All posts by DKHarmon

Coming down from the mountain

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

I’m packing up the cabin, cleaning out the mini-fridge and writing a goodbye note for the bear (we had some good times this summer). Tomorrow morning I’m heading back to Austin, where I’ll keep working on the novel.

I’m excited to get home. I’m not at all sure what my life’s going to look like when I get there. Hopefully I can bottle this mountain simplicity and bring it with me.

I know I’m going to be a little giddy at first as I get reacquainted with the wonders of civilization: turning a knob and getting clean water from the tap, the porcelain brilliance of a toilet (don’t get me started, I could write poetry about flush toilets at this point), Internet at your fingertips, cell reception everywhere you go. And more importantly, I get to see my family and my friends.

I’m going to miss the mountains, and living in a world that feels very compact and slow. The days seemed to drip by like winter syrup; I could almost feel my senses waking up again. The smell of pines and spruce and the scrubby little plants that give off this musky, herbal scent when it rains. The shifting shadows on the mountains every evening as the sun sets. The sound of a raven overhead (a raspy whoosh-whoosh, like an old foot-pump loom) or a grasshopper snapping past your ear like stripped electrical wires touching. And at night, silences so deep that I could close my eyes and swear I was in the Michigan woods after a heavy snow.

Living in the cabin never fails to remind me how little I really need to be happy. Even the little slice of my worldly possessions I packed into the Kia for the summer was too much. I could have left half of it at home. Give me my music, books, a laptop to work on, a camera, a few clothes, some favorite DVDs, and I’m good.

I’m looking at the top shelf of the little kitchen cupboard I nailed together 10 years ago – my first cabin improvement project. It’s filled with antacids, Pepto-bismol, Nyquil, ibuprofen, allergy pills — all the stuff I needed in Austin to knock down various bodily bothers that seemed to be coming with increasing regularity. After the first week or so up here, I haven’t touched any of it.

I suppose the explanation is simple: less stress, more peace. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, I’m exactly where I want to be and I control the rhythm of each day.

A little voice keeps whispering, “But this isn’t the real world.” Which is true. It’s easy to lose your mountain zen when you’re stuck in Austin traffic on a 100-degree day and the A/C conks out. But then I remember: I quit my job. Right now it’s very real, and right now is all I care about.

When I go back to Austin, for the first time in 18 years I won’t be going to the newsroom five days a week. I’ll have to find a new rhythm, and it’s going to be a big adjustment. In some ways, it’s going to be like a new city, I think.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time here (big thanks again to Eric and his parents for making that happen).

I could probably squeeze another month or two before the snows come and the cabin is truly cut off from civilization, but the Austin City Limits festival is coming up soon. I go every year, and every year my house fills up with friends for the weekend. It’ll be like a homecoming party.

My plan is to stay and write in Austin through the holidays, then head to a new writing destination early next year. So if people are still interested in reading, I’ll keep writing…

ψ

The view from 12,000 feet

The Little Blanco Trail, where it gets a bit narrow and scary
The Little Blanco Trail, where it gets a bit narrow and scary

I wanted to do one last hike before I left Pagosa, and I wanted to challenge myself a little, so I picked the Little Blanco trail, not far from the cabin. It’s rated “difficult,” and they weren’t kidding. It’s one long climb, and in places, the combination of a narrow path, loose rock and gravel and steep drops made me wonder what the hell I was thinking. But once I got to the top, to a little mountaintop “lake” called Quartz Lake, the views took my breath away — what breath I had left after 5 miles of humping up a mountain.

I’ve fallen in love with my new camera, a Panasonic Lumix GF1, and decided to try some short videos so you can experience the hike a little more vividly. Hope you enjoy them.

quartz hike 1

quartz hike 2

quartz hike 3

quartz hike 4

The Piedra River trail

Hiking the San Juans

piedra river 3The nights are getting crisp and the first brushstrokes of yellow are dotting the mountains across from the cabin. I’m coming to the end of my time in Colorado. Some time next week I’ll pack up the Kia and head back to Austin, where I’ll start re-writing the novel.

When I finished the edits on the draft last week, I realized that I haven’t played much this summer. Haven’t gone to the hot springs, haven’t gone fishing or hiking (beyond daily walks near the cabin) or tubing on the river. Haven’t done much beyond reading, editing, blogging, and haunting local coffee shops and restaurants — the epic weekend in Fort Collins was the one exception. I’ve been to Pagosa Springs plenty of times over the years and I’ve done all that stuff, so I haven’t exactly felt like the kid practicing scales on the piano while his friends play ball in the sun. I’ve been doing what I came here to do and I’ve been happy doing it.

But after I turned over that last page and counted up the cuts – I chopped 59,000 words/202 pages, bringing the draft down to 88,000 words/340 pages — I felt like I deserved a little fun. So I packed up my new camera and went hiking.

Four Mile Falls
Four Mile Falls

I’ve got this map showing all the hiking trails around here, and I picked a couple that I haven’t explored before. The first one was Four Mile Falls (discovered by Spanish explorers who originally dubbed it “6.45 kilometer falls”). The map said the hike was “moderately” difficult, which means every so often you’ll hit a massive hill studded with loose rocks that will make you wish you’d brought your mule (mine’s in the shop, unfortunately). But in the stretches where you’re not staring at your feet to avoid breaking an ankle, the scenery is breathtaking. The trail winds through deep evergreen forest, broad meadows, blankets of grapevine turning red with autumn, and little mountain streams sliding over smooth stones. And through every break in the trees, there’s another stunning mountain view.

After all that serene beauty, the falls injects some dramatic beauty: a little stream jumping off a big cliff in a halo of spray. I climbed around the boulders at the base for a good hour, taking photos and getting drenched every time the wind shifted. There’s something elemental and soothing about water flowing over rock that makes you want to lay on the moss and take a nap (which explains white noise machines and all those “mountain waterfall” recordings). I was very tempted. I was also hungry after hiking four miles, so I headed back, chatting along the way with other folks on the trail, including half a dozen Kansans, a Great Dane lugging saddlebags (apparently the Kansans’ mule was in the shop too) and a couple of deerless bow hunters who cheerfully told me that another hunter had seen a mountain lion on that very trail earlier in the day.

Thanks for that little detail, guys. Mind if I walk back with you?

The next day my calves were barking at me, but the weather was so beautiful again that I picked an easier trail and went out again. The Piedra River trail is about 15 miles north of Pagosa and follows the river for miles and miles (one of the great things about the trails in Colorado is how they’ve placed beautiful rivers and creeks next to most of them). I hiked about three miles through some stunning rock canyons and formations – the photos do a better job than I can in words – with the trickling of the river as background music before I turned around.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.

(Final bear update (I hope): After the last bear encounter, I moved the hammock closer to the cabin, next to the walking path. Yesterday I was settled in with a book when one of the neighborhood bears came loping from behind me onto the path. He stopped about six feet from the hammock, took a step in my direction, then saw me tumbling out of the hammock and skittered away. I probably would have been more alarmed, except this one wasn’t much bigger than a cub. But I have pretty clear evidence now that bears are attracted by hammocks.)

demo

How to gut a novel for its own good

Those of you who tuned in at the start of this blog will remember that I drove to Colorado in July lugging a lot of words. My draft was 147,720 words, to be precise. And I loved each and every one of them. How I toiled over that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38, until it sang to me in this perfect, tinkling dependent clause voice.

Still, I knew that many of them would have to be selectively culled from the herd in the interest of not making agents and publishers choke. Being a newbie to fiction, I wasn’t aware until recently that 147,000 words is a lot for a novel, unless you’re Tom Wolfe or you’re writing the Unabridged History of Western Civilization.

When I printed out the draft at the Pagosa Springs UPS store, it didn’t look mastodon-like. It was 312 pages. Hey, it’s not that bad, I thought. Then I realized that it was single-spaced, in 11-point type, with margins so skinny that the words filled nearly every inch of the page. Which left very little space to scribble my edits on the hard copy. My notes look like tiny hieroglyphics from an ancient scroll written with a hummingbird feather. Three hundred pages of that.

For days, I’ve been squinting at those notes and making all those changes in the computer file. I’ve also got pages and pages of other notes, re-written dialogue, and scraps of new material scattered among legal pads and computer files. All of those are going into the soup too.

I’m on page 274 of the hard copy – about 40 pages from the end. So far, I’ve cut more than 53,000 words from the draft. In other words, more than a third of it is getting flushed.

And it feels pretty good.

I think 10 years of working behind an editor’s desk at the newspaper (not to mention years of grading college journalism students’ work) has made me a little ruthless, even with my own stuff. I also think that letting the draft sit in a drawer for a year helped. I’m so removed from the writing that it’s like reading someone else’s work — someone else’s bloated, unfocused work. All of a sudden, that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38 seems so … dependent.

So I’m going all Zorro on it with the red pen and trying not to flinch too much in the process.

Between the slashing X’s, I can see little glimmers in there where the dialogue or a plot twist still gives me a little jolt of pleasure, sections that even my squinty-eyed inner editor can read and say, Okay, it’s not all crap.

I’m hoping to finish this phase (which we will call the Drastic Amputation Phase) in a few days. I’m guessing I’ll end up with less than 87,000 words when the carnage is over. That’s still a lot, but no longer in the holy-shit-that’s-long category.

At that point, the book’s going to resemble an office building hit by a good-sized tornado, with big sections sheared away and scattered by the wind. Enough of the supporting structure will be left to keep it standing, some of the furniture and decorations inside will be oddly untouched, and the characters will be shuffling around in a daze wondering what the hell just happened. (In that metaphor, I get to be both the architect and the tornado.)

Oh yeah, and I have no idea how it’s going to end anymore. I’ve messed around with the first 250 pages so much that my current ending makes absolutely no sense anymore. I guess I could have a good-sized tornado drop down from an angry sky and wipe everybody out (except for the unredeemable minor character whose sudden epiphany in the face of senseless destruction gives the story a sense of profound closure). I think an F3 would about do it. Would that be cheap?

I think I mentioned a while back that I’d probably be re-writing big sections of the novel. I was correct.

Which seems daunting. It is daunting. It’s a lot of work. I just need to take what’s still there, weave it together with some new stuff, make my characters deeper and more compelling, and turn this mess into something people might actually want to read.

In less than 100,000 words.

Solitude and the art of losing your mind

solitude

“All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness. The mind then gives form to the creative impulse or insight.” – Eckhart Tolle

I’ve been alone in this cabin in the San Juan Mountains for seven weeks now. Seems like an appropriate time to talk about solitude, loneliness and living without cable TV, a cell phone and Internet for days at a time. And about finding the “off” switch for my brain.

Just to be clear: I’m not cloistered, I still get my grid fix every few days when I drive into town. Some days I head into town just to hang out in a restaurant or coffee shop with other human beings, to get online and connect to my support system (I ended my Facebook abstinence in a hurry up here).

But I do have a lot of alone time. I’m not married, no kids, so being alone isn’t a big change. The big change is being alone without all the usual electronic binkies, and being hundreds of miles from my family and my friends. And I miss them. Family and friends the most. But the other stuff too. In the cabin, I can’t flop on the couch and channel surf, can’t watch college football this weekend (unless I park myself in a bar), can’t pick up the phone and text or call somebody when I get the urge, can’t fill the empty hours with email and web surfing and Facebook. Which was the idea. I’m here to work on my novel without distractions.

(A quick novel update: Sunday I finished my first read-through of the draft – the first really thorough edit, on a hard copy. Yesterday I started making those changes in the computer and cut 10,000 words/44 pages on the first day. It won’t be a 147,000-word beast when I’m done.)

It’s an interesting shift. A cell phone signal and wifi is now something I look forward to instead of something that’s just there, like oxygen and bad Austin traffic. When I come into town, I try to keep my grid time to about two or three hours so I can do my other errands and head back up the mountain. Some days I end up lingering for hours longer, not wanting to be cut off.

Being off the grid has also meant a lot of time alone with my thoughts – and a lot of time to feel very lonely if I let that seed sprout in my brain. Which it will if I’m not diligent. If it wasn’t for regular visits from the bear, I don’t know what I’d do. (A quick bear update: he/she jolted me awake the other night by using the cabin as a scratching post, and yesterday I startled him/her into a full run during a walk on the path. So I guess we’re even.)

my friends the Kolvoords
my friends the Kolvoords

Thank God for the Kolvoords. Larry and Terrie are the only people I know up here. Larry used to be a photographer at the American-Statesman before he and Terrie retired and bought a place in Pagosa. They’ve had me over for dinner. They’ve come up to the cabin for a visit. They’ve met me at coffee shops and restaurants. They’re good people.

I also have a big stack of DVDs I can play on the laptop. And I have my ipod, which is always on. Somehow it picks up NPR at 8,500 feet, one of only two stations I can catch (along with KWUF, less talk and more of the music you love). Since I don’t have a TV, it’s my only way to pipe in the outside world. But there’s still hours and hours of just me and my busy little brain, which will spout mostly useless thoughts all day long if I let it.

It’s my third radio station: KAOS (more talk, less of the music you love), a stream-of-consciousness station that likes to play in my head during every waking hour, featuring a heavy rotation of hits from yesterday (dredging up memories of the past), today (angst about my novel, my general life direction), and tomorrow (angst about my novel, my general life direction). Between the big hits, it likes to throw in a million little trivial thoughts that swirl around like caffeinated gnats.

Maybe you don’t have that kind of brain. If so, god bless you.

After a couple of previous extended stays in the cabin, I’ve learned that it’s best to lose my mind soon after arriving. Or rather, to turn it off when it’s not in use, like a radio. I just finished reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle for probably the third or fourth time. It’s an amazing book. As the title suggests, it’s about living in the present moment (rather than the past or future) and getting your chirpy little brain to STFU. Very simple concept, very hard to do in real life.

I read the book pretty much every time I’m up here because the cabin is a perfect controlled laboratory for that sort of thing (in other words, a mostly stress-free environment that’s nothing like real life). If I really concentrate and work at it, I can turn off the noise at will. It’s a peaceful, Zen-like experience, like leaving a noisy bar and walking onto a silent street.

And because if I don’t practice that particular skill, I’ll probably go a little crazy up here.

chainsaw2

Chainsaws and scalpels

The weather in the San Juans was just about perfect over the weekend: low 70s in the daytime, big fluffy clouds drifting over the aspens and dragging their shadows up the mountainsides. I would have enjoyed it a little more if I wasn’t trying to decide who to kill.

I’m 240 pages into editing the draft of my novel and sometime late last week, I decided someone else needed to die (and die sooner in the story). Writer’s bloodlust, I guess. If I have to lop off big chunks of the story to shorten this beast (147,000 words, if you’re keeping track at home), then someone’s going down with those parts of the ship. It just took a while to decide who would draw the proverbial black bean. It was a little creepy, mentally lining up my characters like the criminals in The Usual Suspects and saying to one of them: sorry, I know you survived in the draft, but…

Why kill someone else? Why increase the body count? Because these characters are making a perilous journey and I realized that the perilous part doesn’t really hit home until the climax, near the end of the novel. That made me think about something in Anne Lamott’s book (the wonderfully-written Bird by Bird), about letting bad things happen to your characters, and I’m realizing that I was a bit of an overprotective parent the first time through this story. So in the re-write, they’re getting knocked around more.

And one in particular gets knocked dead. A minor character. They have much higher mortality rates than main characters (did you know that the average life expectancy for a minor character today is only eight chapters? True fact). It was actually pretty easy once I convinced myself that she needed to go and plotted out how I’d do it. It was, I suppose, like a lot of pre-meditated murders: the planning took a lot longer than the actual deed. About 10 minutes of typing, and it was finished.

I haven’t even started the real re-write yet, by the way. I’m reading through the draft for the first time in about a year, getting familiar with the story again and alternately reaching for the scalpel and the chainsaw. The scalpel is all the little stuff that I can’t let pass without marking: tweaking descriptions and dialogue, minor trims to sentences and paragraphs, fixing punctuation. I’ve made, oh, about 5,000 of those so far.

I’ve also killed off entire chapters – probably more than ten so far. That’s the chainsaw work. Most were just little scenes that I liked, but in the cold light of editing, they don’t serve the greater story so they get the big “X” through them. One of them featured a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to interview a suspected undocumented immigrant near the river and botching the Spanish, while the man patiently answers the questions even though he can tell the agent means to ask something else. Then he starts speaking English because he’s not undocumented after all, he’s a local having some fun with this rookie. “I got the amnesty back in the ’80s,” he tells the agent. “God bless Ronald Reagan.” Hilarity ensues.

It’s gone. Chainsaw victim.

This is slow work, slower than I’d expected. I still had that newspaper mentality when I started this stage of the process, thinking I could burn my way through 50 pages a day (which is what I did the first time I “edited” the draft. Turns out I just tickled it a bit). Now I’m marking up every page, making notes about how I want to alter sections or whole chapters. When sudden inspiration has struck, I’ve re-written an entire chapter or significant parts of chapters. If I get through 25 pages in eight or nine hours, that’s a good day. Some days it’s more like 10 or 12.

Yesterday I “finished” 20 pages. This particular section was part of the buildup to the climax, and I’m seeing what a tangled mess I made. Dead-end plot tangents. Multiple twists that should be straight lines because they’re more confusing than intriguing. Little cameo characters who, like a tepid lover, arrive on the scene and quickly depart without making much of an impression or impact on anyone. Whack, whack, whack.

It feels good knowing that the story will be shorter, tighter – and hopefully a lot better. But I gotta admit, drawing big X’s through entire pages of prose that I remember agonizing over is … not so fun.

And when I’m done making all of my thousands of little marks on the hard copy, I’ll scoop them all up, along with all the new bits and pieces I’ve been writing on the laptop, and all the notes I’ve made in two legal pads, then take a deep breath … and start re-writing the whole thing from the beginning.

Then the real fun begins…

ψ

scardeer

Meet the neighbors: demon-bunny, scar-deer and thug cows

The other day I was working at my card table-desk up here in the beautiful San Juan Mountains when a peeping tom glanced in the window at me.

My desk is situated in the front corner of the cabin, between two windows. The window to my left offers a reliably breathtaking mountain view. If I ever wonder, “What the hell am I doing up here in the middle of nowhere?” I just turn my head to the left and go, “Oh yeah. That’s why.”

The window to my right looks out onto a grassy area shaded by a big spruce tree. Anyway, I was typing away when I looked up and saw a big round eye and a red wattle. It was a big male turkey, running the point for several hens. He actually was peering into my window, because as soon as I got up to fetch my camera, Tom and the ladies turned around and quickly waddled back the way they came.

These are my neighbors. There are no other humans in the immediate vicinity (just a lot of empty summer cabins), so my only consistent company are critters. After a month or so of watching through the windows, I’ve started recognizing some of them. Like scar-deer.

Scar-deer likes to graze around the cabin, and I’ve startled her (and vice versa) several times while I was out walking around. I know it’s the same deer because she has these long parallel scars down her side. It looks like a mountain lion took a swipe at her. It’s probably from something more mundane like barbed wire, but it sets her apart from the other deer – she’s got that mysterious deer-with-a-past thing going.

Another regular is the little chipmunk that sits on the wood pile and does this high-pitched chattering that seems to go on forever and bores into my temples like rusty screws until I grab a piece of kindling and fling it at him. He scampers to another log and starts up again until I chunk something else at his tiny head. It’s a little game we play. I haven’t named him, because he’s a dead chipmunk once my aim improves.

Many of my neighbors here are nocturnal, and bumping into them in the dark is always its own little adventure. My first week in the cabin, I went outside to take a leak, flashlight in hand, when the beam found a pair of huge, glowing, blood-red eyes just ahead of me. I was sure it was a rabid coyote or a mountain lion about to pounce.

demon bunnyThen it went hop-hop-hop (nose-wiggle).

Oh, a bunny. Eat hot death, bunny, you literally scared the piss out of me.

And I can’t discuss the wild kingdom up here without giving a nod to the loudest neighbors on the block: the cows. There’s a herd of them down the hill from me in a big fenced-in meadow. I guess I haven’t spent much time listening to cows, but they make some primal, disturbing sounds, much like the huge plant-eating dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies. Someone apparently told them what happens to cows when the cushy free-range gig ends.

Every now and then a few cows end up on the wrong side of the fence and hang out next to the dirt road like bovine hitchhikers. Which is no big deal when I’m in the car, I just slow down and wait for them to clear the way (although a few of them have eyed the Kia rather aggressively, probably thinking “I can take that thing.”)

But the other night I was taking my evening stroll and walked right into a bunch of them. I was checking out the mountains, not really paying attention to the road, then …

They look docile. Until they get you alone.
They look docile. Until they get you alone.

Oh. Hi guys, what’s up? They were watching me, motionless, silent. A bunch of cows, staring me down. Creepy.

I thought about backing away and returning to the cabin, since I was outnumbered ten-to-one and they were all bigger than me. Then I remembered the food chain and got my swagger back. I kept walking like the cows weren’t there. Then a couple of them started walking toward me, very slowly.

I kept walking, avoiding eye contact, but I could hear them behind me: clop, clop, clop. Then I whirled around to face them, and … they stopped. It was exactly like the climactic standoff in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I was glancing from one cow to the other, wondering which one of us was Clint Eastwood in this scenario, when one of them dropped a big, wet cow patty right in the middle of the road.

That broke the tension. We all had a good laugh and I continued my walk.

But I’ve learned, you gotta watch your step in this neighborhood.

hammock

About that bear, part 2: Encounter in the aspen grove

It was only a matter of time before the bear and I crossed paths. These woods are only so big. (If you missed the earlier posts about the bear, you can catch up here and here.)

Yesterday afternoon, I hung the hammock I’d hauled up to the cabin from Austin. The weather was perfect, it had that crisp Indian Summer quality – blue sky, slanting golden sunlight, with the faintest hint of autumn in the breeze. A good day, I decided, to hang the hammock and stare at the aspens for a couple of hours. (I’ve discovered that the perfect antidote for feeling stressed about not making better progress on your novel is to lie in a hammock for a chunk of the afternoon. It’s like magic).

I found the perfect spot at the back of the property: two aspens the desired distance apart, dappled shade, a good breeze, and a view of nothing but aspens and pines. I proceeded to stare at the trees with my ipod playing something instrumentally mellow. Tree-gazing music.

I was on about track 4 of my Tree Gazing playlist (“Bascar Azad” by Bliss, if you care) when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Big, black, furry movement. A big-ass bear had crept to within 25 feet of me (I paced it off later for journalistic accuracy) and was moving in my direction, apparently oblivious to my presence.

You might be thinking, “Dave, weren’t you scared shitless?” Which is a valid question. One thing I’ve learned from living in bear country is that bears are keenly aware of two smells: human garbage and human fear. (A University of Idaho study on bear olfactory systems found that to a bear, human fear smells almost exactly like a medium rare ribeye with a side of twice baked potatoes.) To be honest, I was too surprised to be afraid.

I was, however, acutely aware of the precariousness of my situation, dangling there between two trees like an overstuffed enchilada.

Your mind works really fast when a bear is, um, bearing down on you. First thought: what’ll happen if I just sit here quietly and the bear bumps into the hammock and gets startled? (I don’t think you want to find out).

Second thought: I’m armed with only a pillow and a hardware store fly swatter, can I MacGyver them into a lethal, bear-killing weapon? (doubtful, you’re not even doing much damage to the flies).

Third thought: Can I get out of this hammock without flipping myself off it with a big crash that will sound like a delicious slab of meat hitting the ground? (probably a 50-50 chance).

While I was sorting through those thoughts, the bear was moving closer. I’m guessing here, but it seemed about 15 inches away. So I decided to announce my presence in what I hoped would be a non-startling way for the bear. I cleared my throat. Kind of like you’d do when the barista at Starbucks is chatting with his co-worker and ignoring you even though you’ve been standing there, tragically under-caffeinated, for like 30 seconds.

Huhmmm-mmhh!

The bear stopped. Rotated her (or his) head around, looking for the source of the sound (I’m thinking, I’m right here! Open your eyes!). Lifted her nose into the air and bobbed her head, a little like James Brown listening to the groove and waiting to drop that first lyric (Got to get ready…for the big payback. Heyyyyy!).

I’m swaying slightly in the hammock, waiting to see what she’ll do, mind still racing: Should I clear my throat more assertively? Give a big yell? Throw the pillow? Do any bear prey items make a sound like someone clearing their throat? Probably too late to worry about that.

Then she caught my scent, or something. She sort of leaned to one side, like Bugs Bunny winding up for one of those sneaky-quick escapes, and went bounding into the forest with lots of bear-crashing-through-the-woods sounds.

Crisis over. And I can always wash the hammock.

Of course the minute it was over I was kicking myself for not having my camera with me. Then I was kicking myself for not having anything with me that could deter an ill-tempered bear. (I know, I know, black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. That just means that they only kill and eat people now and then).

I’m not going to get caught defenseless like that again. Next time I hit the hammock, I’m taking an extra pillow.

ψ

Oh Captain: a short tribute to Robin Williams

People call them imperfections. But they’re not. Aw, that’s the good stuff.”dead poet's society

– Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Robin Williams died Monday. Suicide, apparently. And just like that, 40 years of rollicking genius on film and stage goes silent. Very sad.

His death hit me deeper than most celebrity deaths; Dead Poet’s Society is my favorite film. It was the movie I watched when I started teaching journalism at the University of Texas. Robin Williams’ poetry-loving prep school teacher was my model for teaching with passion (apparently, it was obvious: a couple of my students wrote ‘Oh captain my captain’ on my Facebook page at the end of one semester. I about fell out of my chair). It was the movie I watched when I was working up the courage to leave a perfectly good journalism career and make this leap of faith into writing fiction.

Great comedy and great acting (or for that matter, great fiction) is infused with anger or suffering or some other deep existential angst from which performers draw such powerfully true performances. They go down into those dark places most of us are afraid to go and come back to show us what they’ve found – dressing it in humor or the skin of an unforgettable character. And we love them for it. I loved Robin Williams for it. He was a sublime Mad Hatter.

I heard the above quote from Good Will Hunting on one of the radio tributes after Williams’ death. I wrote it down, because once again, one of Williams’ characters is going to help me. I’m slogging through the draft of my novel, slashing through big sections with a red pen and trying to fish out the little nuggets of inspired writing.

I’m also re-imagining the main characters, which is proving to be the most difficult part of re-writing. Once you start changing the characters, you change everything. And my characters need more depth, more truth. They need more imperfections. That’s what’s missing. That’s the good stuff. Robin Williams knew that better than anyone.

Oh Captain, we weren’t ready to let you go.

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Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.

Road trip: Fort Collins

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Bonding at my birthday dinner in Fort Collins

Last month, I was on the phone with Eric (who owns the cabin I’m staying in), talking about driving up to Fort Collins to visit him and his fiancée Sarah. When I told him my birthday was Aug. 10, he said “Hell yeah, you gotta come up here for your birthday. We’ll take care of you.”

I did, and they did.

For all the time I’ve spent in Colorado, I haven’t seen much of the state outside of the Pagosa Springs-Durango corner. So last Thursday I packed the car and headed north to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, it turns out.

The drive across Colorado was its own reward. I spent hours winding along highway 285, a two-lane strip of pavement that threads through the Rockies, past soaring rock cliffs and rock-strewn mountain streams and vast valleys lush from summer rains. Every twist in the road brings a new wonder. It’s the kind of drive where you stay below the speed limit to stretch out the scenery just a little longer.

My first stop was Longmont, just north of Denver, to pay a visit to Eric’s parents (who own the condo I’ve used for occasional showers and to ride out bad thunderstorms). They took me to eat at Oskar Blues, the craft brewery based in Longmont that also features a restaurant (the food is as good as the beer). Larry and Sandy are wonderful people, they’ve basically adopted me – in the same way my parents adopted Eric when he was going to college with my brother Chris at Texas A&M-Galveston in the early ’90s. I couldn’t pass by Longmont without stopping in. And of course, they fed me.

Forty-five minutes later I was pulling into the driveway of Eric and Sarah’s new house on the edge of Fort Collins. I couldn’t believe this place, it’s three times the size of my house in Austin. On a lake. With mountain views. Eric’s doing quite well, it seems. They gave me the tour of this beautiful house – the rooms never seemed to end – then we settled on the big back balcony to have a drink and gaze at the lake.

It was just a bit surreal – and not just for me. Eric’s had a breakthrough year. He sold his company to a major corporation and got engaged to Sarah, who he’s known for 20 years (and they’re a great match. She’s a keeper). He said they still walk around this big house thinking someone’s going to knock on the big oak door and kick them out. You’ve had your fun, now back where you belong.

I’ve known Eric since he was a 19-year-old with floppy blonde surfer hair (which drew plenty of attention when he and Chris spent a weekend with me in McAllen and I gave them their first taste of a Mexican border town). Eric’s always been the struggling mad scientist. He’s an engineer, works with carbon fiber. He invents stuff, most of which goes way over my head. He’s spent the past 20 years overworking himself with this frantic, relentless energy that would put me in a coma in about a week. He’s the kind of guy you see on YouTube with a jet pack strapped to his back, hovering over the surface of a lake, then plunging into the water like a flying dolphin. Work hard, play hard. That’s Eric.

After all those tough years of sleeping in his shop and teetering on the edge of financial collapse, he’s gotten his reward. Nobody I know has worked harder for it.

And of course, he and Sarah were going to share their bounty while I was in town. They gave me the king’s treatment: a big dinner at Fort Collins’ best seafood restaurant, long rides on his new speedboat (“a floating Ferrari” is how he describes it. After a few runs behind it on a tube, I can vouch for that. Picture a dead fish being dragged behind a cigarette boat). And a private tour of the New Belgium brewery.

Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.
Beer heaven: New Belgium’s cask room.

Eric is friends with Matt Furlong, New Belgium’s sales project manager, who met us on his afternoon off and graciously showed me around the place that brews some of my favorite beers (thanks Matt, you’re a hell of an ambassador).

I also got to wander around downtown Fort Collins for an afternoon. Loved the town. It’s like a miniature Portland: neat-as-a-pin, tree-lined downtown streets lined with historic buildings that house all sorts of little shops and restaurants and brewpubs. Oh, and a thriving little independent bookstore, where I picked up a few books as a birthday present to myself (Hemingway, Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle). It has the energy of a college town (Colorado State) and the relaxed vibe of a small town. I was thoroughly impressed. I could live there.

The climax of the weekend was Sunday. Eric and Sarah took me and their friend Aaron to one of those Benihana-type places where a knife-twirling chef cooks your meal in front of you. Eric proceeded to order rounds of drinks and shots (three of them were sake bombs, which involves plopping a sake shot into a beer and downing it in one gulp), and we proceeded to start mixing it up with party of six seated with us around the big cooktop. It was a local family celebrating their daughter’s 17th birthday. She had a couple of high school friends along. The mom was a bit of a smartass, we liked her immediately.

Long story short, over the next four hours we drank too much, ate too much, became best friends with the party of six and most of the restaurant staff (Eric bought them shots too), took a big group photo to commemorate the evening, then staggered into a taxi and fell asleep by 10. I drove 350 miles back to Pagosa on Monday nursing a birthday hangover.

And it was worth every mile.