Thursday, January 12, 2012

The road taken

Our card: I'm afraid that in my bumbling I will
tatter, besmirch or even lose this artifact, so finally
I committed it to digital posterity.
Long ago, burning with creative spirit, uncertain of our future paths, and deciding we might as well just blaze our own — in fact,  the same place where my own children are now — my college classmate and former roomie David Middlecamp and I launched a freelance business.

Maybe launched overstates it. Fervently dreamed about and planned with bursts of enthusiasm is closer.

"Questing Unlimited" comes courtesy of the courtly days of King Arthur, when the knights of his and other realms were always gallivanting about the countryside in pursuit of adventure.

From a piece David shot for The Mustang Daily
about a San Luis Obispo ranching family,
demonstrating his excellence as a photographer.
This is old school: He produced these postcards
himself, on special cards with photo paper fronts.
(Now that I think of it, the quests were merely tools for Sir Thomas Malory and other writers of the Arthurian legend to plot stories; kind of like when the cell phones ring on any one in the Law & Order franchise episodes just when the chase grows stale.)

Somewhere in my readings of the Arthur legend (perhaps in John Steinbeck's preempted attempt to retell the Malory version, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights), I think I learned that for a quest to hold meaning, it must go in a great circuit, never to cover the same ground.

The advice, whether from those pages or from my fevered brow, informs me still. I loathe out-and-back backpacking trips (oh, I'll make them, if it means not going at all), and tend to drive in great, gas-wasting loops on errands.

So would it be for us and our budding business.

David and I wanted unfettered wandering, making stories of our serendipity. I wanted to be like Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, except I would be discovering what he was re-discovering. I'm speaking for David — and this is the first of many invitations for him to fill in the gaps or correct me — but I imagine likewise that he wanted to chronicle our travels and travails much as Dorothea Lange did.

We had already begun training, and maybe got the idea for it, by teaming up on feature stories for The Mustang Daily, Cal Poly's student-run daily newspaper.

Our feature stories filled our own craving to move beyond Cal Poly's and San Luis Obispo's geographical borders, and the newspaper's daily need for copy. As long as we could sell even the weakest link to Cal Poly — whether our subjects had graduated from there or visited or merely heard about the campus — we could do the story for the college newspaper. We didn't leave the county, but imagined Questing Unlimited to be our ticket hither and yon.

David with all those postcards, all those
hoped-for assignments, set out to dry.
Then, life got in the way, or I let it get in the way. I got an internship at my hometown newspaper the summer after we hatched our dream. David, in San Luis Obispo, took the burden of nurturing the business — more likely, I let my end drop for David to pick up and carry my share with his — and continued researching story ideas.

When last we worked on the business together, we were just beginning to develop queries, which are story outlines that we'd pitch to magazines whose contacts we had yet to gather. Or maybe I have forgotten that David had already amassed editors' and publishers' names.

(I just discovered a stash of captioned photos David produced as part of a portfolio we'd send to editors seeking writing assignments. The photos are from a feature we wrote about Janita and Robert Baker, who make guitars and mountain dulcimers from their rural home in northern San Luis Obispo County. Wonderful, engaging, talented people, the Bakers were exactly the kind of subjects we wanted to chronicle; I'm happy to find the Bakers are still doing their thing at Blue Lion Dulcimers & Guitars.)

We had our marketing campaign almost ready to unleash upon the world, with a logo made the hard way.

To build the logo today, I'd probably buy the needed typeface from a Website, import it into Adobe Illustrator, type out the words I wanted, convert the word to shapes, then manipulate the shapes at will on my computer screen. Click, tap, click. It sounds involved but it might take an hour tops, no muss, no fuss.

Not so way back then. If you wanted anything even remotely exotic in type treatment, you went to Letraset, and any newspaper or graphic design shop would have piles of these transparent plastic sheets of letterforms lying in storage, usually with just a handful of letters removed from the sheet. I'd either transfer letterforms by burnishing them onto a surface, or cut the letterforms and painstakingly expose a thin adhesive backing. Want the typeface bigger? Smaller? Assemble the type and then throw it into the overhead camera for enlargement.

I spliced "Questing" across the bottom with an X-acto knife, then used thin 2-point black adhesive tape to restore the letterforms into complete shapes. In this case, the job took multiple precise angled cuts. Just before I'd get the last tiny end of the tape to stick in place, my shoulders would invariably kink up, or the tape would stick to my fingers and pull the whole job askew — death of a project by 106 cuts — or the letterform I needed, the only one left on the sheet, would get stuck on the bottom of my shoe. Good times. Good times.

We must have convinced someone over in the print side of The Mustang Daily into typesetting "Unlimited" and the contact information for us. David might know who printed our business cards for us.

That's as far as our quest went. David and I pursued divergent journalism paths, though we went on to lead roughly parallel lives. David's career explored depth over breadth, nourishing his roots in San Luis Obispo County. He became the envy of most Cal Poly grads — one of the few to find a lifelong excuse to stay and thrive in beautiful San Luis Obispo, as an excellent photographer and storyteller and historian/archivist for The Tribune.

He's even a gentleman farmer, nourishing olive roots on family land. Someday I'll write about the day long ago when I "helped" him buck hay.

I'm lucky to have been able to reconnect with David and his family, and talk about now and then.

Officially in mid-life or past it, I can't help but think about then these days. My wife joined me in wondering: What if we had pursued our quest? The words "hungry" and "hardscrabble" come to mind, but also "happy" and "simple" and "who knows?" It might have been a precarious existence, likely requiring us to invest our dreams from other sources, like parttime jobs. It might not have endeared me to my in-laws or pleased my parents, because Nancy and I were planning marry soon; it might be why I didn't give the idea the time and energy it needed. I was afraid.

Certainly I missed out on the people we would have met, missed the stories they would have given us, missed some countryside I have yet to see, missed the memories of epic trips on roads less traveled by, that might have made all the difference.