Six degrees of country music: On the road in Texas — Book tour stop #5: Dallas, February 4

Today, en route to a book reading in Dallas, I finally felt like I was traveling America in the pure, deliberate sense of the word.

Granted, I insist in my book that any moment can be considered travel if your attitude is right — and I had plenty such unorthodox “travel moments” last week on the West Coast. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for the aesthetic experience of a long haul on the American Great Plains — the endless miles of flat grasslands, yellow corn stubble, red-tailed hawks atop fenceposts, mile-markers, road-kill coyotes, gusts of wind, and the broken yellow line of the highway. It’s a great time to let your mind wander, sing along to the radio, and soak in the subtle goodness of the landscape. Back in the mid-nineties, when road-tripping to see family or friends on the West Coast, I would drive for 16 hours at a stretch without ever getting tired. In this way, I feel like the wide-open highways of America are an integral part of who I am, and a vital part of why I started traveling in the first place. It was good to be back out there.

After a nice run of independent bookstore readings on the West Coast, my impending Dallas Borders event represented my first corporate venue — and I was uncertain about how things would play out under the fluorescent lights of a gigantic Texas outlet store. I hadn’t done any public readings since Berkeley the week before, but media interviews had been keeping me salty — including a surreal Sunday-morning TV interview the previous weekend in San Francisco.

I use the word “surreal” because it took place in an utterly deserted TV studio in the KRON building on Van Ness Avenue. The “Morning Show“, which I was to be a part of, was being hosted from the news studio that day, so I sat by myself in a cavernous auxiliary studio until host Henry Tannenbaum hustled in with a production assistant to mic me up during a commercial break. As hosts go, Henry was a champ — he’d obviously read Vagabonding well before the segment, and he had a passion for travel himself. We even had a great little rap session while waiting for our cue from the main studio.

The problem with pre-tape banter, of course, is that — in broadcast terms — it doesn’t really exist. Thus, when Henry and I went live on the airwaves for the Bay Area audience, I felt like I was caught in the middle of my conversation. Our segment only lasted six minutes, but it was long enough for me to lose my frame of reference and worry if that I was repeating points that I’d already made. In the end, the interview went smoothly enough, and my only complaint is that the technicians kept fading away from our live interview to a picture of me shirtless (wearing “birth-control” glasses, no less) in a cave in Palestine — which would have been fine, save the fact that our on-air conversation never once touched on my walk across the Holy Land. Anyone who was watching with a hangover that morning must have been confused by this random detail.

Immediately after the TV gig, I headed for the Oakland Airport and flew to Wichita, where — early this morning — I borrowed my mom’s car and headed south across the prairies for Dallas. It was a seven-hour drive. I kept the car radio on “scan” the whole time, and was amused to find that they don’t just have country music stations in Texas: they have “classic country” stations, “modern country” stations, bluegrass stations, rockabilly stations, “country oldies” stations (which are apparently different from classic country stations), and stations that play Mexican country music. Indeed, in the heart of Texas, there appears to be (at least) six distinct degrees of country. And, while I am not well versed in any degree of country whatsoever, I found that most of the songs were simple enough to sing along with by the time the chorus came around for the last time. I rolled into Dallas singing about broken hearts, broken horses, and broken bottles of beer.

I arrived at the northeast Borders store with welcome news in the form of Jonathan Briggs, the event coordinator. Before I met Jonathan, I’d worried that Borders might give a first-time author like me a bit of the corporate cold shoulder. Quite to the contrary, the Dallas Borders had prepared for my reading in a way that nearly outdid the first-rate indie stores that hosted me on the West Coast. Not only was a big Vagabonding poster hanging in the front window, Jonathan had put an event ad in the Dallas Morning News, and had placed 100 or so copies of my book on a display rack directly across from the main entrance to the store. Forty-nine copies had been sold off the display in the week before I showed up, and the store was expecting a healthy turnout.

By the time I took the podium in the center of the store, about 60 people were sitting in the audience. And, in spite of the sterile lighting and massive floor-space, an upside to reading at a big Borders was that a lot of random customers wandered over to join the audience as my talk progressed. As with a National Geographic TV special, I suppose, lots of people are interested in hearing about travel to curious lands on the other side of the world. By the time I finished showing slides and started in on the Q&A, the crowd had grown to about 100 people. Thanks to Jonathan’s ace merchandising the week before, a lot of people had already read the book, and their questions led into a great discussion of travel in general. By the time the signing had wound down, the rest of the display copies of Vagabonding had nearly sold out. On the way out, I told Jonathan it had been my best event yet, and I meant it.

Since I didn’t have any close friends in Dallas, I made for Austin — singing along to six degrees of country music the whole way — hoping to catch up with my friend Jason Young, who I hadn’t seen since we’d both worked as mountaineering guides in Colorado 12 years ago. I arrived in Austin late, and we ended up playing cards into the wee hours, rehashing stories from our Colorado days.

(And, as an indulgent aside, I’ll say that it’s amazing how much Jason and I suddenly remembered about the summers of ’89 and ’90, once we got to talking. Any exercise of personal memory, I think, is catalyzed when you can recall and celebrate what happened with friends who were also there. When I think of my post-high school youth, for instance, my memories are usually set amidst groups of friends in Oregon, Kansas, or Korea (or, in the case of 1994, on the road in America) — and this is because I still see those same friends quite regularly. Every time we’re together, we dredge up our memories and recreate a common mythology of what happened (usually to the consternation of my friends’ wives, who’d probably prefer to see their husbands in a more contemporary and mature light). Since I never see my far-flung Colorado friends anymore, I’d forgotten — until I got to talking with Jason — just how much I’d seen and done during those long-ago teenage summers in the Rockies. Funny, how memory works better in good company.)

The next stop on my book tour — and the one I’ve been looking forward to the least of all — is Tulsa.

Next: Waffle Houses and purple bedsheets — Book tour stop #6: Tulsa

Previous: Cruising Berkeley in the Bourgeois-mobile — Book tour stop #4: Berkeley

Posted by | Comments Off on Six degrees of country music: On the road in Texas — Book tour stop #5: Dallas, February 4  | April 28, 2003
Category: Book Release and Tour Diary

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