Was it only a month ago that I loaded up the Beckyville Bookmobile with my mother, Lola, two suitcases and thirty-four cartons of books and hit the highway for a tour of the U.S.? As I pulled out of my garage in Los Angeles that early August morning, I was both excited and anxious, like a kid taking her driver’s exam for the first time and about to navigate the serpentine course. To calm myself, I kept repeating “It’s only a road trip.” I knew I could handle anything for thirty days, even a 6,000-plus mile journey across the country to promote Escape from Beckyville. Little did I know, the book tour would be much more than just a road trip, and those thirty days would be extended to sixty or more.
To date, I’ve logged more than 5,500 miles on the trip meter of the Beckyville Bookmobile, have driven through fifteen states and survived a major storm. If everything had gone according to plan, I’d be lounging at my home in L.A. right now, sipping a mocha latte, with an empty van parked in my garage. As it turns out, I’m writing this from my mother’s living room in Pennsylvania. My dainty purple chariot, covered and forlorn, is abandoned in her driveway, about four boxes lighter. I really can’t afford to go home right now. Truth be told, I have neither gas money nor money for lodgings to make that multi-state trek back to the West Coast. As I sit in this house, in the town of my childhood, contemplating my future, I have to make some hard decisions. I’m a dreamer from way back, ever since I tried to construct a time machine out of a baby carriage and nuts and bolts when I was eight, confident that a thrilling future (or past) awaited me. But I’m learning to temper that idealism with a dash of pragmatism. A sister has to eat.
I had to put my car up for sale.
Derrick and Courtney, the same friends who went lot to lot with me looking for the van that would become the Beckyville Bookmobile, have offered to retrieve my six-year-old baby from the garage, spruce her up and put her on the car auction block for me. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
Before making that decision, I toyed with the idea of returning to work. I could go back to L.A., get a “real job” and replenish my savings account before hitting the road again. But I know how difficult it is to return to the ocean of your dreams when you’re safely on land. I wasn’t ready to climb ashore and flick off the droplets of hope that have clung to me throughout this journey. I decided to stay and fight. As impractical as it seems, I have extended the cross-country tour until mid-October. My plan is to do readings at bookstores in various cities that I wasn’t able to hit up on the original route due to scheduling conflicts or lack of lead time to promote the event. I will return to La La Land with an empty van, even if I have to peddle copies of Escape from Beckyville from my van, like a soul sista ice cream truck.
During my travels, friends and family have called or texted me with words of encouragement and support. My dear friend, whom I call Princess J, recently sent the following message: “Life on the road is not for sissies … stand confidently and always make room for God to drive.”
As I think of people I’ve met along the way during these thirty days, the new cities I’ve driven through, the time I’ve had to bond (or bicker) with Lola, J’s words come to mind. Life on the road has not been easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Yet, the hours I’ve spent in my mobile living room, listening to the rumble of road beneath the tires, have shown me that I’m resilient, that it takes more than a deflated bank account to break my spirit. The dust and dead bugs collecting on my van means that I’ve been somewhere, that I’ve traveled outside the parameters of my comfort zone, in pursuit of my dreams. In spite of the uncertainty of my future, I’ve actually had fun. I’ve discovered some things about myself that I didn’t know before, and I’m sure my road dog, Lola, would say the same. Most of all, I’ve learned that it takes all kinds of folks to make the world go round, and I’ve met some pretty interesting characters during my adventures. Here are some of my fondest memories from the road.
Sisterhood in Sacramento
The first stop on our book tour was Sacramento, about 384 miles north of Los Angeles. I had a reading at Underground Books, a well-known literary hub ran by Mother Rose, mom of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. As soon as our cousin Paulette knew we were stopping by her neck of the woods, she opened her home to us. She and my mom were best friends growing up, and they hadn’t seen each other for many years. One of my fondest memories in the California capitol was driving to the Bay Area with my mom and my cousin, blasting Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” as Paulette and Lola sang along. What’s a road trip without music? I loved hearing the women reminisce about the men they dated when they were younger, the parties they sneaked out of the house for, the miniskirts they wore. I loved the sense of kinship and community engendered in the cramped van, something I hadn’t experienced in a long time, loner that I am. Hearing the women talk about their past, reminded me of why I write – to give voice to the pain, yearnings and triumphs of black women.
It was in Sac that I began to embrace my voice as an author, as a word warrior on wheels. I wasn’t sure how I would be received at Underground Books. The reading took place on a Tuesday night, and it wasn’t well publicized. Mother Rose had been so gracious to allow me to host a signing at her place, and I had hyped up my following. As I walked through the doors, I only expected to be greeted by two or three people, but we had at least twenty folks in attendance that night. After the reading, women were coming up to the table where I sat, buying three and four books at a time. I wasn’t sure if the stories I read from Escape from Beckyville resonated with them or if my journey did, but I wanted to cry from the support and love I felt in that room, from the sisterhood. Riding the waves of the women’s well-wishes, we left Sacramento and headed to our next stop – Vegas.
Literary Life in Sin City?
Lola and I can’t get enough of Las Vegas. We love staying up late in our hotel room, watching movies with a glass (or two) or Riesling, pigging out at bland buffets and sipping strawberry daiquiris with whipped cream while yanking on the handle of that one-armed bandit. As much as I was looking forward to spending a few days in gambler’s utopia, I had to keep my mind on business. The Beckyville Bookmobile was one box lighter, and I wanted to maintain that momentum. I had a reading scheduled at the West Las Vegas Library, and my goal was to unload another carton of books. Not that I considered Vegas a literary mecca, but we had to drive through Nevada on our trek to the East Coast. I figured the universe would look favorably on my attempt to sprinkle knowledge on the city of smoke and showgirls during our sojourn there.
If you’ve read my post on our stop in Vegas, you know that only three people showed up for the reading, one of whom was my mother. In spite of my disappointment at this lack of a packed house, I was grateful for the support of the two people who did attend. One was a young black woman named Shawntay, whom I still keep in contact with, and the other was an older gentleman named Carl, who was also a photographer for the library. Noting my dismay at the paltry showing, Carl encouraged me to take heart. He related the story of radio show host and author Michael Baisden, who had done a reading at the same library. On Baisden’s first appearance, only a handful of folks were in the room. When he returned to the West Las Vegas Library years later, people were lined up outside the adjacent theater, waiting to hear him speak. Carl’s words were just the encouragement I needed to keep going. For an indie author, one stranger’s belief in your work is like a divine finger tapping you on the shoulder reminding you that you’re on the right road. Cradling this shroud of support, I once again packed up the purple chariot and drove east, toward Arizona.
Hair-Snatching Strangers in the Copper State
I know I suffered from dehydration while on the highway because I would only down one or two eight-ounce bottles of water a day. In spite of pleas from Lola and others to hydrate as we made our way through the desert, I would only drink so much. I dread using public toilets. Some days, we spent eight to ten hours in the car, and I didn’t want to slow down our already lengthy drive time by constantly pulling over to find a toilet.
But Mother Nature won’t be slighted.
Two hours outside of Las Vegas, I pulled into a Shell gas station in Kingman, Arizona to use the restroom. When I returned, a middle-aged white guy wearing a dashiki was leaning into the passenger window of the Beckyville Bookmobile talking to Lola. His name was Buck. He and his son were on their way to North Carolina. Buck was one of those hipster white guys who believe his friendship with black folks makes him an expert on all things African-American. As I climbed back into my seat, he grabbed a hank of the two-stand extensions I wore. “You got good hair?” he jokingly asked. “I know about black women and their hair.”
Buck’s son, a freshman or sophomore in college, was mortified. “Dad, did you just touch her hair?” the young man asked, his face reddening. “I just read an article. You’re not supposed to ask black women about their hair.”
Buck waved away his son’s embarrassment, probably dismissing the kid as out of touch. We learned that Buck is a missionary, was once a chaplain for Bishop Desmond Tutu, and had met Nelson Mandela. Even though he was a white man from the south, as he put it, he had many black friends and knew that we were all the same under the skin. He was such a character that Lola made me get back out of the van and take a picture with him. As we posed, I said to my new friend, “Don’t mind her. She’s bossy.”
“Well, aren’t all black women bossy?” he said with a wink. “I know how y’all are.”
Buck could have been one of the characters from my book, a real-life male Becky sporting a beard and African garb. Despite his faux familiarity, I wasn’t offended. I didn’t detect any superiority in his gestures, just an affable cluelessness. After chatting with us for fifteen minutes or so, he bought a book and wished us Godspeed on our journey.
Here is a snapshot I didn’t plan on including in this post, but that just came to me.
With Buck and his corny racial humor in the rearview mirror, we continued driving east. I had no plans to do a reading in Arizona, but since we were passing through the state on our way to New Mexico, I wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Lola and I had never visited this craggy world wonder, and we wanted to get in a bit of sight-seeing before continuing on our travels. With Richard Pryor’s blue brand of comedy playing in the van, we pulled up to a rest area just outside the entrance to the southern rim. Ahead of us, a line of tourists snapped photos of the granite Grand Canyon sign. A woman and her husband asked if we wouldn’t mind taking their picture and said they’d do the same for us. After Lola and I posed and thanked the couple, a woman approached our group.
“Did you pay for parking yet?” she asked.
When we told her that we had not yet paid the $25 vehicle fee, she handed us her prepaid ticket. “It’s good for the rest of the day,” she said, and then hopped back into her car.
As Lola and I drove past a queue of cars toward the empty gate of the prepaid parking line, we couldn’t stop remarking about the kindness of strangers. Although there were other people milling about the entrance to the Grand Canyon, the woman had approached us, had bypassed the couple chatting with us to hand over her ticket. Later, standing on a gated cliff amidst a throng of tourists, I drank in the majestic views of the billion-year-old world wonder that the Pueblo people considered a holy site. I was reminded that as vast and as rugged as this road seems at times, I don’t travel it alone. There is a larger force at work in my life, brushes with Spirit in the form of a guest bed, a prepaid ticket, an encouraging word. There are many more miles ahead of us … and just as many opportunities to strengthen my faith, to meet new people, to make more memories.