Tag Archives: San Juan mountains

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.)


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…


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.