The Long Road to Chico

 THE LONG ROAD TO CHICO
A Collaborative Story of Adventure and Chaos on the Way to Tech Matters 2006

I was lucky the rain had finally stopped. For two days now, with little relief, the water had poured from the sky on my head as mile after mile faded into painful memories. I was on the road to Chico and it wasn’t pretty. My legs hurt, for one thing, and my tricycle – well, it wasn’t technically mine but ‘borrowed’ from some savvy kid who lived outside of Boston – wasn’t designed for cross-country travel.

Maybe I should back up a bit before you think I’m one of those unreliable narrators because, to be honest, even I can’t believe how I ended up pumping my knees on a pink tricycle along the byways of America on the way to Chico. I really should have been on the airplane, kicking back in comfort with my MP3 earbuds in and the sounds of the Eels and Green Day in my ears and a cold Heineken heading down my throat.

That was before the NTS (National Testing Standards) Virus moved its way through the computer terminals of all major airports, efficiently deleting all travel plans of technology liaisons for the National Writing Project. A call from the airlines informed me that my tickets were null and void and there was nothing to be done anywhere to fix it. Sorry. Not only that, but all of our names were now on airport security lists as “potentially dangerous geeks.” Someone has it out for the National Writing Project, I was told in a hushed whisper on the phone late one night. The caller hung up before I could even clear my throat. The whole NWP affiliation was in limbo and for the few of us invited to Tech Matters 2006, it was all we could do to hustle up some alternative transportation and get out to Chico to figure out who was behind this.

Out here in the Northeast, I figured I could rent a car and leave a few days early and still make it to California in time for Tech Matters. The Western Massachusetts Writing Project was paying my way, at least. My wife and kids weren’t too happy about that plan and it took some convincing and begging on my part to release me into the wild. I rented a car, but I had to go into Boston to get it due to some computer snafu. Imagine my surprise when I went to my assigned parking space and found a long, jet-black Cadillac sitting there. The man behind the desk explained that this was the Kennedy Family Reunion weekend and all of the cars in eastern Massachusetts had been rented out by the Kennedy clan for cruising along Cape Cod. The caddy had just been returned by Aerosmith after their world tour. I sighed, thinking of the dollars to be guzzled and vowed to use my expense account to the fullest. Trouble knows no bounds, however. When I stopped at a gas station in Charlestown to fill up, the car got grabbed by some Whitey Bulger thugs as I was buying a package of Funny Bones inside the store. My only option now was to grab the closest set of wheels available. I had to make it to Chico. I just had to. The Writing Project was counting on me.

So there I was, sitting atop a pink tricycle, just short enough for my knees to knock on the handlbars with every rotation. Some fast-talking kid with a thick Boston accent was renting it to me for some future free tech support. The kid even made me sign a contract of some sort and I am still wondering just what was in that fine print. Something about Runescape. Luckily, I wasn’t going alone. Inside my waterproof backpack, and wrapped in three layers of Hefty trash bags, my laptop has been my faithful companion. I also strapped a waterproof GPS device to the handlebars and have kept a careful watch of the road ahead. My MP3 Player is snug in a ziplock bag and the headphones have been crackled with the moisture. It’s a bit worrisome because even I know that electric current and water don’t mix. Still, I couldn’t do this kind of journey without music.

I took the Freedom Trail as far as it would take me, passing by the old North Church Tower where Paul Revere saw the lamplights of the American Revolution and I caught a glimpse of Old Ironsides docked as a testament to the battles of cannon-wielding iron-clad ships of old and then headed west along the Massachusetts Turnpike towards the Berkshires. This was the route that James Taylor sang of in that song from the 70s. It was all hills and valleys in Western Massachusetts and a few times, I almost tipped over from the backdrafts of the trucks bearing down on my three wheels. I couldn’t help but notice the sign that said, “Northampton,” which is where I live and imagined a dry, warm house.  I was just over the line into New York when the rain began coming down with a vengeance and just when you think riding a tricycle across country couldn’t get any tougher, it suddenly does. I kept pedaling, wiping the water from my face with one hand and waving off unfriendly single finger waves from drivers in vehicles with the other hand.

There was no doubt about it – it was going to be a long road to Chico. I wondered often about how everyone else was doing and whether I would see anyone else on their way to Tech Matters.

As I was peddling down the New York State Thruway and into New Jersey (being really thankful that the roads were still open in the Garden State since the rest of the state was shut down) I saw a rainbow and thought of the Crayola Factory in Easton, Pennsylvania!  Fortunately the factory was spared the recent flooding in downtown Easton where the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers flow together. The adjacent National Canal Museum heard of my plight.  They offered me a break from peddling while still being able to continue my journey by boarding a mule pulled canal barge up the Lehigh River to historic Bethlehem. It was a relaxing and fairly quiet trip, but it made me realize how far technology has come in the last century. After disembarking, I peddled up to the Moravian Book Shop.  While poking around this fascinating and historic store, I met up with the Lehigh Valley WP’s SI on their writing mini-marathon.  They all talked about wonderful events in the area  like Musikfest which might be a possible stop on my return trip from Chico later in the summer, but I could stop by Sportsfest this weekend where the LVWP’s TL will be demonstrating and showing her beagles in the dog agility competition.  If she’s not running her dog, it’ll be easy to spot the TL, she will either be taking digital pictures or resting in the shade listening to her ipod.

It’s a heck of a long ride from Western Mass to West Virginia and that spunky technologically gifted youngster made it in record time!  Of course, he brought along that doggone rain, but we needed the break from the hazy, hot, and humid weather familiar to those of us who live in the valleys of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  It’s still early in the season – summer just came this week, according to the calendar at any rate.  The Marshall University Writing Project was happy to provide this tenacious tricycling traveler some hospitality and a tour of the soon to be famous campus about which the movie We Are Marshall was made.  A short break is all there is time for –  it’s still a long way to Chico.

After a couple of day’s rest in West Virginia, I decided to pedal to South Georgia since the journey would be mostly down hill, allowing my tricycle to zip along quite quickly and saving me from the rude finger gestures of many drivers hurrying to their summer vacations spots.  Once I got to I-95, I soon found myself near Savannah, GA, and decided to make a quick pit stop, having never seen but often heard about the historic city.  I enjoyed a stroll and lunch along River Street.  When I got back to my tricycle, I found my parking meter expired and a ticket clipped to my handle bars.  Having no time for such trivialities and so looking forward to Chico, I quickly deposited the small yellow envelope in the closest round file.  Having a little extra time, I decided to spend the afternoon watching a minor league baseball game; after all, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch a game featuring the Savannah Sand Gnats.  After all, sand gnats has to be the most unusual team name in the nation.   Once the game began, I quickly found out how the team got its name as pesky little flying bugs began swarming around my sweat laden face.  As soon as the game was over, a few hundred sand gnats (the bugs, not the players) and I headed back toward the interstate and began looking for I-16 so I could make a quick visit to Statesboro, GA, home of Georgia Southern University.  I knew the Georgia Southern Writing Project was in the middle of their summer institute and thought I’d enjoy a day of writing with a few of my new best friends.  While there,I spent some time milling arond campus, taking in the sites at the Botanical Garden, the Center for Wildlife Education, and the Museum.  What a treat!  But soon the high humidity and the intense heat of the southeast urged me to resume my journey, for I still had many miles to pedal and only a few days to get to Chico.

Meanwhile in a secret underground installation on Antelope Island on the brine fly-infested shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake (and, incidentally, not far from the home of the Utah Writing Project), Dr. Ho was plotting his next move.  “We’ve got him under surveillance, using his own tool — the GPS on the handlebars on his tricycle.  Send out the minions!”  Two sinister beings appeared.  “We’ve got a signal coming from Statesboro, GA.  Do what you want to him, but bring back all his technology to me in one piece.”  Dr. Ho (who bore a remarkable similarity to NWP’s own Paul Oh) smiled sardonically as he watched his minions set out to intercept our intrepid traveler.  After years of painstaking attention to detail, his plan was now fully in motion.


Listen to the doctor speak! And be afraid! Be very afraid!


On my way to Chico, I decided to detour a tad out of my way and visit Woodville, MS, for I had heard that hospitality was king there.  And it seemed that it was when I stopped by the office of The Woodville Republican to ask for directions.  The editor was quite interested in the story of my journey and after a quick interview, asked me to pose by the historical site just outside the door for a picture.  My story was going to appear in the next issue of the paper.   Just as he snapped the picture, a small, black car came speeding down Depot Street, making a U-turn right in front of us, coming to a screeching halt.  The door flung open, and a madwoman jumped out.  “If I miss the visit from A. C. Repairman because of your foolishness, you will live to regret it.  What are you and David up to now? Where are those blasted pink flamingos?”  Then she noticed me and immediately turned on the charm. “Well, I do declare.  Where are my manners? This is no way for a southern lady to behave,” she drawled as she extended her hand, then laughed, “And if you think I talk like this all the time, well…”  Her eyes drifted to my pink tricycle.  “Just why did you call me down here, Andy?”

 

“If you had listened to me instead of assuming the worst, you’d have heard me say that this young gentleman is looking for your house.  He also said something about Chico, but I thought he meant Chick-o Stick, so I offered him one.” 

 

At the word Chico, she stiffened.  Turning to me she said, “You must be famished.  Let’s get your tricycle in my trunk and then we’ll get some catfish at the Back Porch Café on the highway.  I’m sure you passed it as you came into town.  And on the way we’ll stop at Woodville Car Care.  Looks like your trike could use a tune-up and new tires. My brother David will fix you up.  Besides, he owes me big time.  Let’s just leave it at that.”

 

As we put the trike in the trunk, she whispered, “Don’t say anything else about Chico.  There’s no telling who or what is lurking in those azalea bushes.  Some strange things have been happening around here. When we get to my house, we’ll talk. My house is surrounded by pine trees, so we should be able to talk freely there.”  Then she turned to Andy, the newspaper editor. “Bye, now.  Sorry about the misunderstanding.  But you and David know how I feel about those pink flamingos popping up in the most unexpected places—like Adair’s wedding reception!”

Twenty-three hundred miles west of Woodville, an unusual booming sound echoed across the skies above Chico, California. The source, as many small children noted with shaded eyes pointed skyward, was a private jet, painted a deep indigo with blood-red lettering spelling “HO Industries” along the sides, with the number “16-42″ on its tail. Newspaper reports in the Enterprise Record the next day stated that the plane made exactly eight high-speed, low-altitude passes over the city. Local landmarks, including the One-Mile swimming pool, the Bidwell Mansion, the 100-year old Hotel Diamond, hiking trails in Upper Bidwell Park, and campus buildings at CSU, Chico. Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts claimed that small electronic objects were dropped on the university campus, particularly on two buildings: Taylor Hall, and 25 Main Street. These buildings house the CSU, Chico English Department and the Northern California Writing Project office, respectively. The jet, which was first noticed at 4:15 pm, sped northwards out of town exactly 23 minutes later. No further information was forthcoming from the usual sources. All of this I discovered when I decided to add the keyword “Chico” to my cell phone’s rss aggregator.


Back in Woodville, I surreptitiously slipped my cell phone back in my pocket and, while digesting these odd developments, continued on my strange journey. Still riding with the mysterious stranger, we picked up the catfish and headed down Highway 24 E to her house, taking time along the way to tour the small town.  We drove around the courthouse square, my hostess pointing out the sights:  Polk’s Meat Market, the Wilkinson County Museum, Boston Row, the new African-American Museum housed in the Woodmen of the World building which was also a territorial bank building, Main Street Market, and the Town Hall.  During our tour, she pointed out that composer William Grant Still was born in Woodville.  Then came the churches: Baptist, Catholic, Christian, Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian.  Most of these church buildings are very old, dating back to the early 1800’s.  “At one time,” she told me, “before my family moved to Woodville, there was also a Jewish synagogue here.  In fact, a couple of the old houses still have the Star of David on the front.”  She continued, “It’s too bad we don’t have time to drive west to Ft. Adams. It used to be on the river, you know.  But back in, well, I don’t know exactly, but a long time ago, the river changed its course, and Ft. Adams, once a thriving town, was left high and dry.  Then there’s Lake Mary, Pond Store, and Clark Creek Natural Area.  You’ll just have to come back for a visit so I can take you to all these places and to some of the old homes.  There are so many stories our county has to tell.”

 

Just east of Woodville, we passed the entrance to Rosemont Plantation.  “That’s the boyhood home of Jefferson Davis.  Quite an interesting place to visit.” Three miles later we turned down a narrow gravel driveway, and after maneuvering a few sharp curves and avoiding some deep potholes, we arrived at her house—a log cabin.  We went in the backdoor, and she fixed us some of her famous ginger tea to have with the catfish.   Soon we were deep in conversation about Chico and the problems all the TL’s have encountered as they made reservations and planned their trips to Tech Matters.  “My ISP was down the other day.  Do you think that had anything to do with the NTS virus?” she queried.  “And, I had a strange dream about a Dr. Ho, but that was just a dream…wasn’t it?


About that time, her phone rang, and we both jumped.  “It’s just David,” she explained.  “Your tricycle is good to go.”  We made our way back into town.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my pink tricycle: it was gleaming; the handlebars didn’t squeak any more; there was a new, well-padded seat; and replacing those skinny, tread-bare tires were brand new oversized tires with deep treads guaranteed to take me many a mile.   And, right there on my handlebars was a basket to store my backpack and other necessities—like lots of bottled water to get me across the hot, humid South.    

 

We said our goodbyes, and then I was own my way down Highway 61 N, refreshed and ready to travel.  As I peddled off, I heard, “Y’all come back now, you heah!”

 

There is one thing I’m still worrying about, though–all those strange happenings with our TL’s and Tech Matters and her strange dream about a Dr. Ho.  Who or what is Dr. Ho?  Oh, well, as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “Fiddle-dee-dee. I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”

I decided to focus on the road ahead today…and the road ahead was a long one. I began to believe the heat was altering my consciousness or that I was just delirious as  I heard a muted version of the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Maybe its an omen, no maybe its…its my cell phone. I didn’t even realize I had packed it. As I rifled through my backpack and snaked my hand through the three layears of rollled Hefty trashbags, I wondered who would be calling me. “Hello, Oh hi, no that’s not too far out of my way….oh I’m so sorry to hear that.” What else could happen? The Mobile Bay Writing Project Tech Liaison has asked me to backtrack to Mobile , Alabama (along the Gulf Coast) and pick her up. She got my cell number from Lizzy and said they were in the middle of hurricane season down south; a manditory evacuation had just been put in place due to a tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. She explained that she is directionally challenged and would never make it to Chico in time without a co-pilot. How could I refuse? And besides, we do need all the tech liaisons we can get to Chico to deal with what lies ahead. 

I made it to our agreed upon meeting place, the Original Oyster House , on the Mobile Bay Causeway. She was right about the gumbo, it was delicious, and it was only the appetizer. We headed a little further east to Ed’s Seafood Shed for the Yo Mama’s Platter full of fried seafood. The food was almost surpassed in quality by the beautiful view of Mobile Bay and I only privately wished we had time to tour the USS Alabama Battleship that I was staring at in the distance as I ate fried crabclaws, shrimp, and oysters. But I knew we had to get moving, the causeway traffic was picking up.  As the water began to wash over the road, and the wind blew anything not anchored down off our outdoor table, I could see the anxiety increasing in our MBWP liaison’s eyes. So, after paying the tab, we quickly descended down the ramp of the restaurant to my Pepto Bismol pink tricycle. We used bungee cords and duct tape to attach the faded red and white Little Tikes wagon to the back of my suped up Barbie trike. Although I was concerned about my mode of transportation when I recived the request to hitch a ride, I never dreamed my new companion would come equipt with her own “trailer.” I was still worried about my ability to pedal, pulling the additional weight, until she pulled a hurricane leftover generator contraption out of her bag that she claimed would propel us with minimal physical effort. She was right…a southern girl will survive! Additionally, the wind was at our back and we effortlessly headed west on the Causeway toward the Bankhead Tunnel.



Once we emerged from the Tunnel, I took the thoughtful advice of my new co-pilot and switched places to relax for a little while in the “backseat.” As I lounged in the Little Tikes wagon, with the cooler of adult beverages, I was amazed by the magestic oak trees that lined Government Street in beautiful downtown Mobile, and learned that Mobilians argue they live in the city that is the original home of Mardi Gras. She explained that Mardi Gras actually started in Mobile in 1703 when it was a colony of French soldiers. After having survived a particularly nasty bout with yellow fever, they decided to celebrate, but since party favors were few and far between in the New World, the men opted to paint their faces red and just act crazy for a few hours. They must have had fun because it became an annual event. As we passed “the headquarters,” I also learned that I was in the midst of a host family member for another of Mobile, Alabama’s claim to fame events, the America’s Junior Miss competition.

As I was listening to stories of tail gating at the Senior Bowl  and considering letting my guard a little to really kick back, an unnerving booming sound echoed across the skies above downtown Mobile. We looked up to view a private jet, painted a deep indigo with blood-red lettering spelling “HO Industries” along the sides, with the number “16-42″ on its tail. The Mobile Press Register  reporters were in the street snapping pics. After about eight high-speed, low-altitude passes over the city, we heard the reporters wondering aloud “what are they looking for?”  Although we never said a word, we knew it was us.

Le Chemin a Chico?  ou Chicot?–Un Melange Louisianais Cajun

Moi, j’ai raconte a mon vieux voisin Cajun, Ti’ Joe Delahoussaye, que je m’en va en Chico in quelques semaines.  “Mais, neg’,” Joe dit avec excitation, “C’est un bon saison pour aller en Chicot!” (http://www.stateparks.com/chicot.html).   Il ajoute, “Les sac a lait vont mordre bien!”  

Obvieusement, Joe m’a pas compris bien en Anglais (ou Espagnol?) quand j’ai dit “Chico,” parque le “Chicot” bien connu parmi nous-autres, c’est le Bayou Chicot State Park dans le sud de la Louisiane.

Quand meme le confusion de pauvre Ti’ Joe, on va nous voir en Chico (en Californie), pas “Chicot” (en Louisiane).

 

“What just happened?” I asked my co-pilot, as we pulled over the side of the road for a quick break. We had switched positions again and my legs felt tired from the tricycle. “It felt as if I were speaking another language for a second.”

“You were,” she replied, shaking her head in a knowing way. “I am assuming that we must have hit a Global Language Distortion Cloud.”

“Global Distortion Cloud? You mean, like the one that villains often use in stories composed on Wikis? They drop those kinds of clouds from the skies, don’t they? It’s Dr. Ho, I bet. We know he’s up to something. Remember the RSS feed? The passes overhead by that private jet?”

“Exactly,” she answered, and was now deep in thought. “I think we should contact Lizzy as soon as possible and get a handle on whatever else might be happening in Chico. Something strange is going on here.”

I pulled out my laptop, booted up and checked my email. Sure enough, there was an priority message from Lizzy at the NWP main offices.

To: Techies
From: Lizzy
This is an urgent message to everyone who is on the road to Chico for Tech Matters. Dr. Ho is on the loose and is trying to stop all of you from making it to Chico. We have someone on the inside, providing us with some information. First, he let loose the National Testing Virus and now he is tracking everyone on their way to California. He is up to his old tricks! Thanks to our spy inside the Ho camp, I have also uncovered a strange phenomenon on a SeedWiki site, where Ho appears to be monitoring the progress of a certain pink tricycle.
Is anyone using such a vehicle?
If so, please go to this link and see for yourself what the evil scientist is up to:
http://www.seedwiki.com/wiki/the_long_road_to_chico

I imagine not all of you will make it to Tech Matters, so I just wanted to say, it’s been nice working with you.

Sincerely,
Lizzy

“She says that Dr. Ho is out there, trying to thwart us all from getting to Chico, and that there is a story about us on some Wiki,” I gasped.

“A Wiki? Well, go there and let’s see what it says,” she answered as I clicked the keys and found my way to the Wiki site. Sure enough, there was a story about me and my tricycle and the long road to Chico. Very strange. It was as if someone — or more likely, a group of people, judging from the disparity of the writing styles  — was not only watching me, but also documenting every step of my journey from my first steps in Massachusetts.

“Look! At the bottom of the page! It’s dialogue and …  we are talking. You and I. Talking, right now. The words are being typed as we talk. That’s rather odd,” she said, pulling on my shirt and pointing to the page. We both stared at each other, and then up at the sky, and then at the tumbleweeds rolling around us. Where had those tumbleweeds come from? There was no doubt that something was keeping a sharp eye on us and it was as if it knew what we were going to do before we did it.

I looked up at the sky and cupped my hands to my mouth, shouting: “Hey, you! If you can hear me, can you do us a favor and move us along towards Chico? We could use a little help. My legs are getting tired and Dr. Ho is getting close.”

“Who are you talking to?”

“The writers,” I answered. “Maybe they can help.”

That’s when we both noticed our call for assistance had been answered because right there in front of us was …

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOklahoma where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain… Blowing those darn tumbleweeds across the panhandle as we arrive at “The Merc”, the panhandles last resort, for one of Allan’s famous pan fried burgers and a chat with the locals.  Can’t believe it’s For Sale…  Won’t be the same without Allan!  2:11 am and time for a quick wink before travelin’ on.  zzzzzzzzzzzzzz


The writer returns, not from a slumber or sleep (the writer is trying to avoid the cliche of a dream sequence, if at all possible, even as it becomes clear that this story has to end somehow) but from a data mining adventure for the imperial presidency. It is clear that the characters set into motion in the Wiki story so many days ago are stranded in middle America and have little chance to make it to their destination on their own before the start of Tech Matters. The energy of the collective voice — always a tricky balance in a collaborative writing space — is starting to wane and so, therefore, the writer must do something. The end is near, but how will it end?

The writer thinks. And thinks.

And this is what is decided: rocket-powered turbo jets.

With little more than a punch of the keys on the computer (power is wonderful, the writer now understands), the pink tricycle is transformed into an amazing piece of three-wheeled trajectory as two solar-powered rocket booster engines are placed on the little trike and the two tech heroes are zooming across the country at top speeds. Newspapers give accounts of something strange careening through the byways and highways. Little kids watch with amazement and will write stories about the sightings of a pink bombadier in high school non-fiction classes. Teachers in classrooms who are staring out the window in a brief moment of reprieve will see the flash of light and suddenly become inspired to join the National Writing Project in order to write their way towards understanding this vision.

And the characters? They can barely catch their breath as they move through the country on the way to Chico. They can only hold on to the handle bars and suck in wind, dust, bugs and freedom of the open road as the Beats might have imagined it (minus the illicit substances) while still keeping their eyes peeled to the sky for Dr. Ho. They appealed to the higher authority but they don’t quite trust the writer (and neither do I) to be talented enough to bring all the strands together. They go north, and then accidentally east, before resuming a westward trail towards the Pacific Coast. As they bump along, the GPS transponder tumbles off the tricycle and is buried beneath a Prairie Dog mound (but that is another story).

And what about that Dr. Ho? The writer decides that the disembodied voice is a bit too freaky for this story and so, with the fecklessness of a creative mind, the writer has decided to banish Dr. Ho to a corrupt flash drive like a genie trapped inside of a lamp. It’s over before Dr. Ho even realizes what is happening. The menace has disappeared. (If only such a thing could be done with the real menacing forces in the world, the writer realizes, then perhaps the nuclear uncertainty of such places as North Korea could easily be dealt with but that is a ramble not worth rambling in this virtual time and place …)

The road to Chico is now free and clear!

Wow, I am so glad to see the pink tricycle made it through the rolling hills and prairielands of northwest Missouri without getting caught up in a buffalo stampede.  Its riders must be faster than the Pony Express and sneaker than Jessie James.

THE END OF THE STORY.
(phew)
One Comment
  1. Pingback: Kevin’s Meandering Mind » The Long Road Back from Chico

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