Category Archives: Mountain living

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.)

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.

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

twinpeaks

Mountain Living (Twin Peaks edition)

 

I’ve been in Pagosa Springs for a few weeks now and had a chance to sample the local restaurants, coffee shops and brew pubs (thumbs up to Higher Grounds coffee, Riff Raff Brewery and The BackRoom wine bar). I’ve also had the pleasure of chatting with the locals, and at times I feel like I’m in a lost episode of Twin Peaks (if you were born after 1980, Netflix or Hulu it. You won’t be disappointed). It’s hard to ignore the parallels: small mountain town, dark brooding woods, big logging trucks, and strange goings-on that can’t be explained by logic or science.

(Cue the eerily beautiful Twin Peaks theme)

Consider:

  • The cabin, July 13: Shortly after arriving, I’m caught in a fierce hail storm. According to Ute legend, hail is actually hurled by the spirits of the dead, angered whenever someone drives a Kia into their tribal lands (I think I read that somewhere). Then I hear a pack of coyotes howling nearby. This is actually (again, according to the Utes) an omen that some weird shit is about to happen. The unusual concentration and ferocity of the electrical storms later makes the front page of the local paper.
  • The Laundromat, July 22: I do my laundry under the watchful eye of a cowboy in full hat-boots-spurs regalia, who finishes his own laundry, folds and stacks it, then carries it to his truck without a laundry basket. What I didn’t mention in my earlier post is that two nights before, I had a bizarre dream in which a dancing midget spoke cryptically of this exact occurrence: The cowboy will bring in the Tide.
  • The bar at Riff Raff, July 24: A curly-haired high school teacher with a white beard (a dead ringer for Dr. Jacoby, he just needed those crazy red-and-blue tinted glasses) launches into an extended riff about his frequent jaunts to Peru. “No reason… I just go! You have to see (unpronounceable place in Peru), it will blow your mind!”
  • The Back Room, July 28: I sit at the bar to order an artisan pizza with smoked lamb, goat cheese, red onion and cilantro and discover the bartender/server’s name is Lima. Yes, as in the capital of Peru. She has a single long braid that swings nearly to her thighs and she tells me about her other job at the new sushi place in town and how her daughter loves sushi. Then, randomly: “We were fishing and my daughter caught a fish and said ‘Can I eat the eye? I will, you know,’ and then she popped out the fish’s eye and ate it!”
  • At that exact moment, I remembered that when I went to buy groceries a few days earlier, I was looking at their locally-caught mountain trout (at $3.25 each, a real bargain) and noticed that one of the fish was missing an eye…

Yeah, I know. It’s too eerie to be coincidence. And other than the dream and a possible mangling of Native American mythology, all of it really happened. I’m now convinced that David Lynch came up with the idea for Twin Peaks after spending a week in a town like Pagosa Springs and saying to himself: All we need to do is turn the weird knob up a few notches… TV gold!

And TV gold it was. I’ve been re-watching the whole series in the evenings (my friend Jerry loaned me his Definitive Gold Box Collection). Which has nothing to do with all of these unexplainable-but-somehow-connected events that have occurred since my arrival in Pagosa Springs.

I checked the local phone book. Forty-three Palmers. At least one or two must be related to Laura, right? (again for those born after 1980: the series begins with the discovery of the plastic-wrapped body of local Miss Popularity Laura Palmer, whose murder brings a quirky FBI agent, who slowly unravels the town’s deep, weird secrets while narrating everything to “Diane” back at headquarters via a tape recorder).

I went back to the store to look for the mysterious one-eyed trout. It was gone.

So I went ahead and got another trout because at $3.25 each you really can’t go wrong.

I cooked it on the grill that night. I must tell you, it was pret-ty fishy.

ψ

Visiting bear, circa 2012.

About that bear…

A couple of lines about bear scat in my earlier post caused a stir on my Facebook page (and by a stir I mean four or five comments, such as “Run!” and “Nice bear.”)

I was trying to write about the majesty of nature and inherent spirituality of walking in the woods, and instead my loyal readers (and by loyal I mean anyone who’s read more than one of my blog posts) fixated on the bear shit.

They apparently have read the same scientific papers that I have, which show a startling correlation between bear poo and the presence of bears (true fact: 93 percent of bear poo is deposited by bears. A crack scientific team is currently studying the source of the other 7 percent, thanks to a generous federal grant).

My goal in making that observation was simply to answer the eternal question: ‘Does a bear, in fact, shit in the woods?’ Yes it does. (As for the secondary question posed by loyal reader and serial smartass Pat Beach: ‘Does a wannabe-novelist shit in the woods?’ Yes again! But he buries it, because he has opposable thumbs and a shovel.)

The unspoken question (and thank you for not asking it out of respect for my peace of mind) was, ‘How big you figure that bear was?’

Obviously I thought about this, but having nothing but the aforementioned scat pile to analyze, I thought it was impossible to calculate the bear’s size. Then I found a mathematical formula in a copy of Large Critter Quarterly (1989 Christmas edition) that was lying around the cabin. So by applying the formula…

scat height + scat width + X² ÷ ᴫ³ = bear size (‼)

…I calculated that the bear is roughly 10 feet tall and weighs 1,750 pounds. (for any Austin hipsters who are reading, this is even larger than the cute new Fiat that everyone in your condo bought last year.)

I see the bear. The bear sees me.
I see the bear. The bear sees me.

I’ve seen bears at the cabin before. Some of you may remember this guy from two years ago who passed within 20 feet of the cabin several times while my faithful guard-hound Maya (rest her soul) uttered nary a yip of warning because she was too busy becoming a dog statue and trying not to look like a bear snack.

From watching Discovery Channel I know that bears don’t want to hunt down and eat people. They just want our garbage and that lunch you packed for the family trip to Yellowstone. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a short list of tips for surviving in bear country:

  1. Don’t toss your unfinished McNuggets into the woods, they will attract bears. Bears love McNuggets and have foraged for them for millennia to fatten themselves before winter.
  2. Don’t bring snack dogs into bear country. By snack dogs I mean Chihuahuas, pugs and any other yipping, Napoleon-complex mutt that will try to play whose-is-bigger with a bear. The bear’s is bigger, and he’ll prove it.
  3. If a bear rushes up to you and buries its snout in your crotch, don’t take it home as a pet thinking you can train it to stop that embarrassing habit. Crotch-sniffing in bears is a recessive trait that signals atypical aggression. It will eat the kibble you give it, then it will eat you in your sleep.
  4. Don’t try to lure a bear with food just so you can get a photo. You will most likely have a photo of a bear running away with your arm in its mouth. And nobody wants to see that on Facebook.

I hope those tips are helpful next time you’re in bear country. And please keep those comments and questions coming.

ψ

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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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.

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