November 14, 2002

In 1981 I was working as a newspaper ad salesman for a failing Arizona tabloid, the Tucson Weekly News. When I was hired, the Weekly News was a fat, thriving sixty-four-page beauty. I had been offered $200 per week as an advance against the commissions my sales would generate, and for a short while I did in fact earn that advance. But the paper's owners had been losing money for over a year, and two weeks after my arrival they cut the paper back to 48 pages to cut costs. For a while it worked, but when they cut back again - to 32 pages - advertisers became leery and things began to unravel. But in spite of the abysmal morale that now enshrouded the workplace, I kept up my daily rounds - seeking out new accounts, trying to recapture old ones, nurturing the ones who hadn't fled. But it was tough going, and before long I was not even coming close to earning the $200 weekly checks I kept receiving. Still, I trudged forward every day, driving around Tucson, knocking on doors, making a pest of myself, trying to figure some way to turn things around. Circumstances seemed way beyond my control - there was a recession on, the daily newspaper was cutting into our ad base, business owners didn't want to be associated with a shrinking newspaper... Still, I kept taking the only steps I knew to take, kept forcing myself to work the streets, regardless. And then the owners cut the paper back to 16 pages, and then 8, and then, the morning after a former advertiser asked me if the "Tucson Weekly Napkin" wouldn't perhaps be a more appropriate name, I cracked. I sat on the edge of my bed and watched my feet refuse to move. I leaned over to pick up the telephone, and told my boss I was quitting. He asked me to come in and turn over my account paperwork - and "settle up." At least in theory I owed the paper a couple of thousand dollars, and on the drive over I was nervous about the upcoming conversation. But when I arrived, he gave me a quizzical look and slid across his desk a letter that had just arrived in the morning mail from a national car stereo retailer. "None of the other sales staff know anything about this," he told me. "Do you?" It took a while to recall the cold call I'd made to the chain's local outlet back when the newspaper was still 32 pages long. The local manager told me that all advertising decisions were made at the chain's national headquarters. I asked for the headquarters' phone number, called, obtained a vice president's mailing address, went home that night, composed a letter, enclosed a rate sheet and a copy of the Tucson Weekly News, and forgot all about it.

"They've ordered a two-page centerfold ad for the entire next year," my boss told me.

That order wasn't enough to save the Tucson Weekly News, and that situation isn't quite analogous to the situation with Backpack Nation, but that whole experience taught me a lesson that's come in useful recently. During the past two weeks the Backpack Nation dollar counter - which jumped up an average of $80-$90 a day for the first six weeks - has been stuck hard on $3,648 for over two weeks now. Still, I've just kept doing the things I know how to do.

For the latest on everything having to do with Backpack Nation (including how Mick Jagger's ex-wife came to be reading "Take Me With You") please read on.


Tax Deductible Staus Obtained
Essay Applications / Selection Committee
Mick Jagger's Ex (Jerri Hall) Reading My Book
Upcoming Appearances
My Day Today

My initial euphoria has worn off and I see the enormity of this project and the gigantic amount of work ahead. I am working as hard as I can to establish a structure that will support this vision - and, like all work, it has its ups and downs. I have days full of confidence and days full of angst. I am very, very, very heartened by the responses from people all over the world. Two weeks ago, before the donations abruptly stopped, I received in the space of two days an email from Zambia, a donation from Belgium, and a call from an editor at Outside Magazine who was wondering what's up. The editor decided to pass on writing about Backpack Nation for this deadline cycle, but told me to please send a copy of "Take Me With You" book and, who knows? Others in the media have said they'd like to write about it when an ambassador or two is launched. I still fully intend to have the first $20,000 ambassadorship funded by Jan 13, the first ambassador selected by sometime in March, and dispatched to the world by June. And I do believe that everything is proceeding on a realistic schedule.

Many people have told me that they would donate to Backpack Nation when tax-deductible status was obtained. That time has arrived. Anyone who writes a check to "River of Words/Backpack Nation" will have a 100% tax-deductible donation. (Mailing address stays the same: Backpack Nation, PO Box 21347, Oakland, CA 94620)

"River of Words" - a registered nonprofit run by a friend of mine, Pamela Michael - earns a small commission for handling these donations. This is a standard arrangement that meets Internal Revenue Service guidelines and for which the appropriate paperwork has been signed and delivered - a letter confirming your tax-deduction will be sent to you. I am happy both for Pamela's assistance and for the fact that her fine organization gets something for their time and trouble. But if tax-deductible status does not concern you, simply make out your check to Backpack Nation and 100% of your donation will go to funding the first ambassador.

The River of Words arrangement will continue for at least two months and probably longer. The process of obtaining full nonprofit status for Backpack Nation is complicated and a bit lengthy. But that very necessary step in the evolution of this project is underway.

The website is now set up to accommodate deductions straight from your bank account, your credit card, or your debit card - all through Paypal. (These payments are not yet tax-deductible - only checks, as described above.)

Note: A couple of people who donated online have emailed me to tell me that the counter had not moved as a result of their donation. Moving the counter is a manual thing, not automatic. I have my web manager update the counter periodically. If you have any question about a donation you've made, please email me.

Guidelines and instructions for the application essays will be posted on the Backpack Nation page of my website by December 1. I have decided to read every application personally. Several people have agreed to help me in this process, and together we will select twenty of the most promising essays from whatever number of applications arrive. Those twenty will be read by a group of twenty-five (already enrolled) people from my writing/travel/friends communities. And their decision will determine the identity of the first ambassador.

"Take Me With You" has been named one of the Top 75 Adult Paperbacks for 2002 by the UK's biggest bookseller, WH Smith. And several British readers tell me that I'm underestimating the honor of my book having been nominated for WH Smith's Travel Writing Book Award - apparently it's a pretty big deal. Eight categories of books are voted on by thousands of readers throughout the system, and each category is assigned a celebrity judge - Jerri Hall is the Travel judge. Voting is in January. More than 20,000 copies of TMWY have been printed in Britain and more are in production. I recently wrote a three-page update entitled "One Year Later" which talks about the creation of Backpack Nation and which will appear at the end of future British editions.

There is no way I can describe or gauge the personal boost I've been given by the UK readership. Every day some new surprise, some new validation wafts across the seas to me. I feel as though my book was a wayward teenage daughter who was faring poorly in her studies here at home, but decided to take a year off and see the world with her backpack. And now she sends back the most enchanting postcards from the most exciting places describing her experiences with the most exotic sounding people. I'm proud. I miss her, but I'm proud.

(In America, "Take Me With You" recently squeaked onto the best-seller list of the Bay Area weekly tabloid the East Bay Express, a fat, thriving, sixty-four-page beauty.)

November 21 - KPFA Radio - 94.1 FM, San Francisco Bay Area 8:30 a.m.
Dec 13 - Mendocino, CA

My friend Susie Whittlesey is taking on the administration of a monthly donation to Tony. So far five people have expressed a willingness to donate $10 a month to him until his business is stabilized. If you would like to participate (and Tony and Susie and I would all love that), please contact her at swhittlesey@hotmail.com.

It was a spectacular day in Oakland today - a polished blue sky, cloudless, windless, with the leaves on the trees all orange and yellow and eerie. In the morning Marc Gold, the saint from www.100friends.com came over for a cup of coffee in my kitchen - I am continually impressed by his project and spirit and energy and I believe we have some common future together. By mid-day it was warm enough so that when Nick and Sean from BootsnAll.com arrived for bagels, we were able to move out onto the back deck. (Bootsnall is the web/travel outfit that designed and manages my website). These guys are committed to the world of independent travel and in just a few weeks are heading off to open a second office in...Bali! We talked about travel, life, writing, Backpack Nation... until the midday sun was hot on our necks. In the late afternoon, while I played baseball out front with my daughter and the neighborhood gang of six-year-olds, the air on my bare arms felt like a gentle Swedish massage. And tonight I got to show my slides and tell my story to the wonderfully receptive full house at the Orinda library. And then come home and type this. An incredible day. It's good to be alive.

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