Coast to Coast: books, cars, music, teeth, from patch to patch of sunlight

CITY: Salt Lake City, UT

SMELL: The subtly frothy scent of carpet cleaner, the increasingly less subtle scent of carpet cleaner, and over the top of it all, carpet cleaner

PLACE: Anniversary Inn

THE WAY: On my last tour, I asked my publicist if I could stay in a themed hotel near Chicago, and upon investigation, she had told me “that is not a place authors go to sleep. That is a place authors go to die.” This time around, she relented, and allowed Tessa* and I to book the Mysteries of Egypt room at the Anniversary Inn. Brenna opted for the more tasteful Biker Roadhouse room. We arrived, sweaty and spent, at 1 pm, and discovered the Inn would not allow us to check in until 5 pm. If we paid $50, however, they would allow us to check in at 3 pm. I angrily and impotently posed by their fire escape and then we raged and killed time for two hours. There was champagne waiting for us in the room when we returned. It was non-alcoholic. 

PEOPLE: A guestbook in our room quickly revealed that the Anniversary Inn was a place couples generally came on their honeymoons. In the interests of privacy, I will not reveal the other guests’ handwritten experiences, but know that the notes left in the book involved many exclamation points. They also expressed gratitude that the bed wasn’t squeaky. I can confirm that the bed was not squeaky. I did not, however, leave any exclamation points.

*the photograph of Tessa collapsed upon the stairs captures the moment she realized there was no shower curtain in our room, and that exclamation points were being forced upon us.


Today we set off from Salt Lake City to Reno.

A crow flew overhead once as we left the salt flats.

A crow flew overhead a second time as we left Elko.

A crow flew overhead a third time as we approached Winnemucca, and then, right after, the car began to howl in pain.

A cursory exploration revealed that a third random bolt had thrown itself from the (newly replaced) alternator and that the bolt had leapt a gap in the engine bay to rest on a ledge opposite, mockingly defying physics. We walked a mile to buy a new nut. When we returned and I began to repair it, a single crow began to laugh in the one tree overhead.

We set off again.

An hour outside Reno, a dust storm rolled in, coating the car in a thick layer of Nevada and braiding tumbleweeds through Loki’s grill. It was followed by a thunderstorm which was followed by another dust storm which was followed by nearly running out of gas because Nevada is longer than first love’s kiss.

Please compare 9 am odometer to 9 pm odometer.

everyone in Reno better come to my event tomorrow, and bring car washing materials and ibuprofen.

CITY: Midway, UT

SMELL: The acrid scent of burning vegetation, the muffled odor of dust slowly coating one’s mucus membranes, and the always pleasant warmth of horse smell

THE PLACE: Rocky Mountain Outfitters

THE WAY: After the master brake cylinder failed on the Camaro on the way to Salt Lake City to pick up Tessa Gratton from the airport, I decided it was time for a holiday on a more reliable form of transportation. I booked a trail ride up the side of a mountain. It was supposed to be relaxing. I don’t generally enjoy things defined as relaxing — I like my horses like I like my cars* — but I suspected revoltingly attractive scenery might be on the menu. We arrived at nine, and a mere two hours later departed wearing Utah all over our bodies. I am still using cotton swabs to remove Utah from my ear canals. 

PEOPLE: Our guide Ashley rode a horse named Chloe whom she owned and loved dearly. I asked her how she came to have this particular equine companion. Ashley told me of how she seen the unwanted young mare-creature-thing years before, and bought her for the princely sum of $500, which is coincidentally the same amount I just spent on replacing the Camaro’s master brake cylinder. After setting an arena record on Chloe this year, Ashley confessed that she’d been offered a five-figure deal for her now wanted-and-slightly-less-young-mare-creature. She turned it down. My friends, you cannot put a price on love, although you can put one on car parts.

*with bad brakes 

CITY: Denver, CO

SMELL: Candle smells that are like real smells but trapped in wax: odors like sandalwood, sage, gullibility

PLACE: Shining Lotus Metaphysical Bookstore

THE WAY: Brenna and I decided to go to a psychic who gave readings out of this metaphysical bookstore. It was full of things that worked in ways mysterious or did not work at all — much like my Camaro. After browsing, I knew less about what a metaphysical bookstore sold than when I’d first entered.

PEOPLE: Norma told me that she thought it seemed like I’d be traveling all this week and next, and also that she foresaw some sort of difficulty with the travel. Craftily, I asked if she meant an accident. “No,” said Norma, “not an accident. Something about a car, though?” I no longer want to know my future. Norma was pretty good at my present: she told me I was a writer, though possibly she tells everyone that. As we paid for our readings, Brenna asked the man about the purple discs hanging behind the counter. He told us they were Tesla Purple Energy Shields, and that they were good for you. I just googled them. I’m not certain they are good for you.

*This event actually happened before the vehicular adventures I posted about yesterday, but I did them out of order so that you could retroactively admire Norma’s prowess. Consider this a flashback. 

CITY: Newcastle, CO, or something

SMELL: Warm rubber, hot asphalt, and the always vaguely appealing and carcinogenic scent of gasoline

PLACE: Kum & Go

THE WAY: While driving from the Denver tour stop to a conference in Provo, UT, the Camaro suddenly bucked explosively and deathfully. When I limped it into a gas station with a name I feel uncomfortable printing on a blog children read, I discovered that my alternator was again at fault. This time, a bolt in the rear had worked itself loose, wrenching a wire completely in half and cutting power to things I had come to love and treasure in my time as a driver: lights, windshield wipers, radios, signal lights, a/c, the everything. Why would the bolt do such a thing, one wonders? Because earlier in the tour, another bolt had leapt free from the alternator and now all of them longed to follow their dreams. 

PEOPLE: My co-pilot, Brenna Yovanoff, helpfully stripped the wire with a seam ripper from her knitting bag, and then we applied judicious quantities of electrical tape. I was determined to make it twelve miles down the road to buy a new alternator that had no dreams of its own. Enough of this. Benjamin Franklin had things to say about hanging together and hanging separately, and I needed an alternator that would remember that. Sadly, the battery had run dead, the car wouldn’t start, and every tow truck driver in an hour radius was occupied following their dreams. Then a truckload of boys, manboys, a man, and dirt bikes asked if we needed help. “Yes,” said Brenna, putting down her knitting needles. “Please jump start our aged vehicle.” They did. The boys, manboys, and man also kindly offered to follow us to our exit. At the AutoZone in Rifle, a man named Ryan sold me another alternator and installed it while I ate cookies and handed him various tools. He told me he hadn’t read a book since sixth grade. He recalled the last novel, he reported. He told me it had been about a man who’d tried to escape from a prisoners’ camp and gotten his legs shot off with a machine gun. I replied that I reckoned that was a pretty good reason to give up novels. 

*The bikers said they were going to Moab to ride, a thing I ardently wished to do myself as soon as they had said it out loud. Unlike some car parts, however, I understood that one could not always wander off on one’s own agenda. 

CITY: Omaha, NE

SMELL: Strangely enough, ice cream, but perhaps that is the normal scent of Omaha and not of this shop

PLACE: A. Cavallo Violins

THE WAY: My sister Kate, a violinist herself, was unable to contain the joy on her face when she saw a shop window full of violins. When I asked her if she wanted to stop, she replied with only a strangled noise. We pulled in. Inelegantly, because the power steering pump is failing on the Camaro. Inside we found not merely a violin store, but rather a rather fancy violin-maker full of unpretentious people who I instantly liked because they said they liked my car.  

PEOPLE: Christopher, Dirk, and Alex — the violin makers — cheerily showed me their workshop, including a cabinet where violins are baked like pastries or residents of Arizona. Christopher tried to explain the process of antiquing to me —making a new instrument look old and valuable, a sort of musical Pottery Barn — but I was distracted by the shelves of wand boxes. Possibly they were actually bows, not wands. I should have asked if the bow chooses the player or vice versa, and if they had one made with a phoenix feather, but instead I asked Alex if he was happy with his life choices. He said that he was. At once point he had owned a ’72 Camaro, he told me, so I was also happy with his life choices. Christopher revealed that he too had once driven an old muscle car for his job. Dirk had not owned a muscle car, but he had once been trapped in South Dakota, which is basically the same thing. I did not ask them why they all had beards, but I wish I had now. So this is what regret feels like.

*The owner kindly showed me a neonatal violin trapped in a block of wood, as seen in the photo above.

CITY: Cascade, IA

SMELL: Warm summer grass, butterfly farts, and the destroyed-village scent of a Camaro left running

PLACE: Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area

THE WAY: Today Kate asked if we could make cookie dough on the way to Iowa City, which I interpreted as “see if we can bake cookies on the Camaro’s engine on the way to Iowa City.” We pulled into the Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area, which was beautiful until we got there, and began our experiment using easy ingredients you probably already have in your home.

PEOPLE: As we conducted our experiment, a man appeared in a golf cart. He wondered if we were having car trouble. I explained that we were: only the air filter was flat enough to support a foil tray of cookies and it did not seem to be hot enough to bake cookies. He asked if I was from Iowa City, as if that might offer an explanation for my behavior. After confessing that I was from Virginia — this seemed to be an acceptable answer — I asked him if he reckoned the cookies would ever bake. The man in the golf cart replied, “I don’t want to even be involved in that,” but in a nice way. Later, he headed back the other way, telling me as he did that I had made him forget what he was even doing.*

*They did not bake. I feel if I had been able to nestle the cookies on the valve covers it would have been slightly more effective, but really, I have decided baking is not one of the Camaro’s many skills.

CITY: Delafield, WI

SMELL: Verdant grass, emerald trees, and the ha-ha-check-it pungency of underage cigarette usage

PLACE: Delafield Skatepark

THE WAY: I was cruising down the interstate, thinking about how I had yet to master an ollie, and this skatepark rippled into existence like Brigadoon. Someone at that place, I thought, will show me how to do an ollie. When I finally reached it, however, it was populated by people under five feet on scooters. I had to loiter thuggishly for several minutes before someone taller than me appeared.

PEOPLE: The person who appeared was a boy smoking a cigarette. I leapt from the Camaro and asked him if he would like to be on my blog. He said yes. I told him that he was supposed to ask if I was a creeper. He asked, “Are you a creeper?” “No,” I replied. “I am a mildly famous author. Will you show me how to perform an ollie?” He would. He did an ollie as a sort of smaller apprentice-youth looked on approvingly. Will — that was his name — seemed to believe that my personal difficulties in ollie-making were linked to my steel-toed Doc Martens. When I told him I didn’t wear them while skating, he said that possibly I just had not been doing it long enough. Will, after all, was sixteen, and had been skating for four years. I badly wanted to ask him how long he had been smoking, but I didn’t. Instead I asked his name for the blog, and he replied with his full name. I admonished him about trusting strangers and giving up his identity so willingly. Will’s expression was friendly, but something around his eyebrow region subtly indicated that boys who arrive at skateparks with cigarettes have better things to be afraid of than 32-year-old women who show up at skateparks with Camaros.*

*I note both that Will was violating rule number 1b on the skatepark sign, and also that they spelled graffiti incorrectly.

CITY: North Ridgeville, OH

SMELL: Whole grain, whey, something vaguely doggy and earthy

PLACE: Grateful Dog Bakery

THE WAY: It is a rule of humanity that one shall not pass by a dog biscuit bakery without stopping in it. Far be it from me to betray such rules. So we stopped. Plus it was two miles away from the auto parts store I had to stop at to fix the Camaro. But mostly it was the rules of humanity.

PEOPLE:  The owners, Karl & Jennifer, were in the process of finishing an organic birthday cake for some canine customer when I arrived, and kindly removed it from the box for me to photograph it. Happy Birthday Hunter, says the cake. As I left, a car pulled in. “Are you the birthday cake people?” I asked them. They were. I asked what Hunter was, and they informed me he was a Beabull, which is a Beagle/ Bulldog cross. I asked if he was adorable. They said, “Isn’t everybody’s dog?”*

*I googled Beabulls in my hotel room. In answer to that man’s rhetorical question, no. No, I don’t think everybody’s dog is adorable after all.

CITY: Pittsburgh, PA

SMELL: Hot fish in a warm river, the savory snap of high-end retail, and the pervasive odor of carbon monoxide invisible brain-death

PLACE: Hampton Inn at the Pittsburgh Waterfront

THE WAY: Taking my old Camaro coast-to-coast seemed like a good idea until somewhere around Berkeley Springs, WV, where it suddenly became twice as loud as before and began to smell — an exhaust leak elevated from chronic to terminal. Then, outside Cleveland, a bolt flew out of the alternator assembly and through the fan. Why? Sometimes bolts have been doing the same job for 41 years and nobody ever notices that they are there, holding on a damn metal arm or something, and so sometimes it is time to just change what you’re doing without warning, like on the interstate at 90 miles per hour. They’ll remember you now, thinks the bolt.

PEOPLE: I was unsure if the Camaro’s loudness was an exhaust leak until I came out of my hotel in the morning to discover a man sitting in the spot beside me. No car. Just him. This man was Robert, who informed me that he had had one of these in his younger days and had sold it for $6,500 and couldn’t believe how stupid he was. He also informed me it was an exhaust leak fixable with a $3 part.* I asked him if I could take a photo of him for my blog, and he agreed. I asked him if he wanted to know what my blog was. “No,” he said. 

*the band-aid my sister is using to secure her air conditioning hose costs less than $3 but has to be changed every few hundred miles as it loses adhesion.