Birding in the Face of Terror began as a short story completed a few months after 9/11/01, with little beyond a journalistic account of the events on and around the bus trip with the American Birders Association to the three sites we visited. Upon finishing it, I knew there was an avalanche of related material and many thousands of words left unsaid, so I started expanding it into a novel. But sometime in mid-2002, my efforts hit a major psychological wall, and the project went on the shelf, not to be picked up again until 2009.
I’m kind of a writer’s equivalent of a method actor: I strongly prefer to write directly from experience, and I need to be presently immersedin that experience to make that work, or at least have it very fresh in my mind as opposed to describing it from recollection. (I blame the fact that I have a very poor visual memory.) Having been eight years removed from living in the part of California where the West Coast narrative takes place, I was very dissatisfied with my ability to reconstruct many vital scenes, so I decided a return trip was very much in order.
In March 2010, I left Ithaca on a Greyhound bus with Las Vegas as the destination. I rented a car there for the trip to the Central Coast, and then flew home from Vegas at the end of the trip. (Both the car and the air fare were significantly cheaper there than anywhere in California.) When I had decided on that mode of transportation to begin the trip, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I had given myself a “method writer’s” perspective of a long-distance bus passenger to study. But as soon as we started rolling west, I was flooded with memories about the whole period of my life leading up to the bus driving job, and of that freewheeling time leading up to the fateful day with the birders. I poured it all into a Moleskin notebook, writing almost non-stop for the 2 1/2 days to Las Vegas, many details that would bring life and texture to Pedro’s journey.
The bus trip was quite an adventure in itself. I caught an awful cold on the first nearly sleepless night crossing the Midwest. Then the bus, carrying all of my stuff except my phone and a wall outlet charger, left me behind at a quick rest stop the second evening in Salina, Kansas, and I had to scramble to find a one-way rental car to chase the bus 435 miles to Denver –I overtook it on the outskirts of the city around 11:30 PM, dropped the car at the agency’s local office miraculously close to the bus terminal, and was there waiting when it pulled in, and oh boy was the driver humiliated when he saw me and found out that I was a pro driver and knew exactly what he did wrong. THEN, due to a rockslide on a small portion of I-70, we had to do an enormous detour through northern Colorado that added about four hours to the trip to Grand Junction. But through it all I managed to arrive in Vegas as scheduled and in reasonable health, despite little more than a few gasps of sleep since New York.
The Central Coast portion of the trip was much smoother but also incredibly fruitful in bringing back the vivid details that give the West Coast narrative of Birding its strong sense of place. It’s pretty amazing when I think of it: I had lived in the area for less than two years total. It was my first time there since late 2001, and I haven’t had occasion to get back there since, yet traveling in the Central Coast felt then, and I suspect still would now, like a homecoming.
When Waldo took over the project in 2017 after its first failed publication, I simply gave him access to my Facebook photo album containing these images and more than a hundred others, and he took it from there. I’m a little jealous of his ability to write direct from his imagination, but in the end, I wouldn’t trade this experiential, journalistic “method writing” for anything. I think we both brought our strengths to the table to create an amazing piece of semi-fiction.