16 Jun Heading West With the Animal House Book Tour


I made the mistake of parking too near the Mississippi a few nights ago and was nearly eaten alive by misquitoes. Thing is, their bites were so subtle I couldn’t tell how many were actually biting me. I was wearing shorts and no shoes. Like everybody else, I’m accustomed to getting bitten by misquitoes — you know, a handful of bites on occasion, a couple of days of scratching a bump here, a bump there. But this experience was someting wholly different. The next day, the bites came up like a maddening rash. I was appalled to discover that I had more than 10 bites on my hands, that many on each foot, and more than 20 on each leg. A total of over 50 misquito bites!They itched so badly, I thought I might have poison oak. I told myself I’d be disciplined and not answer the call to scratch the itching. But, oh, the call of the itch is tantalizing, seductive, relentless.

The itching would penetrate every root of every nerve until my hairs were standing on end and my skin tingled and twitched and seemed to spark.Then, at last, I’d rub one spot, just one, telling myself that I’d take care of a single itch, the worst itch, then I’d be disciplined and let the rest go, damn them all. Scratching the itch made my nerves thrill and my skin burn and my head swim and my mouth water, it was so gratifying and tantalizing and excrutiatingly satisfying. And then the welts would redden and swell some more — they looked like small pox — and then the itching would spread and intensify. A truly viscious cycle. I knew that scratching was self-defeating, that it would only make it worse. But, oh my god, what a thrill it is to scratch and scratch visciously, scratch until I groan, scratch until the welts begin to bleed. It’s like taking vengeance.

If the welts bleed, then they turn to sores and then the healing takes twice as long. And the itching? It continues in a different way. As a result of this ordeal ,I think I’ve got PTMD. I’m totally freaked out about this happening again — this can NOT happen again! Fifty bites!The itching kept me awake for most of the night. And today, try as I did to refrain from scratching, inevitably I succumbed again and again, devolving into a moaning animal pawing at his wounds, all to no avail, my legs and feet inflamed, my burning welts signaling their distress to the core of my body, giving me chills, making my head spin, compelling me to grind my teeth and shudder and nearly howl. The itching has to subside. Tomorrow, I tell myself. If I can just hold out! I’ve got benadryl, aloe vera, and rubbing alcohol. But, oh, whenever I apply these, guess what happens?

On the Road With a Box of Books

Tonight, because of my PTMD, I was very careful about where I camped. So, I am writing this from a mountaintop in the Ozarks. I figured that if I parked near this state’s highest point, I’d greatly reduce the likelihood of running into hordes of misquitoes. Also, cell phone reception is good up here. What could be better than this: totally self-contained in my cozy wheeled cabin on the top of this remote mountain, parked in a clearing above a pond where frogs are racheting their eveningsong. No bullfrogs up here. A lone whipoorwill calls again and again from the trees on the opposite shore. Cleo sleeps on her bed just outside the van. And I’m not going out there unless I have to–got a toilet in the van, don’t forget. And a week’s worth of groceries.

Crossing the Mississippi seemed a big deal. It puts me 1000 miles from home and truly West. I did an event today in Little Rock with three preservation organizations and in Oxford, MS, yesterday at the legendary Square Books. To my surprise, both events were well attended and we sold a fair number of books. I’m still booking dates for the tour, which means I’m fielding emails and making calls every day. Today I phoned a big book store in the Hollywood area. The events coordinator was very nice but said, “If you can’t guarantee 50 to 100 people, it’s really not worth our time.” I said, “The only place I’ll draw 100 people is at my mother’s retirement home.” Which is true: so far she has signed up 120 of her neighbors to hear me at Friendship Village.

For whatever reason I can’t get any traction in Arizona or Southern California.Changing Hands, a famous book store in the Phoenix area, demands $300 for the privilege of reading at their store. I refuse to do that. Consider: equally famous Square Books in Oxford, MS., asks for nothing — and they are very gracious, supplying wine and dessert to attendees. As for Southern California, who knows? It’s a busy place and I can’t seem to get anybody’s attention. The rest of California will be fabulous, however, especially since Jill will be joining me in San Francisco.

The Problem with cell Phones

I don’t text when I drive and I don’t read email. But I do use my phone for GPS. It’s increadibly dangerous to do this. The screen is too small and you have to use one finger to move the map. I can’t tell you how many exits I’ve missed while trying to read my GPS. Or how many rumble strips I’ve glided over on the shoulder. Everywhere I look on the freeway, I see people peering at their phones. It’s unsettling and unscores how important it is to keep your distance from any- and everybody. I use my phone to stream radio and this too is a distraction because when the radio is really good (“This American Life”), I won’t be paying attention to the road signs.

Road Food
The myth of the American road is that there’s good, cheap food to be found. Generally speaking, cheap food isn’t good food. I look for the independent specialists. I’d never go to something called a “restaurant,” as in Jane’s Roadhouse Restaurant, unless somebody sends me there for something special. I seek out the niche joint that specializes in one thing. Don’t send me to a place that hedges its bets, as in Nick’s Greek-Italian Rendesvous. The place I prefer has been there for 50 years or more. Kream Kastle barbecue in Blytheville, Arkansas, is such a place. You have to sit in your car and order through the drive-in speaker system. I made the mistake of walking inside and found myself abruptly in the steamy kitchen, facing a large, sweaty cook who looked at me with disapproval. I quickly backed out and retreated to my van. Kream Kastle specializes in wood-smoked chopped prok barbecue. Sandwiches come with slaw on them, the thing wrapped in wax paper. Their crinkl-cut fries will make you believe in Santa Claus.

PS: I just sneaked outside to walk Cleo. Goodness, from here we can see the cloudy spray of the Milky Way. And falling stars. A sight like that is worth a few more misquito bites.