path 1

Walking the path (without stepping in bear shit)

path 1

One of the first things I did after unpacking my bags at the cabin was walk the path that Eric and I cut through the woods more than a decade ago. It loops through the 2-acre lot behind the cabin, and it’s where I go when I’m stuck with my writing, when I need to take a break, when I need to think.

That first walk was a little depressing. The path was choked with two years’ worth of growth; weeds and shrubs closing around the wound. In some places it had faded into a suggestion. I had to squeeze through snarls of brush, duck pine branches and keep my eyes on the ground so I wouldn’t lose my way. This was going to be a lot of work. I didn’t go back there again for two weeks.

The path was Eric’s idea. It was a gift for his mother, who is a nature lover and a gentle soul. He wanted his mom to be able to walk through the woods and sit in the shade and gaze at the mountains. In 2003 he invited me to stay at the cabin for the summer, so I took an unpaid leave from work and drove to Colorado. Eric showed up soon after from Boulder with two chainsaws and a gas-powered wood chipper.

We spent days hacking through the underbrush. Eric did the chainsaw work, felling dead trees and cutting up the criss-crossed deadwood that littered the property while I chopped through the underbrush. We used the logs Eric cut to line the path, then covered it with a blanket of wood chips spit out by the chipper. In the spots with the best views, we built crude benches with scrap wood. Each night after we cleaned up, we built a fire in the stone circle behind the cabin and broke out the good scotch.

That summer I started writing my first awkward efforts at fiction. Every short story seemed to start with a slow walk along that path. It was a little shot of bliss every time.

Last weekend I decided it was time to clear the mess, since I’m close to finishing my half dozen “how to write fiction” books and start re-writing my novel. So early Saturday I grabbed the loppers and my new Rambo multi-tool – a squared-off machete with a sharpened hook and a saw blade on its back edge – and started hacking.

It’s slow, sweaty work when you’re using hand tools. But I’ve always liked dirty, hands-on work; I come from a family of amateur landscapers and I’m forever messing with my deck or my yard or some other project. Over the course of two days, the path slowly re-emerged from the tangle. And I managed to avoid lopping off a finger or a toe with the machete (which is good since I don’t have health insurance yet).

Early Sunday afternoon, I walked the path again.

It starts at the Grand Entrance (actually just some thick logs we stood on end straddling the path) and twists through a sunny patch of thick brush where the pine beetles killed all the big trees. As it approaches the back of the property, where a barbed wire fence marks the start of the national forest, the path winds through a stand of aspen trees.

who is gazing at whom?
who is gazing at whom?

I’ve always loved aspens. The white bark reminds me of the birch trees that grew around my grandparents’ cottage in northern Michigan, and when the breeze flows through them, their leaves flutter and flash like small fish and make that sound: Shhhhhhhhh. If you look long enough, you can see eyes and faces in the black scars on their trunks.

path 2
the backwoods segment of the path

Past the aspens, the path follows a small rise into dense forest, winding beneath a canopy of pine, aspen and oak. This is my favorite spot along the path. The breeze dies here and the air smells like pine sap and decaying wood and summer grass. It’s a childhood smell for me, the smell that surrounded my brother and my cousins and me when we explored the Michigan woods on long summer days. It always calms me.

I can see a bear has been busy back here, rolling over the rotting logs that mark the path to look for bugs and grubs. There’s a big, fresh pile of bear scat at the edge of the path. (vocabulary note: ‘scat’ is a term used by hunters and outdoorsmen so they don’t have to say “Look, bear poo!”)

I’m hoping the bear and I have different walking schedules.

As the path emerges from the woods and curls back toward the cabin, the grass gets lush and soft. The sun breaks through the trees again and the cabin comes into view. It feels good to have the path clear so I can walk it again.

I walk past the fire ring, which has sprouted a tuft of weeks. Time to get some scotch and build a fire.

And time to start writing again.

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Literary speed dating

Over the years I’ve been to a lot of journalism conferences, and I know the drill: Friday morning, check in to the convention hotel and get the badge and the schedule; Friday and Saturday, go to a bunch of panel discussions and hope they’re worth the time; Saturday night, go out for drinks with all your new friends, then blow off all the Sunday morning sessions while you close the blackout drapes and think about coffee.

Which is pretty much the arc of every professional convention, I imagine. So when I headed to the downtown Austin Hyatt at the end of June for the Writers League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference, I was interested to see how a bunch of fiction writers do a conference.

But mainly, I was there to troll for agents, which is one of the conference’s big draws: dozens of literary agents, publishing house editors and others in the business, all packed into one spot for the weekend (They sold out this year).

Of course, every other unpublished wannabe-novelist was doing the same thing. And the first agent-hunting opportunity was the Friday night happy hour.

It was like a high school dance where only six girls showed up. Writers huddled in little packs, trying to recognize the agents from the photos on the conference program (“Don’t look, but over there is the agent from Zarftoggle Literary….”). Every head around the little elevated cocktail table would turn to see the smiling Zarftoggle agent surrounded by a hovering pack of writers waiting for their little bit of face time so they could give their pitch.

I knew nothing of this pitch thing until I signed up for the conference. Don’t you just start talking about your book? No, you don’t. You need to compress your hundreds of pages of story into a few paragraphs that you can spit out to an agent in a minute or two. Then, at the conference, you can either approach an agent randomly or pay extra for a 10-minute session with an agent – sort of like literary speed dating.

I had paid for my Saturday morning agent-date, so I had one shot at least. And in the days before the conference, I’d noodled out my pitch — a page and a half of notes scribbled on a legal pad. Too long, I know, but I’ve never been accused of being short-winded and I figured I could just talk really fast:

My novel’s called The Hotel Imperial and it’s a story set in Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border where a group of desperate people from Mexico meet each other and their smuggler at an abandoned hotel and soon have to rely on each other to survive the journey on foot across the Rio Grande and through miles of barren brushland so they can reach their destinations in the United States… (big heaving inhale)

That was just the first paragraph. I had a half dozen more, talking about some of the main characters, the plot points, the fascinating moral dilemma faced by my Border Patrol agent, and so forth.

I strolled around the ballroom Friday night, drink in hand, hoping to randomly bump into an agent who would give me a big smile and say, “You look like an interesting and talented writer, tell me all about yourself and your fascinating project!”

That didn’t happen. What did happen is that Becka Oliver, the executive director of the Writers League of Texas (who I’ve gotten to know since I joined the League and who’s been a huge help to me), grabbed my elbow and steered me to a New York-based agent and said “This is Dave Harmon, he’s got a project I think would interest you.”

Bless you a thousand times, Becka Oliver.

Now I had the agent’s full attention. Show time. Don’t screw it up.

I’d done a couple of practice rounds with other writers, but I hadn’t delivered my actual pitch to an actual agent with my actual mouth. Thankfully, this agent was gregarious and warm and put me at ease so I could spit out my too-long pitch: My novel’s called The Hotel Imperial and it’s a story set…

I got halfway through paragraph two when he stopped me. “That sounds interesting, I like it. Send it to me so I can take a look.”

Wait, what? Already? I hadn’t told him all the nuances of Border Patrol agent’s crucial moral dilemma. But he said he’d look at it, what more could I ask? And I could feel other writers behind me, hovering. So I thanked him, grabbed another drink and quietly pissed my pants with excitement.

The rest of the conference turned out to be worth the price of admission. Since I’m a fiction newbie, just about every panel was a little string of revelations to me. The agents and publishing house editors on the panels were generally smart and funny and encouraging — and ready to answer questions from all of the unpublished hopefuls like me who crowded around them after each session finished.

Saturday morning was the arranged date, this time with a Houston-based agent who mostly represents minority writers who write about minority themes (this was clearly stated in her bio). She immediately looked me up and down and wanted to know why I requested an appointment with her. Because, I told her, all but one of my main characters are Mexican or Mexican-American. She gave me a slightly skeptical smile. “Okay, let’s hear your pitch.”

Again, I got about five lines into the pitch when she cut me off. “I’d like to see it,” she said. She wasn’t looking skeptical anymore. We chatted about Houston and the book business and other things for the rest of the 10 minutes, then I got up to leave, doing a little fist-pump once I was out of her line of sight. Two pitches, two requests to see the novel.

Now I just have to deliver the goods. I told them both I’d need a couple of months to whip it into publishable shape. And now the clock’s ticking…..

ψ

 

 

 

 

 

cowboy laundry

Reading about writing at the cowboy laundromat

cowboy laundry

It’s probably about time I start writing about … writing. Which is the whole point of living in a plumbing-challenged log cabin in the San Juan Mountains for the summer. I have a draft of a novel that I need to turn into something that doesn’t read like a draft of a novel.

I haven’t touched it yet, the novel. It’s sitting there, a yawning 365-page abyss waiting for me to fall in and start flailing around. Before I take that plunge, I decided to get myself some education in the craft I’ve committed to. Since I didn’t get into the writing program I hoped would provide that education, I’m reading books on fiction writing instead – starting with Stein on Writing.

Sol Stein is a legend in the business, a novelist-editor-teacher whose book was recommended to me – along with several others – by the Dallas literary agent who read my draft and basically told me it was bloated and overwritten (he said it much nicer than that). I went on Amazon and bought every book he mentioned and now I’m slowly plowing my way through them.

I’ve finished two of them in my first 10 days in Colorado. Which is slow. I’m taking my sweet time because Stein’s book is so dense with concepts and tips – most of them new to an amateur like me – that I didn’t try to read more than two or three chapters a day. I’d highlight things as I read, then type notes into the laptop to use as a cheat sheet once I start my revisions.

I’m starting to see what that agent saw. I have a lot of work to do to make this novel publishable. It has too much static description (I do like to paint a pretty picture), characters that aren’t rounded enough – or rather, jagged enough. They’re too normal and likable, they need some secrets, some rough edges. I need to pare down pages and pages of dialogue that don’t have enough tension or conflict and chop out some scenes that slow things down.

This line from Stein jumped out at me: “Journalists know that short sentences step up pace. They also know that frequent paragraphing accelerates the pace … those are simple observations that come to fiction writers only belatedly. And when nonfiction writers turn to fiction, they often forget these simple rules.”

Ouch.

I finished the second book, Self-editing for Fiction Writers (by Renni Browne and Dave King, if it matters to you) yesterday at the Laundromat. This where the cowboy comes in.

First, a little scene setting: like a lot of newer buildings in Pagosa Springs, the local Laundromat is going for that Old West storefront look – complete with a covered front porch. Inside, of course, it looked like a standard-issue American laudromat: cheap tile floor, fluorescent lights, rows of chrome front-loaders sloshing people’s clothes around, and those rolling wire carts that kids like to turn into bumper cars while their parents pretend those aren’t their kids.

I rolled up to this frontier-wannabe laundry house (they didn’t have Maytags in the Old West, did they?), and outside leaning against one of the porch posts was this cowboy. Built like a shot-putter, thick everywhere. A black mop of a beard. Huge hands. He wore a flat-brimmed brown hat that had lost its original shape long ago, a rumpled red plaid shirt and jeans with rips in places that no trendy distressed-jeans designer would ever put them.

And to bottom it all off, a pair of scuffed boots with spurs. And yes, they jingle-jangled when he walked across the wood porch planks.

This man was not going for the cowboy look. The cowboy look was going for him.

We had the following conversation as I walked past him in my cargo shorts, sandals and short-sleeved button-up shirt.

Cowboy: “Evenin’ ”

Me: “Evenin’ ”

I imagined he smelled like old leather and trail dust and cow sweat. I didn’t get close enough to find out, because everyone knows cowboys don’t like people smelling them in public.

This is ranch country by the way. On my way to town, I sometimes pass ranchfolk herding cattle with horses and dogs. So I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was just the whole cowboy-doing-laundry-with-his-spurs-on thing that struck me.

I wish there was an actual story here, but there’s not. He folded up his laundry, carried it to his truck (no laundry basket, because cowboys don’t own laundry baskets) and drove off.

By the way, he was a Tide man.

ψ

The San Juans near sunset

Mountain time

The San Juans near sunset
The San Juans near sunset

The sun always wakes me up. The cabin faces east, and as soon as the sun slides above the high peaks around 7 o’clock, the place fills with bright mountain sunlight. I’ve hung a thick wool blanket over the bedroom doorway to block it out, but it still creeps in and nudges me awake.

I trudge to the kitchen, open the valve on the green propane canister and light the stove with a wooden kitchen match. Nothing happens in my world before coffee. Cup in hand, I turn on the ipod and head out to the deck to ease into the day. Mornings are mostly clear and cloudless up here, with a pale blue mist that cloaks the mountains and settles into their folds. This morning, a single deer is grazing at the treeline about 50 yards from the cabin, popping up her head and twirling her big ears every 10 seconds. You gotta be alert if you’re a prey item up here.

After staring at the mountains over two cups of coffee, I fill the kettle to heat up water for the shower. It’s basically a thick plastic bag with a tube and a nozzle that I hang from a nail on the side of the cabin. I pour in a couple of kettles of hot water to top off the bag, hoist it up on a rope and shower in the open air (the deer, for the record, aren’t the least interested in this). It’s a little bit of heaven. Unless the bag empties while I’m covered with suds in the chilly morning air. That kind of sucks.

I’m easing into mountain time. The first four days in Pagosa were a little chaotic thanks to the daily burst of thunderstorms, which set off dozens of little spot fires all over the mountains. It’s been so wet that wildfire isn’t a major risk, but getting struck by lightning at 8,500 feet…

The storms were bad enough that my friend Larry – a retired American-Statesman photographer who moved to Pagosa with his wife a few years back – messaged me: it’s pretty rough out there, do you want to come over here? After that first epic night in the cabin (see my previous post) I spent more time in the condo and the local coffee shops than I did on the mountain, waiting for the storms to let up.

Yesterday the weather broke. Blue skies. I packed up, exchanged a last round of texts with a friend while I still had a cell signal, hit the grocery store for supplies and drove back up the mountain.

It’s a 20-minute drive, but it feels like going back a hundred years in time. About the only thing separating the cabin from the 19th century is electricity. Electricity is good. Electricity means a fridge and a microwave and plugs for the laptop and the ipod and the cell phone.

But without indoor plumbing, routine chores like showering and washing dishes become slower, more intricate, more deliberate. I have to haul my water up here in big 5-gallon jugs, the kind you see in office water dispensers. They’re heavy as hell. Too heavy to actually use for anything but storage. So I pour water from the big jugs into my stash of gallon jugs, then use the gallon jugs to fill the shower bag, to wash dishes in a little plastic tub, to fill my drinking water bottles. It forces me to think about how I use every drop of water. And it takes time.

But time seems to expand up here. I’m not stuck in traffic twice a day, I’m not checking email every 15 minutes or scrolling through Facebook or surfing the web, there’s no TV to suck me onto the couch after dinner. There’s just the slow arc of the sun overhead, the shifting shadows of the pines, the afternoon rainclouds massing over the mountains, then a sunset that washes the peaks with golden light. A few days up here slows the heartbeat and clears the mind. Clock time loses meaning. You lose track of whether it’s Tuesday or Friday.

Because it doesn’t matter.

ψ

 

 

 

 

 

The teacher becomes the student

There are no second chances in life, except to feel remorse.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Day four in the mountains. Another big thunderstorm last night. I was in town grabbing dinner (I found a brewpub in Pagosa that makes great beer and a killer lamb burger. Score!) and didn’t want to risk heading to the cabin over wet dirt roads in the dark. With the Hedgehog’s city tires, it’s like driving on grape jelly. The friends who let me use the cabin also have a condo in town. It’s got all the creature comforts (hot shower! A flush toilet!) and it’s a good backup in bad weather, but I prefer the cabin for working (see previous photo of the mountain view).

I’ve been sleeping a lot since I got here; exhaustion comes on fast at 8,500 feet for a sea-level person. Typically I need three days to adjust to the altitude. The long afternoon naps needs to stop soon; I have a lot of work to do.

Work, for now, means a lot of reading and studying. I’m a beginner again. I’ve been writing all my life, but 20-plus years in journalism isn’t necessarily a good springboard for fiction writing. I’m like a lifelong sprinter who suddenly decided to run marathons. I need to work on technique. And endurance. Or I’ll blow a quad.

I don’t have any formal training to fall back on. I applied to a graduate fiction writing program earlier this year but didn’t get accepted. I haven’t done any workshops or seminars. I just sort of dove in, and now I’m having to learn as I go.

living room
The living room/office in the cabin

What I do have is a 147,000-word draft of a novel that I wrote mostly at the cabin over two summers. I haven’t looked at it in months. This summer, I want to chop it down by about 25,000 words (ouch) and do a lot of re-writing to deepen the characters and speed up the plot. Then it’ll be time to send it to agents and start praying.

Before I touch the book again, I’m planning to read several books on fiction writing. I’m starting with Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein – one of several books recommended by a Dallas literary agent who read most of my novel and basically said, You’ve got a lot of work to do. I bought every book on writing he suggested: one on novel editing, another on character development, another on common fiction writing mistakes (wonder how many I’ve made?). And I brought two that I’ve read before and loved: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.

loft
The half loft

I’m about halfway through Stein’s book (taking copious notes as I go), and already I see what the agent was talking about. Too much static description that doesn’t move the plot forward (“You’re a storyteller, not an interior decorator,” Stein writes. Yeah, guilty as charged). My characters need to be more distinctive, more layered. And that’s just for starters. It’s a little intimidating, feeling so out of my depth after having a job (newspaper reporter) where I felt like I was ready for anything and a side job (teaching feature writing at the University of Texas) where college students looked to me as the old hand who could teach them how to tell a story.

So for the first week or two, I’m trying to just be a student of writing again. Truth is, I don’t really know what I’m doing up here. But I’m doing it, rather than thinking about doing it “someday” – which is what I did for too many years. Someday is here. Finally.

ψ

Lightning! Hail! Fire! Coyotes! (and that’s just the first night)

The cabin with the green door
The cabin with the green door

When coyotes get together to party, they start this high-pitched yelping that sounds like deranged laughter. Or like hyenas in a feeding frenzy. In the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, it’s an eerie, nerve-wracking sound. Especially when it’s close.

Let’s back up a bit. After driving for two days and spending a night in Pagosa Springs, I headed to the cabin early Sunday morning. From town, it’s a bumpy, twisting climb over 10 miles of washboarded, potholed gravel roads that give way to a single-lane road, then to the steep two-track that leads to the cabin. There’s a scattering of other cabins and summer homes up here, two of them on the same road as the cabin, but they were empty when I arrived. The mountain gets very quiet after July 4 weekend.

Inside, everything was just as I remembered: the beige couch and matching easy chair, the black wood stove, the bearskin mounted on the wall, camouflage hunting gear hanging from pegs. My friend Eric and his parents built this place years ago as a hunting cabin. Most of the time it sits empty, and they’ve been kind enough to let me stay here for long stretches over the years. In exchange, I put in some sweat equity: clearing brush, building shelves, whatever they need done.

It’s cozy – 16 feet wide, 22 feet deep with a little downstairs bedroom and a half loft with two more beds that you reach by a wooden ladder. There’s a little kitchen area where I keep a propane camp stove. Eric’s parents put in a mini fridge a few years ago. Best of all, there’s a wide front deck with a spectacular view of the mountains.

The view of the San Juans
The view of the San Juans

I’ll be here until I finish re-writing my novel or until I see snow on the high peaks, whichever comes first.

The cabin’s also pretty Spartan. They hooked up electricity a few years back – before that, I used candles and kerosene lamps. There’s still no running water, no flush toilet (there’s a little chemical toilet that’s maybe 16 inches tall, which I use only for emergencies or in bad weather). No TV, no Internet. Cell phones barely work here – if you get a bar or two and manage to get a call through, it usually drops within a minute.

I did my usual quick cleanup – sweep up the dead moths, shake out the floor rugs – then unloaded the car and set up my little folding card table next to the window. That’s my work desk for the next couple of months.

The cabin’s at about 8,500 feet, and the altitude always saps me for the first few days, so I took a nap.

Thunder woke me. Dark clouds gathering over the far peaks. I made some coffee to wake up, and by the time I finished, the rain had started. Then the lighting got close. Really close. Big, pulsing bolts, followed by ground-shaking booms. Lightning storms in the mountains are no joke. And I’m in a cabin with a metal chimney surrounded by tall pines.

I was getting more and more anxious, so I jumped into the car (is it true that car tires insulate you from lightning strikes? I thought I read that somewhere) and drove 50 yards down the hill, away from the biggest trees.

The lighting was on top of me. Flash-flash. BOOM. Flash-BOOM.

Then came the hail. Lots of hail. Imagine being stuffed into a metal drum while a hundred pissed off kids shoot at it with BB guns. It was kind of like that.

A hail drift next to the cabin
A hail drift next to the cabin

Then it stopped. Just like that. The ground had turned ghost white. Instant winter. I went back in the cabin, made myself some soup, opened a beer and popped Goodfellas in the laptop (dinner and a movie, mountain style). When I went back out on the deck around dusk to take care of nature’s call, I spotted what looked like a bright light far in the distance, in the mountains that face the cabin. An orange flicker deep in the trees.

Fire.

Then I saw a little plume of white smoke. Earlier in the day, I was reading the local paper’s one-year-later story about the big forest fire last summer: 110,000 acres burned after lightning strikes hit a forest full of deadwood (thank you, pine bark beetles). I reached for the phone. Please, please give me a signal.

The call connects. The operator takes my information and says someone will call. A few minutes pass. I get the binoculars. The flames look brighter now. The phone rings and someone with the local emergency operations office asks what I see and where I am. The call drops after 30 seconds. I call back and manage to give her my location before the line goes dead again. I look across the Valley. The flames have disappeared, along with the last of the daylight.

After a half hour I see headlights. It’s Thad McKain, the emergency operations manager for Archuleta County, trailed by two of his staff in another truck. The fire is visible again, a pinprick of orange against the dark mountains. Probably just a single-tree strike, he tells me. Too dark to go up there now. We’ll have a plane check it out in the morning.

I am not sure what to do with this information. I decide to stay in the cabin and hope the fire burns itself out (or at least doesn’t get bigger). There’s no wind, and it’s rained recently, so the ground’s damp and the vegetation is healthy. That’s something, right?

It’s after midnight when I finally decide to try to sleep. I take a last look at the pinprick of light. It’s faint, but still there.

Then the coyotes start their crazy laughter. I’ve heard coyotes up here before, but never this close. They sound like they’re just down the hill from the cabin. I hear a swirl of yelps and yips, broken by one long, mournful, spine-tingling howl. Their little chorus caps the scariest night I’ve spent on this mountain.

Yep. I’m not going to sleep worth a damn tonight.

(post script: Monday morning the fire appeared to be out. Good news. Now, after a stop into town to get on the Internet, it’s back up the mountain)

 ψ

The Road, Part II: Redrock and pine

redrocks

Highway 84 rewards those who stick with it. The payoff for grinding through the Panhandle’s aching flatness and its smelly feed lots and eastern New Mexico’s desert scrub is the slow climb into some of the most beautiful country in the southwest.

After covering nearly 600 miles Friday, I stopped for the night in Santa Rosa, N.M., a little high desert town on I-40 with more motel rooms than people. Santa Rosa’s not much to look at, but after hundreds of miles of empty scrubland, a truck stop looks like an oasis. All I wanted was a clean room and a good bed (the Best Western took care of that). In the morning, after a quick stop at tEdselhe Route 66 auto museum (I couldn’t resist after seeing what
they did to this Edsel), I jumped in the car for the final leg of the trip.

Mercifully, things start to get interesting near Santa Fe. You can see the mountains in the distance and feel the air cool as you climb. The transition is jarring: one minute you’re in the desert, the next you’re driving past Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and Starbucks and rows of perfectly stuccoed and earth-tone-painted homes. Even the highway overpasses are decorated with artsy interpretations of Native American pictographs. Santa Fe is adobe Disneyland.

But my favorite part comes north of Santa Fe. Once you cross the Rio Grande in Española – it’s wide and fast and stained the same reddish-brown as the dirt – you start climbing and twisting through stunning red rock cliffs and canyons. Further north on 84 the cliffs turn a pale yellow and rise in long, graceful ridges topped with sage and juniper. This is where I start looking for familiar landmarks: the Ghost Ranch, the Echo Amphitheater (a natural half-dome cavern that does just what its name suggests when you shout into its mouth), the Trujillos general store, squatting in stubborn isolation amid the empty canyonlands like an Old West relic.

The road rises, then descends into the wide grasslands of the Chama Valley, 7,800 feet above sea level. The Continental Divide rises ahead, painted a misty blue. After more twists and climbs, the first pines start emerging amid the sagebrush. And then everything changes. The highway tops another ridge, and suddenly you’re in thick stands of pine and spruce – the wet side of the mountains. It never fails to make my blood pump a little faster. Thirty more miles to Pagosa Springs.

It’s raining when I hit town, and the rain perfumes the air with pine. It’s 68 degrees in mid-July. Heaven.

I drive through the old downtown, rows of restored frontier buildings that hug the curves of the Piedras River, all of it surrounded by soaring green mountains. If Norman Rockwell had lived in the mountains, he would’ve painted this place.

The rain stops, so I pull into the public parking lot on a ridge overlooking the river and take it all in: teenagers splashing amid the rocks, kids and grownups gliding on tubes, people walking the riverside hike-and-bike trail. Across the river is the hot springs, a sprawling collection of oversized hot tubs fed by the natural springs that drew the Utes and Navajos here centuries ago. That sulfur tang in the air. I can feel every muscle in my body relax. Pagosa has become sort of an adopted second home for me over the years.

I still have a 20-minute drive over a narrowing series of unpaved roads to reach the cabin. Then it’s time to get to work.

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The Road, Part I: Barreling down Stink Highway

IMG_9935
Downtown Muleshoe

This launch into this new life began in earnest at 8:15 this morning when I slid behind the wheel of the Hedgehog (my 2010 Kia Soul. Please hold the gerbil jokes. Thank you.) and rolled onto U.S. 183 in the steamy July air.

Seven hours later, I could tell I was close to Muleshoe. It was seeping through every crack in the Kia.

I’m on my way to Colorado, where there’s a little log cabin waiting for me in the San Juan Mountains outside of Pagosa Springs – that’s where I need to whip my novel into shape this summer so it’s ready to ship off to a pair of agents who said they want to see it (more on that in a later post). It’s an 850-mile drive, much of it through some of the most mind-numbing countryside ever to be coated with blacktop.

I’ve made this drive many times. The Texas leg never gets better. I take 183 northwest through Lampasas and Zephyr and Brownwood, then hop on Texas 84 into Flatlander country. Curl around Abilene, zip through Sweetwater and the aptly-named Wastella, weave through what passes for traffic in Lubbock, then brace yourself for a solid hour on Stink Highway.

This is treeless, dry country, where every farm has a little swirly pack of pet dust devils. I would call it hopelessly featureless, except for its one defining, nose-curling feature: The delicate perfume of a half million flatulent cattle crammed into vast feedlots.

cowbutts
The business end of the cattle business

It’s a singular stink, and even in a flat, windy countryside, it lingers and sticks to everything it touches. It’s an airborne cocktail of ammonia and cow bowel that hits you like a wet slap. Roll down the car windows, even for a few seconds, and you can feel your nose hair melting.

East of Houston where all the oil refineries sprouted, the locals call the skin-peeling chemical air “the smell of money.” In this part of Texas, this olfactory gift from cows’ netherparts is the smell of money throughout the greater Muleshoe-Bovina-Lariat area. Keep your windows rolled up.

Which brings me back to Muleshoe. I needed gas and a good stretch after 450 miles, so I stopped in Muleshoe. Somehow, I always stop in Muleshoe (town motto: our flies will swallow your flies whole). So this time I decided to get the T-shirt.

I passed the hollowed-out downtown strip with its boarded-up theater and pulled into the Dollar General. No luck. They sent me to the Lowe’s grocery, which had a lovely selections of “What happens in the cornfield stays in the cornfield” shirts, but no Muleshoe Mules merchandise (of course they’re the Mules).

I asked a couple of employees: what does happen in the cornfield? Blank looks.

They sent me down the street to the much fancier United grocery, where the parking lot was packed with F-150s and Tundras and Suburbans. The United is shiny and cool and has Sunny D on sale for 97 cents this week (it’s on the endcap between aisles 6 and 7. And they have red. You’re welcome).

I find the shirt rack and grab my black Mules T-shirt. I’m walking to the cash registers, Mr. Austin in my Austin City Limits festival T-shirt and I-just-got-off-the-hike-and-bike-trail sandals, the guy from Hipster City stopping for kicks in their dripwater town.

I get in line. Ahead of me, a woman with a cloud of gray hair and a lavender pantsuit is writing out a check with agonizing slowness. The cashier smiles at her, patient. When the woman scans the check with a bony finger, checking her work, the cashier keeps smiling. Then she calls for a carry-out and within seconds another employee is pushing the woman’s basket to her car. Because they take care of their seniors in Muleshoe.

When I pay, the cashier tells me to have a great day. And I can tell she means it. Outside in the parking lot, gray-headed men in suspenders and feed lot caps are hanging out next to a battered pickup, talking in that musical Panhandle twang, in no hurry to do anything except catch up with an old friend. On the radio, the deejay for Q101.5 is asking everyone to go to the flapjack fundraiser this Saturday at Applebee’s to help a local man who’s fighting cancer.

I get back in the Hedgehog and realize that during my jaunt through Muleshoe, I stopped noticing the smell of the feedlots.

Go Mules.

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IMG_9990
$12.99 at the United. Worth every penny.

Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.

The Leap (an intro to this blog)

“Leap, and the net will appear.”
– John Burroughs

I don’t remember the first time I heard Burroughs’ quote, but it got stuck in some random fold of my brain and stayed there for years, a little mantra that I believed, but was always a little too chickenshit to actually follow.

Until now.

A month ago, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter — after 23 years as a journalist — to make one big, all-in attempt at turning myself into a fiction writer. I’ve been dabbling for years, writing short stories and fragments of novels that I invariably set aside when I got distracted or lost my fragile fiction mojo. Then a few years ago I took a three-month leave of absence with the blessing of my bosses at the Austin American-Statesman (God bless them) and holed up in a friend’s cabin in southern Colorado to take another stab at a novel. I had a rough idea for a story, but I made the 14-hour drive from Austin without an outline or character sketches or any other real preparation. I remember sitting down at the laptop that first day: Okay, you wanted to write a novel. Type something.

Tap. Tap-tap. Sigh. Tap-tap-tap.

I wrote 1,500 words that first day in June 2011. For the rest of the summer, I wrote 6 to 8 hours a day, six days a week, and by the time I went back to work in September, I was up to 110,000 words (and still wasn’t finished). Now I knew I could sit down every day and do the work (regardless of whether the work was worth a damn). The following summer, I burned up my vacation to go back to Colorado and finish the manuscript. I came back with a 147,000-word draft of The Hotel Imperial.

I asked family and friends to read it and give me feedback. I did a quick round of edits. I found an agent who agreed to take a look, then got my first rejection. I put the manuscript down. Got busy again. Told myself I’d dive in again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.

It didn’t happen. I’m just not one of those people who can work a full time job and work on a novel in his spare time (did I mention I’m easily distracted?). I needed take a big leap of faith and commit to fiction full time. So I got my financial house in order (paid off debts, paid off my car early, etc) and in April I sold a rental house I’d bought with my parents (God bless them too), which gave me the nest egg I’d need to actually do this. And now I’m actually doing this. Which is both really exhilarating and really scary. Where’s that net again?

I’m a first-time blogger, so this will be a messy process at first. I’m doing it so my family and friends can keep tabs on my progress, and to hopefully build a “platform” (which everyone says I need as a fiction writer). And to document what will turn out to be the most transformational decision of my life. Or the stupidest. That ending hasn’t been written yet.

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