Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com.
While excavating my garage in an attempt to bring order to the refuse heap I call home, I found a few disintegrating pages of a novel I wrote in 1969 during a road trip from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to Steilacoom, Washington. The yellowed, handwritten pages lay moldering at the bottom of a cardboard box that had obviously provided shelter and nutrition to generations of mice and moths. I tried to remember how many garages in how many towns that box had been stored over the decades – too many to recall. In a misty-eyed glow of nostalgia, I sat down on a crate of old Betamax tapes and other relics of the past and started to read. The first few lines yanked me back in time and mood.
We gazed out at the deserted highway that stretched across a barren waste into infinity. Time dragged, as if our little car were being pushed back by the relentless Wyoming winds. When at last we pulled into the one-pump town of Bill, Pat said, “God, if I lived here I’d kill myself.”
That sentiment became the working title as we traversed the mind-blowing emptiness of the Great Plains.
The impetus for the trip had begun when Pat’s friend David called to say he’d soon be shipping out to Vietnam. He felt uneasy about the future and yearned for a summer of love before going off to war. It was a year when everyone felt uneasy about the future. I certainly did. I hated teaching school and, once the summer ended, I hadn’t a clue what to do with the rest of my life. David shared a house overlooking Puget Sound with two army buddies and he assured us there’d be plenty of room for both Pat and me. That was all the persuading we needed. We hit the road.
I owned the most road-worthy vehicle, a ’68 VW bug. Pat owned the maps, the guidebooks, and a Triple A card – just in case. We decided to make the drive from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest an adventure, taking in as many sights along the way as possible. We included on our zigzag itinerary the literary stomping grounds of several notable American writers. We visited Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri; Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska; and we got as close to Hunter Thompson’s digs in Aspen, Colorado as we dared. Frequently stoned, he had been known to shoot at uninvited drop-ins.
At the time, Hunter was gearing up to run for Pitkin County Sheriff on the Freak Power ticket and he was also inventing a new writing style called Gonzo – exaggerated, wildly subjective, and shamelessly self-conscious. He declared that the only people who know where the edge is are the ones who’ve gone over it. In both his personal life and his writing, he sought the dangerous edge of things and he wasn’t afraid to dive off. He believed the journey to the grave should not be a safe ride. He wanted to “skid in broadside, shouting ‘Wow!’”
As I reread my long-ago account of our cross-country odyssey, I detected an undeniable strain of Gonzo. The landscapes smacked us in the eye with their transcendent beauty, or else pierced us to the heart with their desolate bleakness. The characters we encountered didn’t just make us laugh, or touch our hearts, or change our minds. They transformed us forever. The story’s action whipped along at breakneck pace from the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the yippee-ki-yay of the Calgary Stampede; from an August blizzard atop Mount Rainier to a tequila-fueled psychotherapy session that ended in tears. My descriptions were simultaneously florid and frantic, my dialogue fraught with exclamations of imminent peril and moments of burning insight. I wrote with particular emotion about my discovery that the platform bed I had been sleeping on at the house on Puget Sound was set on top of crates containing live ammo.
A charitable reader would say God, If I Lived Here is melodramatic, naïve, overwrought, and dense with purple prose. A less charitable one, well . . . best not to speculate. But I was young. It was my first bash at a novel and no writing is ever wasted. It’s a learning experience. Time brings perspective. It brings fewer breathless verbs and extreme adjectives. It brings focus and puts one’s sense of self and personal history in context. The Gonzo days recede in the rear view mirror, replaced gradually by a more restrained and mature style. And yet I can’t help but feel a wistfulness for those girls who drove so many thousands of miles looking for the edge, and for the wannabe writer who was so thrilled by the adventure that she skidded into her story broadside, shouting “Wow!”