Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Out of the Mountains

Last week I spent two days visiting Feather River College (go Golden Eagles!), which was both the best and worst professional experience of my life.

Feather River College is in Quincy, Calif., a beautiful Mayberry gem of a town in the Sierra Nevada. Nestled in a valley surrounded by forested mountains, it's got a four-block-long downtown of hundred-year-old buildings. Everyone in town seems to know everyone else, and goes out of their way to be friendly to strangers. I was even treated to a roof-rattling thunderstorm, my favorite kind of weather. Quincy is great.

Even the street lights make you feel welcome.

A stretch of downtown Quincy . . .

. . . where I found my name in lights! Well, my book's name. This is the local movie theater, which also doubles as an events center where I spoke on Thursday evening. It's a lovely Art Deco jewel, nothing fancy but lovingly saved and restored. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

The small two-year college invited me up because the instructors got together and chose A Fire Story as their "Book in Common" for the year, meaning all the students have to read it and some classroom activity will revolve around it. I talked to six different classes on Wednesday and Thursday, ranging from maybe 20 to 80 students each, then concluded Thursday night with a community lecture at the Art Deco movie theater/events center downtown that drew about 100.

I tried to tailor my talks for each class. For Environmental Studies, I touched on climate change and conflict at urban-wildlife boundaries (i.e., are there some places people just shouldn't be allowed to build houses?). For Creative Writing, I talked more about process, and how I approach writing fiction and nonfiction. My host, English professor Chris Connell, couldn't have made me feel more welcome. The students were engaged, the faculty is super-dedicated to their jobs and their kids, and I think the whole thing went wonderfully.

This is the drawing class I spoke to, with instructor Josh in the background, in just about the nicest student studio space I've seen. They're working on making their own comics with a six-panel grid I provided. Sometimes art students have the hardest time with these exercises because they think they need to draw "good," which only bogs them down. Quick and messy is the ticket!

One of the larger groups I lectured to. This was two or three classes combined, all watching KQED's animation of "A Fire Story," which gave me a chance to sneak to the back and take this photo.

Some of the Feather River College grounds, which surrounded a large grass quad and sprawled for quite a way in different directions. Beautiful campus!

The back side of the library, where I spoke a couple of times.

So what's the "worst" part?

When I got to town Tuesday night, I picked up a stomach bug or food poisoning or some damn thing, and spent the night curled on a tile floor driving the porcelain bus. Stomach cramps made it too painful to sleep, except maybe when I passed out with my head cradled on the loo. In the morning I got dressed and went to lecture to classes at 8, 9, and 10:30 a.m. To quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek 4, they weren't exactly catching me at my best.

I clued in the instructors in case I needed to make a dash for the door, but didn't bother the students with it. If any of them noticed me white-knuckling the lectern to keep from keeling over, they were nice enough not to say anything. I'd hit the bathroom, barf, lecture, hit the bathroom, barf, lecture, lather, rinse, repeat. I only had to bug out of one class for a minute, but it happened at a good time when I had the students working on drawing their own comics, so no harm done. By midafternoon I was looking up directions to the local hospital, because I knew if I couldn't even keep down water I was gonna need an IV pretty soon. Then I did my fourth lecture of the day.

Then I sat on my glasses and broke their frame. At that point, all I could do was laugh, and start watching the sky for falling frogs or meteors.


I got some sleep Wednesday night, and in the morning started sipping (and retaining!) Gatorade and bought super glue to fix my glasses. Felt pretty fair for my two morning talks, and by the evening was fit enough to have a light dinner salad with some faculty. I think the evening community presentation went great.

Dinner before my community talk with (clockwise from me) English instructor Joan, English instructor Joe, counselor Monica, English instructor and my terrific host Chris Connell, and college president Kevin Trutna. I'm not eating any nachos.

The view from the back of the theater where, again, I took advantage of my animated video to sneak to the rear and get a photo.

I drove home Friday, and only learned later that an e. coli alert had been issued that day for the town of Quincy! Residents were advised to boil their drinking water . . . the same water I'd spent three days trying to hydrate myself with. I'm no Scotland Yard detectivist, but I think I'm seeing a pattern.

Just a couple of typical vistas on Highway 70 to and from Quincy.

On the Feather River. Couldn't be prettier.

In contrast, also on Highway 70, the remains of the Camp Fire stretched to the horizon.

This Quincy community was very near last year's devastating Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise. You have to drive through those scorched, barren hills to get to Quincy, they see and live with it every day. In fact there was a big forest fire blazing just east of town when I arrived. Fire is uppermost in their minds. All of that made it a tremendous privilege and honor for me to come here and talk about A Fire Story with them, and I'm just glad I managed to pull myself together enough to do it.

On balance, the "best" far outweighed the "worst."