I’m about halfway through my talk in the community room at the REI store when I see the two guys sitting with their eyes closed. They are nodding off in the middle of my 45-minute show. I keep going because there are 30 or 35 other people in the room who are not falling asleep, and really, I’m not sure what else to do.
Almost exactly a month ago, I was speaking to a crowd of 200 people in Seattle, doing this exact same show. Most of those 200 people were, as far as I could tell, laughing and not struggling to keep their eyelids open.
This is my fifth of 25-plus speaking dates so far this year to promote my new book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere. It’s truly the best story I know how to tell, and I worked on it for 13 years until a publisher deemed it good enough to be one of their 2016 books. So I figure if I spend the next year or so of my life working really hard to get the book out there, I won’t look back in a decade and wonder if I could have done more. I wanted to do a book tour, which is something that may or may not be a good investment of time and money, depending on who in the publishing industry you ask.
I didn’t want to do something boring. I wanted people to have fun, so I developed this show in which I get up in front of everyone and try to tell the better part of my life story with a joke rate of at least 1.5 per minute. People laugh at different parts, especially when I remember to state before the show that “everything in here is fair game because I’m in a good place with it now, so please laugh.” No one laughs when I put up the hospital photo of me in a blood-spattered t-shirt from the night I got jumped when I was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” something that seemed to happen a lot when I was drinking, and not so often after I got sober. But we move on to lighter stuff.
I expect to be humbled sometimes, or many times, on a book tour. A few folks have told me that even big-name authors who have big-name publishing houses behind them often show up to a bookstore and read to 10 or 11 people, and that’s considered a success. So going into this yearlong experiment, I have tried to mentally prepare for it when it happens, maybe when I show up for an event and have no one attend (or as author Adam Mansbach once put it, “Far, far worse is when one to four people show up”), or have people sit through my entire show and at the end, not sell a single book.
To brace for The Great Humbling, I repeat to myself the mantra, “Kevin read to two cats. Kevin read to two cats.” Because Kevin Fedarko, in the months before he became New York Times Bestselling Author Kevin Fedarko, was driving around the West sleeping in his truck doing a book tour that at least once smashed his ego. When I interviewed him about it last year, he told me about the lowest moment he had in the early days of promoting The Emerald Mile:
“In Wichita, I think there were three people—three customers who attended my reading, and then two bookstore employees,” Kevin said. “So that was a total of five. And then the following night i had a reading in Lawrence, Kansas, and if you subtract the bookstore owner, the one friend that I had, and the two cats that apparently lived in the bookstore, there wasn’t a single other person who attended the event.”
I have no illusions about my little book becoming a bestseller, but Kevin’s book is, and even he had a couple rough nights. And because I know that, I can deal with a few empty chairs. I can learn the ins and outs of audio-visual cables, and try to remain calm in the last few minutes before the event while I frantically work to figure out how to get my slides to shoot through the projector up onto the screen. I bought my own clicker so I can seamlessly advance the photos, and although a clicker isn’t exactly the sexiest thing I’ve bought, I want this thing to be as good as I can make it, because nobody’s paying me to tell the story—I just believe in it.
I am spending my own money on plane tickets, shipping books, driving thousands of miles, sweating in places I didn’t know could sweat until I was standing in front of 150 people who showed up counting on me to help them have fun, all because I don’t think this is a story about addiction or rock climbing, and I don’t think it’s a story about me. I think it’s a story about us, and everyone’s struggle to get their shit together and figure out what direction to point our passion.
For now, I collect a few emotional paychecks. It’s nice when people come up and say they enjoyed the show, but even better when people take the one or two minutes we have to chat while I’m signing their book and use it to really connect, in a way you usually can’t with a stranger when you’re in the grocery store checkout line behind them or sitting next to them on a ski lift.
A guy in San Diego tells me he’s two years sober, and a guy in Seattle tells me he’s six years sober, and a guy in Los Angeles says he’s been on the wagon for 27 years. I meet a mother and daughter who love to hear about my mom and I climbing together because they are each other’s best climbing partners. A young lady comes up and says my story is inspiring her to write more. Someone asks if I feel a little nervous about telling such a personal story in front of all those people, and I say Hell no, I’m just worried that a few dozen people showed up to hear me speak and if I blow it, I wasted their time that they could have spent watching Game of Thrones or something. A woman tells me she hopes the book will “save her husband’s life,” and has me write something to that effect when I sign her copy of the book, and gives me a hug before she walks away and I realize her husband was in the crowd the whole time listening to my story of being a massive fuckup, gritting my teeth and grinding it out until I climbed up a ridge and realized I was having a really good time in life after years of wandering around semi-lost and unsure of what I was supposed to do with my life.
I hope to see you out there, even if it’s just you and me and two cats. Or even one cat.
[photo courtesy The Mountaineers]