1404-essay

Landscapes


Whoops! Are you looking for that vintage photo of Nicholas Sparks with Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling from The Notebook? You can find it posted on Nicholas’s Facebook page, see the official movie stills on The Notebook’s movie page or go browse the many Notebook movie and book related pics at Pinterest.


 

Three days after we rang in the New Year, my wife Cathy and I flew up to New York from our home in North Carolina. I was there to film a segment with Jory Markiss, whom fans had dubbed the Professional Bull Rider Association’s “sexiest cowboy”. As a result, he would be featured on the cover of the special Walmart edition of my latest novel, The Longest Ride.

Despite what I told Cathy about the romance of visiting New York in early January—Ice skating! Holiday window displays! The tree at Rockefeller Center!—conditions were less than ideal. Just the previous day it had snowed and the temperature was now struggling to make it into the teens. But I had to be there to film the segment with Jory, and Jory had to be there because that night he would be riding in the Built Ford Tough Series at Madison Square Garden.

When I arrived at Madison Square Garden, I was quickly escorted out of the arctic environs into a service elevator near the back entrance.  We emerged into a large bar and lounge area that overlooked the arena from several floors up—sort-of like an open-air skybox. Jory, whom I’d met previously at a PBR event in Miami, wasn’t there yet, but we began shooting the first segment, a Q & A about The Longest Ride. One of the main characters in The Longest Ride is a bull rider, so a lot of the questions had to do with the sport—how I became interested in it, how I researched it for the book, that type of thing. Meanwhile, on the arena floor below, the PBR crew was hard at work setting up for the coming bull riding event. This involved what sounded like an all-percussion orchestra: gates banging into one another, trucks beeping in reverse, bulls lowing and snorting. It took a lot of stops and starts during quiet moments between all of the hammering to complete the interview. When it was done, I looked up to find that Jory Markiss had arrived. He was standing at the edge of the lounge, looking out over the arena with concentration.

“Jory,” I said.

He looked up and shook my hand. He wore his trademark black hat and had an easy way about him, a grin forever threatening to break out on his face. Often, it would. “Want me to show you what’s happening?” he asked.

Of course I did.

Jory led me down to the arena floor. The event crew had covered the floor with sandy brown dirt, and in various pens nearly a dozen bulls—more were being corralled down the chutes—could be seen, bulls that later would  buck off the men who dared ride them.

Outside Madison Square Garden, it wasn’t quite twenty degrees out, but inside, it was like we’d been transported to the Desert Southwest.

“Pretty incredible,” I said. Meanwhile, Jory stopped at a pen where two large bulls were standing in tight quarters, head to tail. They were visibly goading one another, each aggressively butting his head into the other’s flank.

These bulls here, Jory explained, were the most common in PBR. “They’re shorter, and they have rounder humps, compared to a Brahma bull, which has a really big, tall hump.”

            As Jory went on explaining the difference between bulls, the different ways to ride them, the different ways he prepared, I was struck not only by the physicality of the sport but the intense mental discipline as well. It takes more than a strong grip to stay on a bucking bull for eight seconds.

I realized then that it didn’t matter that we were in the middle of New York City on a freezing winter day, or that we were standing on the same floor where concerts had been staged and legendary basketball championships had been won. Madison Square Garden might’ve morphed into something that resembled a dude ranch, but to hear Jory Markiss, it was a bull riding arena much like any other. I was here to film this segment and because PBR had invited me as a guest. Jory was here to ride bulls, plain and simple.

Sparks-Embellishment

I was used to the landscape around me changing, actually. When I was a little kid, it seemed we never stayed in a house long enough for our house keys to adjust to the new locks. I was always learning the trick of jiggling my key copy just right so that it would fit into place and unlock the back door.

 “It needs to get a feel for the shape of the lock,” my mom explained to me once after I’d complained about my keys. “You keep using it and it’ll start to fit easily.” But just when that seemed like a possibility, she would inevitably sit my brother, my sister and me down and tell us it was time to pack up, we were moving again. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and by my eighth birthday I had lived in Watertown, Minnesota; Inglewood, California; Playa del Rey, California; and Grand Island, Nebraska. The year we moved from California to Grand Island—1973—was a tumultuous time in my parents’ relationship, but though my father stayed behind to finish his dissertation at the University of Southern California, it wasn’t explained to me at the time that my parents had separated.

            One day in Nebraska my mom picked me up from school and I told her how I got into a fight with another kid, and how I hated Grand Island. Sometimes this was the truth, sometimes it wasn’t. A lot of it had to do with the fact that my older brother, Micah, had started to outgrow our close friendship.

            “Okay,” was all that my mom said in reply. This was her way. 

She started the car and we took a drive, a rarity because even back when gas was cheaper, it still wasn’t cheap. Not for a single, working mother with three children under ten.

Grand Island wasn’t the worst place in the world, but it was the first place in my life I ever felt truly lonely. Micah never had any difficulty making friends, but I had more trouble finding friends in Grand Island than anywhere else. Frankly, there weren’t that many kids around. Grand Island was a smaller town then than it is now, and the farms seemed to encroach on the city limits from all sides. As we went by field after field, my mom pulled the car over and looked out her window. From what I could tell, there wasn’t much to see.

Then I saw what she was seeing: horses. She had grown up around horses and had never stopped loving them.

            “Mom?” I said, trying to break her from her trance.

            “Sorry, honey,” she said. She smiled at me, put the car into gear, pulled out into the road, and drove us back to our house.

            My mother was lonely, too.

A few months later, just as I started to make a few friends, and just as the locks started to turn without such a fight, my mom sat us down. Even though they’d never officially been separated, my parents had apparently reconciled. We were moving to Sacramento, where my father took a job as a professor of business.

Sparks-Embellishment

 One of the questions the interviewer asked me at Madison Square Garden was about the setting of the novel: rural North Carolina. A lot of interviewers want to know why I set all my novels in the same state, in similar towns. My go-to answer has to do with the strong sense of place that these towns have and the values they embody: the sense of history, the importance of family and community, the townspeople’s intense loyalty and their strong convictions.

It is true, I write about these towns because I identify with these things, but I think there’s more to it than that: After moving around so much, I love the familiarity of North Carolina. When my wife and I first moved to New Bern all those years ago, I knew I wanted to stay there. When I left for business trips or vacations, I knew that this was the place I wanted to return to. I knew I wanted my kids’ keys to work, easily and every time.

So I keep writing about North Carolina not only because it is a familiar landscape and because its residents’ values dovetail with my novels’ themes, but also because, for me, North Carolina is Home.

Sparks-Embellishment

 After I finished taping the segment with Jory, I went back to the hotel to meet up with Cathy and our two friends, who had flown up with us. I asked them how their afternoon had been.

“Cold,” Cathy was quick to answer.

Even for someone from New Hampshire, she wasn’t taking to it kindly.

A few hours later, we were headed back out to Madison Square Garden. Before the bull riding event there was a cocktail party (they served pulled pork, so it was my kind of gathering) and then Sean Gleason, the Chief Operation Officer of the PBR, took us on a tour of Madison Square Garden and the back pens. Sean regaled us with the intricacies of these events, pointing out specific bulls by name and reciting their particular riding histories. We were walking along the edge of the arena when the event got underway with a series of pyrotechnics that resembled the Fourth of July. Beside me, my wife was smiling, one of my favorite sights.

Then we got settled into our seats and watched as the bull riders emerged, one after the other, on bucking bulls. In bull riding, you score if you’re able to hang on for a full eight seconds. A bull rider who made it that long would immediately let go—no extra points are rewarded for staying on longer—and then quickly clear out of the way so that the bull, trampling about, wouldn’t catch him by the horns. It seemed like a strange reward to me for hanging on for the eight seconds: in the end you get thrown no matter what.

But still, it’s high quality entertainment. Plus, to hear Jory Markiss tell it, those eight seconds are the best in a rider’s life.

I’ve always admired bull riders, even more so after researching them for The Longest Ride, so it didn’t take me long to really get into it. I was shouting and cheering, occasionally jumping to my feet, alongside Cathy.

I thought about Jory, describing this arena in the middle of New York City like it was any other, and I thought about back home: New Bern. Here Cathy was, beside me, and in a lot of ways she was the same woman I fell in love with all those years ago, only now she knew most of my tricks. She knew, for example, that when I said that New York is romantic in the winter, what I meant was that it is as cold as can be.

She came anyway.

“Thanks for coming along for the ride, Sweetie,” I told her.

She smiled and took my hand, squeezing it. I squeezed it back, realizing something: when I am on the road, it isn’t New Bern I long to return to—it is Cathy.

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