Fantastic History #38: The Pacific Coast Highway and PCH Roadkill by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I am writing this post as a memorial to my friend Chris Cornell, who passed away in June. We had arranged for him to write an article about his research for his novel PCH Roadkill. Like Christopher Moore’s fiction, Chris Cornell’s book was a California story written by a Californian for Californians. It was easily my favorite of Chris’ work, even though I am not a Californian, and I regret that none of you will be able to read it, as Chris never had it published. It was a near miss, but it remains a tome in the world’s best secret library.

What is the plot? An alien is marooned in California while struggling to avert a cosmic disaster, and he crosses paths with a California slacker. Together the two of them forge a bond and save the world. It’s a brilliant, gentle buddy novel which shines as it examines the nature of true friendship.

The duo in the novel drive State Highway 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, which is 659 miles from just under the northern border with Oregon to San Diego. It is a beautiful drive. Gapyear suggests 13 beautiful places along the way. Of note is Hearst Castle, an amazing place. One of Chris’ most recent road trips was to Hearst Castle, and he sent us beautiful pictures of the pools and the architecture. On this road trip you could stop in San Jose and see the Winchester House, see the magnificent scenery of Big Sur, and experience the dynamism of Los Angeles and San Diego. All along the way the ocean will make it hard for you to keep your eyes on the road.

I’ve never experienced the entirely of this trip. I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I’ve taken a train from Los Angeles to San Diego and marveled at the beach. California is beautiful country.

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PCH Highway is a book that reminds me of all the best pieces of my friend. Although the Fantastic History blog tries to place information historically, I realize this summer has been the end of a part of my own history. Since November of 2015, Chris, George Galuschak, Chia Evers and I have been podcasting steadily at Unreliable Narrators. With Chris’ death, that phase of our life is over. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it without him, and so we mourn the loss of it, as well as him. I have thought about golden times in my life before, pieces of time I remember very fondly. Unreliable Narrators was an effort of love for us, a chance to put something positive out in the world, especially in the world of the creative, where often rejection is the coin of the realm.

Now that Chris is gone, I feel adrift creatively. Certainly, I have other friends, and new opportunities will open up. But this time, these friends, this project, the way it was, this will never come again. Eventually the podcasts and the site will go away. Already, Chris’ website is gone. At World Con this week, his name will go by on the friends we’ve lost screen. People will gather and drink in his honor. The world moves on, and my life continues. You know you loved someone, truly, when the gap in your life left by them is unstitchable, uncloseable. I will often wonder, for the rest of my days, what Chris would think or do or say in situations. He was a traveling companion, a creative sounding board, a good friend. And more of this longing for his companionable, excellent company, which I can never hold again, this is what the future holds, because now I can only find that companionship in the past.

I miss you, man. I wish you were alive to write this column. I wish I could make jokes with you about the crappiest summer of my life, about the worst time line. But I have your writing and your memory, and I will make that last for my lifetime. I have to let you pass into history, but I’m not going to forget.

Summer, 2019

It has been a very challenging summer. I was really looking forward to this one. It was the first summer in thirteen years where I had an actual professor sized vacation, because I was no longer an administrator. A more superstitious person may take the following warning from my summer: Be careful what you wish for.

After Wiscon, which was wonderful, Bryon and I were looking at taking a lovely trip to Disney World early in June. Regrettably, his mother Phyllis went into decline and died two days before our vacation. She was 93, and as with all Alzheimer’s patients, the disease lingered a long time, but the end for her was swift. I moved our vacation to July, and yes, we were sad, but we had prepared as well as you can for that kind of thing.

My birthday came. On it, my good friend Chris Cornell died unexpectedly on a 100-degree day after collapsing at a BART station in San Francisco. Chris was one of the Unreliable Narrators, a writing group buddy, a mutual beta reader, and above all an excellent human being. He was 51. I am still grappling with the loss of Chris on a very personal level. I will tell you about my journey into cardio limbo in a moment, but instead of re-energizing myself regarding writing this summer, this despair of writing and struggling in what Chris used to call the worst possible timeline, mixes with my grief, anxiety, and depression, and produces a rather heady cocktail of antipathy regarding doing my trivial, entertaining art. It’s been that summer.

I did put in a request with July to be better. I kept going to the gym, letting my emotions out, doing what I could to let time get me back on my feet. July was gonna be great. I had CONvergence, and for the first time in years, since I was a self-pubbed author now, I was going to wear a costume. Bryon had spent all year making Queen Hippolyta and Antiope for me and my good friend Lisa. We had our postponed trip to Disney. We planned my annual fake family reunion, a celebration of the wonderful people who are good to me in my life. My grief would still be in the background, yes, but I was looking forward to some happiness.

July was canceled, every bit of it. Right before CONvergence, I had a heart flutter while working out, and an exercise stress test that indicated my heart was, indeed, doing funky things. However, we took off for CONvergence with a doctor’s blessing, and I promptly spent that weekend in the hospital. The good news? I didn’t have a heart attack, and the pipes are all clean. The bad news? I have been attached to a Zoll Life Vest all July awaiting diagnostic tests which arrive next week, finally. I can’t drive. I exercise minimally. I have gained about 10 pounds, and my depression hasn’t been nurtured like poison ivy, but it does pop up expectedly and often.

Welcome to August. Next week, I go to work for three days and have two days of medical testing. The following week I will have some answers, which could range from ideopathic tachycardia (We don’t know what’s going on. We can’t reproduce it, so just keep taking these meds, send your life vest back through the mail, and go home), to a reproduction of the trouble, which may involve a Frankensteinian burning/scoring of my heart to produce a regular beat, to installing a defibrillator because that’s what it might take if there’s trouble. I am taking the week of the 12th-16th off, just in case I need to recuperate or have something big done. Honestly, I just want to get my heart fixed and/or managed, so I can go back to teaching on time with everyone else. Yes, I want to go back to work. It’s also been that kind of summer.

I have plans to return to The Wrath of Horus. Honestly, I joined a Horror Writing Group recently, and if it weren’t for those deadlines, I probably wouldn’t have done anything this summer. In May, I was already having a monolithic writing crisis regarding how I was feeling about what I was producing. I was pretty convinced that it was the level up problem, and I would work through it. After Chris’ death, I have discovered a general disenchantment with the possibility of working hard to achieve my dreams in writing, and how hard I really want to work. There is malaise and disgust and sadness all revolving around my work. I am in a creatively dark spot regarding my abilities and my motivations, and a dark spot about my life and health in general.

In recent times, I have been preparing for class, and reading articles about how Americans have a groundless optimism. You too can achieve a dream, the mythology says, if only you work hard enough. I think not. I look at the people I know who have achieved in the arts, and I know they have worked hard. They are no different from the other people who have also worked hard, save that luck and backing have found them. Countless others, people with talent and ability, work hard and stay in the same spot. I believe my art will get better once I get through this summer of setbacks and get my head on straight, but I doubt whether my work will attract any kind of widespread attention. I am simply not in love with the idea of working, working, working, and always working to make that happen. I think I may have broken my heart, quite literally, working for something I cannot have. It’s a hard lesson to grapple with.

For now, I am trying to find my way back to happiness. The best I’ve been able to achieve is tepid on a good day. I love my life, my husband, my friends, and my job. I will love telling stories again. Right now I need to fan the tiny spark of passion I have for art gently. Another puff of wind and the flame will gutter out.