fido?
I have been home for a couple of weeks and I am still mourning the loss of my trip. But I have to keep in mind all of the things that others are giving up, quarantined away from their loved ones or rescheduling weddings, graduations, even funerals. Who could have ever imagined such a thing? Not even Hitchcock could have come up with a world where the dead would have to wait.
But I also have hope. Sheltering in place has made me grateful. Grateful to the essential businesses that have stayed open. Grateful to the delivery people who bring groceries and takeout orders to the door, ring the bell, and then quickly step away to give me space.
So I will make the most of this time as I write a little high school comedy, some travel podcasts, and a few dark stories inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. And as I look out my rear window, I am grateful that instead of murder and Hitchcockian mayhem all I see is a middle-aged man in his PJs and a hummingbird tending to her nest as if nothing has changed in the world.
Travels with Starchman Article 12 – Wednesday, May 6th
The Show Must Go On
More recently I spent the entire glorious week of Spring Break 2019 in Manhattan. I found a little studio apartment in the heart of Times Square, just steps from the legendary Birdland jazz club. I could duck in for a set up to six times a night and sit at the bar with a coke and listen to some of the best musicians in the world for a small cover charge. And I did. In six days I went to eight Broadway shows. From the awe inspiring King Kong featuring a 2000 pound 20 foot tall animatronic ape to the Tony Award Winning Hadestown to the brand new musical version of Beetlejuice to the classic courtroom drama To Kill a Mockingbird. I admit now that eight Broadway shows in six days was a bit excessive, even for me. I also visited the New York Public Library, appeared in the audience on an early morning taping of The Today Show, toured the famed 30 Rock (home of Saturday Night Live), watched the sunrise from the top of the Empire State Building, ate at the three Michelin Star restaurant Le Bernardin, and spent a full day at the MET and the MoMA. I came home inspired and drained, needing a vacation from my vacation.
But this week, as the memories popped up on Facebook, I didn’t regret a second of my manic tour of New York City. It made me a little sad but for a moment I wasn’t stuck inside, I was back on the Great White Way, lost in the music and lyrics and choreography of Broadway. And I realized that the thing I miss the most right now isn’t restaurants or malls or my beloved movie theaters or even getting a haircut. What I miss are shared artistic experiences. Being in a room with hundreds of strangers and having a shared moment as we all laugh or tap our feet or give the actors a standing ovation together.
Since I am on sabbatical and my original plan to visit 50 states in four months is on hold, I have tried to make the most of this time. It will be another seven years before I’m eligible for a sabbatical and so I’ve tried to write at least 1000 words a day (about the length of this article). Most of my writing has been focused on the seven states I was able to visit before sheltering in place but those Facebook Memories of Broadway made me realize something. Live theater is always a shared experience but what we are all going through, right now, is perhaps the largest shared experience of my life. We are all dealing with the ups and downs, the fears, the uncertainty, and yes, even the humor of sheltering in place. So I did what I usually do when I’m trying to wrap my mind around something: I wrote about it.
I have published 20 plays in the past 18 years and those plays have been produced in all 50 states and 10 countries. But I have never written a play that wasn’t intended to be performed on stage. It never occured to me. Why would it? This week Eldridge Publishing has published my first play to be performed on-line using Zoom. I realized that students aren’t able to go to class, to play sports, to even walk at graduation, and that meant drama troupes around the world can’t perform. So I wrote a play called “Stuck at Home” where the actors can perform for a virtual audience. Reminiscent of characters found in sitcoms like Modern Family and The Simpsons, my characters are stuck together, lamenting over a broken WIFI router, negotiating over the phone with extended family members for rolls of toilet paper, breaking the tragic news to their mother that she has run out of wine, and getting creative when the groceries run low. No milk left for cereal? Mom suggests mixing water and a little sourcream. You’ll never know the difference.
I’ve been contacted by a drama teacher in Indiana who has produced some of my standard stage plays and he is excited to get started, to give his seniors a chance to perform together in one more production, even if it is a little unorthodox. And I plan on bringing this digital play to the stage at Mariposa County High School as soon as possible so that once again we can all share the experience of enjoying live theater together.
“Stuck at Home: An Online Play” is now available from Eldridge Publishing at www.histage.com
If you know of a theater that is struggling during this time, please contact me directly at www.bryanstarchman.com and I will offer them the script for free in hopes that they can use it as a fundraiser to help keep the lights on.
Travels with Starchman Article 13 – Thursday, May 14th
Microfiction: Stories in 100 words or less
I have a confession to make. I didn’t travel anywhere this week. Well, I sat on the deck to get a little vitamin D and I walked around the block a few times, but I didn’t travel very far. There is a secret little parking lot that I enjoy driving to under the Golden Gate Bridge but even that is now closed off. And there is a little grocery store in Inner Sunset that sells all sorts of wonderful Irish snack foods like Tayto chips, chocolate biscuits, and Cadbury fruit and nut chocolate bars, so I stocked up on those. But mostly I have been focusing on traveling to exotic locales through my writing.
I am currently on Day 14 of Rachel Federman’s Writer’s Boot Camp: a 30-day Crash Course to Total Writing Fitness. Don’t worry, I’m not doing crunches or calisthenics in my living room, hoping to become quarantine fit. (I’d have to give up my Cadbury bars and that isn’t happening). But I am working out my creativity. Basically it’s a course that motivates me to write at least 1000 words a day in a variety of genres. It’s already helped me write a couple of one-act plays, a distance learning guide for drama teachers, and a few short stories, but it also encourages me to “stretch” myself by experimenting with genres outside my comfort zone. Recently she challenged me to write a poem in iambic pentameter. It wasn’t very good and I’ll stick to short fiction and plays but it forced me to use creative muscles that I haven’t worked in awhile.
I started searching for different genres and prompts to motivate me and once again I was drawn to New York because I discovered a group called NYC Midnight. From their website:
“The mission of NYC Midnight is to discover a new wave of talented filmmakers and storytellers from around the world and provide them with an outlet for their creativity. … Since 2002, thousands of filmmakers and writers from around the world have taken part in NYC Midnight events.”
Every year they sponsor different challenges where writers from around the world submit their short stories and screenplays. The one that I signed up for was the 100-word microfiction challenge. It takes place over the course of three months and consists of three rounds. Writers participate for cash prizes and for feedback from a panel of judges. Once you’re registered you are placed in a group and assigned a genre, an action, and a word that must be featured in your 100 word story. You then have 24 hours to write and submit your story.
Round one just started and I received an email at midnight that told me my genre was “horror”, my action was “whispering”, and my word was “understand”.
While I mostly write family comedies for the stage, I love true crime, suspense, and clever horror. I’ve never been big on gore but films like A Quiet Place or The Village are guilty pleasures. Other groups were assigned “historical fiction” or “romance” so I figured this was a pretty good match for my first microfiction story. Looking back on the one-act play Stuck at Home that I just had published, I decided to focus on sheltering in place because I think we can all admit these past couple of months have been pretty scary. I sat down with “horror”, “whispering”, and “understand” and in about ten minutes I came up with a story that was exactly 100 words.
“No More Why”
By Bryan Starchman
It was day 32 of sheltering in place and Karen was going to kill her family. Between her husband’s neediness, her daughter sleeping until noon, and her son sucking up the bandwidth playing Fortnite, she was at the end of her rope. That night she heard a voice whispering. “Out of why…out of why…” She didn’t understand what it meant but she had a terrible sense of foreboding. The next day her family drove her nearly to the edge and as she frantically opened the fridge, she understood the omen. “Out of wine”. And that’s when she started screaming.
I won’t hear back for a little while but even if I don’t make it to the next round, I am happy that I got turned on to microfiction. It’s a great way to “creatively stretch” and it is definitely something I will use in my classes.
The NYC Midnight website has hundreds of combinations of genres, actions, and words and so I thought it would be fun to put the challenge out to all of you and see what you come up with. Send me your microfiction stories of 100 words or less to firstname.lastname@example.org Because of the nature of my deadlines with the Mariposa Gazette you have ten days to submit your stories. I’ll choose the top contender and include it in a future article as the Mariposa Microfiction Winner!
Your genre is “comedy”.
Your action is “chasing butterflies”.
Your word is “disaster”.
Travels with Starchman Article 14 – Wednesday, May 20th
The Grosser the Better
If it’s gross or weird, chances are I’m interested. Some gross things I’ve recently spent my money on: civet coffee. The civet cat is found in the Sumatran jungle and they like eating coffee cherries. They pick the plumpest ones they can find but they can’t digest the “seed” (what we would call the coffee bean). The beans are then collected from their, erm, “droppings”, and roasted. The ground coffee is then sold to weirdos like me who want to try one of the rarest (and grossest) cups of joe in the world.
In January, as the first cases of Covid-19 were announced in Wuhan, I took my mom on a Mediterranean cruise (more on that in another article) and dragged her to the Capuchin Crypt in Palermo, Sicily to gaze at the 1,252 mummified corpses displayed in their catacombs. It was not mom’s first choice but she was a good sport. The capuchino is actually named after the brown and white colors found in the Capuchin monk’s robes. Even tastier if you were to brew it using civet cat coffee beans.
I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland (a truly disgusting idea given our current health crisis), stuck gum on the gumwalls in both San Luis Obispo and Seattle (again, not a good idea at the moment), visited a chapel in Monte Negro that featured a beautiful picture of a the Virgin Mary crafted out of human hair, and one time in Japan I got stung by a jellyfish. That night my guide insisted we get revenge by eating jellyfish tentacles at a local restaurant. They didn’t taste like much. I don’t know what draws me to the bizarre, I guess as a storyteller I need fuel to run my creative engine and “the gross” is some pretty powerful gasoline.
And while I like searching out the gross and the bizarre, I think it’s most rewarding when I just stumble upon it. When I was in Vegas in March I was walking through one of the massive malls on the strip and I heard grown men squealing. In the middle of the walkway where vendors sell temporary tattoos and magic steam irons and cheap sunglasses was what looked like a traveling aquarium. Three hulking “bros” in town for a bachelor party had their pants rolled up and were sitting on little chairs with their bare feet plunged into tubs of tiny carp. The fish were having a feeding frenzy, picking the dead skin off their feet and giving them what is known as a fish pedicure.
I’ve never had a pedicure in my life. I never had any interest. But this was too weird to pass up. The attendant washes your feet and then plunges them into a plastic vat with a complex filtration system where the Garra rufa, a small fish native to the middle east, picks away all the dead skin. They don’t have teeth in the traditional sense but I understood why the grown men were squealing. Imagine if you stuck your feet into the water over the side of a boat and you suddenly felt a hundred little mouths nipping at your toes. Your instinct would be to remove your feet from the water. But at a fish spa you leave your feet in the vat for at least 15 minutes.
As I sat there on display, I heard a woman get excited as she turned to her husband and said “This is illegal in California!”. That got my attention. Why was it illegal? So I pulled out my phone as the Garra rufa did their magic. Turns out that it’s banned in 15 states, mostly for sanitation issues. The toothless carp also may carry bacteria responsible for “a variety of dangerous skin and soft tissue infections”. I made it the full 15 minutes and as of writing this article over two months later, I still have all my toes. But I probably wouldn’t take the risk again.
When I was planning my recent “Travels with Starchman” trip I knew I wanted to visit every state but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to see. So I would often turn to AtlasObscura.com They have a fantastic website (and book) that allows you to search for a city or a state and see the top bizarre things to do there. I was looking forward to staying in the Lizzie Borden murder house in Massachusettes, gazing at the largest ball of twine in Kansas, and I just missed seeing “The Thing” in Dragoon, Arizona (it was already closed due to Covid-19).
For hundreds of miles along Interstate 10 and parts of old Route 66 are giant billboards that would make P.T. Barnum proud. They scream out “The Thing! What is it???” Turns out it’s a mummified woman (or a bad fake of a mummified woman) and the hype probably didn’t live up to the attraction. But still, I was in the neighborhood, so why not?
This week I spent some time on Atlas Obscura traveling “virtually” to some of the places I missed out on. I was only on the road for 24 days out of a planned 125 so there was plenty to see, even if it was just on my computer. And I want to encourage you to type in “California” and see the strange and bizarre sights in your neck of the woods. There was nothing under “Mariposa” but a search for “Merced” came up with the George Hicks Fancher monument. You know, that giant granite obelisk that you pass along the train tracks. Or you can visit the Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno. Take the kids for a drive up to Sacramento and see a doll that belonged to little Patty Reed of the Donner Party! And they are always taking suggestions for new locales, so let’s put Mariposa on the Atlas Obscura map. Let’s figure out what makes our town weird and bizarre…besides Bryan Starchman.
Travels with Starchman Article 15 – Thursday, May 28th
Mr. Starchman’s Day Off
In June of 1986, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off first premiered in theaters. I was only 5 but a year or two later my older sister Anita convinced my parents to buy a used VHS version of the movie. New VHS tapes often cost upwards of $80 so on the rare occasions that we visited a big city…like Fresno…we would scour the shelves of the majestic Blockbuster for hidden gems. For the low low cost of $29.95 I finally secured a copy of The Three Amigos, saving my parents hundreds of rental dollars in the long run (sorry Miner’s Shack video). I remember that the cover looked like someone had tried to melt Steve Martin’s face off with a lit cigarette but I didn’t care. The tape was intact and soon we were switching off, watching one comedy and then the next and then the former and then the latter until we had nearly every line memorized.
“Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?”
“It’s a sweater!”
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
“Can I have your watch when you are dead?”
“My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with this girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.”
“Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?”
“How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?”
These comedies helped shape me as a writer and influenced my outlook on life. I wanted to be Ferris, I knew I was Cameron, and as of writing this I realize that I am now the same age as the evil Principal Edward Rooney. Where have the years gone?
This week I revisited Ferris Bueller on Netflix because before Covid-19 I had planned on spending Memorial Day Weekend in Chicago with my sister Anita recreating his famous “day off”. We were going to visit the high school campus where he and Cameron picked up Sloane in the 1965 250 GT California Spyder. (I couldn’t find a red convertible to rent but my red Mazda CX-3 with the windows rolled down would have to do). We would have lunch at a snooty (snotty) French Bistro. We’d visit the Art Institute of Chicago and marvel at Georges Seurat’s pointillism masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. And that evening I had tickets to see the Chicago Cubs versus the Milwaukee Brewers in Wrigley Stadium.
As we adjust to the new realities of covid, Ferris faking sick isn’t nearly as funny, but throughout my life I have had days where I just couldn’t face the world for whatever reason and I’ve given myself permission to take a day off.
This whole pursuit of following in the footsteps of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley was inspired by a Friday that I called in sick and drove to Salinas for a long weekend. Visiting Steinbeck’s childhood home and the museum where you can see a replica of his camper truck Rocinante got the ball rolling and so playing hooky has led to this series of articles.
I’ve also taken a few days off during this sabbatical to do next to nothing. I call them “mental health days” and I’ve spent far too many hours lost in my Nintendo Switch as I explore Hyrule as the green garbed elfin warrior Link.
Early in my teaching career I took a day off because I was in what I call “the flow” of writing. Mr. Jon Turner was retiring and I was tasked with writing a farewell skit. Over the course of seven hours I wrote a 70 page play honoring his career. I called in sick because I wrapped up the final pages at 5 in the morning and could barely keep my eyes open. But I have learned that as a writer when you are in the zone, you have to keep going. I’m glad I did. That play was later published as Just Another High School Play and has been produced over 1000 times in all 50 states and in many foreign countries.
But my favorite memory of faking sick comes from my elementary school days. Like Ferris I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t go anywhere, but I did have a best friend named Scotty Rose who could fake sick just as well as I could. And luckily he went to Woodland while I was an MES Monarch so our parents never realized what we were up to. After our parents had headed off to work we would call each other up and hit “play” at the exact same time on our VCRs. Together we would watch and quote The Three Amigos as the rest of the fourth grade learned their times tables and worked on their California Mission projects. On Scott’s 40th birthday I gave him a pocket watch and engraved on one side was “Can I have your watch when you are dead?” and on the other it read “It’s not a sweater!”
So in this time of sheltering in place when some of us have had two months of “days off”, whether we wanted them or not, I hope you’ve had a chance to stop and look around. And I imagine, if you’re like me, you have grand plans of what you will do once things have eased up. I dream of taking a day off from sheltering in place, exploring the Legion of Honor, eating at the Cliffhouse Restaurant, and sitting along the third baseline at a Giants game. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to do these things with my best friend Scott and my sister Anita and maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch a foul ball, just like Ferris.
Travels with Starchman Article 16 – Thursday, June 4th
Part Sixteen: The Final Frontier
Mr. Starchman’s Day Off
I am wary of nostalgia but please indulge me for just a moment…
In the 1980s, Saturday mornings were magical. If the antennae was turned just right we could pick up three or four channels from Fresno. And if we were lucky, they would all feature cartoons and kids programming until around 11 a.m. when Nascar and Golf and the afternoon movies took over. My older sister favored Muppet Babies, Gummy Bears, and The Real GhostBusters. I was crazy for He-Man, Garfield and Friends, and the frenetic energy of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (probably because it drove my father nuts).
However, the best part of Saturday morning wasn’t necessarily the cartoons. It was the ritual of getting comfy, eating breakfast, and coveting the products featured in the commercials. I would dream about eating a breakfast cereal made out of cookies and creating modern art masterpieces with Lite Brite and being lulled to sleep by a storytelling animatronic bear. Our mother never let us eat Cookie Crisp (my teeth thank her) and I never got a Teddy Ruxpin, but I did spend a few frustrating hours pushing multicolored pegs into illuminated holes to create a smiling clown that haunts me to this day.
But the commercial that called to me with the strongest siren song was the one for Space Camp. I wasn’t sure where Alabama was but it sounded like a magical land because that’s where kids could spend a week training to be an astronaut in the 1/6th gravity chair, the Five Degrees of Freedom simulator, and the stomach churning Multi-Axis Trainer. Granted, I would get motion sickness on the ferris wheel at the county fair, but I knew if I could find my way to Huntsville, Alabama (and I didn’t have a stomach full of corn dogs and cotton candy) I would have the constitution to become the best 5-year-old astronaut NASA had ever seen! No matter that you had to be 9 years old to attend Space Camp. For me, they’d make an exception.
And then, on January 28, 1986, tragedy struck. The space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing the seven crew members aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a civilian school teacher. She was selected from 11,000 applicants and would have been the first teacher in space. She gave kids and kids-at-heart hope that someday regular citizens could travel to space. In the aftermath, adults tackled tough conversations about death and a very special episode of the live-action show Punky Brewster had a profound effect on me.
Punky was a kid, like me. And she wanted to be an astronaut, like me. And she was traumatized by the Challenger disaster, like all of us. I don’t remember specifics about most of the shows I watched in 1986, but I clearly remember this episode because astronaut Buzz Aldrin made a guest appearance. He told Punky that all explorers have to take risks and that the Young Astronauts Program needs brave kids, like Punky. Like me.
I haven’t thought about this for probably thirty years but this past Saturday I woke up early, not to watch cartoons, but to witness the first manned space launch from American soil in nearly a decade. At first, I have to admit I was just casually watching. Making coffee, preparing my breakfast, checking email on my phone. But then the countdown started and I realized that I was holding my breath. I kept holding my breath as the rocket continued into the stratosphere. And when I finally exhaled, there were tears in my eyes.
As an adult who loves to travel, space is truly the final frontier, and I am in awe of the human ingenuity, tenacity, genius, and bravery that goes into manned space flights. I was never brave enough to even ride the Gravitron and now I get motion sickness if I have to sit backwards on BART, but with our country as politically divided as it is and as we enter the third month of sheltering in place and with protests turning into riots over the death of an innocent man, I envy those astronauts. The International Space Station is only 220 miles above the Earth (about the distance from Mariposa to Pismo Beach) but when I think about those men looking down on our world in 2020, it feels impossibly far away.
Parents are once again facing tough conversations with kids. Last night in San Francisco I took part in a peaceful march along with 15,000 others. It was the first time I’d been in a crowd since I started this journey in Las Vegas four months ago. It was organized by students and families. All around me I saw little ones with masks on. I even saw a girl holding a baby doll and the doll was wearing a matching mask. If I’m struggling to cope, I can’t imagine the impact all of this is having on children.I know that I will never make it to space and I’m ok with that. My place is here on earth. But something about that launch moved me and I like to think that there were kids up early on that Saturday, watching the first space launch of their lives, and dreaming about the day that they will blast off to explore the final frontier. Then they will return to earth with a new perspective and maybe help to unite us instead of divide us.
“Let me say, as I sit here before you today having walked on the Moon, that I am myself still awed by that miracle. That awe, in me and in each of us… must be the engine of future achievement, not a slow dimming light from a time once bright.” – Buzz Aldrin, Daily News, May 1997
Travels with Starchman Article 17 – Saturday, June 13th
Are We There Yet?
Every summer my sisters and I would look forward to the next family vacation. There was enough time between these trips to forget about the cramped back seat, the scorching hot seatbelts, and the inevitability that my little sister would get car sick in the mornings after breakfast at McDonalds (to this day she has an aversion to orange juice). It’s sort of like when I get a new tattoo. That first prick of the needle and it all comes back: Oh right, this is painful! But the pain passes and what’s left is a memory permanently etched on my flesh.
Ok. That might be a bit dramatic. But we can all agree that family vacations are a bit of a trial. Especially when things don’t go quite as planned.
Throw a couple of teenagers in the mix and things get…interesting.
I remember one weekend when I was 13 and we were headed to the lake. I did not want to be trapped on a boat with my family. I wanted to be at home, playing video games. I started complaining in the backseat, halfway between Mariposa and Lake McClure, and my dad threatened to turn the car around. This was great news! So I continued to gripe until he did turn the car around. Score one for me! More video games, less family time. But then he turned the car back around and refused to let me ruin the weekend. Shoot. So close.
Now that I am older and summer vacation as we know it has been cancelled, I have been reflecting on these family trips and while I don’t remember what video game I was itching to get back to, I do remember making peace with my dad and learning how to kneeboard that weekend at the lake. As a kid who rarely found any success in sports, this was huge for my confidence and allowed me to put my teenage angst aside long enough to appreciate my dad’s patience.
Most of these vacations were short. A day trip to the lake. A long weekend at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or Disneyland. But some of these trips were epic and involved planes, trains, and automobiles, like when we would all fly to Ohio to visit the cousins. I only have one blood uncle, my dad’s brother Uncle Dale, and Ohio was an exotic destination when I was a kid. My Filipino Aunt Jane made us wonderfully fragrant dishes like pancit and lumpia and playfully threatened to serve us blood pudding if we didn’t clean our plates. It was at their house that I first saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and on another trip we had to hide in their basement and eat all the ice cream because a tornado had knocked out the power. Now THAT was a vacation!
In California if we drove all day, we’d still be in California. In the Midwest we drove all day and passed through Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Virginia and Maryland and ended up in the nation’s capital. My Uncle Dale took us all over Washington D.C. He was at least a foot shorter than I am now, but he could move! If Fitbits had existed in 1992, I would have been setting records. And he showed me everything, from a tour of the White House to the Smithsonian museums to the Lincoln Memorial to the Vietnam Wall. My cousin Ann was attending Georgetown at the time and while visiting the campus Uncle Dale pointed out the staircase that the priest rolls down in The Exorcist. 11-year-old Bryan was impressed!
But for some reason the memory that sticks with me is of the evening we spent in Union Station. My cousin Mark and I discovered a magic shop and an eager magician looking to make a sale taught him how to juggle and taught me how to make balloon animals. Uncle Dale bought us both Beginner’s Kits and Mark spent the rest of the trip juggling down Pennsylvania Avenue and I was sequestered in the hotel bathroom so I wouldn’t drive my family nuts with the squeaky squeaky squeaky of the balloons as I learned to make poodles and monkeys.
Three weeks ago my road trip was supposed to take me through Ohio to visit my Uncle Dale. He was battling cancer and I knew this would be the last time I’d see him. As a kid, Ohio was like a foreign land and as an adult who enjoys traveling I made the mistake of still treating it like some far off place. I got busy. I focused on places that I hadn’t been before. I didn’t call. I didn’t visit. But I made sure that I would get to see him on my sabbatical.
COVID-19 has ruined a lot of plans and it took away my final farewell. I called him a couple of weeks ago and I got to hear his stories about growing up with my father in Missouri. I planned on calling again, interviewing him for this article, but he passed away before I got the chance. My cousin Cindy Starchman Hruby who is also a high school English teacher wrote the obituary for Dr. Dale Edward Starchman and I think she said it best:
“A message that Dale repeated throughout his life, and with more intensity since his illness, was this: If you spend your life telling people how much you love them, a final goodbye is unnecessary. More recently, he continually assured his loved ones that no one needed one last hug from him because we had all received a lifetime of his hugs.”
I didn’t visit like I should have so I didn’t get nearly enough hugs and I regret that. But I can look at the past four months and acknowledge how even the best laid plans “oft go astray”. I will no longer wait to call or visit or hug the ones I love because we never know if we’ll get to go on that final trip just to say goodbye.
Travels with Starchman Article 18 – Thursday, June 18th
Part Eighteen: It’s the Journey, not the Destination
What comes to mind when I say: Casa de Fruta? Or The Grapevine? Or even Pea Soup Andersen’s? For my family these were landmarks where we would rest on our way to somewhere else. They were never the final destination, but instead represented brief respites from the back seat where I could stretch my legs, use the facilities, spend my allowance on some overpriced batteries for my Discman so that I could keep listening to The Doors or The Crash Test Dummies (two of my most frequently played CDs), and eat exotic foods like date rolls, buffalo jerky, and the delightful Monte Cristo. A fried sandwich with powdered sugar and strawberry jelly? Count me in!
I’ve written about roadside attractions before, looking for the weird and the gross across the country. But this article is about those stops along the way that bring travelers together for a bit of rest, relaxation, and refueling. Today when I visit these places, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The cafe at Casa de Fruta looks like something from the 1960s. As a kid I would encourage my parents to order coffee just so that we could be entertained by Eugene A. Zanger, better known as The Cup Flipper, a waiter who would serve coffee while flipping the mugs on to their saucers. According to his April 2019 obituary: “He was even asked to appear on the David Letterman Show in 1987 and during his lifetime he flipped over 2,000,000 cups for tourists from around the world.” He’d pass out buttons and I proudly wore one on my backpack in junior high that read “Cup Flipper Fan”. Despite all the things I got picked on for growing up, I don’t ever remember hearing a negative word about being a fan of the Cup Flipper.
We didn’t eat a lot of pea soup growing up but on certain road trips we would drive out of our way to dine at Pea Soup Andersen’s. Their mascots Hap-pea and Pea-wee, cartoon chefs that split peas with a hammer and chisel, stood out front. Their faces were cut out so you could put your head through and pose for pictures. My parents rarely took photos on vacation but that didn’t stop my older sister and I from posing for tourists. There were other things on the menu but we would always get the pea soup with a side of “toppings” (five little plastic containers with individual servings of cheese, spring onions, croutons, ham, and bacon bits). If you got to the bottom of the bowl, you’d see a cartoon painting of Hap-pea and Pea-wee. I always made it to the bottom of my bowl. And I wonder if we’d had these bowls at home if I would have made it through more of my mom’s goulash.
As an adult I have learned to go where the truckers go. The Flying J and Love’s truck stops usually have the cleanest restrooms, the freshest coffee, and the largest selection of CB radios…if you’re in the market for that sort of thing. I also frequently stop at Bass Pro Shop in Manteca on my way to San Francisco. I’m not the outdoor type. Fishing makes me feel bad for the fish. I’ve only shot a half dozen guns in my lifetime. And my nephew has to show me how to open his folding knife. But I still regularly stop at the sporting good giant to stretch my legs.
Like the rest stops of my youth, there is something novel about Bass Pro Shops and just walking through the doors I am transported to a Disney-esque land of stuffed wild animal heads, giant concrete redwoods, and trout in plexiglass rivers swimming beneath a recycling waterfall. If an alien wanted to know what American consumerism looked like, I would take them to Bass Pro Shops. They’d marvel at the hundreds of fishing lures, each promising to be your best bet for landing the big one. They’d sample the plethora of classy hot sauces, from Colon Blow to the Flamin’ Flatulence (both are real and available for you to take home). And they’d be impressed by the cleanliness of the restrooms.
During my travels I have stretched my legs at the world’s largest concrete pistachio nut in Alamogordo, New Mexico and at the continental divide landmark where you can also buy wholesale fireworks year round. You can’t miss the Wall Drug Store in South Dakota; for nearly 400 miles you’ll see advertisements along I-90 for “Free Ice Water” and you can purchase a real life fake mounted Jackalope for only $119.98. The public rest stop in Socorro, New Mexico was clean but unsettling as signs warned drivers about the abundance of rattlesnakes both around and inside the bathrooms. But my favorite random rest stop of all time is Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford, Oregon where you can wander through a “rainforest” featuring 23 life sized concrete dinosaurs. Well worth the $12 price of admission and much more entertaining than just wandering around the parking lot.
There is even a podcast episode from This American Life called “Rest Stop”. From their website: “Nine radio reporters. Two days. One rest stop on the New York State Thruway. Stories of people who are just passing through, and the ones who can’t leave, because this is where their jobs are.” I highly recommend giving this a listen, it is free and easy to find online. The episode has helped me to understand why I find these places so fascinating. They are rarely the destination and yet they bring us comfort because they are familiar. They have formed so many of my travel memories and (sorry mom and dad) they were often my favorite part of a trip. And I like to think of all the stories that pass through these places in a single day. Families criss crossing this country, on their way to weddings and funerals, vacations and graduations, moving to a new state to find work, or heading back home to see family for the first time in forever.
Travels with Starchman Article 19 – Thursday, June 25th
Part Nineteen: The First Day of Summer
The two little boys struggled against the wind, their boogie board taking flight like a kite, flipping over their heads and skittering down the overcast beach. They put their heads down and trudged on, sand whipping up and sticking to their wetsuits as they entered the freezing Pacific Ocean. They shrieked as the water filled in the space between their skin and their suits. They were determined to go swimming on the first day of summer.
With an average water temperature just below 60°, it is inadvisable to go swimming at Point Reyes without a wetsuit because hypothermia can set in. But the little boys I saw, along with their surfer dad, were prepared. The family of four that I saw trying to have a picnic on the beach at Drake’s Bay, not so much. They laughed as they shook sand off their sandwiches and huddled together in their shorts and t-shirts, pretending that they weren’t freezing. They were just setting up for their day at the beach when I started my walk along the shore, twenty minutes later I looked back and I could see them packing up.
While my friends and family back in Mariposa simmered in the 95° heat, I was reminded of the famous quote supposedly uttered by Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent, was a summer in San Francisco.” And like those freezing kids and that sandblasted family, last Saturday I was determined to get out of my apartment and celebrate the first day of summer.
I spent the day at Drake’s Bay, named for Sir Francis Drake and thought to be the most likely landing spot on the west coast of North America during his circumnavigation of the world by sea in 1579. I had never been up to Point Reyes and so I decided to have a new adventure as my Travels with Starchman articles come to an end next week. In the words of my brother-in-law, “Only Bryan could write 20,000 words about a trip that never happened”. But even I have to admit that it’s time to wrap up, for now.
I am often drawn to the beach even though I don’t tan and I’m not a strong swimmer. The one time I tried to surf, I got swept so far off shore in Waikiki that I wasn’t sure I’d ever touch dry land again. But the control freak in me likes what the ocean represents. The borders of America. Where the land ends and the sea begins. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but I am happiest in Hawaii. Locals complain that you can’t ever drive faster than 45-mph and they long for the wide open stretches of places like Idaho where the speed limit is 80. There are stories of suffering from Island Fever, defined as “the psychological phenomena of feeling somewhat claustrophobic from the close proximity of the shoreline.” After spending the last four months basically staring at the same wall, I say bring it on. Frankly, I get nervous in places like Idaho where the land seems to stretch on forever and instead of ocean waves there are seas of corn.
Reviewing my latest road trip, I realized that I often look for places on the water. In the four short weeks of my sabbatical trip I was in Pacific Grove, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Lake Mead, Lake Powell, at a spa in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico looking over the Rio Grande, along the San Antonio RiverWalk, on the Gulf Coast in Galveston, and I ended at the Nottoway Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River. I didn’t intend to seek out so many miles of shoreline, but it just happened that way. And I think of my favorite places in the world: Lake Tahoe and Astoria, Oregon and Savannah, Georgia, and Barcelona and Paris along the Seine and London on the Thames. Heck, I even prefer the Bellagio in Las Vegas over all the other hotels on the strip just so I can go to sleep looking out at the fountains.
And so I found myself sitting on that windy, gloomy beach in Point Reyes, shivering but happy as I stared out at the ever changing ocean. All around me were families and couples and solo wanderers, all staring out at the same ocean. No one was on their cell phones, few were even talking, just taking it all in. Acknowledging something bigger than ourselves, looking at the unknown and feeling humbled by it. In the words of John Steinbeck, “An ocean without unnamed monsters would be like sleep without dreams.” It felt appropriate for what we’ve been going through these past four months. A metaphor for what vacations look like in the age of COVID-19. Nothing is easy. Nothing goes quite as expected. But we keep trying, looking for normalcy, if not for ourselves, then for the children.
As I headed back towards Highway 1, I came across a dozen cars parked on the side of the road. Always a sign of something worth seeing, I pulled over and was soon marveling at the Cypress Tree Tunnel. Planted in 1930 by RCA (Radio Corporation of America), the trees lead to one of the oldest radio receiving stations in California. It was a perfect end to my first adventure in forever and as I wandered under the canopy, I realized that these trees were planted at the very start of The Great Depression and that gave me hope. The worst years were still ahead when these seedlings were sown by RCA and these trees grew through The Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and RFK, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, recessions and Columbine and 9/11. I traveled through time, ninety years of American history. And then I arrived back to the first day of summer: June 20th, 2020. I watched a family set up an expensive looking camera on a tripod and I stepped to one side to get out of frame. They set the timer, gathered in front, and pulled down their masks just long enough to smile.
Travels with Starchman Article 20 – Wednesday, July 1st
Part Twenty: Awake in the Dark
For the past fourteen weeks, I have been staring at the same wall. It is a lovely wall, built in the 1960s out of redwood (before redwood became so dear). But it is still a wall and it reminds me that my sabbatical has been spent primarily indoors, writing about all the places I once visited or one day hope to visit. Every single morning I boot up my computer on the desk in front of this wall and I start typing. In his outstanding collection of movie reviews, essays, and interviews Awake in the Dark, the late Roger Ebert said “I find that when I am actually writing, I enter a zone of concentration too small to admit my troubles.” When I am in “the zone” of writing, the world does seem to disappear and my troubles retreat outside of my peripheral, and I can actively revisit my past. Soon I am back in a historic haunted hotel in El Paso or on a family vacation we took to Ohio when I was nine or seeing Hiroshima, Mon Amour for the first time in a now defunct art house theater..
When I was sixteen, I interned at the only movie theater in town, The 6th Street Cinema, and I was introduced to the world of foreign films. As a projectionist, my job was to look for the “cigarette burns” or cue marks, a little warning on the film in the shape of a black blob that appeared for a split second, to let me know that the reel had seven seconds left. I’d fire up the second projector and, if I was on my game, seamlessly switch reels so the audience didn’t even realize that they were watching the continuation of the film displayed from a new projector.
From the little window where I would watch for the cue marks, I was transported around the United States and around the world. In 1996 alone The English Patient took me to a bomb-damaged Italian monastery. The darkly comic Fargo took me to a woodchipper in frozen North Dakota. And the pop culture phenomenon Trainspotting took me to “the worst toilet in Scotland”. On my days off, the artistic director Tony Radanovich let me hang out to read screenplays or to watch classic films. Cinema Paradiso. The 400 Blows. La Dolce Vita. I admit that I didn’t like, or even understand, all of these films but that didn’t matter. Whether I liked them or not, they made me think, and that started the creative ball rolling.
My senior year a good friend invited me to the set of Batman and Robin starring George Clooney. My friend’s dad was working on the film as a rigger and we had free reign for a couple of days to hang out on set. We met the stars and Mr. Joel Schumacher (best known for the 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys) was directing. He was incredibly kind and down to earth. He told us we were welcome to visit his movie sets anytime. He passed away on June 22nd, 2020 after battling cancer but I will always be grateful to him because those few days wandering around the Warner Brothers lot convinced me that I had to attend college in Los Angeles.
I was a middling student in high school, doing well in English and most electives, struggling in math and science. The counselors had me fill out a survey and the results gave me a 7% chance of getting into UCLA. I wrote my college entrance essay about seeing the world from that little window at the 6th Street Cinema, sometimes missing my cue to switch reels because I had become so engrossed in the films. I got into UCLA. I majored in English. I shot a television pilot I had written and had two plays produced. I became a teacher and a writer.
Before the shelter in place order, I discovered the Alamo Drafthouse chain of movie theaters. There are forty-one locations in the U.S. but only two in California. Luckily, one is within walking distance from me in San Francisco. Going to the movies at one of their theaters is an event. It reminds me of going to see a musical or a play on Broadway. The seats are comfortable, the screen in the main art deco hall is massive (some films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are shown in 70 mm), and there is a full menu and bar available at every showing. If you haven’t enjoyed a movie at the theater while eating a medium rare brisket burger with fried pickles and an iced coffee milkshake, then you are missing out. And they have a strict rule on silence. If you’re caught talking or with your phone out or you show up late, they give you a refund and ask you to leave. I’ve seen it happen! During this pandemic most people miss social gatherings. Going to restaurants or bars or clubs. But what I miss most is sitting alone in the dark, watching a film, and losing myself in another world.
This is my final essay for the Travels with Starchman series. I set out to write twenty articles and even though I wasn’t able to complete my trip, I didn’t want to give up on my writing. I have debated about how to finish these musings on traveling in the time of COVID-19, but this seems appropriate. Numbers are spiking in many states so I don’t see myself responsibly hitting the road anytime soon. As I think about the future of travel, (virtual tours of museums, live webcams where I can “visit” places I’ve never been, zoom meetings with local historians) I realize that I’ve always been able to transport myself through movies. So I encourage you to do the same. Create your own personal Alamo Drafthouse. Cook up some amazing food. Turn off your phone, or (better yet) lock it in the trunk of your car. Turn down the lights. Turn on your favorite streaming service. And transport yourself to another place. It will have to do, for now.