Chased by cops and vampires! Struck by lightning!
Lost and alone in the middle of nowhere!|
From Thursday through Tuesday morning, I drove one and one sixth percent of a light second --
To put it another way, if I'd started driving toward New York from Los Angeles, I'd be somewhere in the middle of the Pacific right now. (Well, more toward the bottom of it, precisely.)
Last Thursday, on relatively short notice, my todo list being down to four pages, I decided I could go to WorldCon in San Antonio. I decided I would drive. I've driven to San Antonio before; a buddy and I did it when I was about 20, and I remembered the drive as not being all that bad. About 1100 miles, I thought, and I would make it in about 14-16 hours driving.
Thursday night I had an acting class from 7-10. I set off down the 10 freeway, Westbound, at 10 p.m. My sisters have a house a couple miles off the 10 freeway in San Bernardino, and I hadn't seen them in a bit, so I stopped off in San Bernardino to visit for a little while, and to leave them my pager, which doesn't work out of state. We had a nice conversation, played a few games of Boggle, and I got on the road about 1:30 a.m.
I had thought about flying, but I like driving, and this seemed not too unreasonable. Besides, I've got a story I've been wanting to write for a long time, set on the desert somewhere out in New Mexico/Arizona, about a man on a motorcycle being chased by vampires. I wanted to find a good, really eerie, desolate stretch of road to set the opening scene -- the character is on his motorcycle, in the rain, wearing a helmet with a shattered faceplate. The other people he's been riding with have just been slaughtered and he's riding at 100 miles an hour in the rain, the cold rain spraying in through his smashed helmet -- and the vampires following him are gaining on him. (He thinks....)
Going through Arizona, I averaged about 90 miles an hour. I lost time the last hour -- about sixty miles from the border of New Mexico, I came up over a long curve and at the far end of it a State Trooper was waiting. I was watching for it so I hit the brakes immediately and went from 100 to 70 within seconds -- no time for him to get the radar gun on me. I passed him a few seconds after that. He sat and watched me go.
I watched my rear view mirror. About two miles on I saw a white speck come down the road. I set cruise control at 70 and just sat. About 5 minutes later, the State Trooper came roaring on down the highway, lights flashing. I watched him come. He blew by me without slowing.
About ten minutes later I came around another blind curve. He was sitting there waiting for me. I cruised by him without slowing, doing 70. Minutes later he cruised by me doing about 90 ... lights off this time. He pulled over in front of me and settled down to 70 himself and rode ahead of me for several minutes ... then sped up and moved on down the road until I couldn't see him again.
Twenty minutes later, another blind curve, he was waiting for me again. I hadn't touched the cruise control. I rolled by him at 70. This time he followed me, all the way to the New Mexico border. Just before the border, he pulled up alongside me, and waggled a finger at me. Don't do that again. I nodded at him, crossed into New Mexico, waited until he was out of sight behind me, and pushed it back up to 100.
The landscape around the 10 freeway, through New Mexico, could be modeled with very low geometry, some bump maps, and probably no more than a megabyte worth of texture maps.
About 10 a.m. I pulled off the road and took a nap for half an hour. My eyesight was starting to blur.
I hit Texas about 11 a.m. and cruised into El Paso. This was when I first realized just how badly I'd miscalculated. The sign for San Antonio said 600 miles -- 3/4 the distance I'd already traveled.
For the first time I remembered that my friend and I had split time at the wheel, 14 years ago -- and that I'd slept when he was driving.
I remembered why I dislike Texas. It's as ugly as San Bernardino. And there's a lot more of it.
I reached San Antonio at 7:30 p.m. Not counting the rest at my sister's, I'd been on the road for about 19 hours. It was a total of 1400 miles.
The WorldCon was fun. More fun than the one in Los Angeles last year. Last year in L.A. I was there for one day, Sunday, to appear on a panel I'd agreed to be on. A photo of me from that panel is on the LAcon web page -- I wish they would take it off. That photo is two days post-motorcycle accident. I'm still wearing a temporary splint on my broken leg -- they wouldn't cast it until Monday. I'm bleeding, road rash, beneath my clothes. I haven't slept much. I'm in fairly substantial pain and the pain medication has caused me to retain liquids --
-- that is, I'm saying, the worst photo anyone's ever taken of me. Including DMV photos.
Not much business at WorldCon, but my agent and editor and I did get together and discuss exactly what Del Rey's going to do with my books. My agent, Amy Stout, has just gone permanent with Del Rey, which is one of the things that's been holding things up; I've already had this editor fired on me once, at Bantam. I know most of you have been frustrated waiting for me to say something about all this -- though not as frustrated as I've been waiting on it.
I got to visit with Wil McCarthy, who I've never met but knew was going to be a friend, Greg Benford (who invited me to visit with him on Sunday, but I was unable to, and really regret) and, briefly, with my good twin Kevin Anderson. I also got to spend several hours with Amy, which was very nice.
"Dad says Tigers don't even like ice cream!"
"Tigers don't know if they like ice cream until they've tried every kind."
Got back on the road Sunday afternoon. Drove through Texas intending to stop in El Paso for the night. Cruising along, I got nailed by Texas's smartest state trooper --
Hot Texas day. Heat waves shimmering along the road. Cruising along at 100 mph. I see a blind curve coming up, so I slow down to 70 to pass it. Nothing there, just more heat shimmers, so I speed up again --
I'm at 85 mph when one of the heat shimmers vanishes, and there, in a depression in the road, is a state trooper waiting for me. I'm completely nailed. I cruise by him at 85, watch him pull out, and I pull over without waiting for the lights to come on. He had me get out of the car and it took him about five minutes to write the ticket. We had a great conversation --
"Where you going?"
"Home. Los Angeles," I said.
"I went to L.A. once," he said. "Great city."
"Not what it used to be. When I was a kid rush hour was half an hour to an hour. Now it's three hours, morning and night both."
He looks at my license. "You live in Sherman Oaks? That near L.A.?"
"Part of it. Sherman Oaks votes for the L.A. mayor."
"You patrolled by the SO?"
I didn't know the phrase. "SO?"
"No, they patrol the unincorporated county. We have LAPD." He's just looking at me, like he's waiting for something, and I say flatly, "Best police force in the world." Pause. "No offense intended."
He smiles then and nods. "None taken. Where you coming from?"
"San Antonio. World Science Fiction Convention."
He takes his hat off. "Is that so? I used to read that stuff when I was a kid. H.G. Wells -- I think I read everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote." He smiles at me. "Radar had you going 85, 86. I wrote you at 85."
I said thank you, sincerely enough.
The ticket was almost worth it. I can tell people for years the one about how I got nailed by a Heinlein fan who was hiding in a mirage, for the first speeding ticket I've had in seven years.
I stopped overnight at a Motel 6 somewhere 200 miles outside of El Paso. I turn on the tv set in the hotel room and see them talking about Princess Di on one channel, and flip past it until I find Janeane Garofolo on HBO. I watch her for a while with the sound off. She plays with her hair a lot, that girl. I'm unconscious within minutes.
The next morning I got started again late -- about 9:30 a.m., L.A. time. I've decided to drive up the 10 freeway to the 25, north through Albuquerque, across the 40 to go north on Highway 666, to the 64, to the 160, to Four Corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah all come together. It's the point contiguous to four states in the U.S.
A.I. War ends there. Years ago I had someone describe the area to me; hadn't been there in years, myself, and I wanted to get the details right. She described small mountains, or tall hills, that I didn't remember. This seemed like a good chance to go look at it again and make sure the details in A.I. War are right.
I picked up a newspaper to read at breakfast and learned that Princess Di had died in an automobile accident. I drove the next 24 hours straight to get home, with the image of her car accident in my head.
Driving through New Mexico, I ran into the same sign a couple of times. "High Winds May Exist." The sign bemused me.
"But Then Again," I think, "They May Not."
This sign was written by either a Zen Master, or by a man who was afraid of commitment. Hard to tell.
From now on, when I want to say "God Willing," I'm going to say, "Quantum willing."
"Boy, it sure looks like the Lakers are going to go all the way this year," a friend will say to me.
"Quantum willing and the river don't rise," I'll agree solemnly.
A young lady I know talked to me about why men are such pigs recently. Why we as a group can't keep our dicks in our pants. I explained to her my ice cream theory.
"It's like, you know, vanilla ice cream is good stuff. I eat lots of vanilla ice cream. But sometimes you want rocky road. And sometimes, even after you've tried all the 31 flavors, they come out with a new flavor. And then you want to try that flavor."
"So you're saying you respect me as a human being --"
I jumped on it. "But I also respect you as ice cream. Exactly." She's just staring at me and I'm staring at her. "Cookies and cream is my guess," I add.
She's a black girl. She blushed visibly and needed to talk about something else then.
I screwed up on distances. Again. On the road at 9:30, thinking I'll be at Four Corners before dark. No go. It starts getting dark at around 7 p.m., Los Angeles time. I'm on the 40 freeway, haven't hit the 666 yet, when it's pitch black. Total screwup, I'm thinking. Can't read a map. Can't figure mileage. Who would believe you've driven 400,000 miles in your life? (Most of it in the last few days, it feels like.)
North on the 666. I'm looking, figuring this is a great stretch to put a vampire story. Nothing leaps out at me, though. There's dark, desolate stretches, sure, but nothing that screams evil.
Besides, 666 is probably a little obvious.
I reach Four Corners at about 10:30 p.m., L.A. time. It's pitch black. Four Corners is simply a monument, and the monument's shut down. I lock the car and get out and walk into the monument, but I can't see a goddamn thing, so I turn around and go back to the car and sit for a while, being angry at myself.
After a while I notice that the clouds, which have been ringing the horizon for 360 degrees, are flashing. Lightning. It looks cool --
I look straight up and in the moonless darkness the Milky Way blazes. Off on the horizons lightning flashes light up the ground around me, and it occurs to me that if the lightning is bright enough, I can get a feel for the land around me --
Indeed. It's flat. A couple rises off in the distance, but the tall hills, or short mountains, or whatever -- no such thing. I'm in the middle of a huge black emptiness, and Greg Benford's Great Sky River, above me, is so bright I can see the glow of the Milky Way. Even out in San Bernardino, at my sister's house, you can't see that. In L.A. you can barely see the brightest of the stars.
I get my notebook out of the car and start typing. In about five minutes I've captured something worth having, the moment, the feel of being completely alone in the middle of nowhere, in a world that's barely aware of the existence of human beings, never mind the idiot with his Dell P133 notebook.
You can barely get the "Four Corners Rock and Roll Oldies Station" at Four Corners. They should change their name.
Leaving Four Corners, I go west on the 160. I'm figuring 160 to the 89 north, across the Grand Canyon and into Utah, to the 9, to the 15 South. This will take me through Las Vegas, and I've got $100 I'm going to blow on the dollar slots.
The 160 is a two-lane, long, empty highway. I drive down it for what seems like hours. I'm down to a quarter tank of gas when I finally see civilization again, a little town in the middle of nowhere. Kayenta, I think. I stop to gas up and get a cup of coffee. The thunderstorm is advancing on us now, and the rain has started in, not too bad. The lightning is intense, though. I put the gas nozzle in to start pumping, and stand outside the gas station for a while, watching the lightning. Then I go inside and buy a cup of coffee, come back out and watch the lightning some more.
This is what could have hapened next. When I drive away, the gas handle sitting in my tank can rip the hose off the tank, flooding gasoline out into the gas island, and then a bolt of lightning can set it on fire, causing the gasoline to explode. Then I could drive away in the confusion, saving me $40, which is apparently what it costs to reattach the head of one of those gas hose devices.
I drive into the heart of the thunderstorm.
For the first time ever I understand viscerally how primitive people could have made up gods because of stuff like this. The rain comes down so hard I slow to about 30 miles an hour with the wipers on high and I still can't see a goddamn thing. The radio's been wiped out -- I can't even get anything on FM through the storm. Lightning crashes down about once every five seconds and it's amazingly bright. All my life I've thought that lightning that turned nighttime to day was just an expression. Now I see it happening all around me. I'm driving through a canyon of sorts, low hills off a mile or two to my right and left, and the closer blasts of lightning light up the hillsides so clearly you can see the blades of grass, the leaves of the stunted trees. Now I think I know why the trees out here are all dwarves; not because of lack of water, because if they get up to any height, the lightning blows them apart. (This may not be accurate, but at the time it seems convincing.)
Lightning hits on the road about a mile ahead of me. The spike is so bright it leaves an afterimage on my retinae, purple, for the next couple of minutes. I don't rattle easily but this is starting to get to me now, the constant rolling thunder and flashing light --
They say you don't hear the bullet that kills you; I don't remember hearing the thunder from the bolt that struck 60 yards ahead of me, just off the road. It was like a bomb had gone off. That bolt walked across the road in four or five distinct bars of lightning. I remember the interior of the car lighting up around me, and for some fucking reason I stomped on the brake and the car fishtailed and left me sitting cockeyed on the road when I stopped moving.
I don't think I screamed, but I wouldn't be surprised. I do know that I sat on the road for three or four minutes, until another car came up behind me and honked at me. I pulled over and let him go by and waited another 2-3 minutes after that before I got moving again.
Travis McGee said once that there are no 100% heroes. I've been shot at and been less rattled than that. All a matter of what you're used to, I suppose --
I drove out of the storm and at the 89, I went south instead of north. Vegas was going to take me another hour out of my way, and I'd already been warned by Quantum about how my luck was going that night. Besides, I'd already lost $40 of the $100 I'd planned on losing.
Meatloaf -- Bat Out of Hell II -- is a very good antidote to having been scared by lightning.
The 89 South runs alongside the edge of the Grand Canyon. I was a little rattled yet from the lightning, and the awareness of this Fucking Big Hole in the ground, off to my right, was hovering at the side of my awareness.
I had Melissa on by then. "Brave and Crazy."
Come on baby, let's get out of this town
I've got a full tank of gas, with the top rolled down
If you won't take me with you
I'll go before night is through
And baby you can sleep while I drive
That song was playing when I drove by the crosses.
At first I blinked. I really thought I'd imagined it. A little cross, made of white road reflectors, planted at the side of the highway.
The 89 is dead at three in the morning. Empty. No traffic to slow me down. I'm running a sensible 90 miles an hour down the flat straight road --
Another cross. Yellow reflectors, this time. Over the next thirty miles, about two dozen crosses, some alone, some in clumps, scattered across both sides of the road. I don't know if any of them faced the other way; I wouldn't have seen them, if so.
I've driven 400,000 miles and I've never seen anything like that. Miles and miles of crosses. It reminded me of the crosses leading away from Rome, in Spartacus, after the slaves have all been crucified ...
I'd found my vampire road.
The next morning, just outside of Los Angeles, I hear that some middle eastern country has reinstituted crucifiction for particularly heinous crimes. Four men have been sentenced to die by crucifiction, so far --
I got home at 9:30 a.m., Tuesday morning. I drove the last half hour with one eye closed, so that my vision would stop crossing. Got home, crawled into bed, woke up, and wrote this before I forgot any of it.