The Great, 4-Day, Mississippi Wilderness Roadshow
Part One: Looking for the Devil at every Crossroads
The day before my novel, Wilderness, hit the shelves I was traveling from Seattle, Washington to Jackson, Mississippi—nervous as hell because the next day would bring the first reading of my first book tour and I had no idea what to expect from any of it. Also, air travel is inherently unnatural and the flight down from my little corner of the Puget Sound had been long and turbulent. But even still, I kept the shade up on the last, short leg from Houston to Jackson because I wanted to see the Big River as we passed over it. And there it was: all loops and doglegs and looking like hammered silver from that height; the land around it green in a way that Washington, the greenest of States, is not—lush and bright and reminiscent of half-imagined jungle terrain.
When we landed, I thought I’d be ready for the heat—I’d been warned after all. But, really, it didn’t seem so bad. The airport at Jackson was cool, small and clean and smelled entirely neutral—unlike Houston which stank of chlorine and feet. With brisk efficiency, I was assigned a rental car, had the air conditioning set and was on my way three hours-and-change north to Oxford and Square Books where Wilderness would be officially unveiled. The Garmin I’d borrowed from my parents was plugged in with the soothing voice of Serena, my British guide for this trip, coolly suggesting the route. The highways were clean and sparsely trafficked; the driving cool, fine and easy. I remember thinking what a piece of cake this was all going to be. I wasn’t even sweating.
Before leaving the Jackson city limits, I stopped at a roadside burger joint because I was hungry and thirsty since, besides being unnatural, air travel isn’t conducive to my appetite. I parked my cool car. Shut down the engine. The air conditioner hissed to silence. I stepped outside and immediately had no idea what was happening to me.
The engine had obviously exploded and I was caught in that moment that you read about in pulp novels where you know you’re dying—that transient-yet-impossibly-long second before the body gives way and lets go the soul and you’re aware of it all and there is no pain. But no, there was no explosion. Instead, someone had obviously thrown a wet cloth bag over my head and I was suffocating. I imagined government vans and black helicopters. Waterboarding. But no, I was not being manhandled. All I had done was to step from an air-conditioned car into something like 90 degree heat and 90% humidity and my glasses had instantly fogged and my lungs felt as though they’d collapsed. I must’ve made a sound, some sort of strangling noise, because folks in the parking lot looked up from their concerns and, seeing me flailing about—instantly drenched in sweat—just shook their heads and smirked and went about their business.
Somehow I found my way into the restaurant then back out again. Serena, patient and cool, guided me back onto the interstate and we set off north once more. I paid attention, now, to the temperature gauge on the dash and, at seven o’clock in the evening, it stayed steady at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Mississippi woods flowed past to either side. The interstate ran straight and flat, the paving softly brown, shading into pale red. The sun slowly set at my left shoulder and it took its time going down—a thing far different from what I was used to. The west went brilliantly yellow and everything was watery.
By the time I left the interstate for a two-lane State Highway (MS 7 running northwest through Water Valley toward Oxford) it was night and it was dark. It struck me right away that there were no street lamps anywhere along the road save at the occasional crossroads. And there was no traffic. My rearview mirror gave back a rectangle of absolute dark and, every so often, way off in the distance to my left and right and sometimes ahead, came suggestions of porchlights. I passed wayside gas stations who, it seemed, knew better than to stay open after dark. I passed a lovely white church of the sort, I think, you only see in the South—but the parking lot was empty. On the seat next to me (I’d opted not to bring a mount to save luggage space), Serena’s console was dark, with only a thin ribbon of purple weaving down the screen to show me the way. And Serena herself had gone quiet because the way was straight and long and because, I figured at the time, she was as freaked-out as I was.
At one point I joined a little caravan of SUVs travelling in my direction and was happy for the fellowship; relieved that I was not left all alone in the world. But then, as though some signal to which I was not privy had been given, they all pulled to the side of the road and I passed them by. Behind me, I saw them turn-about and head back the way we’d come. I wondered what they knew that I did not. Now, at each crossroads, I half expected to see the devil waiting for me, some bargain at the ready. I looked for Ralph Macchio and Jami Gertz. I wondered what the terrain I was driving through really looked like by light of day. I flicked my brights on every so often just so to see the lay of the road ahead of me and, in that sudden brightness, the pale shapes of insects swirled thickly.
And then, just as I was beginning to try and face up to the fact that I’d come off the interstate onto some road that that ran only through the Twilight Zone and that was never lit and would never end, Serena piped up to take my next left in .6 miles. When I came off the highway, she became positively chatty with helpful suggestions and, before I knew it, there were honest-to-God strip malls appearing to either side. And traffic—lovely, lovely traffic.
It was in this way I came to Oxford.