Roadside Attractions

Photo: Marlena DeCarion

It would be easy to become a recluse here, Mark Sundeen says, sipping tea on the porch of a three-room wooden house trailer just outside Moab, Utah. His rented home sits on an acre of land shaded by cottonwoods and skirted by a creek. To the east, two gray-green mountains of the LaSal range, the saddle between them plastered with snow, peek out from behind a rocky embankment. Even in mid-October, the desert sun toasts your skin, and Sundeen's dog, a stocky blue heeler mix named Sadie, takes refuge in the shade thrown by a truck parked in the red-dirt driveway.

Lean as a marathon runner, Sundeen, '92, has beach-blond hair and a short brown beard. A writer and outdoorsman, he has lived in Moab most of the time since college. Part of the year, he directs expedition courses for Outward Bound and organizes wilderness adventures. He urges his clients up and down cliffs, marches them across the desert and over mountains, and steers them into churning rapids in floppy rafts.

Sundeen likes to challenge orthodoxy. He thinks Los Angeles is more interesting culturally than San Francisco. He's deeply suspicious of every media-anointed "next great writer," and he prefers hard-boiled detective writer Ross MacDonald to literary stars like Thomas Pynchon. His aim in writing his first book was similarly heretical. With Car Camping: The Book of Desert Adventures (Quill/HarperCollins, 2000; $13), Sundeen wanted to undercut romanticized views of the outdoors, "to admit that I go to these places [like the Grand Canyon] and don't feel like I've been enriched at all . . . I may as well have stayed home and watched TV."

Craving adventure, the book's fictional narrator (a character named Mark Sundeen, whom the real Sundeen describes as a "dunderhead") drives off into the desert in an old station wagon. He tries hard to find outdoor action and to have a spiritual experience, but his visits to the standard attractions--the Grand Canyon, Chaco Canyon, Telluride, Sedona--provoke only disappointment. His most interesting exploits come when he is "marooned" between trips, eking out an existence working odd jobs and hanging around with a collection of desert lowlifes like Beach Phillips, a paranoid drifter who lives in an old school bus and desperately needs some dental floss. Sundeen lavishes detail on seemingly mundane scenes -- such as one when the narrator helps Beach lay a water pipe--and makes them the most vibrant in the book.

The author's sympathies clearly lie with his unpretentious, scuffling fringe-dwellers, and he takes a few swipes at the well-heeled poseurs who throng to "spiritual towns" like Santa Fe and Telluride hoping to get in touch with the earth. "A good spiritual town should have some Indians within 100 miles and good skiing or mountain biking within 10," the narrator tells us. "The stores should sell turquoise bracelets and cappuccino, and there has to be a place to hook up a modem."

"I'm not saying you can't commune with nature," Sundeen hastens to explain in an interview at home. In fact, he says, one recent trip down the Grand Canyon with an Outward Bound class was blissful. But most visits to the natural wonders are becoming "a theme-park experience," he says. Activities are choreographed, emotions scripted. At the Grand Canyon, you're supposed to gape in awe. At Chaco Canyon, you're supposed to soak up Native American spirituality. What really happens, he says, is more like this: "You pay your fee, visit the campground and see the slide show. You buy souvenirs. You look over the rim. And then you come out [asking], 'Was my character changed by that?'"

Part of the fault lies with writers who have oversold the outdoors, Sundeen says. He takes issue with the "predetermined" conclusion of most outdoor writing that "you go into the wilderness, you feel deep and you come back a better person." Not only is it unrealistic, but readers are bored with that clich├ęd story line, he says.

With his anti-adventure novel, Sundeen also wanted to tweak a trendy brand of outdoor literature that one critic calls "danger porn." Bestselling books drag voyeuristic readers on harrowing and often deadly expeditions through the jungle, up Mount Everest or across furious seas. These books exaggerate the risks, Sundeen says. "Because I worked in the outdoor adventure business for the last eight years, I know that a lot of that outdoor adventure stuff is really a glorified version of golf."

Most reviewers of Car Camping appreciated Sundeen's dry irony. "There's a distinct sense of a good writer emerging here -- Sundeen's is a voice you'll want to hear again," wrote the Portland Oregonian. National Public Radio and the online magazine Salon put the book on their lists of recommended summer reading. Then there was the New York Times review, which Sundeen calls "a kick in the ribs." Critic Anthony Bourdain complained that the narrator was too detached, the prose too desiccated. "The reader is content," he wrote, "to simply let this driver and his passengers disappear over the horizon."

Growing up in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach, Calif., Sundeen developed a taste for gritty L.A. writers like John Fante, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, as well as for Hemingway and Steinbeck. He says he was flattered to be admitted to the same university as Steinbeck, but too many of his Stanford literature professors were infatuated with critical theory, which he found baffling and boring. Dismayed, he almost dropped out in his third year to begin river-raft guiding but decided to stick out the last few quarters of his English major. Still, Sundeen maintains he learned more in his public high school than he did at Stanford.

His literary adventures began when, still at Stanford, he helped his high school friend Erik Bluhm launch the magazine Great God Pan. Sundeen says the name traces to a 1967 psychedelic cult film, Mondo Hollywood, which featured a song called "Great God Pan." Written by Mike Curb, who later became lieutenant governor of California, the lyrics offered a glimpse of the future leader's insights: "Wild and wiggy, zompy zappy ziggy are the only words I know of to explain the wild and wiggy, groovy way I'm living."

The first issue of the 'zine--eight photocopied pages stapled inside a cover of yellow construction paper--reprinted reviews from 1960s music magazines. With Bluhm as editor and Sundeen as managing editor, production quality and content have improved over the years, and the magazine has become more ambitious. Now, inside each bound issue with a glossy, colorful cover, there's "Western lore and history, lowbrow adventures, odd music and the fiction and arts of the talented denizens of the Golden State and beyond," according to the publisher's blurb. Sundeen and Bluhm write a good chunk of the annual publication, which LA Weekly described in a 1999 review as "easily . . . the most readable and, well, valuable SoCal magazine in recent memory."

But the scope of Great God Pan extends beyond Southern California. In fact, the nucleus of Car Camping is Sundeen's regular magazine feature on his "lowbrow" adventures roaming the West. The next issue will be devoted to the six weeks Sundeen and Bluhm spent living at a former Air Force base in Wendover, on the Utah-Nevada border. As for its financing, Sundeen says the magazine sometimes broke even, or earned a small profit, when he and Bluhm were willing to spend hours and hours selling ads. This year, they've decided to pay the $4,000 production costs themselves -- with a little creative financing. Sundeen's contribution is coming from an insurance settlement he got after crashing his truck.

The author's next literary adventure is already set. Car Camping landed him an offer to write a book on bullfighting in Mexico. Predictably, Sundeen plans an unusual angle. He wants to focus on the fringe people, including midget bullfighters. Yes, they really exist, and they battle dainty bulls.

Mitchell Leslie lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and is a frequent contributor to Stanford.