My first extended exposure to photography was prompted by the need to have something to present at a science fair. Three guesses who came up with photomicrography. Obviously not me, since I had never heard of it.
Of course, we had a microscope. I mean, who doesn’t? Here we were in Fred, Texas in 1972 and we didn’t have a shotgun or a fishing pole or a football, but we had a microscope and a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. We also had an International Harvester tractor, but that was an aberration.
Dad had his Argus C3, a cable for triggering time exposures, and a tripod. Everything a growing boy needs for his science project. The drama that ensued was one of many of Dad’s lessons in creativity and perseverance.
Warning: We now venture into the realm of technical detail.
We set up the microscope on the kitchen table, pointed it at a human hair (mine), and positioned the camera above it. There was the matter of focusing, but Dad was all over it like a tick on a June bug.
Step 1: Focus the image in the microscope.
Step 2: Set the focus on the camera at infinity.
Step 3: Track the light coming out of the eyepiece of the microscope by raising and lowering a sheet of paper until you find the point where the circle is smallest.
Step 4: Position the lens of the camera at that point.
Step 5: Take a half-dozen or so time-exposure shots of varying duration, from one to ten seconds. Repeat for the next subject.
Step 6: Take the film to Silsbee (the nearest town 16 miles away) to be processed.
We got back 24 photos of a white rabbit in a snowstorm. I was mystified. Not surprising since everything about the process was as foreign to me as a date with the head cheerleader.
Dad deduced that the culprit was the ambient light in the room. He fashioned a tube from a toilet paper roll, taped a flat piece of cardboard at the bottom with a hole just big enough to fit over the eyepiece of the microscope, and stuffed black cloth around the top.
Twenty-four hours later we had a set of prints featuring a blurry human hair in a circle of light on a black field. It became obvious that if we were to rely on a trial-and-error approach, we required a shorter time between the T and the E.
No problem. All we needed was our own personal darkroom. However, we ran into a scheduling problem. To be precise, outfitting a darkroom wasn’t going to happen on a preacher’s salary in a million years, and the science fair was just a week away.
As I pictured my academic career disintegrating before my eyes, Dad announced that we might be able to pull it off with a Polaroid. I pointed out that we had Polaroids and darkrooms in equal quantity, but Dad was too busy explaining that while such a camera lacked everything that the true photographer desired, it delivered the one feature that we required: instant feedback.
The next day he walked in with a borrowed Polaroid and two packs of film. We were in business. That is, until the first few attempts produced a reasonable representation of a black bunny on a moonless night. It turned out that the Polaroid was fully automatic. Holding down the button didn’t hold the aperture open like it did on the Argus C3.
Dad explained the problem. “With a real camera, you pick an f-stop and then use a light meter to set the length of the exposure. Somehow the Polaroid figures all that out for you. But how do it know?”***
He examined the front of the camera and noticed a small lens next to the main lens. “Ah, a built-in light meter.” He then used tape and cardboard to fashion a cover for the light meter that could be pulled away without disturbing the set up.
A few minutes later we had our first successful image. In a few hours I had everything I needed to build a display for the science fair.
[Photos from microscope.]
Even so, the experience failed to endear me to photography as a pastime. That came later.
*** A mechanic, a sales guy, and a redneck are discussing the greatest invention ever.
The mechanic says, “It’s the automobile. It gave us mobility and changed society forever.”
The sales guy says, “No, it was the telephone. It revolutionized communications, made anyone accessible to anyone else, anywhere in the world.”
The redneck says, “It’s the thermos.”
The other two say, “How is that?”
The redneck says, “Well when you put something hot in there it stays hot right?”
The mechanic says, “Yeah.”
“And when you put something cold in there it stays cold right?”
Dad was 10 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when his brother died at Guadalcanal. He was 14 when the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered. He was 21 when a WWII hero beat out an intellectual liberal to break the 20-year hold the Democrats had on the presidency.
He’d married my mother the year before. A few years later the kids showed up, two years apart in stair-step fashion. It was the Fifties, the golden age of the slide projector.
[perhaps a video of vacation slide shows?]
Somewhere along the way he bought an Argus C3, The Brick, a solid little workhorse that was one of the most popular cameras ever produced.
Of course he started off with film, but a guy in the Fifties with a new family and a fascination with technology isn’t going to be satisfied stuffing scallop-edged prints into the little stick-on photo corners mashed onto the coarse black pages of a photo album.
A real man planted the tripod opposite the couch in front of the picture window (drapes drawn), extended the vertical bar, raised the silver screen, and looped the triangular handle over the hook. Then he positioned the slide projector on the coffee table, adjusting the front leg to target the center of the screen, loaded a tray of slides, and signaled a kid to kill the lights. Popcorn optional.
“Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin
And jazz is best experienced live in a small club packed with true believers.
Then amazing, astounding things happen. Feats of prodigious skill and imagination. Allusions that make you laugh. Soulful passages that pull a sigh out of you. Whispered melodies that move you to tears. All magnified by the energy of live music, the voyeuristic intimacy of artists engaged in musical conversation, the realization that this thing unfolding before you in this sanctuary has never happened before and will never happen again.
For a brief moment you wonder how you can capture the lightining and immediately realize it’s like trapping a firefly in a jar. To try to own it is to kill it.
Instead, if you’re wise, you let it own you. You ride the roller coaster, face turned to the sky, hands raised to the heavens. And afterward, when you unbuckle the seat belt and climb out onto the platform, simultaneously exhilarated and enervated, you smile with gratitude.
If you’ve never held a ticket for this roller coaster, come down to Austin on a Tuesday and I’ll sponsor you into this select fraternity. Festivities begin at 10 p.m. Prepare to hang for a few hours in the swirling maelstrom of the mystery of humanity and discover a different plane of spirituality wrapped up in the mathematics of chaos. Or just dig the amazing skill of three musicians at the top of their game.
I’m talking about Ephraim Owens, high priest of soulful jazz, Red Young, the Einstein of the Hammond B3, and Brannen Temple, percussive genius, all mixing it up in a way that will confound anything you may have experienced up to now.
If you want to take a different trip into life, come a few hours earlier to encounter James McMurtry. Not jazz, but an equally captivating and transcendent journey.
The point is that live jazz is a microcosm of life—best lived moment by moment and somehow diminished when encased in vinyl or cellophane or silicon.
The best of life is lived in the moment and savored in memory.
So what is it about a camera, because that is what we’re talking about, as you will discover, that calls to a man, urging him to forgo living the experience for the process of documenting the experience?
I can’t speak for my father, who emmersed himself in the discipline, but I know that life conspired to mold me into an observer rather than a participant. In addition to my nature, my peripatetic existence as a preacher’s kid (much like that of a military kid in this regard) aborted my feeble attempts at bonding with my peers. And when I finally achieved geographical stasis in my teen years, my academic leanings and lack of interest in hunting, fishing, or sports created a vast gulf between me and the denizens of the small East Texas town where I landed. And the preacher’s kid thing didn’t help either.
Playing the role of the observer. It is my besetting sin and the role I have spent a lifetime both embracing and attempting to surmount.
When you walk into a room, do you immediately gravitate to the center of the action or drift to the periphery and watch? If you embrace the latter, then I welcome you as a fellow citizen of that high desert. I have learned to play the court jester, but nature and nurture have formed me for an observer and chronicler of life as she is lived. Long before I sat down to write novels, I set out to capture the world from the back side of a lens.
Perhaps Dad had similar motivations. Or maybe he just liked cameras.
There’s this thing about my dad. He was born in Port Arthur, in the same town as Janis Joplin but twelve years before and a whole world away.
Space doesn’t permit me to establish the Southern Gothic setting of his derivation, but as the youngest in a family of two girls and four boys, he emerged as a polymath, six semester hours short of a doctorate, one of six people in North America who could read Sumerian cuneiform. His voracious curiosity couldn’t be constrained. It ranged from astronomy and cosmology to theology, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, agronomy, and who knows what else,
So it is no surprise that he was captivated by the potential of the camera and embraced it and all its technical accouterments. I wish I could ask him what drew him to the back side of the lens, but I squandered that chance, living life and making my own way in the world.
Late in life I have come to the realization that of the many things we shared, photography looms large, even though we never discussed it. Perhaps if we had also shared a love of jazz, we might have found ourselves one night marinating in the primeval soup of that expression of life and could have ventured into a discussion of photography, and then I could tell you what drew him to the practice of recording life as an observer.
All I can say for sure is that it is something we shared separately. As was his nature, he embraced the technical side of it. As is my nature, I embraced the story of it.
And therein lies the story.
*If you want a sense of the man, check out the foreword to Living with Fred, and then click on the Richard Whittington link to see who showed up for his funeral. The most telling anecdote is the one from my cousin Beau Vincent. Over a decade later I cannot read it without misting up. I may be a crusty old reptile, but even crocodiles shed tears.
Chapter Six: Hensley had no objection to children in principle. It was the actual incarnation of that principle that elicited in him a desire to reformulate society along the lines of the London gentleman’s club of the nineteenth century, a place of gentility, restraint, and discretion furnished with an implacable doorman to keep out the untoward disruptions that those under twenty-five invariably introduced. Primary among the trials of cohabiting with tadpoles was the necessity of quelling their screams by entertaining them with mind-numbing pastimes involving an endless repetition of elemental memes. Hensley recognized the necessity of such building blocks for the developing mind, but he didn’t have the constitution to endure the accompanying ennui.
April 3: What She Said by Billy Collins You may think you don’t like poetry. Before you slam down the gavel, give this one a read. Or hit play to hear Garrison Keillor read it.
April 2: The Sunday Swim, Comanche Trace by Noel Crook
I heard this one as I was driving to my critique group, and a few days later discovered we had a mutual friend, the woman that I dedicated The Reluctant Saint to. You can click Look Inside to see the dedication.
April 1: Umpty Squat by Brad Whittington
The painful account of the woefully short poetry career of the Wunderfool.
However, the drink as conceived by The Griggster and described by Ermen in Chapter Twenty-Nine is impossible to make, due to the largely imaginary nature of Gummidge’s Wort (although the etymology of “wort” is interesting in this context, as is a perusal of the story of Worzel Gummidge) and the inadvisability of ingesting formaldehyde. (For the record, one would have to drink 200 Defenestrated Zombies to get a lethal dose of formaldehyde, whereas the alcohol would get you after 20 drinks or so.)
Consequently, I engaged the services of Chris Wall (aka Wally), gnome-at-large at Cafe Malta in South Austin. (Attendance required at your earliest convenience.) I told him the story and charged him with the task of creating a drink that could legally be assembled and consumed. He discharged his duties admirably. ( I featured Wally in Chapter Twenty-Seven, although I disguised his appearance.)
The complicating factor in this drink is the blood-orange syrup. If you can’t find any, you can make your own by reducing blood-orange soda.
The Defenestrated Zombie
1 1/4 oz light rum
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz cranberry juice
1/4 oz lime juice
1/4 oz Bechorovka
Mix in shaker and decant into glass. Drizzle blood orange syrup into a layer on the bottom. Float dark rum on top.
This is a story of four panic attacks that can be traced directly back to a single phone call from an unexpected source. And therein lies a tale.
Here’s the soundtrack for this story. It should last for the whole story.
Germaine to the tale is the minor detail that I have the honor to share a home with The Woman in a rural community that is accessible by a single road that passes over a creek. Keep that in mind. Now let us proceed.
I have a suspicion that I am a creature of connection. Give me a hint of a story, and I’m there. No wonder that I became a fan of Bruce Cockburn at my earliest convenience, if not sooner. The man is made of story with the odd bit of hair and bone thrown in to connect it all together.
And so it was that in the early days of the internet I found Cockburn fans lurking in the fringes under the soubriquet of the Humans, so named because of the founder’s favorite Cockburn album. For over 20 years I’ve interacted with these folks and have met a handful in the real world, always a treat.
At this point in the story, the newcomers may be wondering how this fits in with The Reluctant Saint. The old-timers know that eventually I’ll pull it all together, and their faith shall not be in vain. In fact, it was because one particular Human by the felicitous name of Mike Grace rang my phone out of the blue from Pueblo, CO, in the summer of 2015 that the entire location-scouting trip came into being. You can send him your thanks at your leisure.
Over the decades I have exchanged emails and cassette tapes with Mr. Grace, but never had we met, nor had we shared a phone call. In fact, it had been over a decade since we had made any direct contact, so the call came as a surprise. After suitable preliminaries, Mike laid out the plan behind his call.
“Bruce is playing at the Boulder Theater on Nov 6. If I buy you a ticket, will you come?”
Were I another man, I might have immediately responded with an enthusiastic affirmative, but I am not that other man. I confess that I equivocated. It sounded good. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Cockburn on a solo tour that was racking up rave reviews from all the diehard fans, but dollar signs sprang into my head. Round trip flight to Boulder. Rental car. Hotel. Meals. This free $40 ticket could cost me $400 dollars or more.
I promised to give it serious consideration and rang off. Of course The Woman immediately endorsed the plan, but she is The Woman after all. She would gladly spend $1000 dollars on those she loves before she would spend $1 on herself. Still I hesitated.
It took me a few weeks to reverse-engineer a rationalization for the trip. I had been toying with a location-scouting trip to Santa Fe and Portland. If I could only nudge myself off the bubble and commit, I could tack Boulder onto the end of the trip with little added expense. Thus we can credit Mr. Grace with the nudge, and so the whole glorious expedition came to be.
Now to the panic attacks. One came courtesy of the airlines. I’d love to find someone to blame the other three on, but I’m afraid they were all self-inflicted.
Panic Attack #1
I flew to PDX on the Thursday before Halloween and did the first two days with The Little Sister before The Woman joined us. Back in Texas, the great Halloween flood of 2015 (not to be confused with the great Halloween flood of 2013) was in full force.
Remember that one road into our neighborhood that passes over a creek? The Woman made it out an hour before the bridge over the creek washed out, making passage impossible for 24 hours. She also managed to get out of ATX on the last flight before the control tower was flooded and put the airport out of commission. She’s blessed like that.
After she arrived, we put a bow on the thing in Portland, and on Tuesday we went to the airport together. I was headed to Santa Fe. She was headed back home. Our flights were an hour apart.
You may recall from an earlier installment that I am a veteran international traveler. As such, I have learned to have my ducks in a row and breeze through security with no concerns. All went according to plan, and we stopped for breakfast within sight of my gate for the flight to Santa Fe. Afterwards, we parted ways with a kiss born of four decades of marriage.
Let me take a moment to say a thing about that. The parting kisses of young love are sweet indeed. Everything is turned up to 11, and few things can be more intense. But the kiss of two lovers who have gone the distance for half a lifetime is another thing entirely. On the face of it, such a kiss may not make headlines and cause romantics to swoon and social media mavens to burn down Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, but such considerations don’t enter into the equation.
It is the difference between a forest fire and a furnace that will keep you warm for the rest of your life. The solution is left as an exercise to the reader.
Then we parted ways, The Woman to her gate and me to mine. I strolled up with the air of a man without a care in the world. Although care soon crept into my consciousness. I was arriving at boarding time and the gate area was empty. How could this be?
I approached the gate attendant. “I’m here for the flight to Santa Fe.”
“It just left two minutes ago.”
Abject confusion on my part. My response can best be represented thusly.
Forensic investigation revealed that I had confused the boarding time with the departure time. Despair ensued. The gate attendant gamely found me a seat on a flight to Denver, from which point I was on my own to fly standby to Santa Fe.
“That’s funny,” the attendant said. “There’s another passenger named Whittington on the flight to Denver.”
Such was my distress that I agreed it was indeed strange without connecting the dots. I gratefully accepted my boarding pass and strolled to the gate, only to find my true love waiting to board the flight to Denver, her connecting flight to Austin. A welcome sight indeed, but there remained the issue of getting from Denver to Santa Fe.
On the Terminal C concourse in Denver, we located The Woman’s gate and the gate of the Santa Fe flight for which I had standby status. With a few hours of layover, I scoped out an establishment suitable for my distress. The Aviator’s Sports Bar on the second level offered the best playlist on the PA. (Steely Dan was playing as I investigated.) I installed myself there with some spinach artichoke dip and a glass of wine to calm my nerves and did a bit of day-job work to center myself while The Woman shopped.
Together we went to the Santa Fe gate. I was first on standby with three open seats, a fortuitous sign, but I watched the three seats disappear on the monitor. As they closed the gate for departure I approached the gate agent to learn how such a thing happened. I offer this information for your instruction.
“I have a question. I was first on standby, but I didn’t get a seat.”
“Someone bought the last seat.”
I started to say that I had paid for a seat to Santa Fe, but stopped myself when I realized I had paid for that seat on a different flight that I had forfeited due to my own incompetence. I thanked the flight attendant and walked The Woman to her gate.
As it turned out, she was having travel difficulties of her own. The Austin airport had re-opened with a temporary tower, but could only handle a fraction of the traffic, so flights into ATX were being cancelled right and left. Including her flight from Denver. We returned to the Aviator’s Sports Bar where I resumed work and she began a telephone campaign to overwhelm the airline industry. After bombarding them with heavy artillery, she found a flight on a different airline that was boarding in 15 minutes. I saw her off with another kiss and proceeded to the next gate with a flight to Santa Fe.
The attendant was busy, so I waited at a respectful distance. When she was done, she looked to me just as a pilot approached. He gestured for me to go first.
I waved him forward. “I’m not in a hurry.”
“No, go ahead.”
“No, it’s okay,” he said.
Before the whole exchange could devolve into a Chip and Dale cartoon, I shook my head and explained. “For this entire day I have had no power to influence anything in my world. Please do not deny me this one moment to have power over what happens next. You go first.”
He smiled and settled his business with the gate attendant, doubtlessly to dead head on a seat that could have been mine if he had not shown up. When he left, the attendant looked to me.
I stepped forward. “Through nobody’s fault but my own I find myself on standby to Santa Fe. I am seeking advice.”
“I have two options. One, I get a standby seat on the flight to Santa Fe. The other, I get a rental car and drive there. If I’m going to drive, I’d just as soon start now rather than wait a a few hours hour to find out I won’t get a seat on this flight. What would you recommend?”
She smiled. “Come back at boarding time.”
When the time came, she came from behind the desk and personally handed me a boarding pass. Lesson: There is power in acknowledging that you have no power.
Panic Attack #2
After two days in Santa Fe, I drove to Albuquerque for my flight to the Cockburn concert in Boulder. I arrived at the airport two hours before boarding and ordered a ridiculous breakfast burrito the size of a javelina because evidently they don’t do breakfast tacos out west. It went thusly:
Me: I’ll take a #5 and coffee.
Her: Red or green?
Her: Do you want something to drink?
Her: Room for cream?
Her: You said green, right?
Her: [submits order, grabs a coffee cup, holds it under the spigot] Room for cream?
I ate while keeping an eye on my gate 100 feet away, bused my table, and went directly to the gate. Ten minutes after boarding time they cancelled the flight. Panic attack #2 ensued, in no way attenuated by the fact that this time it wasn’t my fault.
I spent the next hour on the phone with the airline . The best they could do was to get me to Denver after midnight via Chicago. I pulled the plug on that proposal, extracted a refund for my canceled flight, and hoofed it to the rental area. It’s a 500-mile drive from Albuquerque to Boulder. I did 85 mph most of the way, stopping once for gas and a sandwich. I whiled away the time listening to Undaunted Courage on my Kindle. Eight hours later I parked the car in a garage a block from the Boulder Theater with 30 minutes to spare before show time.
Mike Grace turned out to be a standup dude, as one would expect from a Human. (In case you forgot, he was responsible for this whole trip. Sort of.)
I crashed with some friends in Boulder and the next morning headed to the Denver airport to return home to The Woman.
Panic Attack #3
As a veteran traveler, I have a routine.
Return the rental car and board the shuttle.
Use the trip to empty my pockets of glasses, phone, billfold, etc.
Extract my ID for getting through security.
Step 3 tripped me up. My ID wasn’t in my wallet where it should be. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere as far as I could tell.
This wasn’t the first time I had approached an airport with the gut-wrenching realization that I had no ID, but the first time was in 1996, well before the complications that 9/11 introduced to air travel. How I managed to solve that little puzzle is a whole nother story.
I was five minutes from the airport. I searched my entire person and my shoulder bag. In the interest of decorum, I desisted from tossing everything from my carryon.
I racked my brain for the location of the ID. Could be in my jeans in the carryon. Could be in the bedroom where I crashed last night, a 90-minute round-trip drive, by which time my flight would be gone. Could be at the rental counter in Albuquerque, the last place I remembered using it.
I got off the shuttle at the departure level, rushed into the terminal, and searched every article of laundry in my carryon. Nothing. I searched every pocket of my shoulder bag. Nothing.
As far as I could see, I wasn’t going to be home today. It would take lots of hours and dollars to get back to the one place I wanted to be most of all, in the arms of The Woman.
In desperation, I pulled my laptop from its slot and what fell out but my ID. In a flash my mind hailed back to a moment in that frantic 8-hour drive from Albuquerque when I slammed on the brakes and my shoulder bag catapulted from the passenger seat to the floor. Evidently at that moment the ID I had tossed on the passenger seat when leaving the rental lot had chosen to nestle itself thusly.
With inexpressible gratitude I packed everything back up and breezed through security. A few minutes later I was back at the Aviator’s Sports Bar with another glass of wine to calm my nerves. I used the occasion to have lunch, charge my devices for the flight, and chat up the bartender about old times.
Then, as is my custom, I organized my effects for the upcoming flight.
Panic Attack #4
Which was the moment that I discovered that I had once again lost my ID.
To be fair, at this point things weren’t so dire. I could get on the plane. I could return to the waiting arms of The Woman without having to wrestle with TSA or spend days and dollars getting back home. But once back, I would have to venture forth from my bunker without a license to the DMV and go through the hassle of replacing the lost ID.
Once again my mind raced to identify the last place I had seen it. Going through security. Somehow I must have lost it there. I could go back and ask for it, but if I went outside of security, I had no way of getting back in. I called Lost and Found, only to learn it would take a few hours for them to determine if they found it, well past my boarding time.
My only option was to retrace my steps back to security, call from the safe side, and see if I could interest some harried TSA employee in my plight. I closed out my tab, packed up my things, and struck out on my mission
Halfway to the escalator I felt something strange in my left shoe. Then it all came back to me.
My airport routine had been optimized before the era of full-body scanners. Back in those days it was all about metal detectors. One could slip an ID into a shirt pocket and pass through the metal detector with no problem. But as I had approached the scanner, I realized it was a body scanner, and an ID in the shirt pocket would slow me down in security. In that moment I had tossed my ID into the bin with my shoes, braved the scanner, and reassembled my effects on the other side, having forgotten about the ID.
Could it be? I stopped on my trek back to security ten feet short of the escalator, pulled off my shoe, and discovered my ID. I laughed, restored it to its rightful place in my wallet, and returned to the Aviator’s Sports Bar to celebrate. If you’re in Terminal C of the Denver airport, the Aviator’s Sports Bar has the best music and bartenders.
Several hours later, the reunion with The Woman was what anyone would hope for when reuniting with one’s true love of forty years. The solution is left as an exercise for the reader.
The Reluctant Saint
The Reluctant Saint is the story of Hensley’s attempt to reconnect with the woman he thinks could be The Woman to finally anchor his life. He doesn’t lose his ID, but he might have a panic attack or two along the way.
This final day of location scouting in Portland proved to be the most demanding. Even more so than the tour de force of Hensley’s fateful Friday.
The task that lay before us was to cover in one day what takes Hensley two days to do. The Woman had flown in the night before, and so on Saturday morning I climbed into the back seat of my sister’s beige Honda Accord and relinquished the seats of honor to the women.
The drive out to Mount Hood took the better part of an hour, and I made note of the features along the way. The novel requires Hensley to locate a cabin in the remote reaches of the foothills, and via Google Maps I had identified what appeared to be the perfect spot. But it was imperative that I survey the environs to verify the grade of the slope and the wildness of the terrain.
I had selected a road that wound up a series of switchbacks through dense forest to what appeared to be a meadow that interrupted the slope. I hoped to place my cabin in this clearing, but I had to see it for myself so I could take you there.
The road turned out to be a ragged track of rock with scarcely two feet of clearance on either side of the car. Before we had gone a half mile, we had the wall of the mountain to our right and a precipitous drop to our left. It was a dicey proposition and make no mistake. We had failed to swap drivers at the turn off, so my sister was at the wheel, taking blind hairpin turns at a few miles an hour with an eternity of air just inches from the front fender.
As terrified as she must have been, she bravely inched around the curves while I sat in the back seat, white-knuckled hand grasping the arm rest and wondering if we would find a wide spot to turn around, or if I would have the soul-melting task of backing the car down the mountain.
But nothing would do but for me to lay eyes on the meadow, so we doggedly clawed our way up the mountainside for what seemed like an eternity but was likely only a mile, two at the most. Of course there was no reception so I had no way of checking Google Maps to see how close we were to the meadow. I expected it to open before us after every turn and was consistently disappointed.
We encountered a few wide spots in the road where the women suggested we turn around, but the spots were not near wide enough to do anything less than a twenty-five-point back-and-forth reversal, so I insisted we proceed forward. Eventually we came to a spot that afforded two vehicles to pass, and I proposed that they park while I proceeded forth on foot to see if the meadow was around the next turn or perhaps the next after that.
The temperature was in the mid-forties at best, and there was a light drizzle. I held my fleece windbreaker over my head and proceeded up the mountain on foot. At every corner I saw sky beyond the trees and thought, “At last the meadow.” But it turned out to be yet another switch back and only gaping air beyond.
Multiple times my body told me to turn back, but my mind said, “You will never again travel these 2000 miles to see this place. It would be foolish to turn back without giving it the good old college try.” So I trudged onward and upward.
Finally the grade started to level out as I approached a stand of small deciduous trees, and I thought the meadow must lay just beyond. But as I approached, I saw that the road turned and went through them. I was still far from the meadow, if any such thing existed.
Disappointed but realistic, I turned back. On the way down I counted my steps. As a veteran of high-school marching band, I knew how to strike out in a consistent 30-inch stride. I used my fingers like an abacus to keep an accurate count and registered well over a thousand steps by the time I reached the car. Doing the math, I realized I had gone approximately six-tenths of a mile one way, covering over a mile in the 30 minutes that I had been walking.
I arrived at the car to discover that The Woman was in a state. As we had turned off the highway to the mountain road, she had seen a sign warning about bears. After I had been gone 10 or 15 minutes, she grew concerned, and they yelled and blew the horn, but in the dense, damp foliage and behind multiple switch backs putting who knows how many feet of living rock between us, it would have been impossible for me to hear them.
I was wet, cold, and exhausted at the effort, but I took the wheel and steered us back down the mountain to the Dairy Queen in Rhododendron. There I ordered the Flamethrower burger that Hensley picks up for his stakeout. The teenage cash-register jockey was singularly unimpressed that he was about to become immortalized in my next novel.
I would say that I was more demoralized than refreshed by the experience, and the next leg of our journey would be punishing, a 90-minute trek through driving rain to the coast. Because The Woman is without equal, she volunteered to drive, and I gratefully relinquished the keys and took a nap in the back seat as best as I could as we proceeded through the city and over the mountains to Cannon Beach, the location of the final scene of the novel.
In the larger scheme of things, the city of Cannon Beach is little more than an eyelash on a bluff overlooking the cold Pacific of the American west coast. Finding parking near beach access was a considerable chore, and we had to walk a half-a-mile just to climb a hundred feet of stairs to a hotel and another hundred feet down to the beach.
The temperature had dropped to the high thirties, and the wind had picked up, blowing rain into our faces. The women elected to shelter in the hotel, and I braved the trek down the bluff and across a quarter-mile of beach to Haystack Rock.
My only protection against the freezing wind was my sodden fleece windbreaker and a collapsible umbrella, which did just that. The tide was creeping in, covering the vast expanse of beach with an inch or two of water surging back and forth. I threaded a path between rivulets on damp sand, occasionally having to tiptoe through shallow currents, intent on getting as close to the rock as possible.
Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach
If you’ve never experienced Haystack Rock, you can see from the photos that it is an imposing and humbling formation. You might have seen it in the closing scene of the Disney movie The Goonies. A few decades ago I had the pleasure to visit it under much more hospitable conditions and with a much better camera, but those photos seem to have evaporated in the course of the dozen moves that I have made since then.
If ever there was a location to bring a mere human to the point of considering the grander scheme of the universe and life as we know it, Haystack Rock is such a place. Here Hensley faces his final battle. There I stood in the punishing wind and rain, umbrella useless, hair plastered to my head, jacket soaked, shoes overwhelmed in the tide. I considered the choice that lay before Hensley.
As a result of his experiences In Mexico, as detailed in Endless Vacation, Hensley comes to reevaluate his chosen lifestyle. At the rock, he faces a decision—whether to sacrifice his personal good for the greater good. Would he stay the course, or would he walk away? Which was the right thing? I could see it going either way.
I trudged back through the tide waters and the driving rain, pondering Hensley’s choices. At the hotel, I joined the women, and we went to Mo’s to warm up over a bowl of chowder.
We discovered that half of the restaurant was closed off as the rains had flooded it earlier in the day. We got a table overlooking the beach. I had traveled more than two-thousand miles to walk in Hensley’s footsteps in the desert, in the mountains, and on the beach. As I took a deep breath over the chowder, I looked out the window at the sunset and wondered what Hensley would decide to do.
On Friday I awakened and dressed while contemplating the day that lay ahead, a pivotal day for our hero, who finds himself faced with the unexpected mission of rescuing a teenager from a wealth of bad decisions. To that end, he must assemble a team of modern day knights-errant to join him in battle against nefarious foes.
It was going to be a long day. Hensley takes 12 hours to go through the paces, but I was unwilling to subject my sister to such a grueling schedule. We did it in about half the time.
Our first stop—City State Diner, where they serve up a mean breakfast. Net research had drawn me to the Bacon Brie Scramble, but consultation with our server redirected me to the Freddie, which was everything one could hope for and more. If you find yourself in Portland and in need of breakfast, run don’t walk to City State Diner.
After an excellent repast, we took the half-hour drive down to what turned out to be the location of the former Pacific Rim Martial Arts Academy, now a bank branch office. Hey, I do write fiction after all so I felt more than capable to fill in the blanks.
From there it was a mere two-mile jaunt to Jet Set Coffee in Tigard, a hip little joint with an impressive mural of the defunct TWA flight center at JFK, now the T5 JetBlue terminal. Thankfully, there were no surprises, and I got some work done for the day job while my sister got in a good spell of reading.
Then it was an appetizer at the Olive and the Grape in Lake Oswego, a charming little bistro with and ambitious menu and a welcoming atmosphere. Highly recommended.
Next Hensley seeks out Sea Tramp Tattoo to recruit his next warrior. Net research revealed that between the time of the story (2013) and the time of the writing (2015), a fire forced Sea Tramp to relocate. We parked near the original location, still vacant, and like Hensley, grabbed a drink at Half Pint Cafe, located in the former freight elevator shaft of a warehouse. Marco serves up a mean brew. Come on down!
Thus fortified, we visited the new location of Sea Tramp. Here’s the thing about walking into a place and informing the denizens that they are the subject of scene in a novel. Some are effusive and honored. Others are curious. And yet still others are indifferent.
The good folks at Sea Tramp were quite friendly, but I must confess they seemed tolerant but less enthusiastic than I might have hoped upon receipt of the news that they were to be featured. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if you’re in Portland and you want a tattoo, Sea Tramp is the place to go.
And this brings us to the most iconic of locations in this memorable day in Hensley’s journey, the Lovecraft Bar. I found the Lovecraft through net research, as it was only two blocks from the former and current locations of Sea Tramp Tattoo. I was immediately captivated.
The Lovecraft is not a place that I would frequent, or even enjoy when it is in full swing, but it is true to the vibe of the infamous HP Lovecraft, creator of compelling stories of existential dread.
As a teenager in Fred, Texas, I went through my requisite morbid stage and consumed everything written by Edgar Allan Poe. The meager stores of the library thus exhausted, I branched out to Lovecraft and could only endure one volume before turning to more congenial and lighthearted material. If you thought Poe could craft terrifying tales, and you would be right about that, then prepare yourself for the next level before opening a book by Lovecraft.
The place is everything one could want in such a dive. If Mick Jagger could get satisfaction, then he would find it in the Lovecraft, because everything is painted black. Walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, stage, soul. All black.
As I said, not my vibe, but an incredible setting for a scene in a novel. As I mentioned before, Hensley carefully considers what he eats and drinks to acquire the makings of the quintessential experience. Consequently I pondered what Hensley would order in this depraved environment, and realized I was not equal to the task for I know nothing of mixed drinks. But I have a wealth of resources at my command.
As I was writing, although it was an advanced hour, I saw that my main man of Oz, recently relocated to Las Vegas for business, was online. I pinged him, and together we constructed a hideous cocktail to match the location. The Defenestrated Zombie. Let us just say that it contains ingredients that are illegal to serve.
I later challenged Chris Wall, the bartender at my favorite lunch, brunch, and dinner spot, Cafe Malta, to create a legal version of this cocktail, and you can find the recipe at the back of the book.
Thus liberated, my sister and I crossed the street to the Nicholas Restaurant where Hensley goes to purge himself of the dreaded cocktail. He orders dinner as he receives devastating news that drives him back into the street. However we did not deprive ourselves of the goodness of the Nicholas and were rewarded with an excellent Lebanese dinner. Don’t miss it if you can.
As Hensley faces his crisis, he stops by two more establishments on Burnside, the B-Side Tavern and the Wurst.
The moment we stepped into the B-Side, I commented that I felt like I had stepped into a Texas roadhouse. The vibe was identical. In an earlier episode, I discussed the cultural and spiritual elements that constitute the roadhouse experience, and the B-Side embodies these very elements.
First, although Portland enjoys the same non-smoking laws that Austin shares, there was the immediate whiff of cigarette smoke, wafting in from the back deck as we later learned. I am not offering a value judgment in regard to the smoking laws. I enjoy a smoke-free environment as much as the next person, but it served as a reference point of frontier defiance that resonated with this Texan.
The next thing that impressed upon my consciousness was that the light boxes above the bar had lenses that consisted of x-rays. Rib cages, pelvic bones, femurs. It was simultaneously startling and charming. Brenda, our bartender, was as friendly as any Texan you could hope to meet. If you can endure the trace aroma of cigarette smoke, it’s a friendly place to hang out.
Our last location to investigate was the Wurst, a more brightly-lit establishment with a horseshoe bar, arcade games, and a selection of bratwurst-based sandwiches. If we had taken the 12 hours that Hensley does in tracing his journey, I would have sampled one, but in our abbreviated schedule, I didn’t have room for that luxury.
Gentle reader, there is one aspect in which I am luckier than you. I have a sister who lives in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps you are not conscious of a gaping hole in your life in this regard, but once you decide to write a novel set in Portland, you will keenly feel your need. Should such an occasion arise, give me a call. I know a guy.
Portland is considered a sister city of Austin because we share a certain level of weirdness, if of somewhat different flavors. After all, Austin is in Texas, and there’s no cure for that.
After a forced march across the Continental Divide, Hensley rolls into Portland in the afternoon and finds himself in need of a wardrobe adjustment to allow for the difference in climate. As is his custom, he seeks out a Goodwill store. Net research provided the proper location but nothing less than location scouting could have revealed the nature of that store.
Oddly enough, it smells like every other Goodwill store I’ve encountered, but there the similarity ended. Upscale knick knacks. A vase with artistically arranged stark branches. Brand new Pendleton shirts priced at $30. It became clear I would have to do a bit of editing on that scene.
Thus provisioned, Hensley sought out one of his old haunts, the Virginia Cafe. This establishment has been in continuous operation since before Prohibition, and so Hensley felt confident as he approached the corner of Park and Morrison. Both he and I were in for a surprise upon arriving at our destination.
Based on net research, I expected to find a 35-story office building at that location, and I did. However net research did not reveal that it was under construction, and therefore Hensley would not have been able to inquire inside for the new location of the Virginia Cafe.
I unexpectedly found myself in Hensley’s shoes, staring in confusion at this location and wondering what had happened. I needed to know what this corner look like in 2013. And in the next few moments the most amazing aspect of location scouting emerged.
Before I could pop into a shop and inquire into the history of the development on this corner and how it looked two years prior, a man in a three-piece suit and a red power tie crossed the street and greeted my sister. As it turned out they went to the same church. When we were introduced, I said “Glen, you might be able to help me out. I have a question about this building.”
He glanced at the building and turned back to me. “This is the most recent acquisition in my property management portfolio. What do you need to know?” Within a few minutes I had everything I needed to complete the scene.
Thus enlightened, we proceeded to the new location of the Virginia Cafe just two doors north of the Goodwill store, but it took me much longer to recover from this amazing chance encounter.
The Virginian Cafe is a charming little bistro with a fairly pedestrian menu. Based on web research I had Hensley order the London Broil, but I asked the waitress for the most popular item and she directed me to the club sandwich. I found it typical of the breed, if of somewhat ambitious elevation. I had the spicy tater tots, my sister had the spicy fries. They were spicy. Note the coveted jacket from Goodwill.
Having experienced our limit for fortuitous encounters, we retired the field to prepare ourselves for the daunting Friday that Hensley was to face.