CITY: Los Angeles, CA

SMELL: Salt, nostalgia, the fleeting and never-enough odor of victory

PLACE: The Pacific Ocean

THE WAY: Instead of flying as usual, I wanted to drive my ‘73 Camaro cross-country on the Sinner tour. Four thousand miles across seventeen tour stops, two conferences, one faulty exhaust flange, one broken alternator, one failed master brake cylinder, and more gas stations than I can remember. “You could just rent a car for the rest of it,” observed humanity with each new car part installed. No. No, I couldn’t. Coast-to-coast was the point. Halfsies didn’t count.

PEOPLE: Kate, Brenna, Tessa, and David all sat in the passenger seat at some point. Everyone but David handed me a wrench at some point. I was driving Tessa and Brenna down to San Diego when I couldn’t stand it — I had to leap from the freeway and park the Camaro in front of the Pacific Ocean and take a moment to realize: 

*We made it. We really, really made it.


CITY: Omaha, NE

SMELL: Strangely enough, ice cream, but perhaps that is the normal scent of Omaha and not of this shop

PLACE: A. Cavallo Violins

THE WAY: My sister Kate, a violinist herself, was unable to contain the joy on her face when she saw a shop window full of violins. When I asked her if she wanted to stop, she replied with only a strangled noise. We pulled in. Inelegantly, because the power steering pump is failing on the Camaro. Inside we found not merely a violin store, but rather a rather fancy violin-maker full of unpretentious people who I instantly liked because they said they liked my car.  

PEOPLE: Christopher, Dirk, and Alex — the violin makers — cheerily showed me their workshop, including a cabinet where violins are baked like pastries or residents of Arizona. Christopher tried to explain the process of antiquing to me —making a new instrument look old and valuable, a sort of musical Pottery Barn — but I was distracted by the shelves of wand boxes. Possibly they were actually bows, not wands. I should have asked if the bow chooses the player or vice versa, and if they had one made with a phoenix feather, but instead I asked Alex if he was happy with his life choices. He said that he was. At once point he had owned a ’72 Camaro, he told me, so I was also happy with his life choices. Christopher revealed that he too had once driven an old muscle car for his job. Dirk had not owned a muscle car, but he had once been trapped in South Dakota, which is basically the same thing. I did not ask them why they all had beards, but I wish I had now. So this is what regret feels like.

*The owner kindly showed me a neonatal violin trapped in a block of wood, as seen in the photo above.


CITY: Cascade, IA

SMELL: Warm summer grass, butterfly farts, and the destroyed-village scent of a Camaro left running

PLACE: Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area

THE WAY: Today Kate asked if we could make cookie dough on the way to Iowa City, which I interpreted as “see if we can bake cookies on the Camaro’s engine on the way to Iowa City.” We pulled into the Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area, which was beautiful until we got there, and began our experiment using easy ingredients you probably already have in your home.

PEOPLE: As we conducted our experiment, a man appeared in a golf cart. He wondered if we were having car trouble. I explained that we were: only the air filter was flat enough to support a foil tray of cookies and it did not seem to be hot enough to bake cookies. He asked if I was from Iowa City, as if that might offer an explanation for my behavior. After confessing that I was from Virginia — this seemed to be an acceptable answer — I asked him if he reckoned the cookies would ever bake. The man in the golf cart replied, “I don’t want to even be involved in that,” but in a nice way. Later, he headed back the other way, telling me as he did that I had made him forget what he was even doing.*

*They did not bake. I feel if I had been able to nestle the cookies on the valve covers it would have been slightly more effective, but really, I have decided baking is not one of the Camaro’s many skills.


CITY: San Francisco, CA

SMELL: The savory upmarket scent of organic burger places vying valiantly but stereotypically with decades of human piss

THE PLACE: Street Art tour with Russell H.

THE WAY: Art and anarchy are both relevant to my interests, and San Francisco has its share of both. Russell was technically busy, but kindly agreed to meet with us over his lunch hour after he discovered that I had spray-painted my car for fun and profit. Moments before we met, he texted me: “on the way. wearing eggplant colores pants.” [sic] He was. 

PEOPLE: A stencil artist himself, Russell was passionate about street art. He described it as a conversation. I can see his point. In fact, I can see how many of my conversations would be improved by responding with a can of spray paint. Russell led us around Soma and the Tenderloin, lowering his voice as we walked toward what he described as the last bastions of San Francisco’s Skid Row. “Don’t look at anyone’s hands,” he warned, which of course made me look at everyone’s hands.* We parted ways in front of the Luggage Store, which says on its website P.S. WE DON’T SELL LUGGAGE. They do not sell luggage. Russell wished us well in the Camaro. “While you have those windows rolled down,” he advised, “remember to look out of them.”

*spoiler alert I did not die


CITY: South Lake Tahoe, CA

SMELL: The bite of conifers, the heat of lackadaisical road construction, and the tender, cosseted odor of unjaded, privileged youth growing into unjaded, privileged adulthood

PLACE: Reno-Tahoe Helicopter Tours

THE WAY: I informed Tessa and Brenna that I had a surprise planned for them. Warily, they asked if they needed special attire for the surprise. Hahaha no, I replied, and we drove for an hour to the south side of the lake. Surprise! Helicopter. Tessa began to clap as soon as she saw the airport sign. “Oh God,” Brenna said mildly, as I parked the Camaro, “you aren’t flying, are you?” I was not.

PEOPLE: Claudio was flying. He was Italian, or had been Italian, or was going to be Italian. It was immediately clear that he hated people and that we would get along fine. We briefly discussed the flying arrangements in the office, and then he told me, “You’re trouble.” This was unreasonable, as I was mostly just standing there. 70% standing there, 30% being myself. Maybe even 80% standing there, 20% being myself. Claudio informed us that we didn’t have to pay if we died, and then we walked out to the tarmac. As we climbed in, he handed us headphones. “Put these on,” he said, “and shut up.” A minivan drove by. Claudio swore at it benevolently. Well, mostly benevolently. 70% benevolent, 30% simmering rage. Maybe 80/20. As the helicopter soared, I recalled a lifetime of flying dreams. “How is it so far?” Claudio asked, with uncharacteristic tenderness. “I’m getting a helicopter,” I replied. Tessa laughed. Brenna sighed. Claudio frowned, and then he pointed to Tiger Woods’ house, which doesn’t look very large from the sky.

*Claudio had me sit in a different helicopter for photos. He told me to make it look realistic, like I was really a pilot. I asked him if he would also sit in the helicopter for me to photograph him. “Make it look realistic,” I told him. “Like you’re a real pilot.”


CITY: Newcastle, CO, or something

SMELL: Warm rubber, hot asphalt, and the always vaguely appealing and carcinogenic scent of gasoline

PLACE: Kum & Go

THE WAY: While driving from the Denver tour stop to a conference in Provo, UT, the Camaro suddenly bucked explosively and deathfully. When I limped it into a gas station with a name I feel uncomfortable printing on a blog children read, I discovered that my alternator was again at fault. This time, a bolt in the rear had worked itself loose, wrenching a wire completely in half and cutting power to things I had come to love and treasure in my time as a driver: lights, windshield wipers, radios, signal lights, a/c, the everything. Why would the bolt do such a thing, one wonders? Because earlier in the tour, another bolt had leapt free from the alternator and now all of them longed to follow their dreams. 

PEOPLE: My co-pilot, Brenna Yovanoff, helpfully stripped the wire with a seam ripper from her knitting bag, and then we applied judicious quantities of electrical tape. I was determined to make it twelve miles down the road to buy a new alternator that had no dreams of its own. Enough of this. Benjamin Franklin had things to say about hanging together and hanging separately, and I needed an alternator that would remember that. Sadly, the battery had run dead, the car wouldn’t start, and every tow truck driver in an hour radius was occupied following their dreams. Then a truckload of boys, manboys, a man, and dirt bikes asked if we needed help. “Yes,” said Brenna, putting down her knitting needles. “Please jump start our aged vehicle.” They did. The boys, manboys, and man also kindly offered to follow us to our exit. At the AutoZone in Rifle, a man named Ryan sold me another alternator and installed it while I ate cookies and handed him various tools. He told me he hadn’t read a book since sixth grade. He recalled the last novel, he reported. He told me it had been about a man who’d tried to escape from a prisoners’ camp and gotten his legs shot off with a machine gun. I replied that I reckoned that was a pretty good reason to give up novels. 

*The bikers said they were going to Moab to ride, a thing I ardently wished to do myself as soon as they had said it out loud. Unlike some car parts, however, I understood that one could not always wander off on one’s own agenda. 


CITY: Salt Lake City, UT

SMELL: The subtly frothy scent of carpet cleaner, the increasingly less subtle scent of carpet cleaner, and over the top of it all, carpet cleaner

PLACE: Anniversary Inn

THE WAY: On my last tour, I asked my publicist if I could stay in a themed hotel near Chicago, and upon investigation, she had told me “that is not a place authors go to sleep. That is a place authors go to die.” This time around, she relented, and allowed Tessa* and I to book the Mysteries of Egypt room at the Anniversary Inn. Brenna opted for the more tasteful Biker Roadhouse room. We arrived, sweaty and spent, at 1 pm, and discovered the Inn would not allow us to check in until 5 pm. If we paid $50, however, they would allow us to check in at 3 pm. I angrily and impotently posed by their fire escape and then we raged and killed time for two hours. There was champagne waiting for us in the room when we returned. It was non-alcoholic. 

PEOPLE: A guestbook in our room quickly revealed that the Anniversary Inn was a place couples generally came on their honeymoons. In the interests of privacy, I will not reveal the other guests’ handwritten experiences, but know that the notes left in the book involved many exclamation points. They also expressed gratitude that the bed wasn’t squeaky. I can confirm that the bed was not squeaky. I did not, however, leave any exclamation points.

*the photograph of Tessa collapsed upon the stairs captures the moment she realized there was no shower curtain in our room, and that exclamation points were being forced upon us.


CITY: Delafield, WI

SMELL: Verdant grass, emerald trees, and the ha-ha-check-it pungency of underage cigarette usage

PLACE: Delafield Skatepark

THE WAY: I was cruising down the interstate, thinking about how I had yet to master an ollie, and this skatepark rippled into existence like Brigadoon. Someone at that place, I thought, will show me how to do an ollie. When I finally reached it, however, it was populated by people under five feet on scooters. I had to loiter thuggishly for several minutes before someone taller than me appeared.

PEOPLE: The person who appeared was a boy smoking a cigarette. I leapt from the Camaro and asked him if he would like to be on my blog. He said yes. I told him that he was supposed to ask if I was a creeper. He asked, “Are you a creeper?” “No,” I replied. “I am a mildly famous author. Will you show me how to perform an ollie?” He would. He did an ollie as a sort of smaller apprentice-youth looked on approvingly. Will — that was his name — seemed to believe that my personal difficulties in ollie-making were linked to my steel-toed Doc Martens. When I told him I didn’t wear them while skating, he said that possibly I just had not been doing it long enough. Will, after all, was sixteen, and had been skating for four years. I badly wanted to ask him how long he had been smoking, but I didn’t. Instead I asked his name for the blog, and he replied with his full name. I admonished him about trusting strangers and giving up his identity so willingly. Will’s expression was friendly, but something around his eyebrow region subtly indicated that boys who arrive at skateparks with cigarettes have better things to be afraid of than 32-year-old women who show up at skateparks with Camaros.*

*I note both that Will was violating rule number 1b on the skatepark sign, and also that they spelled graffiti incorrectly.


CITY: Midway, UT

SMELL: The acrid scent of burning vegetation, the muffled odor of dust slowly coating one’s mucus membranes, and the always pleasant warmth of horse smell

THE PLACE: Rocky Mountain Outfitters

THE WAY: After the master brake cylinder failed on the Camaro on the way to Salt Lake City to pick up Tessa Gratton from the airport, I decided it was time for a holiday on a more reliable form of transportation. I booked a trail ride up the side of a mountain. It was supposed to be relaxing. I don’t generally enjoy things defined as relaxing — I like my horses like I like my cars* — but I suspected revoltingly attractive scenery might be on the menu. We arrived at nine, and a mere two hours later departed wearing Utah all over our bodies. I am still using cotton swabs to remove Utah from my ear canals. 

PEOPLE: Our guide Ashley rode a horse named Chloe whom she owned and loved dearly. I asked her how she came to have this particular equine companion. Ashley told me of how she seen the unwanted young mare-creature-thing years before, and bought her for the princely sum of $500, which is coincidentally the same amount I just spent on replacing the Camaro’s master brake cylinder. After setting an arena record on Chloe this year, Ashley confessed that she’d been offered a five-figure deal for her now wanted-and-slightly-less-young-mare-creature. She turned it down. My friends, you cannot put a price on love, although you can put one on car parts.

*with bad brakes 


CITY: Denver, CO

SMELL: Candle smells that are like real smells but trapped in wax: odors like sandalwood, sage, gullibility

PLACE: Shining Lotus Metaphysical Bookstore

THE WAY: Brenna and I decided to go to a psychic who gave readings out of this metaphysical bookstore. It was full of things that worked in ways mysterious or did not work at all — much like my Camaro. After browsing, I knew less about what a metaphysical bookstore sold than when I’d first entered.

PEOPLE: Norma told me that she thought it seemed like I’d be traveling all this week and next, and also that she foresaw some sort of difficulty with the travel. Craftily, I asked if she meant an accident. “No,” said Norma, “not an accident. Something about a car, though?” I no longer want to know my future. Norma was pretty good at my present: she told me I was a writer, though possibly she tells everyone that. As we paid for our readings, Brenna asked the man about the purple discs hanging behind the counter. He told us they were Tesla Purple Energy Shields, and that they were good for you. I just googled them. I’m not certain they are good for you.

*This event actually happened before the vehicular adventures I posted about yesterday, but I did them out of order so that you could retroactively admire Norma’s prowess. Consider this a flashback. 


CITY: Charlottesville, Virginia

SMELL: Flour, some candy in a color created in a test-tube, the crystal-clear odor of a relieving amount of air-conditioning

PLACE: Sweethaus

THE WAY: Because of my complicated and boring food allergies, I could not eat these cupcakes, but I set out with the intention of purchasing a cupcake for someone else and then photographing the process of said person eating it. Sadly, only one customer arrived during my uber-brief stay at the Sweethaus and as she purchased between four and six-million cupcakes to go, it seemed irrelevant to buy her another one. Instead, I bought a water. It tasted of disappointment, but that was not the Sweethaus’ fault.

PEOPLE: I asked Laurie and Eleanor, the two cupcakers behind the counter, what life decisions had brought them to this store. Laurie informed me that the store was pretty — undeniable — and the cupcakes delicious — hearsay.* Eleanor informed me that the job dovetailed nicely with her collegiate plans, and then she wrote PISTACHIO on a piece of paper in front of the green cupcake samples on the counter, to prevent mint-flavor-confusion.

*confirmed by Yelp


CITY: North Ridgeville, OH

SMELL: Whole grain, whey, something vaguely doggy and earthy

PLACE: Grateful Dog Bakery

THE WAY: It is a rule of humanity that one shall not pass by a dog biscuit bakery without stopping in it. Far be it from me to betray such rules. So we stopped. Plus it was two miles away from the auto parts store I had to stop at to fix the Camaro. But mostly it was the rules of humanity.

PEOPLE:  The owners, Karl & Jennifer, were in the process of finishing an organic birthday cake for some canine customer when I arrived, and kindly removed it from the box for me to photograph it. Happy Birthday Hunter, says the cake. As I left, a car pulled in. “Are you the birthday cake people?” I asked them. They were. I asked what Hunter was, and they informed me he was a Beabull, which is a Beagle/ Bulldog cross. I asked if he was adorable. They said, “Isn’t everybody’s dog?”*

*I googled Beabulls in my hotel room. In answer to that man’s rhetorical question, no. No, I don’t think everybody’s dog is adorable after all.


CITY: Baltimore, MD

SMELL: Sweat, exhaust, and the vague smell of Hurricane Arthur prowling up from Southern parts

PLACE: Children’s Bookstore

THE WAY: My original intention of convincing a skaterchild to teach me how to ollie at the new Baltimore Skatepark was derailed by bad directions and a hurricane, so instead I drove directly to my event, where a bookseller tried in vain to hold a parking spot for me. I arrived in time to see her being literally pushed onto the sidewalk by an extremely angry driver in an extremely capacious SUV. As I watched this large vehicle crush this noble bookseller before my eyes, I thought to myself: is this really what Baltimore is all about? The city of brotherly love? Then I remembered that Philadelphia was the city of brotherly love and Baltimore was The Comeback City.

PEOPLE: I asked the booksellers if they had ever felt as if they were compromising the fate of their soul during their job. One of the booksellers, [name redacted for the preservation of goodwill among humans], adamantly replied, “Yes! Every time I sell [book redacted for the preservation of goodwill among authors].” Rachel, the other bookseller, informed me that the point was to sell A book. She said “do you come to a bookstore to not buy a book? I DON’T THINK SO BABY LET’S CLOSE THIS SALE.” I believed her, as I had only an hour before seen her angrily and physically fighting off a vehicle 5500 pounds heavier than her.* Rachel does not mess around. When you see her: close the damn sale.

*the final photo is the exact part of the sidewalk where I watched Rachel nearly perish. The blood is gone, but the bitterness remains.