Going the extra mile

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By Steve Zalusky

J.C. Geiger’s “Wildman” is a coming-of-age saga about a young man with a fondness for the trumpet whose road to success in business seems a foregone conclusion, even though he has barely finished high school. 

Instead, on the way to what has been billed the ultimate graduation party, he gets stranded in a ramshackle town with a dive bar and a cheap motel and finds adventures with a posse of offbeat characters, downing shots, jumping trains and even revising his wardrobe.

It’s an odyssey that mirrors the author’s search for himself, with the common thread being the 1993 Buick Century that breaks down as the main character, Lance Hendricks, is ever so close to reaching an event that promises to reward him with a significant rite of passage. 

Geiger was in the Century when it broke down as he was traveling home despondent following a writing conference, stranding him in rural Washington state at a town with a dive bar/roadhouse/motel.

“It happened at this major turning point in my life. I was pretty much broke. I thought I was going to give up on writing. I didn’t know what was coming next. And while I was there, stuck with my broken-down car, I basically started writing the outline of the book that would become ‘Wildman.’

Now that the book has been published by Disney-Hyperion, Geiger took to the road once again in the Buick on a 10-day, 4,300-mile trip from his home in Eugene, Oregon New York City and BookExpo to promote his literary effort. However, in addition to promoting his book, he also promoted the cause of libraries, donating some of the proceeds of his book to the American Library Association, pledging to drive one mile for every $5 donated to the ALA.

By the time the whirlwind tour came to a finish, more than 100 donors contributed nearly $4,000 to ALA. In addition, he donated his other Buick, 2003 model to the ALA, a condition of his completing the trip to New York City.

Geiger said there were hundreds of new donors to the ALA.  “It does raise awareness. It gets that person engaged in the work ALA is doing,” he said.

Explaining the rationale behind his charitable gesture in an interview with I love Libraries, Geiger said, “The premise behind (the road trip) was always to get Wildman out in the world, but also to do something with a broader more kind of charitable interest.”

The connection to ALA came naturally to Geiger. He is a former grant writer for the public schools in Oregon who was also employed by the Oregon Community Foundation, a philanthropic organization that coordinated donations to non-profits in arts and education.  “So I kind of have that bent when I look at projects naturally. ‘How can this benefit a broader good and also do service to whatever the purpose is?’”

His search for a charitable cause found focus when in his home state of Oregon, the Douglas County libraries closed after voters rejected a property tax increase.  “About the time that “Wildman” was slated to come out, they were literally chaining the doors to this whole system of libraries just one county south of where I live. That kind of got my thinking into libraries in general,” he said.

Which brought him to ALA.

“I started looking into all the different initiatives that the ALA is involved in and that really piqued my interest, because I wanted people to be able to donate specifically to an aspect of the cause of libraries they cared the most about,” he said.

The diversity of donation options especially appealed to him.  “You can give to the youth programming that ALA does or you can give to the scholarships that are into increased diversity of librarians or you can contribute to the work around Banned Books Week or you can contribute to the legislative efforts which are obviously top of mind right now,” he said.

Geiger said he pitched the idea to Disney, saying, “Hey, I want to do this for ALA.”  He describes the trip itself as “crazy. When I first pitched it to the publicity folks at Disney, it was met with basically a stunned silence.”

Traveling in the same 1993 Buick Century that broke down five years ago in rural Washington, Geiger zig-zagged across the country, racking up donations to ALA as well as mileage on the aged vehicle.  He said his commercial expectations for “Wildman” were originally low, although they didn’t divert him from his literary path.

"I’m sure it won’t sell, because it’s a male protagonist, it’s a literary story, it doesn’t have a big hook. It’s not going to sell, but I’m going to write it anyway, because it’s the book that I most want to write,” he said.

As it turned out, “Wildman” exceeded his wildest expectations, earning a book deal with Disney.  Meanwhile, he still had the ’93 Buick. And it was still running.

“So I go to Disney and I say, ‘Hey, how about I do a road trip? An interactive live-streamed road trip, from Eugene, Oregon, which is where I live, to New York City. And the way it will work is for every pre-sale copy of Wildman I sell online, I will drive five miles. And for every $5 donation to the American Library Association, I’ll drive another mile.”

He balked at the alternative suggestion of a “virtual” road trip. Only the real thing would do.

And so Geiger set out, armed with a webcam and a phone, to livestream the entire trip, a 4,300 jaunt that traced a decidedly non-linear path, hitting such spots as Twin Falls, Idaho and Albuquerque, New Mexico.  “And the whole thing, because it happened in real time, I could see the donations as they were coming in,” he said. “So if I didn’t get the miles to drive, I wouldn’t drive.”

At home, he said, he had a real-time ticker that told him how many miles he had left and tracked who would be donating.  During the trek, he would frequently make stops at libraries.

“I would pop into libraries all along the way,” he said. “I would stop in, doing a live broadcast at libraries along the way and interview the librarian,” asking what was special about the library and how it served the community.

He even took Karen McPheeters, library director of the Farmington (New Mexico) Library, along for the ride.  In the video that was streamed on Facebook, Geiger called her facility “the coolest library.” Indeed, the library was a winner in the 2004 contest to decide New Mexico’s Best Buildings sponsored by the New Mexico Building Branch, Associated General Contractors and the New Mexico Business Journal.

The building, which opened in 2003, was designed to merge modern building materials and advanced technologies with ancient Navajo customs and beliefs. Images of local petroglyphs are sandblasted onto glass panels, while the words "Summer Solstice" and "Winter Solstice" are engraved at specific locations on the rotunda floor, on which sunlight streams through a small window to a point on the floor to track the sun’s progress toward each date.

She tells Geiger, “We worked really hard to make this library last. We were in a temporary building for about 10 years longer than we were supposed to be, and we wanted to make sure that whatever we moved into would be for a long time.”

She said she wanted to make sure the building was designed so each area could expand.  “When you look at the design, each area can go out,” she said. “It’s kind of like the old-time stereos. If you need bigger woofers, you can build that out.”

Farmington was a favorite. “That is one of the most incredible spaces I have ever seen. There were all these beautiful subtleties that were embedded in the architecture of the library itself,” Geiger said, noting the sunlight’s progress toward the solstice on the floor, as well as an inlaid stone representation of a river that flows through the library as does through the community.

The stops at libraries made a deep impression on Geiger.

“It gave me a renewed appreciation for librarians, especially in these really small towns (where) I stopped, who were just kind of the pillar of their community and doing some heroic things for the young people and the citizens of that community through their work in their library and their engagement efforts,” he said.

He also met a librarian in Helper, Utah, a small community that recognized the need for teenagers to access the Internet.  “Even with a very small space for a library she had found all of these ways to engage the people who were coming in to use the Internet, but also pinpointing their specific love of books and stories,” he said, getting visitors to leave with “a lot more than just an hour of free Internet.”

The 10-day immersion in libraries gave Geiger a more expansive appreciation of the work done by libraries and how they reflect the aspirations of their communities, whether that means offering makerspaces with 3D printers or curating sections with historical works on the history of war or mining.

“You can’t look at a map and get that same emotional response to how broadly and completely libraries are embedded in the United States and in the fabric of our communities unless you start visiting communities and noticing that no matter how small or big, there are just so many libraries in the United States and they are all doing different work, different jobs, but all serving that same ultimate goal, and it’s amazing,” he said.