Minnesota is a lovely state. This is why Roo hates it.

Minnesota is a beautiful state, but people who live here must have bulletproof skin. This is the first place Roo has ever been where she gets hounded out of the mood for a walk after only a minute or two. The horseflies and mosquitos fly around in swarms that could have won World War II. I have a mosquito net that goes over my hat. Chig just has to deal with them. She deals with them by getting back in the car.

We're both getting in it and heading east tomorrow. It's over.

Thunder Road

180616-0001.jpg

Overnight, a confluence of three fronts, one of them energized by soupy hot air being sucked out of the south meeting a cold front from Canada and North Dakota trying to sucker punch it, were converging on Brainerd, Minnesota. We were camped in the Toyota parking lot.

I had been up till 4 AM, interrupting what I was working on with obsessive radar checks. These days, I check it more closely than I did when I was piloting an open cockpit biplane across America, all because of the fears of my passenger. The Weather Service seems to have been issuing lots of faulty reports lately — I’ve noticed it all over the country — and so I didn’t have confidence in their estimate of when the storms would arrive. My appraisal was different from the weather services. They put it at about five AM. It looked more like 8 to me. I got a couple of hours of sleep.

Around 7 AM I checked the radar and saw the storms finally picking up their expected speed from the west-northwest, still about an hour away. That was getting too close for comfort, because distant thunder is enough for Roo. I’ve seen her get spooked when thunder was 200 miles away. If she heard any, the problem would be getting her out of the camper and into the car. She would be either paralyzed with fear or trying to bolt into woods or foliage. In emergencies, I’ve had to drag her, but I hate to do it.

I got the car hitched electrical cable stowed, things put away, Roo’s breakfast prepared and loaded it and some coffee in the car. I still didn’t hear any thunder, but Roo did and when it was time to go she was stuffed in a corner. Being woken up three hours earlier than her usual time didn’t help. She was more disoriented than usual. Luckily, Roo prefers the car to the camper when there’s thunder and the thunder was still far enough off to convince her to move. In the car, she went straight into hiding in the footwell. When I got in, I remembered that I had forgotten the steroid cream in the camper. A couple of mosquitoes overnight had covered my neck, ears and forehead with bites, and without that cream they would drive me crazy and I would scratch them until they bled. Those seem to take weeks to heal. 

“I’ll be right back,” I told Roo. She looked up form the footwell. 

“Quit worrying, Little Bear,” I said. I must say that a hundred times a day.

The instant I opened the door to get out, the rain dumped on me like a bucket left on the top of a door by a malicious practical joker, and in the moment I was inside the camper, the storm broke in earnest. By the time I got back in the car I was soaked. Roo stayed down in the footwell for an hour.

Last year I spent the entire winter and spring dreading the summer because of how crowded campgrounds are. This year I forgot to dread it — probably because I ended up camped in the driveway of my friends Virginia and Jim in Maine and forgot about it. But now, the crowds now are horrific. Every campground is jammed, completely booked, the cheap ones especially. I had the coordinates of a small municipal campground 60 miles to the northeast programmed into Google Maps on the phone. But I also had the weather radar app open. By the time we drove the two miles to the intersection where we would have made the eastbound turn to the east, I closed the Google Maps app. It would be even worse that way. We turned westbound and I turned the map app off.

We passed a freight train loaded with beautiful wind turbine blades and another with brand-new black tanker cars. I could just see the goddamned politicians making campaign stops in front of those. Not at the nearby Amtrak station, a sooty old beige brick building that would’ve been ugly when they built it in the 60s, too ugly in its conception even for Soviet architecture of the period. The freight was in better shape than the passengers.

There won’t be any way to outrun all the storms today. The forces at work in the atmosphere will be waiting until later tonight to gang up and attack the entire region. On the radar app, I see the big systems. They’re over western North Dakota and tracking eastbound. They’re running into that southern flow, but instead of pushing anything north, they’ve made a pact, and the one seems to have agreed to supply the other. All I was hoping for was a place where Roo will feel safe enough to go for enough of a walk to empty out. Otherwise, she could easily end up going 36 hours refusing to pee. She’s done it before.

Navigating to a clear area on the map that didn’t look like it had thunder, I pulled off on a dirt road, but it was so badly washboarded — the kind of road that tears things off the walls in the camper and bounces anything that’s loose and breaks them and snaps plumbing fittings. That kind of washboard has broken the microwave from the brackets supporting it and torn the drawers loose from their frame. I pulled over at a desolate intersection.

She didn’t object. She must have needed to go badly. I was hoping she’d go a little farther, in case the storms later kept her buttoned up, but she gave me the old signal that she wanted to get back inside—asking to carry her Flexi leash. Once she gets that in her head, there’s no going back. Her mind was made up.

I took a picture of her on that road, and just now I looked at it, to see if I had a picture to post with this note. You can see her tail tucked in the picture, the way it is when she's worried, but not panicked. She's looking straight up the road.

Straight up Thunder Road. And the day was still young.

Mississippi Breakdown

When Roo and I got in the car to take her to a park a few days ago, a strange thwapp-thwapp sound came from under the hood. I risked driving it to a local mechanic who instantly diagnosed the problem. A failed water pump bearing. The water pump circulates the coolant from the radiator into the engine so it can absorb the heat that’s generated from the friction of all the metal parts moving. When it fails, the car has to be stopped immediately to keep it from frying itself. That mechanic gave me an estimate but couldn’t get to it for another ten days. I started phoning around. The only place that would take the job on immediately was a Toyota dealer 40 miles away. One always expects to pay more at a dealership, but somehow these guys aren’t charging more at all. Halfway between what the thing is worth and what I owe on it. It should be as good as new when it’s fixed, though.

Because of the possibility of the old crate quitting at any minute, for two days we didn’t drive the car at all. I found some places to walk Roo locally, and though they weren’t ideal — mostly around a local fairgrounds — they had to suffice. Roo considered it a cut in pay and gave me an occasional dirty look to let me know what she thought  of it. The camp where we were is on the banks of the upper Mississippi River, so Roo figured she would just swim there any time she liked, but I didn’t let her. She did get to swim in it once, when we first arrived, but that was just so she could be one of the few dogs who can say she’s swum the Mississippi in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri. But, the last of her hotspots has been alternately healing and then opening up for weeks, so, with the truck grounded, this was as good a time as any to try to keep her dry.

On our last day in the campground, with whatever mojo the truck still had being held in reserve for the drive to the garage, a woman drove up in a beat-up old car with every inch of its body covered in dents except for where panels were missing. In campgrounds, it’s rare for anyone ever to knock on your door. In three years, I don’t think it’s happened half a dozen times, and those were either park rangers asking where the rent was or something to do with one of the dogs we’ve pulled off the streets. The woman knocked on the door. She was somewhere between 40 or 65 and wearing a tight pink t-shirt and jeans.

“Anyone in here smoke?” she said, looking away furtively.

Naturally, I thought she was looking for a cigarette.

“Oh, no, sorry. I quit long a time ago,” I said.

She gave me a look like I was some kind of idiot and left, kind of slowly. It looked like she was thinking of stating her case more clearly. Later I realized she was probably looking to trade something for meth or crack. It was sad.

Yesterday I hooked the car up to the trailer and drove it to the Toyota dealership. On the way, the noise under the hood turned into an intermittent screech that frightened Roo and made her stuff herself down in the footwell. I drove the 40 miles slowly, hoping the whole time that the thing wouldn’t quit, especially with the camper. Minnesota people are extremely friendly, especially by American standards. Had this been California or New York, I would have expected everyone who had to pass us to at least flip the bird, but no one minded and we made it. I unhooked the trailer and pulled up to the big automatic garage doors at the service department. When the door opened and let in the sound the truck was making, all the service guys and customers looked up at once.

The service manager came to the window and said, “Ouch,” when I shut it off. “You must be Mr. Beker.“

“I am, but you can call me Brian,” I said.

“Sounds bad. You’re lucky you made it.”

“You’re telling me,” I said.

“Well, we’ll get it taken care of.”

  Be it ever so humble, there's no place like a Toyota parking lot when you need one.

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like a Toyota parking lot when you need one.

You have to hand it to Toyota service. Even though they’re always great, these guys are the best I’ve encountered. Apart from permission to park the camper in the dealer parking lot, they made sure I had electricity and gave us a loaner car. Roo hated the loaner, I suppose because it’s something new, and anything new makes her nervous. She’s a pre-Trump conservative in that way. She was also already on edge from some thunderstorms 200 miles to the west that were on their way. Later, contrary the expectations of the weather service, they lost their intensity faded by the time they reached us overnight and didn’t torture Roo much at all.

So, there we are. We traded the heat and venomous snakes of Oklahoma for clouds of mosquitos and the most pernicious tick infestation I’ve ever seen anywhere. The Bravecto works petty well on Roo, so all the ticks come for me. When they bite, they leave big red bumps that itch for days. 

The Toyota guys were as good as their word and just before they shut down this afternoon one of them pulled up to the camper in the truck. It runs better than ever.

So, it’s another night in this parking lot. Tomorrow we’ll find some other place to camp. I guess we’ll head north. We’re not out of room in that direction yet.

That, Mister and Missus America, and all the ships at sea, is the news from the front.

Notes on making an audiobook

Audible_Notes_Cover.png

Let’s say you write a book and decide to turn it into an audiobook. Basically, all you have to do is read it onto a recording device, edit the tape and upload the chapters to the audiobook seller’s web site. A stunningly simple process. What, I began to think about two years ago, could possibly be easier?

The book in question was the original Roo book, Notes from a Dog Rescue in Progress, now five years old. The first consideration was who to get to read it. Anyone who listens to audiobooks has experienced bad readings, or, all least, some readings that shine so brightly that you wish others were as good.

I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. When I was forced to narrate a documentary when Tom Waits backed out at the last minute, leaving our broke production on the hook for the studio rental, it was torture having to listen to my voice spool through the rest of the editing process and the mix. Every line grated on me, sounding stiff, stupid, mispronounced, off-tone. When the film was broadcast in Australia, they seemed to agree. They had me dubbed in Australian. They said it was because no one down there would understand my heavy American accent.

What with the huge quantity of audiobooks being produced these days, there’s an efficient system in place for finding a narrator. It’s right at the Amazon subsidiary where you will eventually publish the audiobook. You upload a page or two of the book, and list it as open for auditions. The next thing you know, your inbox is filled with recordings. Some of them are pros, some of them read as if they were delivering the Gettysburg Address to a high school public speaking class. None of them sounded right. I began to accept what I already knew, but had been resisting: that the only person who should read the book was me. It’s a personal story written in the first person, after all, and all those voices reading it as if the story was happening to them rang untrue. At least to me.

After reviewing 127 auditions, I knew it wouldn’t work. I gave up on it, and, because I couldn’t stand the idea of doing it myself, gave up on turning the book into an audiobook.

Then, when Roo and I were in Utah a couple of years ago, I decided to give it a go. What did I have to lose by plugging a mic into the computer and giving it a go?

Nothing, I figured. I had nothing to lose, other than a little time.

Now, I understand basic sound production. I’ve been the sound man on a couple of films and the sound was always good. I figured this would be a lot easier. There would be no adjusting to constantly changing levels and tones in new sound environments. There would be none of the crosstalk when two or more people talk over each other and ruin the take. 

I did some research into the hardware and software I’d need. I ordered an inexpensive USB microphone from Amazon. For recording software, I could have used Garage Band, which is already on the Mac, but from everything I read, as a music program, it wasn’t really suited for the type of editing you have to do on narration. The program everyone seemed to love was called Hindenburg.

I looked at their web site, and two things struck me. The price was outrageous, $375, and their web site had so many typos — hundreds of them — that it was hard to believe. I made a list of the typos, wrote the company to tell them that I had found hundreds of them and would trade the editing for the software. They turned me down. I told them, fine, if they wanted to be a bunch of cheapskates, that was their problem, but the work was already done so they could have it with my compliments. They gave me a two-year license.

Folks, I'm an experienced computer user. I can use all sorts of complicated software. I have never seen anything as complicated as Hindenburg. The learning curve goes right off the top of the chart. All it edits is sound — no pictures, no film — and yet, it's incomprehensibly difficult and unintuitive. But, once you start generating files in it, they've got you, because you can't transfer those files to any other program. You can export the finished product, but you're stuck editing it in their format. It does a good job, but the smallest tasks can put you through the most complicated procedures.

When I got everything set up, I read the first paragraph of the book into the microphone and played it back. I had steeled myself to having to hear my own voice, and so, though it made me cringe, it didn’t even make it into the Top Ten list of the things that were wrong. The problem was the sound.

When you say any word that starts with a P or B, you put your lips together and separate them as you blow some air out. It’s called a “plosive” when that wave of air hits a microphone with an annoying thud. Controlling them is a matter of positioning the mic and using a pop filter, which is just a screen placed in front of the mic that breaks up the air. The mic I had bought came with one, but it didn’t work. I made a better one out of some drug store nylons stretched over a hose clamp and attached it to the mic stand with a clothes hanger. Figuring this out took a long time.

Another irritant when recording the human voice is sibilance, the hissing produced when you say any word that has an S in it. You don’t hear this when you’re talking to someone, unless it’s one of those people who can’t help whistling through their teeth, but that hissing is magnified by the microphone. If it gets into the final recording, it’s profoundly annoying to the listener. So, it took a lengthy process of experimentation to try to position the microphone far enough away from the mouth not to pick it up too much while still producing a clear voice. 

The thing is, if you change the distance between the microphone and the mouth by just a few millimeters, the levels change, the whole sound changes. That means that you have to freeze in position to maintain the proper distance. What made this worse was tongue and lip clicking. When you talk or listen to someone else talk, you don’t hear the constant barrage of clicks and pops made by the tongue and lips. On the recordings, these sounded like a gorilla with loose dentures eating with his mouth open. It was revolting. I couldn’t control all of it. A better mic in a less noisy environment would have taken care of it, because it could be positioned far enough away not to pick them up, but with the ambient noise always present in the camper, I had to trade a closer mic position, with lower recording levels to keep out the external noises, for the clicks and pops.

None of this would have been necessary in a studio where there is no extraneous noise. People who do this at home often do it in a closet, where they can tape some foam or blankets to the walls and achieve a silent room. In the camper, nothing like that was possible.

The next problem was flubbed words or bad reading. Try reading one of these paragraphs out loud and see whether you can maintain perfect diction. Easier said than done.

Then, there were the external noises. There was always something. First, the camper’s tiny vent fan hummed in the background, and I didn’t realize it. Everything had to be re-recorded. Roo would move or snore or come over to say hi. The vinyl on the seat would squeak — translating into a piercing shriek on the recording. If I forgot myself and failed to hold perfectly still my shirt my rustle the tiniest it, enough to ruin the take. Or, outside, an airplane would fly over, or the wind would blow or another camper would crush a Bud Light can or drive by in their diesel pickups.

Working day and night, taking time off only to take Roo for her hikes, it took me five weeks to record the raw tracks. It would have take a professional reader — any one of the 127 people who had auditioned — three or four hours.

Once I had the tracks on hand, I edited out the flubbed words and assembled it into a completed audiobook. It took several more weeks, and I was out of patience. I fooled myself into thinking it might not be too rough, and sent it to my friend Jon Winokur to see what he thought. 

“Well,” he said, always the gentle — but honest — critic, “it’s a little breathy.”

I listened to it. It was breathy as hell. It sounded like I had recorded it while being ventilated in an iron lung. I’d have to find a way to edit all of that out.

  This is what two minutes of finished audio looks like. Every one of those lines is an edited section, some of which took hours when a word or phrase had to be re-recorded, matched, filtered. Any sound professionals looking at this will show it to their friends at a bar and they'll all have a good laugh at the idiot who produced this, but there we are.

This is what two minutes of finished audio looks like. Every one of those lines is an edited section, some of which took hours when a word or phrase had to be re-recorded, matched, filtered. Any sound professionals looking at this will show it to their friends at a bar and they'll all have a good laugh at the idiot who produced this, but there we are.

To make all of these edits, several things had to be done. The track had to be cut where there was a breath or a click and the bad stuff deleted. But the problem with that is that those breaths or clicks are part of the words. If you cut them out, you cut the words out. So, you have to re-record tons of stuff. And then they are at different levels, and each one of those has to be individually adjusted. The levels, the tone. That Hindenburg software? The smallest edits retire as many as 20 mouse clicks and careful, frame-by-frame repositioning. A single word could take a couple of minutes to fix.

This went on and on. Eventually I thought it would never end, and I put it on the back burner. Then I turned the burner off. I had met the enemy face-to-face and the way he beat me was with the old fact of garbage in, garbage out.

So much work had gone into it, though, that from time to time I revived it. Another minute of editing would take a few hours, and no matter how many times I checked the result, there were always more problems. After a while I thought of just deleting it. The book was so old now that it had already missed it’s shot at selling as an audiobook anyway. What was I doing it for? Still, it’s hard to trash something after that much effort had gone into it. 

I kept plugging away at it. Eventually, it grew into thousands of edits. It was ridiculous. Every time I thought it might be finished, I’d hear another click or something. Or I’d find out that the technical specs required by the audiobook company were in a different standard than the one in the software and have to read scientific articles about how to translate them, and once I did, re-engineer the whole thing. 

But finally it was done. I’ve never been in a place quiet enough, and with headphones good enough to tell for sure, but it seemed to sound okay.

And, so, here it comes. The audiobook company takes a couple of weeks to review the audio quality before listing it for sale on Amazon, iTunes and Audible, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll get an email apprising me of some other mistake I’m not even aware of. If that happens, I’ll fix it if I can, but if it’s something beyond my capacity in this camper-based recording and mixing studio, I’ll probably have to let it go. Fingers crossed.

With deep thanks, I'll be sending a download link to all of you who have supported Roo’s and my travels on Patreon and beyond. I hope it's okay. And I’m glad it’s done.

If it is.

Still moving north

180605-0001.jpg

Lately it's been occurring to me that the planet might be getting hotter. Sure seems that way, though if it were true, I think I’d remember hearing something about it. Of course I limit my news intake to pure, fact-based sources, meaning I judiciously refrain from all #FakeNews and rely exclusively on Fox, and thank God, over there we're devoting all our attention to the humanity-ending threat presented by President Hillary Clinton, so it could be that there just hasn't been time to cover some liberal-imagined End of the World liberal scenario until we get her and Vice President George Soros out of office. So, I don't know. Just seems hotter than it's ever been. It’s probably just me. Maybe it’s just the feeling of all the molecules bubbling from making America so great again.

We left south Iowa on Sunday, continuing our northbound trek in search of cooler weather. The farther north we fled, the hotter it got. By the time we stopped in Blue Earth County in southern Minnesota — as good a place as any on the basis of the name alone — it was 94 degrees one hour before sunset, 84 at 11 PM. It looks like another 150 miles north of here is some sort of meteorological barrier where the temps trend 10 degrees cooler, probably because of proximity to Lake Superior. We'll press on in that direction.

It's not much of a problem for Roo, because she has convinced herself that there are always tadmouses in every pond, so she gets to splash around while I stand on the bank giving the ticks plenty of time to crawl up my legs. When you get far enough north in the United States, the waters begin to run clear, which only encourages her, because she knows that the second the world's first actual tadmouse swims into view, she will be the first dog in America poised to pounce on one. And she's feeling great.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten how difficult it is to move around from camp to camp all the time. Being continually parbroiled while having to set up and break down is a good way to run out of steam. When I saw an Amish couple pulling this little cart in the sun with their six kids on board, I felt a deep kinship with them. The only difference was that their Amish-built cart was built to last longer than ours.

180605-0002.jpg