On the road again

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Yes, once again, I’m about to do that thing I do, the long drive.  It’s funny, but I seem to be repeating a childhood pattern (as we all tend to do).  In my case it is the full-out cross-country road trip once a year.

My father is a peripatetic kind of guy. Because of various revolutions and natural disasters and immigration restrictions, his family moved from Leningrad to Tokyo to Mexico City before he was three years old. (We think we live exciting lives – but if you ask me nothing we do holds a candle to what our parents have lived through.) That sense of movement never really left Dad; he got into the U.S. when he was 15 and rode the rails all over the country before he was 18, and I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s behind the wheel of a car (“King of the Road” is one of our family songs).

Though when he married and started a family he put down roots in California, Dad and my mother are both educators, and at the time my siblings and I were growing up, schools still had those three-month long summer vacations. And we spent those long summers on the road, driving all over the country, different routes every year, because Dad and Mom thought that we should see the country. All of it. Intimately. You might even say, would definitely have said if you had seen how grimy we all got after two months on the highway, that we became one with it.

So some of my earliest and most enduring memories and sensations are – movement. Perpetual movement. Constantly changing scenery and huge contrasts: endless brutal deserts turning into palm oases. Towering craggy mountain ranges with pockets of ethereal fields of wildflowers. Geysers and glaciers… and grizzly bears trying to claw their way into the car.

And while there are other life lessons generally associated with the back seats of cars, I really believe that the back seat was where I learned how to write.

I don’t think it’s any surprise that I’m a sucker for big visuals in my reading and my writing, or that I crave stories that have a constantly moving pace and surprises around every bend. I definitely picked up those rhythms and preferences on the road.

But as everyone knows, road trips aren’t necessarily a thrill a minute. Especially in portions of, say, Texas, where the same kind of flat landscape seems to go on for days. Oh, right, that’s because it DOES go on for days. So I did a hell of a lot of reading along some of those stretches, and sometimes would read the same book several times in a trip, which was great training for writing, because with multiple readings you start to see the mechanics of it all. I could recite whole sections of my favorite thrillers and mysteries to my family. I also learned to make up stories to entertain myself. What if that car following us was full of CIA agents? (Oh, right – the car behind us sometimes WAS full of CIA agents. My father is a scientist, and Russian, and that was a suspicious combination when I was a child).

But what if they kidnapped us? What if I was the only one who could get free?

What if those dinosaurs in Dinosaur World suddenly came to life? (Okay, Michael Crichton beat me to that one)

What if there were real ghosts in that ghost town?

You have a lot of time for those “What ifs” on the road.

And God knows all that traveling – the national parks, the different cities, the museums and art galleries and reservations and ghost towns along the way, gave me a whole lifetime of fodder for different stories.

I’m eternally grateful for the traveling because it’s made me completely unafraid about jumping in a car or on a plane and going wherever I have to go to research a story.  Not just unafraid, but eager for it. Especially writing supernatural thrillers as I do – the PLACE of a ghost story is sometimes the most important part of the whole deal. I always want to visit and explore the city or region I’m writing about, because it’s the best way to give a reader a true and complete experience. I need you to believe in the reality of the story – to feel and smell and hear things – so I can sneak in there and scare the pants off you.

All that traveling also prepared me for the author’s life – although I never would have known that going in. I don’t think anyone can possibly realize how much traveling is required of an author: not just the research, but the conventions, the book signings, the workshop gigs. It’s a wonderful gypsy life – you go to different cities every year for Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Book Expo America, the Public Library Association conference, Thrillerfest, Malice Domestic, Romantic Times – and all your friends are there, including your agent and editor, so you end up doing business in all these different cities. It’s a huge traveling circus, really.

And it helps me with dreaded book promotion that I have no problem driving all over the state – any state – to stop in at bookstores and sign stock. I’d prefer to be driven, but driving itself is relaxing to me, and a welcome break from writing, so I find it a great balance – exhausting, I won’t lie about that, but also rejuvenating.

I don’t panic if I get lost, I don’t worry when little things go wrong, and I really do end up enjoying the ride. And I never, ever forget how lucky I am: I always wanted the kind of life that would take me to new places all the time, and I’ve got it – in spades.

So, that’s going to be my Christmas vacation. And hopefully, I’ll leave all the not-so-optimal aspects of 2010 in the dust.   I hope the same for all the ‘Rati.

Now it’s your turn. Are you a road tripper?  Was there something else in your childhood that you think prepped you or turned you out as writer?   Or, if you’re not already out there shopping, what are you doing for the holidays?


41 thoughts on “On the road again

  1. Kaye Barley

    Alex, I just admire the hell out of you! For tons of reasons, but this travel thing of yours is most definitely one of them. You would put me out on the side of the road. I'm one of those who just cannot seem to enjoy the journey and spend too much time thinking we should just BE THERE! Plus, I'm such a "nester," I seem to feel the need to take my entire life with me. By the time we set ourselves up in whatever rented room, condo, house, or guest room of friends we're going to be in for a few days, I have it looking as though we've lived there forever. Plus I'm one of those "what to wear, what to wear?" and end up with waaay too many clothes, shoes, jewelry, etc. One problem has been solved by now owning a shiny sexy new iPad – I no longer have to drag a huge amount of books with me.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    But Kaye, where is "there"? Isn't it where you are?

    I wish I could be more of my fashionista conference self on the road, but this time of year, I think I'm just going to have to shoot for keeping warm.

  3. Alafair Burke

    Funny you mention this because I was just looking at my Continental account and realized I already have 15,000 miles booked for the first 3 months of 2011, and that's before all the book promo stuff will kick in for summer. My father was nomadic and it crept into the kids. I no longer talk about moving all the time, which was my way until a couple of years ago, but I do still have constant travel plans. I wonder sometimes if the itch to be on the move is a little unhealthy but your post puts it into perspective. Happy travels!

  4. Karen in Ohio

    When I met my husband, more than 32 years ago, he'd been to 48 of the States, all except Alaska and Hawaii. At the time, I'd been to maybe nine. 10 years ago we finally went to Hawaii, and he's been to Alaska several times, a couple while filming for National Geographic. Now I've been to 49 (all except Alaska), and three more continents, and I found that I love to travel, way more than he does. What???

    Last year I drove 6,000 miles by myself, and another 5,000 with him. This year looks to be more homebound, although we do have a couple cross-country trips planned, just nothing international.

    My first-ever road trip happened when I was 14, and my aunt invited me to drive from Ohio back to her home near DC. We toured the DC/Shenandoah Valley area, and had great fun, then she drove me back to Ohio, if you can imagine. That trip did it for me, though. Ever since then I just love piling into a car and taking a trip, the less planned the better.

    Don't mention the holidays. I'm in denial.

  5. Sylvia

    Happy road trip!!!!

    I remember our road trips from N. Michigan to Ohio…summer, winter, spring, fall. The time we were caught in a blizzard on the side of the road, the fear of 'driving past Detroit', crossing into Ohio and feeling the instant rivalry between states…

    I do enjoy driving but now with three kids under 10 in the car the backseat dreaming has given way to leading the pack in weird trivia, playing DJ with the cd player or simply yelling. How did our parents do it??

    So while you will be driving cross country, we'll sequester ourselves around the tree and catch up on great books.

    Happy travels!!!

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, Dusty and Spence!

    Well, Alafair, I have the same thoughts about the travel itch possibly being unhealthy, but at least we're putting it to good use. And judging from the comments, we're also not alone.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry about using the "H" word, Karen. Wow, you make me feel like an amateur road tripper! What a fun history you and your husband have. But I'm with you – the less planned, the better.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sylvia, my parents had an absolutely uncanny ability to tune the kids out. I guess they must. The stereo was up front and either that or the radio was always on, so maybe they just had really selective focus. I really don't know!

  9. PK the Bookeemonster

    I've only done one serious road trip, driving from Montana to Washington DC and back while hauling in-laws, two horses and a surrey. Crossed a heckuva lot of states in January in a short amount of time….. Never. Again.

  10. Cathy

    Wow, Alex, you kick started a trip down memory lane. With my parents, the spark to get on the road was history. Cram four kids and assorted gear into the car and head out. No one worried about seat belts and we usually left a narrow gap in the back of the station wagon for grabbing a nap, reading a book (and providing refuge from the dreaded middle seat). By the time I was a teenager, I think we’d hit most of the Revolutionary and Civil War sites east of the Mississippi – and throw in the Liberty Bell and assorted DC museums and statues.

    And oh horrors, I just realized we probably did mimic the pattern when we attached a camper, 4 bicycles and 2 kayaks to the Landcruiser (AKA Tank) – just call us the Griswolds – and headed out for points anywhere. And on one of those long boring stretches of Texas highway, did you know there are road signs memorializing the first deep water well – which promptly collapsed – and markers for the Pony Express crossings? But the contrasts in the landscape, the Immensity of this country are things I carry. Speech patterns, lifestyles. I think the contrasts being it into focus. Underline that there is more than one way to do things. My oldest shares my love of travel and art and willingly traipses all over the world with me. So I suspect the pattern will continue.

    My first story also evolved behind the wheel. A consulting job came with a 90 minute commute and the day dreams developed dialogue and a plot, and I started writing them down. It became the first really bad novel that lives in the closet, but the door to that particular closet wasn’t gonna close.

    Thanks for the mental vacation. It’s snowing—again—and I’m getting cabin fever. Or maybe you simply reactivated the wanderlust.


  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Cathy, we had a way back seat refuge, too, which I was usually in because I was the only one of us kids who could read while facing backward.

    And my parents always got in that historical layer, too, it was one of the great things about it all – in retrospect! 😉
    Now my sister and I are the ones who plot the historical tours and what museums and landmarks to hit.

    Sorry about the cabin fever – I know how that goes.

  12. Fran

    Road trips! Yeah!

    Lillian and I knew we were going to be a solid partnership when we drove from New Mexico to Michigan together and loved every minute of it. There are times when we actively miss going on long road trips, and it makes us antsy and irritiable. Eventually we end up day-tripping someplace, but it's not the same as a few weeks on the road, seeing new things, having mini-adventures, renewing our spirits and our hearts.

    Have a fun and safe trip, Alex, and know we're thinking happy/envious thoughts of you!

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    We love to travel, and plan to do more of it. We've visited 28 states so far, and will be adding another to the list when I tour in March – LCC in New Mexico. My favourite way to travel, though, is by sea. I love to sail.

    I think it's sad these days that kids are stuffed into the back seats of cars with an electronic pacifier hooked over the seat back in front of them. They watch the same cartoons without ever being aware of what's going past the window outside.

    Car journeys are always the best time for me to unravel complicated bits of plot. I've written huge chunks of books in cars over the years.

    Happy Holidays, travel safely, arrive well

  14. Debbie

    Only did one true road trip and I'm not sure it qualifies. It was to reach a particular destination, not to visit several along the way. Should mention that I don't drive so it was my friend who drove from Toronto to the top of Lake Superior, 8 months pregnant to go camping. What the hell was I thinking? Btw, it was September, and my friend seriously thought we should swim just to say we'd done so in all the great lakes. All the power to her, she fell in! It's freaking windy up there, and had we pointed the car south at the beginning of the trip Alex, we could have joined you in NC where I'm sure, it was comparitively warm. Btw, the 'hospital' was the size of a vet clinic here in the city (no exaggeration) and there was a helo pad out the front. My daughter was an emergency section and from the doctors recommendation, signing consent, prep, to first incision, it was perhaps fifteen minutes…not in a helicoptor but a city hospital, although that would have made a kick ass birth story in hindsight!

  15. Debbie

    Edited a sentence and on a reread, I realize now that my comment is more confusing. Meant to say my friend did all the driving, and I was eight months pregnant…not her.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thank you and Lillian, Fran! I couldn't agree more that road trips are a great test of a relationship. And I get that same antsy feeling when it's been too long between good long drives.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Z, New Mexico is one of my favorite states for driving, just gorgeous and LIVE. And I agree -the car DVD player is appalling, just appalling. Might as well saw off the top of a kid's head and scoop out their brains.

  18. judy wirzberger

    Each summer, Mom and Dad packed themselves and the four kids into the car and headed to Blakesburg, Iowa, from our driveway in East St. Louis, Illinois. Always in the summer and always without air conditioning. As I remember it was the only time we "ate out" stopping at small diners once or twice during the almost nine hour trip. I think we were too hot and sweaty to bicker and celebrated leaving the paved road for the dusty gravel one that led to my Aunt's farm. Mom, a city girl, was amazed that the barns were bigger than the houses, and stopped eating chickens for about a year after she first saw what chickens ate as they followed the hogs around. It gave me a love for road travel, in spite of the heat and greasy hamburgers.

    Today, to visit the grandkids just an hour north, I turn off the interstate as soon as I can and travel the hills and backroads, keeping the windows down and smelling manure and asparagus and happily eucalyptus and the musky delta along the way.

    Happy trails.

  19. Kim C

    We too were summer road trippers. All through my grade school years my family did the cross-country trek. Each year a new route. I think I saw three quarters of America by the time I was ten years old. We were RVers. I have fond memories of many a KOA camp ground. I spent a ton of time reading, listening to music and making up stories in the back of that camper, both on the road and back home. It became a kind of clubhouse when parked out back of my parent's house. Unfortunately those trips ceased once we built a new house, sold the camper and moved into the burbs. My family's focus then moved from travel to little league and softball.

    When I first moved to LA, fifteen years ago, I bought an old convertible and did a lot of exploring, driving the canyons, route one and the old highways. It never failed to help me get some perspective and clear my head. These days I don't do much in the way of the long drive. Perhaps it's my daily commute that's sapped some of the fun from driving, LA traffic can do that, or perhaps it's that I end up feeling guilty about the amount of gas I've wasted. Either way, I miss it and this post has reminded me of just how much. Perhaps a long drive is in order for this summer hiatus. I've yet to see Vancouver and that could be a lovely drive up the coast. =)

  20. toni mcgee causey

    My dad never really had the "travel" idea of cross-country road trips. He had the trucker mentality of "here's point A and there's point B and by God, we are going to get to point B in a day even if it is a three day trip if it kills everyone." (I love my dad. Just not his road trips.) I technically visited about half of the states when I was little. I'm not entirely sure I actually saw most of those, hunkered down in the backseat the way I was, plotting silent ways to kill my little brother for drumming or tapping me for hundreds of miles. I remember nothing about Oklahoma that we passed through, but I can tell you intimately what kind of stitching that back seat had or exactly how many times I could pinch my brother before he cried and I got into trouble.

    I have this grand fantasy of what a long trip could be — meandering, sight seeing, making new friends along the way. Maybe one day, when we don't have the construction company, we could just pick up and go.

    Bon chance, Alex, and safe trip.

  21. Rochelle Staab

    I LOVE road trips! I've been to every major city in the US via air. I'm aching to get in the car and explore. A tour of baseball stadiums or state fairs would be at the top of my list. Or every major US landmark. I like themes, can you tell?

    We didn't travel when I was a child – all of my youthful exploring was done through books or at the movies but I believe I was born with wanderlust. I left my hometown in my 20s and never looked back.

    I hope you have the best time on your trip, Alex. And thank you for sharing your memories. I felt like I was there with you too. Great stories.

  22. Reine

    Alex, that is a terrific story about your dad and family travels. I recently became interested in family history and love that the different branches of my own come from so many different places.

    I really, really, really love road trips. My more immediate family of origin mostly doesn't leave the New England/Maritimes/Eastern Townships area. And those from Boston generally consider it abandonment to move out of the area. And those who left New York for Boston have never gone back. If you're in the service, you are expected to get out as soon as you can and move back home. School is a regional option only, although one cousin went to Penn, I hear, but only after she married.

    Thank god for my Auntie-Mom who discovered the world early on and gave me the spirit of movement and the search for wonderful places everywhere. I'm not very good with the physicality of travel anymore, and I can no longer climb rocks or go backpacking, but we do rent an accessible van go someplace every year. Last year it was up the Pacific Coast Highway. This year was Death Valley. Next year it'll be the rez back east.

  23. KDJames

    Safe travels, Alex! Every time you say you're leaving here I think of it as Alex Escaping From the Trees. 😉

    Did you remember to get the oil changed, top off the engine coolant, check the wiper blades, pack a blanket— oops, sorry, was using my mom voice there for a minute. Happens when you have kids who like to take off for places unknown.

    Hope all your road trip adventures are the good kind and that your holidays are filled with the things you love!

  24. Reine

    Alex, Death Valley is one of my favorite places on earth. Makes home seem claustrophobic. When I was a navy cop at China Lake we used to patrol there from time to time. That was back when the wild horses ran. They would see us in the valley and run beside our truck. My favorite place to camp is Mesquite Springs. With help I can do almost everything I still really want to do.

    Ohhhh… good ghosties there, too.

  25. Louise Ure

    I'm enjoying that lovely feel of wanderlust right now, sitting here Australia's Hunter Valley, sipping on a good glass of Shiraz. God, it's good to be back.

  26. billie

    Chiming in late, but one of my favorite memories is lying on the back seat during the night-time driving part of road trips, feeling utterly safe b/c my dad was at the wheel, my mom was up there beside him, and I could watch the sky and sometimes street lights go by through the back windshield.

    My two teens and I took my mom on to the mtns. for her birthday in October, and w/o realizing it at the time, I recreated a route she and my dad traveled when they were first married. He died a year and a half ago, so the memories and the stories that my mom told along the road on this trip were just priceless. There is something about the forward motion of the car and the ability to look outside as you talk that I think brings people into a sort of trance state, and it was magical hearing my mom tell the stories as I wound around the mountains, the trees wild with color, and hearing my teens ask her for more details.

    Which reminds me that as a therapist, I have had several child clients who were completely closed off – one had been in an institutional setting on major psychotropics for several years of a young life, and the therapy office nor the play therapy room were able to offer an open door or window to anything. I had a feeling the car might do it, so we created a treatment plan where I actually provided transportation once a week for the child home to family – the ride took just about an hour – and that was the time when the therapy even became possible – being on the road opened everything up.

    So interesting to me. The archetypal energy is there so powerfully when you pack and set out for a "journey."

  27. JT Ellison

    Safe travels, sweetie! My parents used to haul us three days back and forth to Florida for summers and Christmas. I like road trips, just not three day long ones : )

  28. Pari Noskin Taichert

    A really difficult home life prepared me well for writing. I'm almost to the point of being able to mine it w/o making it ME-focused.

    And . . . if you come through NM, you'd better call me!

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