I’ve lived on the West Coast of the United States for almost twenty-three years. I’m quickly reaching the point where my West Coast life will be longer than my East Coast life. Quite the accomplishment! It’s even more the accomplishment when you consider that a few years before I moved to the West Coast, not only had the idea of living out here never crossed my mind, but I had not even been out here.
After the stagnation of the first half of my 1990s (high school in a rich town, then working a crap job in that rich town rather than go to college), the second half of my 90s moved fast, relatively speaking. I discovered the world of zines and indie comics in spring of 1996. A few months later I decided to create my own comic, TEN FOOT RULE. The first issue debuted in July of 1997. I was hooked. And I wanted more.
Luckily enough, the East Coast’s premier alt-comics convention, the Small Press Expo (SPX), was happening just a couple months after my first comic was published. Held then in the DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland,1 a five-ish hour drive from my then home in Connecticut. I rounded up my local alt-comix friend Mike and we drove down one late September Saturday.
The convention was a revelation to my twenty-two year old self. Many of the cartoonists that I admired were all in one location, hawking their wares, chatting with people. I armed myself with a stack of TEN FOOT RULE 1 and a “Convention Special” TEN FOOT RULE 1 1/2 that I hastily threw together in the days leading up to the show. (There was probably one sleepless night, and at least one day calling in sick to my job at Kmart.) I met a lot of great folks and discovered lots of new, great comics. (Whether folks were impressed with my first stabs at comics is besides the point.) And there were afterparties in various hotel rooms, bathtubs full of ice and beer bottles. I talked with fellow cartoonists late into the night.
Intoxicated with the magic of the moment, I wanted to do this again, and soon. But the zine/comic world of the late 90’s was a lot different than now. Nowadays there’s zine and alt-comics shows all around North America, and they happen often. But then? While in the 90’s zines seemed to be an “it” thing, and it was a golden age for the culture getting mainstream attention (book deals and articles in big magazines and the New York Times), there were few events outside of random talks or signings. There was an Underground Press Conference that happened twice in Chicago (1994 and 1995) but since I got into zines only in 1996, I heard about it after the fact.2 It was a bit easier with comics, as most mainstream shows had an artist’s alley. But these conventions were geared towards superheroes. Spending most of my day explaining that my comic does not have people in tights beating each other up did not sound like fun. There were no other specifically “alternative” shows in that era, save one: Alternative Press Expo (APE.) The next one was in February of 1998 in San Jose, California. California! That’s on the other side of the continent! But with no other options available 3 I put APE on my calendar and worked towards the goal of making it out there.
And “making it out there” was a big deal. By this point in my life I had only been on the East Coast of the United States. Besides Pennsylvania and Vermont, all the states I had visited had touched the Atlantic Ocean. The Appalachian Mountains served as a barrier to my westward movement. But back then it wasn’t such a big deal to me. I figured there was plenty to do and see up and down the Eastern Seaboard. And while moving out of Connecticut was a goal, I thought that I’d simply head south instead of west, where warmer weather and no snow were the theme. So I was excited by the prospect of seeing a whole ‘nother part of the US.
In the months leading up to the event, I gathered a crew of interested folks. Besides myself and Mike (who at first thought the idea was “crazy” but came around to it), our friend Ben in Pennsylvania was on board. His car would be the one we’d use, so I’d have to drive to York first with Mike. 4 Shane, whom we first met at SPX, would be picked up in Louisville.
Looking back, the way we did our cross-country drive is only “practical” if you’re young (I was 22) and/or broke. Our savings were all used towards the trip, and we all missed about two weeks of work (though I did have vacation pay). Hotel rooms were out of the question, and February is too cold to camp for most of the US. We based our routing around where we could crash with friends or family. The beginning of the trek wasn’t too bad–Mike and I left Connecticut on Saturday, February 14, 1998, crashed in PA that night, then drove to Kentucky the next day. But the second part, where we crossed most of the continent, was a marathon of endurance driving. After Louisville, our next “stop” was Salt Lake City where Ben had family. (That’s about 1,600 miles/2,500 km! For those of you who live in Europe, Berlin to Athens is about the same driving distance, and you’d drive across four to five other countries!) We drove non-stop for about two days, breaking once or twice for an hour or so at rest stops. Oh yeah, we learned that only Ben and I could actually drive, so we alternated two hour shifts on the road. By the time I got into Salt Lake, I crashed–hard.
But at the time it wasn’t as big of a deal to me. I liked driving. And I realized that every mile we headed west was another mile further west than I had ever been in my life. It was intoxicating, watching the scenery of America change outside the windshield. The Midwest wasn’t super exciting, but once we got to the High Plains in eastern Colorado (around the morning of Tuesday February 17), I was seeing an unfamiliar landscape. Even better was crossing the Rockies via I-70 and then entering the desert in Utah.
After Salt Lake City, it was one more day of driving. I-80 across Nevada was even more of an alien landscape. We crossed the Sierras at night and landed in San Jose, where Shane had friends. Four of us crashed on the floor of a one bedroom apartment. (Again, the things that you can do when you are young!)
The next two days were spent exploring the Bay Area. It may not have been the best “intro to California” time, as El Nino was raging pretty good. It was pretty wet. But we first head to Berkeley, then crossed the bridge into San Francisco proper. My eyes were just popping out of my head with the beauty (natural and man-made) of the area. San Francisco was a city, sure, but it didn’t resemble the East Coast cities I was used to. I wanted more of it. For a moment, I wondered how I could abandon the rest of my crew and just hang out in SF indefinitely, maybe catching a plane back to Bradley.
The two days of APE were okay. I was crushing hard on someone who I finally met in person at the convention. Deep down I knew that it would never, ever, work out (she was a decade older than me and totally not into guys), but I was still loopy. Sales were pretty dismal, but I met a bunch more cool folks, and ended up partying late into Saturday night with a crew of folks wandering around San Jose.
But of course the experience had to end, and on Monday February 23, 1998 we got back into Ben’s car and headed towards home. On the positive side, we chose a totally different route homeward, first south to LA then east to Houston (where we would stay with Shane’s friends), so I would see more of the U.S.A. But there was a big negative, and that was the speed we were traveling. I would have much preferred to take it slower and enjoy the drive, but Ben was hell-bent on getting back to Pennsylvania as fast as possible (something about getting a check from his work by Saturday night.) So it was another non-stop trip.
And this time, Ben didn’t have the stamina of driving that he did on the way out–there were a few times where he would start his two-hour “driving shift”, then pull over in a half-hour and hand the wheel back to me because he was falling asleep. Our stay in Houston was also the trip: It was only a few hours before arriving that Shane informed us we would be staying on this “artsy compound” where people lived in converted schoolbuses and the like. I was okay with it because of a) experience and b) I was dead tired. But Ben freaked out and tried to convince us to drive several more hours to New Orleans to stay the night in a hotel, where he’d somehow do all the driving and also foot the bill. I put my foot down: not only was I done driving, after 36 or so hours in a car, but it was Mardi Gras Tuesday.
Eventually after dropping off Shane in Louisville and picking up my car in Pennsylvania, Mike and I made it home to Connecticut. I remember the…deflation we both had when we crossed the state line. I’m sure we said some expletives about the state we were born and raised in. After the cross-country trip and seeing the other side of the country, I knew that if I wasn’t satisfied with the Constitution State before, I never could be now. But I wasn’t one for drastic change, at least just yet. And I felt like I had unfinished biz with The Land of Steady Habits: Sgt. Scagnetti, the ska band I was “working” for, seemed like they were on the verge of something. (And this was the small window where ska bands could be on the verge of “something”.) Plus, I was now working at a screenprinting shop, so I hoped to learn a useful skill, maybe even stretch out and start my own screenpriting business. California would have to wait.
Two years later, the window for ska bands to become a thing had closed. Scagnetti broke up. The screenprinting job got weird, and I had quit it by late ’98. After going back into a factory, a brief foray with political canvassing, and pizza delivery, I was at wits end. I needed a shake-up, and California seemed like the answer. I threw all my cards into that basket, move to S.F., failed, then ended up in Portland, where I still am.
If it wasn’t for the big cross-country trip, I don’t know where I’d be right now. Would I have actually moved south, as I was planning for like five years? Or would I just admit defeat and stick around in Connecticut? I don’t even want to consider that option. The road has been a rocky one, but in the end it’s turned out okay.
Looking back, this first cross-continent trip was the most significant trip in my life. While my Cross-Con bike tour in 2011 was also a big deal (possibly the second most significant trip in my life) and much longer (four months vs two weeks), it’s highly likely I wouldn’t have done the latter without the former. The trip opened up my eyes and mind in a big way and let me know another world was possible. A world of my own that I can create.
1 Typically SPX is held in Bethesda, MD, another DC suburb. But the 1997 one was held in Silver Spring. I’m guessing there was a hotel scheduling conflict.
2 There was a bit of “bad blood” at the last one, when a few folks created a “spoof” program mocking the event. This was one of the factors leading it to not happen again. Clamor Magazine started the similarly sounding Underground Publishing Conference (UPC) around 1999, rising out of a Midwest Zine Conference. I attended the UPC from 2000 through 2002, in fact, UPC was a stop on my cross-country move. The UPC morphed into the Allied Media Conference and changed focus from zines to media.
3 Not entirely true: There was Canzine, an independent press show in Toronto. I first heard about it at SPX and it was just a week or so afterwards. Toronto would be a much harder trip to pull off, especially at short notice, so I filed it away for “someday”. I finally did Canzine Toronto in 2007, a week after I attended the Halifax version and two years after a Vancouver edition.
4 Initially I thought I’d use my car, a 1988 Cadillac Cimarron, which I paid way too much for. But it was quickly proving itself unreliable (my heater core went in the winter of ’97-98), so there was no way I’d risk driving cross-country with it.
Hello! What a great read, we went to SF for different reasons, but your journey, and it’s importance chimes with me! With all best wishes from the UK – Andy
Thank you, Andy!