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Erika Warmbrunn

5,000 Miles Across Asia by Bike
by Erika Warmbrunn  

The author at lunchBetween August, 1993 and April, 1994 I bicycled 5,000 miles -- from southern Siberia through Mongolia, across China, and down the length of Vietnam. Every inch was an adventure. Arduous, exhausting, and ultimately exhilarating. Which was pretty much what I had expected when I set out.

Then I sat down to write about it, and every word that I eventually wrangled into Where the Pavement Ends turned out to be just as difficult and demanding and, yes, ultimately, exhilarating, as the eight-month-long bike ride had been. That I hadn't expected.

Learning the ancient scriptIt was the summer of 1995, more than a year since I had pedaled into Saigon, when I finally began working on the book. I was eight years out of college by then, which meant that, with the exception of a couple translations of Russian plays, it had been eight years since I had attempted to write anything more than a letter.

Siagon markerI had always thought that being a writer would be the perfect life for me. It was such a portable profession -- you could write anywhere -- on the top of a mountain, on a beach in the South Pacific, on a train, a plane, in your tent, anywhere in the world. The only problem was that however attractive I found this imagination of the writing life, I had no desire to actually write. Every once in a while the odd perfect turn of phrase, a fabulous first line, or a brilliant one-sentence plot summary would pop into my mind, but the rest of the tale was never there to back it up. I kept journals when I traveled, but there were no stories rattling around in my head clamoring to get out onto the page.

Baby yaks licking backpack!Besides, the idea of a blank page -- or a blank screen -- was absolutely, completely intimidating to me. Overwhelming. How writers pulled characters and plot twists out of thin air boggled my mind (still does, actually). My project, however, I thought as I settled down at the keyboard, would not be like that. It would, in fact, be fairly easy. After all, I didn't have to make anything up. I had done the trip; I was a reasonably literate, articulate, well-educated human being; all I had to do was tell on paper the same stories I had been telling to friends, family, and acquaintances for over a year. I read travel books and knew what I didn't like (self-absorbed 'inner journeys' in which local culture was reduced to exotic background color; accounts that devolved into repetitive lists of 'today I went here, did this, saw that'), and what I did like (narratives that were as well-written as a good novel; stories that conveyed a real sense of the people and places the author had encountered). And finally -- I wouldn't be starting from scratch. No blank screens for me: I had already typed my journals, verbatim, into the computer. All I had to do was smooth them out. Even if I wasn't a writer, I was pretty sure that I was, by nature if not experience, a good editor. So -- I didn't really have to write anything. The whole project would just be one big, fairly easy editing job.

I was so wrong.

I had no idea. No idea how hard writing would be. How much plain, old-fashioned, one-rotation-of-the-pedals-will-eventually-get-you-up-the-hill work it would take to turn those journal pages into honest, uncluttered, and, with any luck, compelling narrative.

Before I began working, I had all sorts of ideas about what my writer's day would look like. It was summer, and I was dog-sitting my cousins' dachshunds in a house in the middle of the desert. I'd sleep late, go for a hike or a swim, ride into town to the grocery store, maybe learn to cook, whatever -- then at night, after dinner, I'd pour a glass of wine and sit down and write until two or three or four o'clock in the morning. Maybe straight through until dawn on truly inspired nights.

The Bone PeopleWrong again. It turned out that as soon as I had two sips of wine I was useless. Instead of allowing the words to flow, the wine just made everything fuzzy. Plus which, I quickly discovered, the only time I could churn out effective storytelling was first thing in the morning. I had to roll out of bed, put on the coffee, turn on the laptop, and sit down, still in my pajamas. On a good day, I could stay there for three hours. Four hours was a great day. And many days, of course, it wasn't two hours before I found myself at the sink doing dishes that clearly couldn't wait another minute, or on my way into town to return a video that wasn't due for two more days.

At first I kept trying to force myself back to the computer. But eventually I learned that when I had stopped like that, as if involuntarily, I was done for the day. Nothing else productive was going to happen no matter how long I tried to force it. So I might as well take the dogs for a walk and learn to make gazpacho.

On WritingI spent about fifteen months on the manuscript, and another two years collecting rejection letters. Then, in the fall of 1998, The Mountaineers Books in Seattle awarded Where the Pavement Ends the Barbara Savage / Miles From Nowhere Memorial Award, which includes hardcover publication, and I went back to work. For a year I cut and re-wrote, re-wrote and cut, shooting for a mid-December, 1999 deadline. Then one day in early December I got an e-mail from The Mountaineers telling me that they thought the manuscript still needed significant work and they were pushing back publication; my new deadline was June, 2000. I was furious. But they were right. The savage re-writing I did over the next six months was easily my best work, finally turning an average "went here did this" lump of words into the descriptive narrative I had wanted it to be.

Writing -- "playing with words" I came to call it -- never got easy. It never ceased to be plain hard work. It did, however, especially in those final six months, become truly, deeply pleasurable. Sitting there every morning in my pajamas, my cup of coffee at my side, it began to feel like I was practicing a craft, sculpting a story out of words.

  • The best 'travel book' I have ever read: Off the Map by Mark Jenkins. It happens to be about a bicycle trip, but it is also one the most insightful portraits of late-Soviet life that I know.
  • My 'favorite' book: The Bone People, by Keri Hulme. Never have I been so blown away by pure wordcraft.
  • Current reading: On Writing, by Stephen King. Being far too afraid of the creature under my bed to even pick up most of his books (and too much of a snob to think I would like them if I did), I'm not sure what whim made me pick up On Writing, but I found its pages wise, and, as much as I shudder at the word, inspirational.

Where the Pavement EndsErika Warmbrunn lives in New York City, where she earns a living as a Broadway stagehand. She has begun playing with words again, even starting with a blank screen.