Thursday 20 March 2008

It's my last chance to visit the Last Chance Mountains!


Adventures come in all shapes and sizes. You might be heading off to a place you have never been to before, or deciding to face your fear, to stare that which challenges you most in the eye and speet in its face, or kiss its cheek.
There are adventures endowed with mystical quality: the quests, the pilgrimages, searches for holy grails.
Darker and deeper are adventures that take you back to places you lost: places which might dwell solely in the mind, or actually exist in the physical world.
The adventure upon which I'm about to embark may be short in length, but packed into it are all the above ingredients, and hopefully, at the end of it, I will enjoy a sense of achievement.
Best of all, I will know I am alive.
Our story starts in 1995, about a fortnight after I had moved from Connemara to San Francisco.
Lost in a new continent and culture, I began to write a short story. Inspired by the opening shot of Wim Wenders' extraordinary film, 'Paris, Texas', it started with a man walking in a desert.
The first page of this short story was written over and over again. I didn't know who this character was; only that he was obsessed by three photos he had of a woman. Not one of them looked like her, held in its image her essence or presence.
Three years later, living in a tiny Californian town further north, in the heart of the Redwood Empire, I was given some old National Geographic magazines by the quirky old dear who ran the minuscule local library. On top of the pile that she left on my doorstep, the cover of the January 1987 issue promised an article about "California's Desert, A Worldly Wilderness."
At that point of my life, drowning in a vile cocktail of rage and depression, I was completely unaware California even had a desert.
But on the article's map I spied the Last Chance Range, just at the north end of Death Valley, and I immediately knew that this was where my character had been wandering.
Sadly, for the first and please god the last time in my life, my spirit finally broke. Unrecognisable to myself, I went into meltdown, leaving my then wife and life behind to return to Ireland.
A year later, whilst lying early one morning in my bed in my room in the Claddagh, I had a vision. Yes, that's what I said, and no, I wasn't visited by the Virgin, Buddha or any pointy-headed Trogs from Earthworm Land.
Over by my window I saw, in the style of an aerial camera tracking shot, a massive breakers yard lying in a desert. Pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, I watched as acre after acre of baking hot sand and the rusted remains of hundreds of thousands of vehicles of every description ran past my eyes.
I could almost hear the metal going 'kerrkunnnnnnnnnnggggg' in the heat from the sun.
Inspired afresh, I revisited the short story, and worked on the assumption that my character had been rescued, and ended up working at this massive breakers yard in the desert.
But why a breakers yard in the desert?
Who knew?
I started to explore who my character was; what was his life like as a child?
Who was this woman he had been with?
Gradually over the next few years, whilst living alone in a farmhouse in North Mayo, the short story grew into a mosaical wordy mess of 30,000 inconsistent words.
Then I returned to Galway City and last May I quit my job, and finally took on the task of writing the novel my story had become.
Six months later I had turned that messy muddle of 30,000 words into a full first draft of 300 pages, crammed with more styles and voices than you could shake a schizoid stick at.
Writing fiction is the business of making things up. Even though I have never been an English lesbian living in San Francisco's North Beach back in 1969, I have spent enough time there to imagine, visualise and then create words that might make such a person believable.
I can imagine what the Californian desert and the Last Chance Range might be like, but I simply do not know what it really is like, and so I am going to my mountains.
Using and loving broadband to research the trip, I entered into communication with all sorts of people, and was told something most exciting and illuminating by a landscape photographer who knows the area well.
He was advising me about those wilderness roads.
"There's wrecks everywhere!" he said. "There's so many wrecks that they even hung three of 'em from the top of a signboard to warn folk!"
My eyes bulged with excitement.
"So so so it wouldn't be an impossible or unlikely thing to imagine a massive breakers yard down there? Like, errr, a vast breakers yard in the desert wouldn't be an impossible notion?"
"Hell no, man! Sounds like a good idea. Sure they'd need one."
And so, laden with my past, my pain, my heart soul and body; armed by my spirit and visions and creativity, I am off away on this adventure.
In one day in San Francisco I will try to reclaim the place in which I once lived, loved hard and lost much. It will be a tough day, a good day, releasing me from a long-redundant sense of loss, allowing myself to believe that yes, it did all happen.
At the same time, I will be looking at North Beach through the eyes of my female character, seeing the refuge to which she flees to build a life she loves, in a city that loves her back.
Then, having faced the adventures of mind and heart, I'll hit the road and head off on a thousand mile road trip to the Last Chance Range; to the heart of my story; to the one place I absolutely need to visit in order to be able to finish my book.
This adventure is more about arrival than departure; more about achievement than loss; more about loving life than living it in fear.
This adventure I will enjoy, and yes, I will feel alive.

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