October 2016

Day 14 – Victory on Albany Hill

Albany Hill

Yesterday, in the eucalyptus trees on top of Albany Hill, I saw monarchs. This was in spite of my timing being early for their arrival in this particular part of the Bay. It was a definite high point in my journey to bring The Guidebook to life, and one of many small miracles I’ve encountered on our trip.

Until last night I’d only seen one monarch in the wild, this summer on top of Portland’s Mt. Tabor. I’d just finished the day’s work on my rough draft from my mobile hammock+notebook studio. At the moment I closed my notebook I looked up and saw it fluttering ten feet directly over my head like a little spirit come to say, “Yes, grown man. You may perform your work in the woods, in a hammock. Good idea.” I watched the monarch for two or three minutes before it shot west down the mountain. I chased its shadow through the leaf canopy for a few paces before it glided into a clearing, across a road, and out of sight.

Historically, I really try not to force meaning from these moments. I want to tell the truth as best I can, even through the complete fabrications that are my books. Then along comes this year with its tragedy upon tragedy and I find it just a little easier to embrace the big pile of schmaltz that’s inside me. If I have to find gratitude in impossibly awful scenarios (and I do have to), acknowledging the miraculous in very small moments becomes natural.

Last night, when I finally found migratory monarchs on Albany Hill, there was no clear message like that time on Mt. Tabor. mexico day of the deadStill, I have to claim a growing bond to these creatures and all the mysteries they embody. Butterflies are a symbol across world cultures for those who’ve died before their time: Soldiers in war, lovers, and lost children. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is rich with monarch iconography. Even Shigeru Mizuki, Japanese master of manga, recounted a spiritual experience with butterflies in his autobio and history of Japan, Showa. A vet of WWII, showaMizuki tells in one chapter of his return with war buddies to a South Pacific island and an old battlefield covered with decades-old bones from dozens of Japanese soldiers. After a restless sleep in the jungle, Mizuki and his friends share with each other that they all had the same nightmare: the bones rose to ask them why? Why did they return? How did they deserve to live? Shaken, the men decide to gather all the remains they can find, anoint them with sake, and hold a makeshift funeral. After praying over the bones for a time, they’re shocked to see butterflies pour out of the jungle from all directions, then descend to cover the bone pile in a blanket of living color. Were they just attracted to the sake? Were they the movement of spirits? Shigeru asserts the latter. I think I would too.


Photos from Albany Hill, ordered to give you an impression of my hunt:

albany hill cross

I don’t think it was the random giant metal cross that prompted it, but as soon as I reached the top of the hill, I prayed for a monarch. I’d spent a few minutes circling and climbing the park with no sign of any flying insects whatsoever, maybe thanks to the thriving robin population. But… robins don’t eat monarchs.

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This little one appeared moments later, maybe sixty feet above me. I thought this might be the best photo I’d get. I lost the butterfly in the trees, then spent about ten minutes circling the hilltop looking for more. I gave up, grateful for the brief sighting, and headed back down towards my car…

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When I saw another! Just down the hill the same way I’d come up. Again, far off, even with the telephoto lens.

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Closer, but not better.

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I took a few dozen wasted pictures as I tried to follow one, then two butterflies through the tree limbs. Finally:

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Some color! Blurry, but now most definitely a monarch. Then I saw this:

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A whole cluster of them!

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Two clusters! Just 15 – 20 feet above me.

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Then another flash of orange…

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Then a slow fanning of wings. A gift.

With night about to fall, I celebrated this victory with a Japanese dinner accompanied by a giant Sapporo beer. Just me, Shigeru Mizuki, and the memory of two dozen little miracles.

Day 12 – Get Rhythm

the rhythm rig

Now on day 12, the Cases have established trailer life rhythm. Roughly: Comics, eat, hike. Eat, drive, eat. Comics, read, sleep. Sleep more. Repeat.

The sleeping portion came easily. With Dorothy to bed at 7:30 PM, we’re never far behind. Everyone more or less sleeps ’til 7:30 AM barring obedience to my 5:00 AM work alarm clock. Obedience has happened, twice. Taskmaster Jonathan wants a reasonable defense for that behavior, and I do have one… The quality and quantity of my dreams on this trip trumps early morning productivity. I haven’t dreamed big technicolor d
reams like this since college and they’re much better creative fuel than the spoils of un-rested critical thinking. Someone in an old Italian art-house movie (La Dolce Vita?) said people who talk about their dreams are bores, but they were just trying to sound cool. No one writes better dialogue than dreams.

In spite of my justified lazing, work on The Guidebook progresses at a steady pace. I’ve gathered field data for about 50 locations according to my plus-sized Garmin watch, monarch mapand I’ve filled notebook #1 completely with rough draft pages. I look forward to this weekend and our arrival in Alameda County, where we just might start to see Monarchs in the first of their overwintering sites. Santa Cruz is a more certain bet. Either way we’re very close, and we get to spend most of our remaining travel time in monarch territory. Just look at them there on this migration sighting map (thanks to learner.org). East of the Rockies they’re lousy with monarchs, but in terms of our Western population, the Bay Area’s the place to be.

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Dear Creature HCSigning at The Escapist Comic Book Store – OCT 29

Another upcoming event, also in Alameda county, is my Saturday signing at The Escapist Comic Book Store. Dear Creature’s hardcover edition is the main deal, but they’ll probably have a smattering of my other work, too. Looks like the trade of Superman: American Alien just topped the New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels, so…what else can I say? As one of the six contributing artists on Max Landis’s retelling of Superman-history, I’m one sixth of a yooge deal. Come get yours signed. Get a quick sketch for free if you’re a kid or really nice. Whatever you do, if you’re in Berkeley on Saturday at 1 PM, come say hey.

american alien

Speaking of motivating a turnout: What do you think’s required, decoration-wise, to invite trick-or-treaters to a trailer door when said trailer’s parked on a random Bay Area street? Probably depends whether we’re in the Tenderloin or Haight-Ashbury.

I’ll let you know!

Sanity Strategies

Last night we discovered an incredible method to keep energy-riddled Dorothy from tearing apart our trailer’s interior on a dark and rainy night. Sarah asked her, joking, if she wanted to go outside and run around the trailer a few times.

“Yes!” said Dorothy.

We geared her up with her raincoat, rubber boots, and my headlamp and scooted her outside. I asked her, just before shutting the door against the elements and my child, if she could do 10 laps around the rig. She did, pausing only to comment excitedly on her progress or the imaginary obstacles she avoided (a forest of pooping butts was the standout). I really didn’t think she’d make 10 laps, but she blew past every expectation. Visible only via the satellite orbit of her headlamp, Doro’s running monologue bounced passed my window a full 100 times before she reentered the R-Pod, soaked and elated with victory.

She says she’s going to be an astronaut. Sarah thinks maybe a proctologist.

She probably has a good shot at both.

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The Guidebook

The Guidebook Splash

Today I want to share a very little bit about my next book. As we travel the west coast, dodging raindrops and making memories, I’m also gathering data and reference material for a young readers graphic novel, The Guidebook. Here’s a snapshot from my proposal:

To survive in a world where mammals are nearly extinct, a little girl named Elvi and a brilliant naturalist, Flora, must follow and protect the monarch butterfly migration.

It’s 2260. Solar radiation, now lethal to mammals, has forced humans into underground bunkers while nature overtakes cities, roads, and landmarks. The only eight-year-old girl lucky enough to roam free on Earth’s surface is Elvira Jones. Flora, Elvi’s adoptive mother, is a brilliant naturalist who discovered a chemical in monarch butterflies that allows mammals to live in sunlight again. Against the wishes of important people, Flora escaped her bunker with a few supplies, a pigeon named Thoreau, and the only person she couldn’t leave behind – Elvi.

Now Elvi and Flora follow the western monarchs from north to south on America’s Pacific coast. Flora wants to make enough medicine so that every human can live above ground again. Along their adventure, Elvi and Flora rescue a mysterious baby boy, navigate considerable mother-daughter drama, and overcome a threat from five men who want control of the monarch’s secret. Elvi reflects on these and more important moments (like getting bit by a weird bug) in a journal she calls “The Guidebook.” Elvi’s journal pages pop up through the comics narrative to serve as a field guide. Sort of like Flora’s fancy naturalist textbooks, but much more fun.

On every page or two, in the corner of a landscape panel, there are coordinates and a compass heading. This allows readers to follow Flora and Elvi’s progress through real places and even travel their exact route themselves.

So we travel with Elvi and Flora. We’re in our travel trailer rig and they’re in an imaginary, heavily modified 1988 Toyota van (my dream rig – the one that never dies, even in a far fetched-future scenario). Our routes overlap as I map their fiction to our stops from Florence, OR to Big Sur, CA and beyond. These are the tools I use to merge our travels:

watch and compass

The big watch-like thing on my wrist allows me to get coordinates. It’s early 2000s’ tech, but it was cheap, it’s durable, and it gets the job done. The little compass on the right gives me a rough heading towards whatever view I take in. Once I double-check these numbers, I tuck them into the corner of a Guidebook drawing and add in my fictional details… In the example below, I put Elvi and Flora’s adventure van and an old driftwood stump I used to climb on as a kid in Pacific City, OR. Elvi hangs on it there in her red hammock.

The Guidebook

Adventure calls us down the road again now, so I’ll leave more details for later. We’re currently in Arcata, CA, headed towards the Avenue of the Giants – a place where my dad marathoned back in his wildman running days. After that, it’s further down the coast toward the monarchs’ overwintering turf.

Can’t wait!

Day 5 – Nature vs. Blogging

Already five days into our adventure and just getting in a blog post now. I blame the wonder of nature. This is just the reality of all kinds of camping adventures taking over my time and energy. That and lack of internet. Oh, the joys and perils of the internet un-plug. I see you, (33) emails. I’ll be with you in a while.

It’s hard to know where to begin for an update, but I’ll just start with this picture, stolen from Sarah’s Facebook wall:

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Look at that form! Not bad for her third time. I hope it’s just a glimpse of things to come. Occupying Dorothy’s a full time job, but we’re keeping her busy with hikes, in-car/in-trailer artwork, and various candy bribes. Here we’re sharing an art session, she painting with my watercolors while I rough out my next book:

artThese are the riches of dad-dom.

So where have we been since Saturday morning, anyway?

On Saturday, instead of getting away by noon, we left at 7:30 PM. Regardless of our underestimating the work required to launch, we were dead-set to sleep somewhere else, even if that meant our driveway. We ended up driving just a bit down HWY 99 to Champoeg Park. That marked our first night in the R-Pod as a family. All three of us collapsed into our transformable beds exhausted but thrilled to be really doing this crazy thing.

It wasn’t until Monday that we felt our trip was under way. Honeyman State Park just south of Florence, OR gave us a shot of the coast’s rugged beauty and our first fair weather day. When we decided to leave in October I knew that rainstorms would be an inevitable part of our mobile, semi-outdoor lifestyle, but theory differs distinctly from practice. When I shut my eyes now I see water, grease, and clinging pine needles. On the other hand, because of this season I also enjoy open roads, open camp sites, and warm tea with my girls in the morning. Speaking of the girls…

TEAM STATUS:

  • Dorothy’s doing remarkably well as a travelling companion. I couldn’t ask for better company in a four year old, in spite of the Princess and the Frog audio book. Currently sleeping.
  • Sarah’s a born road warrior. I’m regularly surprised by her grace and patience in limit-testing moments (who knew the chaos one bunch of bouncing bananas could unleash in a travelling travel trailer). Currently yawning (9 PM is the new midnight).

We’re now a few hours north of the redwoods, bearing down on one of our two time-and-place commitments. I have a short talk and signing in Arcata, CA for the Dear Creature hardcover at Northtown Books on Saturday. I promise to shower.

That’s all I can muster at the moment. Next up, I hope to have the pine needles and water cleared from my brain so I can share a bit more on the new book. For now, it’s scotch with Sarah (and whatever she’s drinking) and a moment of quiet while our child is OUT.

Day 1 – The Limits of Planning

Planning.

You try your best and God/Nature/Life does the rest. For example: When an ‘historic’ storm blows into the NW United States on your travel trailer rig’s departure date. Right now that storm’s battering Pacific City, Oregon, my hometown and first planned stop, with wind and rain. They even had two tornadoes up the coast in Manzanita, and tornadoes are not Oregonian. They are just not done. All this to say, we may have to revise the plan before we even really begin.

Manzanita Tornadoes

That’s adventure for you.

Last night I spent several soggy hours doing trailer prep, much of it for the first time and without the proper tools (favorite scenario). I figured that since I didn’t know the water tank’s recent history I should give it a good cleaning pre-launch. If everything else in the Pacific Northwest was getting flushed out, why make exceptions?

Humorous scenario #1: Rolling in the dark of night on a half-working creeper under your trailer in a record-setting rainstorm to find the low point drain locations, failing to do so, then exiting slowly and awkwardly from under the trailer as rain pummels your face. At least I had my trusty waterproof+rechargeable headlamp. I endorse it here with no expected compensation from its manufacturer: It’s this one.

Humorous scenario #2: A trip to Home Depot and its flooding parking lot to get the right socket to open the hot water tank, then a second trip to get the required 1/2″ driver. Exiting the store a second time, you note the white sedan halfway underwater in the parking lot. You drive a white sedan…

BUT NO! It’s not your car, it’s some other poor schmo’s. You win one.

I did eventually succeed in my mid-storm mission to flush the tanks. After I came in at 10, Sarah and I made a last few feeble efforts to pack, then collapsed. Whether to the Oregon Coast or not, we were determined to go somewhere on Saturday. Final packing would just have to wait for the morning of.

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The essentials.

 


 

Waking on launch day to the sound of rain and the sight of our upended house, I thought of my son, Otis. I had a plan for him too. It involved hiking through the Oregon woods together, teaching him archery, video games – the boy stuff. We bought our current home with the intention of having more room for a family of four. Our family car, too. So many decisions based on our best plan – all upended in January of this year, when Otis died of seizure complications. He was 20 months old.

I want to share a little about my boy and who he was (and continues to be) to me.

Otis in adventure gearOtis was full of love and enthusiasm for people in a way that strangers readily noticed. His big sister, Dorothy (now four) is very bright and focused on the mysterious world and how it works (plus making art and stories out of it – good girl). This is contrast to Otis, who was chiefly concerned with the world’s people. He was generous with smiles, greetings, toys, and kisses.

He didn’t have nearly as many words as Dorothy commanded at his age, but he had a startling sense for relationships. One of my favorite memories is of sitting and talking with him in the dark on our big bean bag in the early morning, waiting together for the world to wake up. We ‘hid’ under a blanket and he ran through lists of names this way: “Mimi, Papa (my mom and dad), Daddy son. Mama, Daddy, Otis son.” To be snuggled with him there, knowing from his simple words that he had a clear picture of his family – that was a universe-expanding pleasure.

In his general health and development, Otis was an ordinary boy. He had a total of three seizures in his life, two of them a month apart, but those two occurred almost a year before his last. After the first two events we put him on an anti-seizure med, Keppra. After putting him on Keppra, we saw no further signs of seizure activity. His neurologist was optimistic, and we hoped he was in the clear.

Five percent of young children experience seizures, many of them fever-related. Most of them grow up to lead ordinary, healthy lives. Even those with seizure disorders (which we could never prove Otis had) can see great, normalizing effects from a drug like Keppra. The night of Otis’s last seizure, Sarah, Dorothy, Otis, and I were at the dinner table together when it hit. We’d been through the shock twice, so we knew our action plan and followed it to the letter. The difference this time was that he aspirated some food, and in spite of my attempts at CPR, his heart stopped before the paramedics could arrive. They restarted his heart, but after a night in the hospital, the doctors determined that Otis had been without oxygen for too long. That morning someone showed us a little glass vial with the piece of macerated apple they took from near his collapsed lung. It was such a small thing to make such a difference.

We said goodbye to him in that hospital as they wheeled him away, strong little heart still beating, toward surgery. He chose to donate his organs to whomever could benefit. Hard as it was, we’re grateful we chose that path, as his body gave new life to two people. A fitting legacy for a boy who loved others so well.
Christmastime

 


 

It’s now nine months since that goodbye in the hospital. The difficult images are still with me, but they’ve dimmed some and are now in better balance with the joys I shared with Otis when he lived. We did hike the Oregon woods, even in his first week of life. We did play video games – or rather I did in the middle of the night while he slept next to me on the couch. And this week, I gave Dorothy her first archery lesson.

One of the many things Otis left me is a commitment to shared adventure: To pursue awe with Dorothy and Sarah and to love as best I can whoever I meet on my way. That’s a sort of manifesto for this trip of ours. Whether we head out today towards the wind-battered Oregon Coast or along a more serene inland path, we’re ready to step out and encounter God/Nature/Life, however it presents itself to us.

As soon as we finish packing.