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Tour Life: Storycatcher

Location: Deerfield, Illinois

Miles: 2267

Morale: Good, slightly loopy

Munchies: I ate dinner at a Hooters-esque joint called Twin Peaks because there was nothing else open. The broccoli was good.

I went through a big Steinbeck phase as a teenager.

In fact, I can remember sitting in eleventh grade English, reading CANNERY ROW and how Steinbeck wrote about the tuna fleet of Monterey, and how I could see those boats so vividly as I read what he’d written, and how I felt such a palpable longing to be onboard them and setting out to sea myself.

And for some reason I decided that I would really like to be able to conjure those images myself, and those feelings; to take myself to sea whenever I felt like it, with words on paper, no matter that I lived in a landlocked province and, moreover, that I was too colourblind to ever pass a seamanship certification.

I feel like a lot of young men have the Steinbeck phase, or the Hemingway, or maybe both, but if it’s the former, we all probably invariably land on TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY at some point. And you can see where I’m going with this; like Steinbeck, I am crossing America with canine in tow.

Like Steinbeck, I’m trying to avoid the Interstates as much as I can. There are times when it’s inescapable—I have readings to get to, after all—but if I can at all help it, I’ve crossed as many of these 2267 miles thus far as possible on two-lane highways and backroads.

One difference between me and Steinbeck (ha, just one?) is that Steinbeck was obviously a gregarious sort of person; he set out on the road with Charley in search of stories and to take the pulse of his country. I’m driving to sell books and take pictures of trains, and I’m definitely not seeking stories.

But stories have a way of finding you.

There are stories in the chance encounters on the road, the multiple grandmothers I’ve chatted with beside the train tracks as their grandsons (and I) peer anxiously into the distance for telltale headlights.

There are stories in the man, also, I met at a junction in Chicago last night, who pointed me to the grave he and his rail fanning buddies had helped an autistic boy build for a pigeon they’d seen die by the side of the tracks.

They’d started off feeling vaguely ridiculous about it all, but the shrine had taken on proportions now; it meant something to the kid, and in its own way it meant something to them, too, because they could tell that the kid didn’t have much else but the sense of community he’d found among these men who watch trains.

Obviously you don’t have to stand around beside train tracks for the stories to find you. That’s where I spend a lot of my time, so I get plenty of them there, but they’re everywhere; in tiny Ross River in the Yukon, where a man made me a delicious prime rib dinner and told me how he’d learned to cook on freighters. In the back of a cab in Phoenix, the driver explaining how he’d come back from Vietnam and become a gambler, a grifter, a conman and a tech company executive, and how he’d gambled that tech money away.

They’re in the chance, decades-later meeting you witness between your dinner companion and his university roommate. In the tall tales you share over beers with your fellow writers after an event, and in the fragments of lives that your readers choose to share with you when they meet you or they write to you online.

They’re in the couches you crash on and the spare rooms you borrow as you drive across the country, and in the funny men who’re standing outside the motel room next to yours, chain-smoking and drinking cheap beer, observing that since you’re dressed like a lumberjack you MUST be a Trump fan, leaving you speechless because there’s no way to tell if he’s suggesting that’s a good thing, or not.

The stories are everywhere. You can’t drive across the country without expecting to hear a few.

And if you’re a writer and you’re wise, you’ll listen.

It’s been a lovely few days. I’ve had one event, in Ann Arbor with my friend Nick Petrie. I have another on Friday with Nick in Milwaukee. So the schedule has been slackened a little bit, and I’ve had time to explore and meander and take those backroads.

I visited some more railfanning meccas, like Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania (which is not dog friendly, so we didn’t stay long), and the Blue Island junction in Chicagoland. I’ve taken plenty of photos and covered many miles with Lucy beside me, and I’m happy to report that she seems to be getting used to the drive.

She’s not terrified of the truck anymore, anyway.

I’ve eaten many salads. I’ve consumed a few beers.

I spent Tuesday night at the home of my good friend Lynn and her husband, George, who’ve taken to Lucy as if she were her own, and who indulged her with an evening that must have been as close to dog heaven as she’s going to get on this earth—plenty of love, bum scratches, and a huge, lush yard full of chipmunks to chase and friendly neighbour dogs with whom to socialize.

I’m probably en route to Milwaukee as you read this. I have a couple nights there; I’m showing up a bit early to indulge in more nerdy extracurriculars and then hopefully take a bit of a break. I can feel myself getting a little bit squirrelly, a little bit tired. I ran a stop sign yesterday.

I could use a break.

So that’s my story. I have no doubt I’ll come across a few more in my travels before we speak again.

See you down the road.