THE ROAD WARRIOR

Outside Mystery One in Milwaukee. I am smiling because I’m still thinking about the burger I had for lunch.

Like Conway Sax, my series protagonist, there’s no place I’d rather be than behind the wheel of my truck, chewing up Interstate miles. So when Shotgun Lullaby, my latest book, came out, I fueled up and set out on a 12-day, 4000-mile trip that took me from Boston to Minneapolis and back via a whole bunch of great bookstores and libraries

Here are some notes from the road.

Independent booksellers are the kindest people in the world. It’s old news, I know. But whether dropping by old haunts like Mystery One in Milwaukee, or visiting legendary stores for the first time (Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor and Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis, for example), I was touched by and grateful for the receptions I received.

Highlight! The tour included a stop at Ohio Wesleyan University for my thirtieth college reunion. That was a hoot. Best of all, my old writing professor (now emeritus), Robert Flanagan, showed up despite an illness that’s slowed him down lately. Bob and I agreed that the publishing world is unfair and that we are decrepit.

Lowlight! The Ohio State Highway Patrol is relentless. On I-80 East near Oberlin, a Dodge Charger came out of nowhere and lit me up as I challenged myself by taking an offramp at 70mph. He wrote me up for 84 in a 65. I believe he pulled that number from thin air, jacking up the fine when he saw me drift around that offramp. (And a fine 4-wheel drift it was, each tire singing sweetly but not squalling.)

You can’t go home again. Except when you can. This tour took me through no fewer than four towns in which I’ve spent important chunks of my life: Delaware, Ohio; Ada, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Edina, Minnesota. I made a point of visiting my old haunts, places I’d spent some of the best and worst moments of my life.

And here’s the funny part: I’m forced to report that my reaction, in every case, was: meh. Expected upwellings of emotion, whether positive or negative, did not materialize. I guess time sands off the rough edges.

Highlight! The moment I announced my tour, Crimespree honchos Jon and Ruth Jordan insisted I stay at their place while in Milwaukee. I gratefully accepted with the condition that I be allowed to buy them a burger. Milwaukee has the world’s best hamburgers, and that’s a fact (or close enough). Any dive in the city can put together a burger that should make snooty East Coast foodies hang up their aprons.

Sure enough, Jon took me to a joint that started with a pound and a half (or so it seemed) of perfectly grilled beef and piled on six or eight toppings, all delicious, all guaranteed to travel directly to your mitral valve and lodge there. I may have spotted ground-up cigarette butts on that burger. Fine by me; I ate every bite. Oh, then the Jordans dragged me to somebody’s birthday bash, where I had a ball.

Lowlight! I am an ungrateful wretch to grouse about a free bed, but so be it. My host in one city was a college chum. It was great catching up with him. His (second) wife was wonderful, as was their toddler daughter. Less wonderful was the fact that all three of them were spectacularly sick during my visit. Hackingly, skrockingly, lung-rattlingly, visibly-expelling-germs sick. Sick as dogs. And speaking of dogs: they had two, who hated one another nearly as much as they hated me.

I was thrilled that my Ohio Wesleyan writing professor, novelist Robert Flanagan, made it to my appearance there.

There is an art to driving great distances in rapid fashion. As the tour wound down, I put in a 700-mile day followed by a thousand-mile finale. There is an art to this. Sadly, practicing this art probably takes years off your life.

You begin prepping for a drive the day before, and the prep is as simple as it is unhealthy: do not drink water. After all, the two limiting factors in rapid distance driving are your fuel tank and your bladder. My fuel tank was good for 380 Interstate miles, which for me equals five hours. I needed a bladder that could match that.

So dehydration was the order of the day, and dehydration takes time.

Proper (that is, unhealthy) sustenance is important as well. For a beverage, you want Red Bull or a 5-Hour Energy Drink. These maximize caffeine while minimizing fluid intake. Do not have a bottle of water in your vehicle. If you have it, you’ll drink it. And if you drink it, you’ll need to stop. For food, honey-roasted peanuts and beef jerky were my selections. They give you vital protein, thus staving off that crushing headache.

But only staving it off. The headache is inevitable. Which is why God created ibuprofen, of which you need a jug.

Red Bull? Beef jerky? Voluntary dehydration? Eye-crossing headaches? If all this sounds awful to you, you are smarter and/or saner than I am and probably have better things to do than drive cross-country at 85mph.

Highlight! You love driving or you don’t. You love the Midwest or you don’t. I love both. Combine the two and I am completely at peace. Spent a very happy hour-plus on the run from Ohio Wesleyan to Ada. Dead straight, north by northwest. State Route 31, working farms on either side. Given my druthers and a half-dozen greyhounds for company, this is exactly where I would live.

Highlight? The point of my banzai thousand-mile day was, of course, to get home. To the bosom of my family. Where the heart is. To embrace my wife, my teenagers, my dog, my cat.

Here’s what happened when I staggered in:

  • My wife made fun of my hair.
  • My son killed six more video-game cohorts.
  • My daughter couldn’t be bothered to end her Facetime chat.
  • My dog rose, walked three tight circles in her bed, farted, and went back to sleep.
  • My cat puked on the new rug.

 

How long until the next tour?

Steve
Steve Ulfelder is the Edgar-nominated author of the Conway Sax mysteries, including 2013’s
Shotgun Lullaby. In 2014, look for the fourth book in the series, Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage. www.ulfelder.com