Wagner Writer

Going Places and Doing Things

Connor and Car in WaterfallThe coffee shop is cooler than I expected, clearly a converted old house. The wooden shingle roof has an unusual design, curving over the eaves like a pinecone, instead of forming the sharp clean angles usually seen in architecture from the early 20th. My first thought is that maybe it started out that way, and it’s just melted like a wax sculpture in a century of Phoenix heat.

A group of people is gathered towards one side of Hob Nobs Coffee Shop, in what was once the sun porch, but is now an enclosed side room. Their differing ages, races, and clothing strongly suggest they’ve been brought together by an interest, rather than family or culture; they’re who I’m looking for. There’s another guy in a baseball cap glancing around uncertainly at the group. Another new potential writing group member?

I’m Connor Rickett, and you’ve probably guessed the other guy in the baseball cap was, of course, Cody. We started at the local writers’ group on the exact same Wednesday a bit over a year ago. Since then, he’s gone on to write a pretty good book, and I’ve gone on to make enough money not to starve to death. So we’ve both had pretty good years by writer standards.

I wasn’t really sure what to cover here on my guest post, especially after Cody did a really cool one about taking his year off to write, or his sabbatical, as he calls it. One topic that came up while we were talking last week was the going of places and doing of things. Which I’ve done a bit of, and have been addicted to from a young age.

Blood is dripping from my hands. Practically the first thing I did, when I started on the long solo ride from the end of the road in Denali National Park back to the visitor’s center, was fall flat on my face and scrape both my hands up. On top of that, I’d gotten a later start than I’d intended, since the bus driver and I had stopped to watch a grizzly bear fight a pair of wolves over a caribou kill.

The wolves and the bear are very close to the front my mind, as I ride. Them, and the “Beware of Bears” sign I recently passed, torn out of the ground and broken to splinters.

Here I am, I realize, alone in one of the last places on earth fully stocked with apex predators who have no reason at all to fear humans, and I am leaving a blood trail.

Thirteen years later, it’s still my favorite bike ride ever.

Last week, we were talking about our different brains, Cody and I. Cody’s the sort that’s got roots, wherever he goes. He creates support networks and makes a place home. Me, I’ve got one foot out the door at any given moment. I only stopped living in a car because I ran out of money, and my ambitions in life are to become a successful writer, buy a camper/truck to live in and travel as a writer, and, eventually, buy a sailboat. So not so much for the roots.

I was wracking my brains to think of a good guest post, and I thought, Hey, why not cover the things that go into writers picking up stakes and going someplace else for a year or however long?

Going Places

There are basically three things you need to think about, if you’re thinking about going for it.

Money. You need to have some saved up. How much depends mostly on you. For example, I lived quite comfortably for six months off $2500, with most of it going toward gas, but that was because my version of comfortable was living off peanut butter and honey sandwiches in a Subaru Impreza Outback. If you’re planning to stay in hotels or some such, you’ll need a lot more.

Make sure you’ve taken care of all leases, utility payments in your name, debts, etc. before you leave. These things tend to reach you way too late on the road, as I’ve learned the hard way.

In fact, if you’re going that route, you’re better off buying a trailer or RV, then selling it when you get done with the trip. Plus, it gives you a place to keep your stuff.

The day after leaving grad school, I head north. I’ve given every piece of furniture I collected in college to friends, and most the rest of my possessions to Goodwill. I’m out the door at 3:30 AM, and I’m driving across the Rez, full into red dirt country by first light; I hit the Monument Valley at sunrise.

Early morning is the best time to drive on the Rez. Any other time, you’re going to find yourself stuck behind some little old Navajo in a Ford truck from 1965, going 35 mph with a load of hay in the back. Sure, you can pass, but there’s always another little old Navajo in a Ford truck from 1965.

Stuff. Everything I own fits in five plastic stacking boxes, four small duffel bags, and a half dozen tool bags. Which is little enough to fit in my car and not obstruct my view, or sleep on top of if necessary. Even my mattress is a foam thing I can stick in a vacuum bag and shrink to about the size of a basketball if needed. I have some collapsible furniture, too, which takes up basically no space.

Chances are, you’ve got more stuff. Even for people who aren’t stuff people, like me, this takes discipline to maintain. Furniture and decorations, the things that make a home, are generally a pretty hefty investment, so you’ll need to think hard before you get rid of it all. Then you’ll need to figure out what to do with the stuff you can’t take with you, but won’t get rid of. Long-term storage can be expensive. You might consider finding a friend with a house and saying, “Hey, I’ll buy/build you a shed, if you let me keep my stuff in it while I’m gone—then it’s yours when I get back!” Or something like that, you get the idea.

Wanderlust vs. Homesickness. Some people need home, and so you need to decide if you’re the sort of person who would rather just move out and find a new place to rent and live there for awhile. Maybe with friends or family as a (paying) guest.

I think everyone needs a new place now and then, but for many, vacation is enough. For others, they want to immerse themselves in a strange new place, then move on to somewhere else.

I pull off the road, at midnight. The campground I’d been planning to stay at is full, so I just drive down a little dirt road into the trees. I debate pitching camp, but I’m tired, it’s dark, and there’s a good chance I’ll be asked to move at some point, so I try to make myself comfortable in my seat. There’s just no good place for my head. I’m faced with the ol’ Arkansas dilemma: Do I roll down the windows and become mosquito chow, or do I keep them closed and slowly broil? In the end I crack the windows. If the mosquitoes can drill deep enough to reach the blood their compatriots in Great Sand Dunes NP couldn’t, they’ve earned it.

Arkansas is green and beautiful, like few places I’ve ever seen. So I’m entirely enclosed in trees and brush, when I turn off the lights.

Electric greens and yellows flash. The entire night is awash in fireflies. It feels alien, unreal, one of the most breathtaking camping spots I’ve ever experienced. Worth the sweat, worth the inevitable morning neck kinks, worth the constant pesky itch of the bites and the tiny whining promise of more to come.

You need to really be honest with yourself about where you fall on this spectrum. I’d recommend pushing your boundaries a little, but don’t lie to yourself.

If you’re a homebody, and you try to wander around from place to place in a car, never more than a night or two in the same place, well, you’re going to be really miserable, real quick, and this is going to end in disaster. Basically, don’t let fear hold you back from an adventure, but maybe test the waters a little to see what your tolerance for adventure is?

I’ve had a lot of adventures at this point, and they tend to be cold, wet, thirsty, hot, painful, or tiring. Sometimes all those things in short order. Adventures happen at the edges of our comfort zones, or just a little past, so what you’re really figuring out here is, “What is my tolerance for discomfort in exchange for experience?”

Doing Things

Oh, doing things. My favorite part! Now, this is very personal, so there’s only so much advice I can give, you but here’s a big one I intend to write much more thoroughly on in the near future:

Have you seen that ultimate roadtrip map? Don’t follow it. Please. It’s almost the worst possible action you could take.

Interstates take you from place to place as quickly as possible, via the most boring, empty, land available between those two places, ok?

Get on the back highways. Avoid the tourist zones, except to see the big important things. Think DC or the Statue of Liberty. Aside from these unique sort of wonders, everything you can find within twenty miles of an interstate, you can find within twenty miles of wherever you’re standing right now.

All the beautiful, unique, inspiring things out there are just over the horizon, down a mostly empty road. I’m twenty-eight, and I’ve been to five countries, forty-five states, a good chunk of Canada, and I’m not planning on slowing down any time soon—so if you disregard everything else, remember this last bit—get off the beaten path! And perhaps the warning that it will almost inevitably be a bit dicey at times, and most of the dangers will be…unexpected.

Hurricane Igor is making landfall, just barely, saving most of its fury for Newfoundland. It is not too cold, and I’m dressed in layers, standing on ground beside the pier of an abandoned cannery near Lubec, on the Bay Fundy. The rain is coming down faster than it can flow away, against the roaring wind, and I’m experiencing the oddness of standing ankle deep in an apparently static puddle pitched at angle on a slope.

My bank cards have been down for a month. One was expiring, so, naturally, when I asked Wells Fargo to send me a new one at a PO Box in Maine, they cancelled the other one, too. Luckily, I’m a cynical man, and I had been concerned enough about exactly this to fill my tank up and buy food before making the call.

The waves are violent, and want to be tall, but the fierce winds are cutting them off into spray as they rise, turning waves into long narrow ridges, like mountain ranges. I’m wearing a surplus Navy trench coat, but it can’t do much against a hurricane. It sheds the water, but can’t stop the runnels from my soaked wool beanie down my neck, or the splashes and wind spray soaking my pans from below. My car is parked in the lee of a small hill, near enough to run for, and I’m standing out on a grassy mound beside the ruins of the concrete jetty.

I’ve never seen a hurricane before, and I think, I couldn’t have imagined this, I couldn’t have described this before today, this is why I’m out here, while the clouds and the sea cease to be separate entities, and become a gradient of air and muddy water rising through froth, and rain, and fog, clear to the roof of the sky. And I feel smaller than I have ever felt.

But I am still a giant to some, particularly the dozens of ants who have discovered I am the last remaining high ground—and promptly decided to thank me for the refuge of my boots and pants by stinging the hell out of me.

And that’s the story of how I ended up stripping naked in a hurricane.

Leaving secure situations always takes courage, because there is true risk, on many levels: finances, personal safety, relationships, etc. There is a reward for it though, because it forces us to grow. Life is change, and, consequently, changing is living, in the active tense. And that’s where the courage really comes in, because we know, generally of course, who we are, but it’s really quite frightening to face discovering who we can be.


  • Sagar
    May 17, 2017 - 3:00 am · Reply

    Great tips and adorable parties! We almost always have our parties at home. I let each of my boys have their 5th birthday away from home and they probably won't have another away from home party until their 10th birytdat…hhey are just too expensive!

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