I am now almost two months into the book tour for "Cold Mountain," and the floor of my car is shin deep with coffee cups, Pepsi cans, books, beer bottles, CD boxes, wrappers from Wendy's veggie pitas. If I round a curve too fast, the load shifts to the outside with a clank and a rustle. The power-steering belt has started to squeal alarmingly when I forget and crank the engine with the air-conditioning on, which is to say every time I turn the key. My springer spaniel went with me on one leg of the tour, and the passenger window is cloudy with her delighted nose-prints.
I have come down from Maryland to do a reading in Norfolk, and I stop near Virginia Beach at a self-service car wash. Shovel out the trash, wipe the windows, hose the bugs off. The question interviewers and people in bookstores ask most frequently now is, How has my life changed? They've read about the movie deal, seen the book's position on the bestseller list. I suspect this current scene is not what they have in mind. Some people clearly would be satisfied only if I said I'd bought a Porsche. The new little convertible that looks so much like the James Dean death-car would do fine. But I don't have a satisfying answer for the question yet. I say that on the rare occasion that I'm home, the phone rings more often than in days of yore. I can tell that seems to lack a certain zest. Like a doughnut-shop waitress winning the lottery and keeping her job.
But in fact nothing feels much different. With the exception of the interviews and bookstore visits, I've spent a lot of summers rather like this one over the years, winding thousands of miles onto the odometer of my car. Driving all over the country. Back and forth countless times to the Rockies, the Northwest, the Southwest, the canyon country of northern Mexico. Taking days to cross a fascinating place like northern Nebraska on two-lane roads. Half-a-day just sitting in a cottonwood grove at Fort Robinson where Crazy Horse was killed. Such aimless travel works wonders on one's mood.
At the bookstore this evening, a man tells me he attended Faulkner's readings at Charlottesville. I ask if his voice was as thin and high-pitched as it sounds on the recordings, and the man assures me that indeed it was.
Back home, I have a day to wash clothes before I'm gone again. My wife and daughter have been away at horse shows much of the summer. The place looks abandoned. A bulldozer has been working to clean up damage from last summer's hurricane Fran. The ground below the house is churned up, and a blown-down oak -- nearly 200 years old -- is gone. My neighbor has been feeding the horses this summer and has had to mow a path through the high grass to keep from stepping on a snake.
I do an interview with Charlie Rose at the Bennett House, a Civil War site outside Durham, and then drive to Asheville for a tour stop. I was born here and spent a great deal of time here growing up. My father remembers as a teenager seeing Thomas Wolfe walking around town, towering over everyone, a celebrity. I stay in the old section of the Grove Park Inn, and the place looks like 1920. Monumental stonework and fireplaces big enough to parallel park Lincoln Town Cars in. Upstairs there are high ceilings, arts and crafts furnishing, Roycroft lights. Fitzgerald, his writing career in a shambles and his wife in a nearby mental hospital, spent two miserable drunken summers holed up on the fourth floor in the '30s. I walk past his room. No visible ghosts or bad karma leaking from under the door.
Back in my room, I sit at the window. The hotel has a sweeping view of the mountains to the west. Cold Mountain is out there, 40 miles away, but hidden in the haze.