Tag Archives: pagosa springs

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.


The San Juans near sunset

Mountain time

The San Juans near sunset
The San Juans near sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it doesn’t matter.







The teacher becomes the student

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

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

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

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

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

living room
The living room/office in the cabin

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

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

The half loft

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Road, Part II: Redrock and pine


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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