Blacktop: Kicking off a Kickstarter project


UPDATE: Blacktop: Driving Across America is now available for purchase.

When I was in Grade 4, I had a poem published in a school-board chapbook. I was thrilled. But what stays with me, what makes me smile every time I think of it, is that Miss Wills wrote on the inside, “One day I will see your name in lights.”

I was just like every other girl, in that I wanted to be an astronaut and Lady Di. Being a princess and flying in space were things I wanted to do, but what I actually did was write stories about those things. Those things, every thing. I was always stringing words together in notebooks, always with a pen because I’d heard my dad, the editor, say, “Pencils are for people who make mistakes.”

I was writing Star Wars fanfic in the ’80s, decades before “fanfic” was a word. I joined MUSHs in the early ’90s so I could tell stories with other people. I had my heart broken and wrote a novel about it. I scored a job where I am surrounded by writers, where I can help them tell stories. I jumped on the LiveJournal bandwagon. Eventually I found WordPress and hollowed out a little home for myself.

Writers in general are shy and insecure, award-winning author Mark Abley once told me. It’s so much worse for women writers, he said, encouraging me to keep at it and to speak up for myself. That was more than 20 years ago.

Which is just a very wordy way of giving one reason this project, transforming a selection of blog posts into a book is so very important to me.

But it’s good for you, too! There are some fun stories in here and some pretty damn good pictures. It’s not just that I want to see my name on that cover—it’s that I want to see it in your hands; it’s that I want to share all these things with you.

Phew. If you’ve made it this far, I’ll ask you to go just one step farther, and consider purchasing a copy, as a trade softcover or ebook. If you like, spread the word.

And, hey, thanks for reading. I love you people.


The mystery of The Reclining Lady of Iowa City

The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.
The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.

OAKLAND CEMETERY, Iowa City—What do you see in her? I am amazed at how many of you are drawn to this photograph of The Reclining Lady with her soft white curls and gentle curves. She touches something inside you.

She lies a little apart from the other stones in her cemetery, separated from the poets and ghost stories. I call her a lady, but if she is an angel, I do not envy her her tragic assignment, guarding the souls of a father and son who barely knew each other.

iowa city oakland cemetery

In the early 1990s, air force psychiatrist Thomas Brigham and his colleague Alan London of Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Wash., found Dean Mellberg unfit for duty. Though Mellberg was reassigned for some time, it became obvious he did not have the mental stability to continue in the forces and was dishonourably discharged.

Brigham called the airman “a dangerous paranoid bordering on paranoid schizophrenia,” Brigham’s wife, Susan, told in January 2013. She recalled that the family talked about being prepared in case the man came after Brigham for ending his career. “We had loaded shotguns in the house, even with small children. … An entire mental hospital was warned.”

It wasn’t enough. Warned, yes, but staff of the base hospital could not have known Mellberg, after a night of carousing at an adult nightclub, would get in a cab carrying a bag with two assault rifles, then walk right through the hospital’s front doors to London’s office and shoot him to death. Brigham was the victim of Bullet No. 2. An 8-year-old girl, a middle-aged woman and a young woman’s fetus were the next to die. More than 20 people were wounded before Mellberg was shot to death in the parking lot.

It was 1994 and Brigham was 31 years old. He left behind his wife, daughter and 6-year-old son, Madison Thomas Brigham.

iowa city oakland cemetery

“He entered his life premature and left prematurely,” Madison’s obituary says. “God speed on angel wings, my son, be held and loved in your father’s arms. “

Madison died in a car accident on a rural road in 2004. He was 16 years old.

It’s hard to know him, going on little more than his obituary, which paints the picture of a determined young man known for his love of the outdoors, hard work on the tennis court and fascination with American history. But looking deeper and following the little trail his mother has left, a more detailed picture emerges.

An accomplished horseman, he spent hours riding alone in the Iowa countryside. It appears the quiet Madison didn’t make friends easily, though he was fiercely loyal to those chosen to be in his circle. And so many were loyal to him, including the people who mentored and fathered him in the absence of Thomas Brigham.

Nearly two years after his death, his mother and stepfather founded Catalpa Corner Horse Park on their land in his honour. The community’s response to the eventing area speaks louder than even the most loving obituary. In August 2005, The West Branch Times wrote: “Phil Sawin and Dan Stark, both professional eventing course designers, came to lend their expertise. Paul Welsh, of Iowa City, engineered the magnificent water complex on the cross country course. Local business Cargill, which sponsors horse eventing nationally, agreed to donate feed for the horses and help with future events. Amish carpenters helped build several of the jumps. A Southeast Iowa Ambulance worker has agreed to donate his time, which would typically cost $120 per hour, at future Catalpa Corner trials. The list goes on and on.”

Madison’s picture hangs at the start of the course. “But it still doesn’t bring him back,” Susan told the West Branch Times.

He rests with his father, and The Reclining Lady watches over their souls.

Road Trip 2013: How’d we do that? (Part II)

Alien Crash Trompe-l'Oeil Mural in Palo Alto, Calif.
Alien Crash Trompe-l’Oeil Mural in Palo Alto, Calif.

The Vehicle

Joe the Truck is 10 years old. When we left on Road Trip 2013, he had 165,000 kilometres on him. How old your car is should not matter.

I have his oil changed every 5,000 kms (he had four in 2013) and take care of minor issues quickly, because when I hit the road, I don’t want maintenance fears in the back of my head (I want them to sneak up and say BOO. Sigh.).

Three weeks before we started west, I had a full inspection done on Joe and fixed several little things. What I did not do—and still have not done, for fear of what I’ll find—is have the spare tire checked. I have CAA Plus, which I didn’t need at all during our trip but, as faithful readers remember with a grin or grimace, I needed quite desperately during that Vermont drive in October.


Portland does nutrition right.
Portland does nutrition right.

Everyone wants to know how we can possibly afford trips like this. Seriously? Road-tripping is cheap if you do it right. We’ve never spent more than $5,000 on a summer trip, and most of that comes from money we get from our tax returns.

We really wanted to see Portland, but for all of us to fly there, get a hotel for, say, two weeks, then rent a car so we could see a tiny bit of Oregon, would have cost us more than our entire month-long trip—and we saw a helluva lot more than Oregon.

We stayed with friends along the way, which not only cut out more than a week’s hotel bills, but brightened our trip more than I can ever thank them for.

Our necessities budget broke down roughly this way:

$50/day in gas (nearly nothing when with friends, up to $65 on big driving days). Gas is cheap state-side, especially in the Midwest.

$75/night for hotel, minus 10 nights with friends and five free hotel stays (I’ll get to that).

$60/day for food. This is the cost that fluctuates the most. Breakfast is included at most hotels and the staff at the friendlier places slip you an extra orange or waffle for later. Breakfast and last night’s leftovers are usually good enough for lunch, so generally one restaurant a day was all we did. We prefer out-of-the-way, family-run diners, where the food is good, plentiful and cheap. When we can’t find a diner, Denny’s is our go-to chain—we know what we’re going to get and they know how to treat a toddler.

We’re not big shoppers. A few souvenirs, bumper stickers, cool finds at vintage and thrift shops. The rest of the money goes into attractions, including an $80 national parks pass that we felt was our best purchase of 2013.

The Stardust Motel in Wallace, Idaho, had a definite Supernatural feel to it.
The Stardust Motel in Wallace, Idaho, had a definite Supernatural feel to it.


Although we love Supernatural-esque, privately run motels, we stay almost exclusively in Choice Hotels properties. Their Choice Privileges points program runs a promotion every summer where two stays at separate hotels rack up enough points for a free stay at a third hotel. We save up our free stays till the end of the trip, when we’re running out of money.

After spending some time in the system, we are treated like stars at some of the hotels—some Sleep Inns offer gold or platinum members goodie bags—and we’ve learned which names in the chain we prefer not to stay in—Rodeway and Econolodge are at the lower end of the price and quality spectrum. We’ve stayed in very nice Econolodges, but we also stayed in one in Buffalo that had brown splatter on the walls, a spooky smell and furniture that, umn, well, had seen better days. Like maybe as props for a movie about meth. (I’ll add here, though, that the Choice Hotels complaints department responded quickly, restored our points and assured us measures will be taken to upgrade the hotel. I will not be going back to follow up.)

Points be damned, the most fun we had was deciding at the last minute to stay in the Badlands Budget Host Inn in the town of Interior, S.D. There was no TV, but there was a barbecue pit and the Badlands, and more stars than one person can hope to see, ever.

Possibly the creepiest Ronald McDonald ever created, discovered by accident in Ohio.
Possibly the creepiest Ronald McDonald ever created, discovered by accident in Ohio.


You gotta find that planning sweet spot. You need to have a good idea of the types of land you’ll be crossing, about how long it’ll take you and where those barren stretches with no services are. If there’s an attraction you really want to see, you’ll want to plan to arrive before it closes, and you must allow time for side-of-the-road attractions you don’t know about till you’re right on top of them.

You must remain flexible. This isn’t a cruise ship where swing dancing is from 7 to 9 and shopping at a market is 2 to 6. On the open road, be open to the road.

We planned to spend two or three hours in the Badlands, but we stayed a day and a half. We planned to swim in the Great Salt Lake, but at the last minute decided we were all too weary and eager to get to our next stop. We’re so open to change, we flipped our entire trip upside down after less than a week on the road.

Our plan—in the making for months—was Erie-Colorado Springs-Santa Cruz-Portland-home. South, west, north, east. But the day before we left Erie, the daughter of our Colorado host fell ill. By the time we got to Omaha, Mel had flipped our trip around: we’d head straight to Portland, hit California and meet Melle in Colorado two weeks later.

The original first half of the our trip—reservations, attractions, driving lengths—was all Melani had mapped out. From Omaha on, we flew by the seat of our travelling pants and (after a few tears), had one of the best holidays of our lives.

Road Trip 2013: How’d we do that? (Part I)

Even though he wasn't feeling well, Trev played with Jilly at a park on the University of Wyoming campus.
Even though he wasn’t feeling well, Trev played with Jilly at a park on the University of Wyoming campus.

Start with an amazing teenager.

I know yours is perfect and wonderful – but can he handle six hours in a car with a toddler begging for his attention? I’m talking a level of amazing here that you just don’t see in most 17-year-olds.

It helps to have the perfect road-trip baby. At least, I assume it would, but I’ve never met the perfect road-trip baby. Trev came pretty close: His first big trip was across country by rail – he was 4 months old. We could toss him in the car and go anywhere, but we were 17 years younger then, so we did a lot of our driving at night, when he was sleeping, because we didn’t need sleep.

Jilly’s not really a road-trip natural. She likes to have a schedule and she hates to be tied down, as in a stroller or a car seat.

We did road-trip training with her (and thus was born my Walk in the Park series) so she’d get more comfortable on longer drives and so we could learn the rhythm of what she could handle.

jily trevor utahWe found that two-hour bursts worked best, so the perfect travelling day would go something like this:

  • Arrange a late checkout so we could have a leisurely breakfast and she could run around in the room or at the pool.
  • Hit the road at noon – nap time. Boot it. Nap time was when we could cover the most ground.
  • Stop for something – anything – a little while after she woke up. Roadside attractions were best, but rest areas were great for running around.
  • Boot it some more. With Jilly awake, we had more freedom to pull over places, wander around attractions, peruse a thrift shop or whatever. Depending on the stops, the second two-hour burst could last three or four hours.
  • Supper. Could be in a restaurant, or stopping to get groceries, or a few bites on the go while we checked out something neat. The point was to stop, get out, work off a little energy and – if we didn’t have a destination planned – figure out how much father we could go.
  • The last stretch was often the hardest, when I was tired of driving and Jilly was tired of being in the car and Trev was tired of retrieving toys she threw into awkward places. She’d nap off and on and we’d generally get to a hotel by 10.


Follow up with the perfect spouse.

Just because you love them, just because they’re your best friend, just because you’ve been together blahblah years and have raised children together doesn’t mean you’ll be compatible on the road. Six hours a day or more in very tight quarters, then sharing a room with the kids, wrangling everyone at supper – if you’ve even managed to find a restaurant you all agree on – can break a relationship.

If you haven’t done a long trip together (I don’t mean 10 days at a resort somewhere – I mean hard-core travelling, either camping or road-tripping), consider vacation training like we did with the baby. You need to learn each other’s travel rhythms and figure out when and what you’re willing to make concessions on. You need to understand that there will come a time when you’re snipping at each other and that time might lead to all-out yelling at each other in the car, where the acoustics are great. It might mean pulling over to cry at a rest stop.

Jilly used Joe the Truck like a jungle gym while we were stranded in Wallace, Idaho.
Jilly used Joe the Truck like a jungle gym while we were stranded in Wallace, Idaho.

It’s okay to take time apart on a family vacation. This year, I sipped whisky in Deadwood while the others scattered. Last year I toured a Dukes of Hazzard museum while Mel and the kids went to a Ripley’s museum. Not every adventure has to be experienced by the entire family. You’ll have more fun together if you take time to have fun alone. Trust me on this one.

Know your partner and know yourself and decide what you want to do together, what things are important to you, what things you don’t mind skipping and what you will absolutely not do. Melani was determined to go The Badlands even though I didn’t really care about it – it was one of the highlights of our trip. It was important to Trev to see the Matthew Sheppard memorial in Laramie and we hunted it down even though it was getting late in the day, he had a horrible toothache, and someone else might have thought “it’s just a park bench.” I refused to drive in the Idaho mountains at night, even though it meant sitting outside a motel for several hours with a busted credit card, waiting for Mel’s sister to deposit funds into our account (thanks, Lin!).

So. Have awesome kids and a spectacular spouse. Then recognize if you’re not the type of family that can roadtrip. It’s not for everyone.

A building I discovered while walking -- alone -- in Colorado Springs.
A building I discovered while walking — alone — in Colorado Springs.

Interstate system ‘firsts’ are entirely subjective

A strip of Interstate 80 in Nevada, on the way to Kansas.
A strip of Interstate 80 in Nevada, on the way to Kansas.

INTERSTATE I80, Kan. – Near the end of an epic month-long road trip, which would span 19 states and two provinces, trusty Joe the truck rolled along what is billed with typical Kansas enthusiasm as The First Completed Section of The Interstate System.

We were by then jaded by roadside signs, but this drew contented smiles all around. The interstate system has led us to Louisiana, Texas, California, Colorado—dozens upon dozens of spectacular places. And while country roads offer charm and adventure pivotal to any successful road trip, the interstates veining across the country are crucial to vagabonds like us.

The first section of interstate! And we were on it! But the word “first,” when it comes to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, is subjective.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the interstate wheels turning in 1941 by commissioning a report on the feasibility of a trans-American highway. Three years later, 40,000 miles of highway were approved, on the understanding that they would link not only major American cities, but also provide access to Canada and Mexico. Routes were chosen, dreams were dreamed, but no money was earmarked for the ambitious project until the 1950s, and even then the cash came in trickles.

Enter Eisenhower, who moved into the Oval Office in 1953. He wanted this road, and he wanted it bad. With his prodding, the project grew to 41,000 miles (as of 2002, it was nearly 47,000) and became a reality across the nation.

On June 29, 1956, he put his presidential John Hancock on the Federal-Aid Highway Act.

On August 2, Missouri signed two contracts under the act—for what would become the trailhead of the storied Route 66 and for the future Mark Twain Expressway, I70. It proudly boasts that it’s “the first project in the United States on which actual construction was started under the provisions of the new Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.” Not too sexy on a road sign, but it sounds legitimate.

So what of Kansas? That state signed a contract under the act on August 31, but work had already begun on the strip of blacktop I’d be driving over 57 years later. Thanks to the head start, that section was finished first and got its ribbon-cutting ceremony before Missouri, making it the first completed project under the act.

We got our thrill in Kansas, but we’ve driven on both “firsts.” In fact, we’ve driven more than 13,000 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate System. Just 33,000 to go.

The end of Kansas? The end of the world?

Photo by Melani Litwack
Photo by Melani Litwack

SMOKY HILLS, Kan. – “The hell is that?”

It was after dark in Kansas, just me and truckers on the road, as I like it.

Besides a short and incredible storm near the Colorado border—again, I suspected hail was involved but didn’t stop to investigate—our day in Kansas had been all I had hoped for: tornado free. If you think I’m vocal about my dislike of mountains, you should ask me about my fear of tornadoes.

Armed with the weather app Wunderground and a plan to spend the night in Salina, we’d made it nearly halfway across the state without incident. Then, on the black horizon—stretching the entire width of the world—hundreds of synchronized blinking red lights appeared.

We had a theories: An alien landing strip. A time machine. A plot to distract drivers and run them off the road to be picked off by zombies. The end of Kansas. The end of the world.

We were trapped. Behind and to each side, there was nothing but farmland. Salina was on the other side of those lights. If there was anything on the other side.

We drove for a long time and they still seemed so far away. I took some comfort in the evidence that there was a world of some sort beyond the thin red line: there were plenty of trucks on the other side of the highway and they had to come from somewhere.

Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.
Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.

“Windmills,” Melani finally said, and I nearly relaxed. “That’s a lot of windmills.”

It didn’t seem as though we’d gotten any closer, but suddenly they weren’t where I expected them to be, in front of me.

“Where’d they go?” I demanded of Trevor, who was riding shotgun. “Were they Called Home?”

“No, Mom. They’re all around us. We’re in the middle of them.”

I took my eyes off the road and horizon to peer out my window. Above, a million stars. Nearer to Earth, flanking and behind us, hundreds of red eyes blinking in tandem. I said something deep and meaningful that came directly from my heart.

I think it was: “Oh shit.”

* * *

Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.
Smoky Hills wind farm photo courtesy of Enel Green Power.

When we left Colorado Springs that morning, our gracious and fun host Melle had told us we’d pass a large wind farm. We had, back in Colorado—probably a hundred of them spread out on the Plains in daylight.

But what we drove into on the way to Salina was the Smoky Hills farm, about 250 windmills spread over the farms of 100 landowners.

Of its 740 plants in 16 countries, Smoky Hills is Enel Green Power’s biggest, generating enough power to light up 85,000 homes annually. Kansas is second only to Texas in American wind potential, and these great, beautiful beasts only remove about two per cent of the land from agricultural service, according to Italy-based Enel’s website.

There will be more: In July, Enel announced a U.S.-based consortium led by JP Morgan would provide $260 million to fund the Buffalo Dunes project in Kansas.