February 6, 2003

Dear Friends, Readers, Supporters,

Two weeks ago I was one of the drivers who helped shuttle children from my daughter Sarah's kindergarten class on a field trip to see the 2,000-year old redwoods in Muir Woods on the other side of San Francisco Bay. During a welcoming talk, our park ranger pointed out a 5-inch banana slug sliming its way along the rug of needles on the forest floor. "To kiss a banana slug," she told us all, "is said to bring a person good luck." Sarah was right in with the group chorus: "Oooo-Yuckie!"

So I got down on my knees and planted a gentle kiss on the little fella's back—its antennae retreated immediately down inside its head. Sarah's teacher Celia snapped a picture of the kiss, but the real photo op was missed: Sarah's friends know me pretty well by now, but as I stood up and looked down at their astonished faces they all seemed to be seeing me for the first time—even Sarah.

When I got home, there was an out-of-the-blue phone message waiting from USA Today. They wanted to do a story on Backpack Nation. It was one of the higher points in a month of sharp peaks and one huge trough.



Just a couple of days ago I realized that there was no need to close the application window on the arbitrary date of Feb 15, and have therefore extended it to Feb 28th. Everything else remains the same. Beginning on March 1, the selection committee will consider the essays and choose the first ambassador, who will be notified April 1. I have read these wonderful applications as they've rolled in, and am enormously moved by them. I am glad I am not making the decision on this first ambassador—it would be too much for one person. But on the strength of what I have read, I absolutely believe that when the selection committee members sit down and read in one sitting the 20 most promising applications (as determined by the screening committee) they will be blown away—and that explosion will blast the project forward. Seeing the caliber of people and thought that are attracted to Backpack Nation is very humbling and very gratifying to me. I think this thing is going to burst into bloom one day very soon, and I'm watering it just as fast as I can.

In the last update I inaugurated a $20 buy-a-book/make-a-donation plan, and within days several people took me up on the offer. I was feeling pretty darned smart. And then, every day for three straight weeks not a single thing showed up in my post office box! Last night I received emails from two people wondering why their envelopes had come back stamped "Return to Sender/No Forwarding Address." I dug out my receipt (paid in full through May), and this morning, after a very robust conversation with the manager of the post office, I was told that someone had, in error, pasted a very unfortunate note at the back end of the wrong post office box. My box is down at knee level, and I'm not in the habit of bending all the way down to peer in, or I would have seen that note all the way at the back—three weeks ago. The manager went, with some alacrity, to check today's "Return to Sender" pile, where indeed two pieces addressed to me were already waiting return to their senders. One contained a check. I have no idea how many other pieces of mail were turned around over the last three weeks. Nonetheless, donations that were handed to me or sent online brought our total up to $8,010. And I am, once again, fully confident that the first ambassadorship will be fully funded with $20,000 in a timely fashion. IF YOU WERE ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO HAD MAIL RETURNED TO YOU IN THE PAST THREE WEEKS, PLEASE TRY AGAIN. (Please email me, too.) Everything should be working now. I am very sorry for the inconvenience.

My book was indeed one of five to make the shortlist for the WH Smith Travel Book of the Year award. If you have the time and inclination to cast a vote for it, I would really, really appreciate that. The voting closes February 11—which is just days away, so please, if you're going to do it, do it soon! You can vote online, or if you are in the UK you can vote manually in any WH Smith store. Bantam (UK) has printed another 5,000 copies of Take Me With You this month (26,500 total), and Ballantine (US) reports having sold out its initial printing of 6,100 copies and ordering 2,500 more. The numbers are very nice to me, but I gotta tell you, some of the emails I get, almost daily, from around the world just blow me away. There was a 16-year girl in England yesterday who dreams of travel, a 17-year old boy in Oregon wondering whether to go to college or go wandering, several mothers who read the book and then tucked it into the backpacks of their sons' and daughters' and kissed them good bye and wished them good luck on their journeys to Nepal, Namibia, South America, the USA. Those of you who watched me struggle to find a publisher for 10 years... You know I don't take any of this for granted.

(The following will make sense to anyone who has read Take Me With You. To anyone else, it probably won't make sense, and it will certainly blow the book's surprise ending. Skip to the next section to preserve the surprise. I'm serious. You've been warned.)

One of travel's most seductive features is its way of letting one's mind slip off the spool and run amok, conjuring up every imaginable future. And I always considered that it would be inappropriate, even cruel, to give Tony the gift of travel in this big rich country of ours—knowing full well that the trip would induce him to dream new possibilities—and to then send him back to his old reality without a few tools to move those possibilities closer to reality.

While he was here we discussed his life, and it seemed a good idea at the time to help Tony and his wife and family become lodgekeepers. This would supplement their income and perhaps give them a new way of approaching life. Several friends of mine, plus strangers who met Tony or heard about his trip, helped me collect several thousand dollars toward remodeling his family home into a four-room guesthouse. Tony added all of his savings to the project, and the guesthouse is now more or less complete. The only problem is that the world's situation has changed and there are almost no tourists visiting Tony's region these days—ten years ago there were too many too count.

Tony has been reluctant to ask me for more help, but I have pried enough information out of him to surmise that his income is currently lower than it was before his trip to America. Also, I do believe that he wishes he had spent the guesthouse money to buy rice-growing land instead. Growing rice is what he knows, and if he could grow more of it he says he is confident that he would be able to feed his family and give them an expanded future. I asked him to investigate what it would cost to buy the land he has in mind, and the answer is roughly $5,000. A bank would loan him this money if Tony were to put up as collateral his only property: the deed to the five rice paddies that have been his ancestral heritage, plus his new guesthouse. Tony, quite understandably, is not eager to do this.

Several people have contacted me offering to help pay a little money each month to help Tony buy the land. My friend Susie Whittlesey has volunteered—if I can form a group of people who will each contribute $5-10-20 a month—to coordinate the collection and delivery of the money to the Philippines. I believe that if we can send a total of $200/month for three years, the land will be bought and paid for and Tony's finances will be stabilized and his family's life transformed. I invite you to join me and Susie in this. The benefits to you are perhaps intangible, but, if my experience is typical, very, very real. At the very least it will make your visit to the Philippines, should you ever take one, all the more interesting. If you can contribute a small amount each month, or if you would like to make a one-time (or occasional) contribution of any size—from $1 on up—please email Susie Whittlesey at: swhittlesey@hotmail.com. Or you can contact me at: newsham@earthlink.net. (Susie just mailed off the first month's check: $80)

Thanks for your patience. A photo gallery has at long last been created for my website. My guys at BootsnAll.com are up late tonight trying to install it. If it's not up right now, please check back in a day or two.

Feb 27: CANCELLED! Rockridge Library, Oakland, California
Feb 27: Rotary Club, Oakland, CA—noon
March 12: Redwood Day School 8:45 a.m.
April 4: Writer's Center of Marin—evening (time TBA)
April 17: Lafayette Library, Lafayette, California 7 pm
May 7: Monticello Inn, San Francisco, CA (Wild Writing Women's guest speaker)
(Need a speaker? I'm available)

I have been grappling for months now to figure out how to say thank you to all of you whose support and encouragement keep me and Backpack Nation moving forward—and until I come up with the right words, perhaps the best way to do that is to simply keep moving forward. I appreciate those of you who send money and those of you who don't-money is important, of course, but simply telling other people about Backpack Nation does makes all the difference in the world. If I have to get down on my knees and beg you for money, I will, but I don't think the time has come yet. I get hit up for money every day, and I know you do, too. I give where I can whenever I can, and I know you do, too. People telling people is how the news of Backpack Nation got to the ears of USA Today, and that's how it will reach the other ears that will need to be reached in order to have it thrive. Recently a friend said she was going to go down through her address book and email the Backpack Nation link and a little introduction to everyone she thought would find it interesting, and everyone she thought might like to apply. If you would take a couple of minutes and do something similar, I would appreciate it very much. Thank you for all your support. It means the world to me. Thank you.


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