Bringing new life to the old desk–or what writers do to avoid writing

Four coats of paint, one tweaked back and one trip to the walk-in clinic later, I’ve got a new-looking desk in my office making all the other furniture look bad.

It all started a week ago when I looked around my office and decided to reorganize. It was too crowded, too-right-handed for this lefty, and did not project a good image on Zoom. Every surface was covered with papers, binders, books, and miscellaneous electronics gear, and that old desk behind me looked like it lost in a bar fight.

I have had that desk since I was a child doing my homework with fat pencils on binder paper. My Grandpa Al and Great-Uncle Tony made it for my Uncle Bob. When he grew up, it came down to me as the oldest grandchild. It sat in the corner of my bedroom where the two windows came together, lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I didn’t just do homework on that desk. I painted, sewed, played jacks, and wrote my first poems on it. That desk supported my first typewriter, a blue manual purchased with babysitting money for $100 from McWhorter’s Stationery.

The desk, which moved with me to 11 different homes, was scratched, nicked and stained. It had tooth marks along one side from a teething puppy or two. By the time I had moved all the junk off the desk, I had changed my plan. I could refinish it and not put back the junk I’d been storing in it and on it for decades, only the things I would actually use. The rest of the office could wait.

I photographed the desk and put the question to my Facebook friends: colored paint or wood stain? The majority voted for stain. Sounded right to me. After all, this is the desk where Uncle Bob kept his Archie comic books and school supplies when he was a boy. I should respect its 80-year history.

I’m an impatient person. After watching a couple YouTube videos, I activated Netflix’s “Virgin River” on the computer and started sanding the desk. Yes, in my office. By hand. Without gloves. I had barely begun when I shoved the sandpaper across the edge of the desk with extra gusto and felt intense pain. Multiple splinters poked out of my right index finger. Most were easy to remove, but I suspected there might be something left. I poked at the red spot with a sewing needle and tweezers, getting nothing but pain. Maybe I’d already gotten all the slivers. Maybe not. I went back to sanding and “Virgin River.”

In the morning, my finger was red and swollen and hurt like crazy. This is not a good thing for a musician. Or a writer. Typing hurt. I took my finger to the walk-in clinic at Samaritan Pacific Hospital in Newport. Our walk-in clinic is housed in a portable building where there aren’t enough chairs in the waiting room, everyone hears everyone else’s business, and you can wait for hours to be called. Other patients complained of earaches, sprained ankles, stomach pain, and dizziness. One wanted her second COVID shot and couldn’t get it. I just had a stupid sliver in my finger. Or, in medical terms, “foreign object under the skin.”

I spent all morning at the clinic. Called into an examining room. Waited. Vitals. Waited. Doc numbed the finger with three lidocaine shots. Waited. Extraction. Dr. W. dug out a sliver so big we both said, “Wow.” At least a third of an inch long. Soaked in antiseptic solution. Waited. Ointment. Bandage. Released with a red, puffy and useless index finger. Forget working. I took myself to lunch at the new restaurant at the Embarcadero. Slow service, best French fries ever. And then I went to the paint store.

“ Have you ever done this before?” asked the friendly salesman at Sherwin-Williams.

“No.”

“Well . . .”

He loaded me up with advice, paint, polyurethane coating, a natural bristle brush, paint thinner for cleanup, and a couple of stir sticks.

I moved the desk out to the deck for the actual painting. The salesman had warned me the stain would stink and that I shouldn’t inhale the fumes. Playing bluegrass music on my phone, hands protected by gloves, I stroked the paint on, watching the old wood transform. Two coats of “amaranth,” a dark brown blend of black, burgundy and maroon, two coats of polyurethane. Magic. The old desk looked new and shiny. I had stain on my arms, and cheeks and possibly in my hair.

The paint store guy had told me I needed to sand the polyurethane to get rid of the “boogers.” I didn’t see any boogers. Now if he’d said “bubbles” . . .

Four coats. Four nights of waiting for the desk to dry. Yesterday, I dragged it back into the office and put the drawers back in. It’s not perfect. I can see some streaks and some “boogers,” but it’s not bad for a first effort.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting all the junk that used to live in the desk. Out with the carbon paper, graph paper, and old checks from a bank that no longer exists. Out with the foot-long Santa Claus pen. Now, what should I do with a hundred pencils and three dozen pens? I’d better get writing, I guess.

I can still smell the stain. My finger hurts. When Annie and I passed my chiropractor-neighbor on our walk last night, I warned him I’d be calling for an appointment. But hey, it was worth it.

It’s time to write. But the old rocking chair’s looking pretty dinged up, and I still have some stain left . . .

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Would you cross America by covered wagon today?

Longtime journalist Rinker Buck, suffering from a late-middle age slump, got a wild idea. He would travel the Oregon trail the way the pioneers did in the 1800s.


Longtime journalist Rinker Buck, suffering from a late-middle age slump, got a wild idea. He would travel The Oregon Trail the way the pioneers did in the 1800s. He would outfit an authentic covered wagon, hitch up a team of mules and traverse the country, starting at St. Joseph Missouri, traveling through Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho and ending in Oregon. This being the 21st century, he would have to figure out how to deal with the freeways, shopping centers and homes that had been built over the old wagon ruts, but he was determined to do it. The result is Buck’s new book, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, published this year by Simon and Schuster.

Rinker Buck had planned to go alone, but when he asked his brother Nick for help getting ready, Nick insisted on going, too, and bringing his little dog Olive Oyl.” Both men were dogged by demons from their past and sought the “Oregon Trail Cure.” The result is a tale that’s a blend of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. It’s funny, poignant and suspenseful. The Bucks have their share of mishaps, along with a big dollop of luck, and I find myself riding with them all the way, falling in love with the men, the mules and Olive Oyl.

Of course in modern times when a covered wagon shows up on the road, people lean out of their minivans to take pictures with their smart phones, but there are still long passages of pastures, mountains and deserts with no one around for miles. Their days on the trail fill the brothers with a joy I can feel right through the pages.

Buck writes in an easy-reading style that carries the reader along. When justified, he lets the f-bombs fly. When they screw up, he says, “I really screwed the poodle this time.“ But he also describes the scenery in lines that sound like poetry. Throughout the book, he includes information about all aspects of the pioneer journey. We learn about mules, wagons, the people who died on the trail, and the entrepreneurs who gathered at the “jumping off” places to sell the travelers all kinds of necessities and junk for the journey. We learn about the Indians and the Mormons and the big role they played on the trail.

They had their share of adventures, but of course the Bucks’ trip in 2011 wasn’t as rugged as it might have been back in 1850. They had planned ahead and had contacts waiting for them. They had transcontinental communication as long as they could charge their cell phones. Trail enthusiasts rushed to help them, feed them and honor them as celebrities. They were unlikely to catch cholera or smallpox. There were no Indians. But there were still long sections with dust, mud, broken wheels, no cell phone reception, no water and nothing but Hormel chili to eat. They could have called it off at any time, but they didn’t.

Most of my ancestors came from Europe. They either came directly to California by boat, took the train across, or traveled up from Mexico with horses and wagons when the Spanish ruled the land. There’s one branch of the family that might have crossed the country by wagon, but I haven’t found any information on that yet. Me, I’d never have made it out of Missouri. As soon as they told me I’d couldn’t take all my stuff and couldn’t have iced tea with my lunch, or maybe not even have lunch, well, I’d be going home. I like my creature comforts.

My husband, our dog Sadie and I did our own migration from California to Oregon, detailed in my book Shoes Full of Sand. We did it in a Ryder Truck. On a freeway. But there were breakdowns, hunger, heat, and desperation. For all three days. And sometimes all we had to eat were donuts. I retrace that trail several times a year in my Honda, and I keep meeting new Oregonians who have followed the same path, perhaps completing the migration that began long ago when their ancestors moved to California. We’re all pioneers in our own way.

Read this book. It’s great.