Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sometime in June Charles Brown, the editor of Locus, wrote to inform me that The John Varley Reader had won the Locus Award 2005 Best Collection. (It was a close thing, I didn’t get the most 1st place votes, but with the system he uses I ended up winning with overall votes. I’m pretty proud of it, considering the competition: collections by Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, and Kage Baker, some of the best short story writers ever.) The award would be presented at Westercon, the big yearly West Coast SF convention that moves from city to city on the Fourth of July weekend. This time it would be in Calgary.

We had already planned a trip to Oregon to stay with Lee’s mom for a few weeks while her brother took a trip, had to be there by the 5th. We worked it out, and figured we could just make it … if we drove like crazy. So we set out on the 29th from Oceano, Cahleefornia, and made it to Reno that night.

Reno is looking sad. I don’t know if it’s Las Vegas or the thousands of Indian casinos that have sucked the business away, but it has dwindled. Virginia Street is only four or five blocks of active casinos now, and there’s some empty ones. Where Vegas has high-toned shops and snazzy restaurants Reno has pawn shops and junk stores. We got out with the loss of only $40.

Helena, Montana Capital stairs

The next day was a bitch. We’d booked a motel in Butte, Montana, and it was about 800 miles, across Nevada and Idaho through some pretty rough country. We didn’t get there until about 11 PM, and flopped into bed almost instantly.

I’ve written about Butte elsewhere. We looked around the old historic district for a while but didn’t visit the vast open pit that sits above the town. This trip was all about making time, so we headed up to Helena, stopped for a bit at the state capital (we have a plan to visit all 50 of them if we can), and then proceeded north.

And we nearly ended our trip right there at the border.

I have been crossing back and forth into Canada for many years, but I hadn’t done it lately. Hell, in 1989 alone I’ll bet I crossed 20 times, a lot of them at Niagara Falls. Never once did I need anything but a driver’s license and a short declaration of the purpose of my trip and my destination. I’d heard all the hoo-hah about the US proposing that citizens on both sides of the border needing to show passports, but I figured that was just a stupid US thing, part of the post 9/11 hysteria, and the idea had been quietly shelved. I had never even considered that Canada had also fallen for the hysteria. (Or maybe they were just pissed that the US should propose the passport deal, and were showing the assholes down south that they could be tough and unreasonable and stupid, too.) So imagine our surprise when the Canadian customs man shook his head wearily when he heard neither of us had brought a passport or a birth certificate, and waved us over to the building for interrogation.

I don’t even have a passport, mine lapsed some years ago, and I’ve never had a birth certificate. Lee has a passport, but didn’t bring it.

The whole atmosphere was different. All the customs agents were wearing bullet-proof vests, and not the thin ones like cops wear under their shirts, but full combat gear. We were asked the usual questions about weapons, tobacco, and other smuggleables, then whether we had ever been arrested and/or fingerprinted. I had to reveal that I’d spent 30 days in the LA slammer for a bogus marijuana charge back in the ‘60s. Which is not anything I’m particularly ashamed of, but I resent these intrusions into my life. The guy goes off, after tut-tutting a bit about these Americans who seem to think they can just waltz into a foreign country (something he emphasized several times during our interrogation) with nothing but a driver’s license. What does that prove? he wanted to know. We might be illegal Mexicans, after all. (What does a birth certificate prove, Lee wanted to know, when he’s gone. Her own, if she had it, would not contain either name she uses now.) The dude comes back after a while, when I presume we were run through every known database, with a yellow slip of paper marked ADMITTED, which we have to take to another counter, and … we’re in!

A few kilometers down the road there is a Welcome to Alberta! center … sorry, centre … and it’s a whole new ball game. It’s Canada Day! Outside is a full-sized T. Rex in plaster. We are greeted by a Mountie in red dress uniform. And there are free cupcakes! A girl with maple leaf and moose decals on her cheeks shows us the best way to get to our hotel in Calgary. We wander through a small museum, where a little Nash Metropolitan has been sawn in half and seems to be entering one tunnel and emerging from another. Nice!

Calgary’s most interesting, but not dominant, building is a bare concrete tower put up for the ’88 Olympic Games. It has a torch on top, which they still light for a time at night. Which is a very short time. At 11:30 … sorry, 2230 … there is still light in the sky. I don’t know when the sun comes up, but I’m told it’s around 400. The tower is surrounded by skyscrapers, and I can’t remember if they were there at the time of the games, but if they keep building and don’t watch out the tower will soon be surrounded and invisible.

The convention is small, for a Westercon, about 600 people. I understand that, except for Worldcons, Canada seldom seems to top that number. With the current border restrictions, they may never do it again. We learned that several people had been turned back at the border, some of them for incredibly stupid reasons. (One woman’s ex-husband was on some asshole’s security watch list. Sorry, lady, you’re not welcome. Bullshit!) Some events had to be cancelled because of no-shows.

We got a great deal at the Hyatt through Travelocity, or something like that, better than the con rate at the con hotel, and we had a pleasant 7-block walk back and forth. The main street of Calgary is brick, and can be closed off for festivals, and is full of night life. They have light rail on the next street over. Charlie Brown took us out to dinner at a place down by the river called Joey Tomatoes, where they had pre-sweetened iced tea. We met his two lovely assistants, Liza and Marina, and hit it off with them immediately.

Calgary seems to have an unusual number of bums. I was panhandled quite a few times, anyway, mostly by people who seemed mentally a bit off. But they were very clean bums. Their shoes and backpacks were new. Maybe Canadian homeless shelters are less objectionable than those in the States, where a lot of bums are afraid to stay. These street people obviously had places to take a shower, and used them.

* * *

I’m so excited! I knew I was going to win an award, but this … this is incredible! Sitting in my car right now are no less than twenty-six Locus Awards! Eat your heart out, Steven Spielberg! Clint Eastwood, you’re a piker! None of you ever one 26 awards in one glorious night!

I’m going to bring them in and gloat over them. Ah, here they are, carefully presented in fine frames … what’s this? Ursula K. Le Guin? Susannah Clarke? I didn’t write something called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Neil Gaiman?

What’s that, Lee? You say we’re just carrying them back to Oakland so Charlie can mail them out to the rightful winners? That we’re doing Liza and Marina a favour (since we did it in Canada; in the US we’d have done them a favor) because we have a car and so they won’t have to schlep the boxes onto the airplane? You mean I didn’t win twenty …


Never mind.

Westercon: Charles Brown & Connie Willis

The banquet was on the top (35th) floor of a hotel, with a great view of the river. Larry Niven, one of the best writers in the field, was there, and so was David Hartwell, one of the best editors. Charlie Brown and Connie Willis put on a good show, which they are apparently well-practiced at. Charlie was just back from a two-week junket to China, and kept getting confused as to where he was. “Canada? Oh. Well, citizens of Winnipeg …” “Calgary, Charlie,” Connie whispers into his ear. Lee hit it off well with Connie; they seem to share all the same political views, and Connie is a great story-teller, both on paper and in person.

Westercon: John Varley & Connie Willis

When it came my turn I remembered the first time I won a Locus Award, back in the Stone Age when Locus was eight pages of black-and-white, few photos, and was stapled together at Charlie’s house at collating parties, where all the SF people of the Bay Area would show up from time to time. I was sitting in Charlie’s living room in the Oakland hills, and he handed me a little wooden spaceship. “What’s this?” I asked him. “Locus Award.” “Cool,” I said. “What’s a Locus Award?” He told me, that it’s voted on by the readers of science fiction, like the Hugo, only more people vote in the Locus Awards. Way cool. “Shouldn’t there be some sort of ceremony?” “Maybe someday,” Charlie said. And he’s been having them for many years now, always at Westercon.

The people at the con were friendly and helpful, and aside from one small screw-up at registration where they didn’t have Lee’s membership, everything went smoothly. They worked that out with admirable speed.

Westercon: John Varley with Marina, Liza & Charles

Thanks, Calgary!

* * *

Sadly, we couldn’t stay long. I had always wanted to see the Canadian Rockies, so we headed out the next morning toward Banff and Lake Louise. Both are incredibly pretty, but Banff is essentially a ski town and I have no interest in skiing … and mountains are wonderful, but what can you say? We made good time until we got to Chilliwack, where there was a monumental traffic jam on the 4-lane just outside of town. Somebody said a truck had jackknifed, a life flight helicopter had been called. Basically, a temporary parking lot. So what did the Canadians do? No ice or hockey sticks being available, everybody got out of their cars and began tossing footballs and Frisbees on the grassy median. I could be wrong, but somehow I don’t see that happening in Los Angeles, or Miami. More likely a shootout or two …

I had intended to stop and buy a refrigerator magnet, our souvenir of choice, just so I could say I had bought a knick-knack in Chilliwack, but the hour parked on the freeway made me lose my enthusiasm for it. This old man is rolling home.

We had really wanted to go on to Vancouver to spend the night, but it just wasn’t possible. We wanted to drop in on Geordie, who we’ve never met in the flesh, and Spider, who I haven’t seen in too long. But Spider lives on an island and the last ferry leaves at 2130 … and I didn’t think we could make it. Good decision: that traffic jam would have made it a close thing. Anyway, I didn’t want to cross back over at Blaine, which is usually a nightmare. So we cut off and went down to Sumas, where there were only three cars ahead of us in line. This is where I had expected to have trouble, given the current paranoid mood.

The guy looked at our IDs, told me I had a lot of bugs on my car (half the mosquitoes and butterflies in Alberta committed suicide against my front bumper; you can barely read the license plate) and asked us where we’d been. At a SF convention in Calgary, I told him. He looked interested for the first time, said something like “Cool,” and waved us on. Total time: less than a minute.

Maybe for a Canadian the problems would be reversed. Maybe it would be the Americans who would play the role of fascist state, and the Canadians who would be bored and unconcerned. I don’t know. And for sure, the minor hassle in Alberta was nothing to what I’ve gone through at the border, trying to re-enter the States, where I have twice had my car stripped down to the floorboards and hubcaps … but that was back when I looked like a drug-addled, draft-dodging, fire-bombing anarchist and was driving a piece-of-shit hooptie with bald tires and a busted muffler. Now we look like a respectable couple entering upper middle age (I still can’t bring myself to say old), driving an ’01 car that runs like a top. The sad thing is that I had never had the slightest trouble entering Canada. This time I did. And I am afraid that it will only get worse, in both directions, for both countries. God DAMN Osama bin Laden, John Ashcroft, the motherfucking Patriot Act and all who voted for it, and most especially George W Bush and his phony War on Terror!!! So far it has done exactly what the War on Drugs has done: produce more terrorists. And like the War on Drugs, it will never end, and will erode our freedom and liberties day by day under the guise of protecting them.

* * *

For the first time I recall I made it through the Seattle area without slowing down once in traffic. I did it by taking I-405 instead of I-5. It’s not even very much longer.

We made it to Portland early and spent the night with Lee’s son, Tom, and his wife, Gina. Huge steaks, hot off the grill! They have a nice place out near Hillsboro, and seem to be doing fine in their new marriage.

Next day we made it to North Bend, and pulled up at Lee’s mom’s house with 3000.3 miles on the trip meter. We’ve got to stop doing these rush trips! Next time, next time we’ll take our time …

July 5, 2005
Oceano, California