Tag Archives: Colorado

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…


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


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


“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.


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…



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.


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.


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.



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)


  • 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.


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.


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.”


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.