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George and Salli's excellent adventure

A retired couple hitch their trailer to their truck and hit the road in search of America's noted writers


by: PHOTO: JIM CLARK/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - George Mason and Salli Slaughter travel around the country in their trailer with their street rescue dog Ella.

A couple of years ago, George Mason and Salli Slaughter were contemplating the next phase of their lives. They faced an empty nest — their two daughters were grown and on their own — a big house they didn’t need anymore, and the big R: retirement. They loved reading, writing and traveling, but they wanted “life with a purpose,” Salli says.

And because Salli was sporting two brand-new titanium knees, George had an idea: “Let’s celebrate by walking across America!” he suggested to his wife.

Salli was less enthusiastic about the walking part, so the couple vacated the three-story house they were renting in Northeast Portland, bought a 27-foot trailer and hit the road with their aging “street rescue” dog, Ella. Their mission: to meet and interview noted writers all over the country, then post these video interviews online, in a project called The Authors Road: A Quest to Learn from America’s Writers.

The Authors Road is a project of Willamette Writers, a local organization that supports writers. Salli, 65, has served on the Willamette Writers board of directors for 10 years, and has written and designed websites and publications. George, who just turned 67, has taught writing, language arts and public communications, as well as written and published books and articles. Their project’s stated purpose: “To honor one of America’s greatest natural resources — its writers.”

In the two years since they embarked on The Authors Road, George and Salli have traveled in 19 or 20 states, including Oregon, and interviewed 39 writers — or, in the case of a few deceased writers, interviewed living experts. For John Steinbeck, they met with a volunteer at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., where George grew up.

They don’t promote books, the couple say. Instead, they ask the writers why and how they write, what inspires them, how technology has changed their craft.

“We like to say we interview writers who write because they breathe,” Salli says. “They’re writers because they can’t do anything else.”

by: PHOTO: THE AUTHORS ROAD - George interviews bestselling author Jim Fergus at his Airstream trailer parked in a horse pasture along the border of Arizona and Mexico.

Behind the scenes

Their interviews — George typically asks the questions while Salli runs the camera — include details about writers’ habits. When Portland poet Verlena Orr writes, she wears a T-shirt and her Aunt Eunice’s fur stole. Phil Caputo (“A Rumor of War”), whom they met in Patagonia, Ariz., can’t start writing until he shaves and has his coffee. Novelist Tom Robbins (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”) writes in longhand on yellow legal pads.

“Many writers tell you square away it’s a business and they go to work,” George says. Robbins, who lives in La Conner, Wash., goes into his writing room every day at 10 a.m. His muse always knows where to find him — she doesn’t have to look for him in the local bars or at the beach, he told George.

Arizona author/screenwriter Michael Blake related the story of how, in the early 1980s, he became friends with a then-little-known actor named Kevin Costner. When Blake proposed writing a screenplay about American Indians, Costner said it should be a book. So Blake — at the time broke and living in his car — wrote “Dances With Wolves.” You know the rest.

Who’s next on their interview list? They don’t know yet, but “we want to make No. 40 big,” George says.

He and Salli reel off the names of writers they’d like to meet: Garrison Keillor, Larry McMurtry, Amy Tan, Annie Proulx. And they don’t limit the possibilities to fiction/nonfiction writers — Terry Allen, a songwriter, playwright and artist in Santa Fe, N.M., is among their interviewees. “Bob Dylan would be awesome,” George says.

A nomadic life

For the time being, George and Salli have parked their trailer (they named it The Hardscribble Hacienda) and their truck (dubbed Rocinante Tres, a nod to Steinbeck’s camper truck and Don Quixote’s horse) at their daughter’s home in Portland. They returned to town earlier this fall and probably will head out again in January. Where to? They haven’t decided, maybe back east — they haven’t traveled farther than Chicago yet.

But wherever they go, they tend to stick around a while, not just interviewing writers but presenting talks and slide shows about their travels to local audiences.

“We like to stay at least a month in one place,” Salli says. The first thing she does is go to the local library and get a library card. She doesn’t know how many cards she’s acquired so far — “I almost always have to turn them back in when we leave,” she says.

Not that they have any spare room for a library card collection or anything else. Downsizing from a house to a trailer was a crash course in prioritizing. “You look at all the stuff and decide if you really need it,” Salli says.

But full-time life on the road is “freeing,” she adds.

“Very,” George echoes. “It’s amazing — there’s a nomad nation (of RV’ers) crisscrossing North America. Most are senior citizens, and they have a vast amount of knowledge, and you can sit with them at cocktail hour and swap advice on where to park, and so on.”

The couple, who married in 1978, had never set foot in an RV before they decided to buy one. “We were always the ones in the campground in a tent, cursing the RV’ers,” George admits with a laugh.

He learned the hard way to account for not just the trailer’s width and length but also its height — 28 minutes into their maiden voyage, George drove it under a tree branch that tore off the rubberized roof. Insurance covered most of the $5,000 repair, he says.

Trailer living aside, the Mason-Slaughter family knows how to travel. In 1996, George, Salli and their daughters, then 7 and 14, left Alaska, where they were living at the time, and set out on a one-year journey around the world. They documented their adventures on one of the earliest travel websites, Worldhop.com, and became some of the first bloggers.

As for their latest adventure, “We’ll keep doing this until we run out of money or we get bored,” Salli says.

It’s all financed by their Social Security checks and their wiles, George adds. They also welcome contributions to The Authors Road and are seeking corporate and foundation support, and invite people to subscribe to their website (it’s free).

“Most people think they need a safety net and think they need an anchor — a house, a retirement income,” he says.

But you never know when the end will come, they say. “If you bet on putting everything off until you’re older, don’t do it,” Salli says.

“We might be eating out of Dumpsters, but we will have a good story,” George says.

That’s only the next-to-the-worst-case scenario anyway, Salli says: The worst “is not being here to tell that story.”

Stories from the road

Subscribe for free to George Mason and Salli Slaughter’s website at www.authorsroad.com