Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Return to Colorado Springs, Part 2

Being the second part of a parcel of artless happysnaps captured while on the road, and reconciling myself to my relocation far from people and things I know at a time when I really need to be finishing this last book in my zombie action series. Here’s Part 1, in case you missed it.

My first mistake was not getting on the road until a quarter past nine. It’s a three hour drive at legal speeds from Monte Vista to Colorado Springs, and an earlier approach would have allowed for more time to visit with my children and others before making the three hour trip back.

My second mistake was perhaps even more egregious, given the time I lost to the first mistake. For I had taken the US 285 northbound route out of Monte Vista to exit the San Luis Valley via Poncha Pass. What I gained in a mindlessly pleasant drive through a drama-free pass would be worn away by the twists and turns of Bighorn Sheep Canyon between Salida and Cañon City. 
Those grassy slopes on the right will soon turn into vertical walls of rock. A river will rise to the left, the road and rock forced into following its every twist and turn.

Unless you’ve got a road-hugging Porsche or Ferrari, you are not going to make good time on this stretch of US 50. Even then, you’re taking your life into your hands, as you could easily round a blind corner to find someone only halfway pulled off the road—this happened to me before I even got into the canyon proper. Although I was fortunate enough not to get stuck behind anyone, or have anyone anxiously nudging me from behind to go faster than I’m comfortable, time is of the essence on these day trips, and I lost a good deal of it here.

Having been on the road non-stop for two hours I pulled over for fuel and a stretch in Cotopaxi, roughly midway between Salida and Cañon City.

Looking eastward along the southern bank of the Arkansas River.

Looking westward.

And, now, simply looking down. It’s notable that I’m doing that, as the river seems to be almost level with the road many places west of here. One would think flooding would be an issue, but I’ve seen no evidence of past troubles.

Looking eastward down US 50 as I had a rare moment to cross without oncoming traffic on this critical east-wast trans-Colorado route.

Westward down US 50. A car or truck could emerge any second, so I’m walking briskly.

My noble steed. From a lot on Old Seward Highway in Anchorage, Alaska on the Saturday following the original 9/11, to a high river valley in southern Colorado. There are smoother, far more luxurious rides, but there’s nothing else I’d rather drive.

I kept telling myself I needed these views of the river. It was a fine morning for such a thing. But, again, I had left late. The weather wouldn’t hold long, either. Especially in Colorado Springs, which has been getting hammered by thunderstorms on a daily basis throughout the summer.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Return to Colorado Springs, Part 1

BEHOLD a truckload of amateur photos taken haphazardly point-and-shoot because I was driving. See gorgeous southern Colorado through smears of bug guts and windshield reflections!

I had to do it sometime before the end of the month. So, on Thursday, I set out to Colorado Springs to visit the Costco, and other places where food and provisioning is less expensive than it is in the remote San Luis Valley.

I was apprehensive about the journey. My Jeep Wrangler is not a long-distance vehicle by design, and I’m unaccustomed to taking it anywhere more than an hour’s drive away, if that. This trip is generally three hours—which I ended up turning into four hours, given my error of taking the US 285 northbound route out of Monte Vista to US 50. 
Once past the semi-industrial potato processing plants and whatever they do at that big Coors Beer complex in Monte Vista, northbound US 285 gets its pastoral charm on.

According to the Wikipedia page, the San Luis Valley is a freak of geology where there are standing bodies of water that don’t drain anywhere. They’re just...there. Which makes for great farming in a high valley which is a virtual desert for all the precipitation it doesn’t get.

As flat as flat gets, with pointy hills and things in the distance. This is the San Luis Valley.

US 285 is not only flat, but straight as a ruler for 35 miles between Monte Vista and Saguache (pronounced swosh, rhyming with “slosh”). This is an odd formation here that someone decided, “Nah, I like this flat. Let’s just blast through the middle of that thing.”

I’m always impressed at how the construction crews get the rock walls so straight.

The view on the other side, the mountains I need to cross in sight. The pass is somewhere over to the right.

I wasn’t exaggerating. Thirty-five miles, flat as a pancake, straight as a ruler.

The idea was to minimize stress on myself and my vehicle by taking the less traffic- and transmission-intensive Poncha Pass. In a way, I’m glad I did this, because I needed the more scenic route to remind me I made the correct decision in moving to this area of the state (not that I had any viable alternative). Seeing the Arkansas River sparkling beneath the sunny, but preternaturally cool August sky helped with a few issues I forgot I had, namely, that I live in one of the prettiest places on the planet and I don’t get out of the house nearly enough.
The road rises oh-so gradually and then—trees!

Welcome to Saguache, Colorado, “Gateway to the San Luis Valley.” Despite the rise in terrain, the sign indicates Saguache is only 21 feet higher in elevation than Monte Vista.

The road keeps rising beyond the sign, of course.

At last, our straight-as-a-ruler highway bends sharply right/east as it commences its journey up the pass.

We keep winding....

We keep rising....

At one point, we’re driving back south again as we hook around this flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I note the clouds building over the peaks. These will be someone else’s problem later.

There’s not much to say, let alone photograph about Poncha Pass. It’s greener than most, with fewer switchbacks, and no scary drops on either side. The main event here is this intersection. Go straight through the light, and you’ll move into the real high country, like 10K feet elevation Leadville. I’m taking the right onto US 50 East into Salida.

Making the turn. I noted that at this point I had driven roughly 75 miles. I should be just under halfway through my journey in terms of mileage.

One mile to Salida, another hour to Cañon City, then CO 115 north to the Springs. How hard can this be?

NEXT: Cotopaxi and the rest.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Climate Change

As in “a change from the furious thunder and hail and heat in Colorado Springs.” Notes on the late summer weather in Monte Vista.

My wife and I moved into Big Pink in Monte Vista on 13 July, presumably the hottest part of the year. And it does get hot during the day, when the sun is out and pounding away at our southern exposure. My office window, beneath which I’ve parked my desk, faces south, so I work the sun-blocking curtains during the day. I’ve had to use the fan a few nights to cool it off. It’s never gotten terribly hot in my office, just enough to be uncomfortable. I remind myself that this southern exposure is going to be tremendous advantage in the weeks to come.

For no matter how warm it gets in the day—never more than the high 80s F (31 C), but that’s more than enough if you work out in the sun like most do here—it cools off at night. Oh, boy, does it ever. It’s not unheard of to go down into the 40s F. As we reach the end of August, that’s becoming more and more common.

Mid-afternoon on the 23rd of August, I’m closing my windows and putting on a sweater.
Looking south across the San Luis/Rio Grande RR tracks, a little over one-half mile east of my house.

The clouds that begin piling up so ominously in the southeast sometimes spread out over our lower middle part of the valley. The wind driven by the virga (rain evaporating before it hits the ground) will easily drop the temperature ten degrees. Sometimes it might actually rain. Most times it doesn’t.

Sometimes the sun comes back out and warms things up again. That didn’t happen yesterday.  I wore a long-sleeved pullover and my leather jacket when I went out to eat with my wife yesterday evening. In August. It was just about enough.

Autumn comes early to the high country; it’s not unusual to see leaves begin to change even in Colorado Springs by the middle of August. Here in lower central San Luis Valley, the yellowing foliage is only evident on a pin oak in our neighbor’s yard. At night, though, I’ve stepped outside in late July and could feel that autumnal chill in the air. 

This is not to be mistaken for a cooler-than-usual summer breeze. You feel it in the still, damp night air, that gently stabbing quality that separates a refreshing coolness from shiver-inducing chill. Autumnal. Even when temperatures are in the low 60s F, the night air reminds you that it’s cold more than days than it isn’t.

For now, the clouds still build in the southwest. A quirk in the local geography diverts the storms from unleashing their full fury upon us. The few times it has rained in Monte Vista, it’s fallen slow and easy, and for no longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. The restraint is eerie.

My wife has already called the furnace guy to make sure Big Pink is ready for freezes to come. It’s not yet Labor Day Weekend, but I have a feeling they’ll be here sooner than later.
The view from my porch just before sunset. I’m getting in all the time I can out here before the weather drives us inside for the next six months or so.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Another Time, Another Place, Another Author

...which requires yet another re-start, another re-do, redux.

I’ve observed that the job tells me what to do, and that so long as I follow my instinct, I’ll come out all right.

Then comes the time when the job tells me not to bother. Hang back. Wait. Nothing can be done right now. Not until.

Until what? I keep screaming (internally).

You’ll know.

I’ve mentioned my writerly heresy of not writing every day. Being a writer is not the sum total of my identity. It’s something I do when I’m not being my wife’s husband, the house accountant, and chief pickle jar opener.

With respect to my favorite latter-day American writer, I find nothing “valiant” or “holy” about writing. But it is what I’m good at, and it is what I do. When I don’t do it for a while, I get twitchy and anxious. That animated image of Jack Nicholson above is not far from where I am right now inside my head. It’s been so long, I wonder if I still know how to do this.

It’s got to happen one way or another.
Sit. Your butt. DOWN.

A couple of weeks ago I realized I was going to have to start the rewrite process all over again, beginning with Bleeding Kansas. I had already completed the rewrite of my first book in April, and was hoping to rewrite Grace Among the Dead while in the hotel room as we waited to close on Big Pink. 

These rewrites are super-critical. THE SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER is my first, and perhaps the only zombie post-apocalypse action series I will ever write. As such, and especially as it has my name on it, I want my books to stand out from the many others of the genre out there. To do this, I need a consistent tone and manner of prose.  Going through the entire series one sequential page at a time until I catch up where I left off in the middle of The Wrong Kind of Dead is the only way to do this.

Moreover, I want my characters, especially my principal protag, Derek Grace, to have logical character arcs. Derek’s relationships with Agnes Joan McIntire and Elyssa Marie Godwin go well beyond the Archie and Betty and Veronica template, and I need the words and deeds of all to make sense in terms of their distinctively different, yet compatible characters.

I’m always careful not to let the narrative devolve into intrapersonal bathos (read, “soap opera”), but these characters are people with conflicts to resolve among one another. I’ve spent enough years with Derek, Agnes, Elyssa, Brother Christopher, et al., to become attached. Whatever happens to them, they deserve to have it happen logically within the context of their post-apocalyptic environment.

The key problem I have to work through is I’m  not the same author anymore.

I don’t live in the same house. I don’t live in the same topography, let alone the same town. The six-week ordeal of getting the house in Colorado Springs ready for sale, selling it, the further month spent in the Hotel Purgatario waiting to close on the house in Monte Vista, and another month of making that century old-plus pile habitable has taken its toll. 

I am only slightly exaggerating that last point. Last week I had the bright idea to make a schedule by which I would have finished the rewrite for Bleeding Kansas by last Saturday. The electricians needed the entire week to rewire the upstairs, though, switching out the ancient—and potentially lethal—tube-and-knob wiring for state-of-the-art, Colorado Building Code approved Romex cabling.

[Heavy sigh at decrepit siding.]
That dormer is where my desk
is in my office, where I'm writing
these little love notes to you.
This is more than a matter of being inconvenienced by mere hammering and drilling and jigsawing, or the power going out periodically as a brand new breaker box was built. The cost of not dying in an electrical fire in one of the San Luis Valley’s famously below-zero Fahrenheit winter nights is going to burn through much of what’s left of our profit from the sale of the last house. We’re going to have to dial back on our renovations while we sweat paying off the basics. And there’s so much left to do.

I’ve traded one set of American Existential Problems for another. Not that I miss the ones I traded away. While I miss the sounds of the children playing on the elementary school playground across the street and up the ridge, the rabbits in the yard, the omnipresent Front Range looming majestically in west, I do not miss making best- and worst-case scenarios for when I was going to have to call my bank and talk to them about renegotiating our credit card debt.

I’m in a better place, so to speak, but it still has its issues. New issues. Requiring a new perspective, a new face to meet the new faces of God knows what coming at me next.

Which it turns out I can’t help anyway. So much has changed. I’ve got that much working for me.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Our First Month in the Valley of Big Pink, Part 1

Observations on my relocation from the Pikes Peak Region to the San Luis Valley. Among the first of an interminable series.

The big fixer-upper we call Big Pink, because Big Salmon-Colored Thing didn’t quite sing.

Yesterday marked one month since my wife and I loaded our four cats into the minivan and made the three-hour drive from the Hotel Purgatario in Colorado Springs to our new home at Big Pink in Monte Vista.

Like our month at the Purgatario, the time spent has distorted my perception of reality to such a degree that everything before this past month is dimmed in memory, like an intense dream that haunts you through breakfast, and is forgotten by noon.

A lot of work has been done. A lot of work remains to be done. I have the singular fortune of being married to a woman who enjoys getting down and dirty with home improvement projects, so all I have to do is set up an office and write. Which I’ve done, for the most part, with interruptions allowed for electricians to rewire the upstairs from old tube-and-knob to modern Romex cabling, and those occasions when my brute strength is required, which isn’t all that often.

Curiously, I’ve found this biggest clearing of psychic obstacles towards my writing was when I built the files for all my creditors, and began paying filing the bills. Once I got the last of the bills settled, I realized what I had to do. I even have a rough schedule mapped out in my head for finishing my SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER series.

More on that later. Our top story is the big adjustment that’s been made, and more than just moving from one region to another within a large Western U.S. state. My wife and I are “on our own,” getting by and making decisions without our children beside us. In many ways, after 26 years of marriage, we are starting over. 

We’re operating without the safety net we once enjoyed courtesy of the US Navy. We’re living in a small Colorado town that was our best choice among what was available in our limited price range. You can tell two things from the photos you’ve seen so far. First, it’s flatter’n than freakin’ Kansas where I am for a valley floor that stands over 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) above sea level.
Eastbound US 160 between Monte Vista and Alamosa. You can just make out the Sangre de Cristo  Mountains in the far distance. If you enlarge the shot and look towards the middle far distance you’ll see some standout “fourteeners,” i.e., mountains over 14K imperial feet in elevation.

This is no exaggeration. I’ve done the eight-hour drive across Kansas back and forth from Colorado five times since 2007, and I can testify that the terrain not only rolls in long, undulating ridges in a way the San Luis Valley does not, but there are bluffs from which one can actually enjoy a view of things, as I describe with the auto mall in the fictional town of Natalia in my book Bleeding Kansas
Westbound on US160 between Monte Vista and Del Norte. Those are the San Juan Mountains ahead in the distance. The San Luis Valley is surrounded by mountains, but the ranges are at least 50 miles apart east to west, and 150 miles north to south. It does render the name of Monte Vista ironic, as it’s difficult to vista the montes from where I am.

The terrain does climb all of 200 feet in the 17 miles between Monte Vista and Del Norte to the west, but this is as flat as I’ve ever seen the earth in all of my travels across the continental USA.
Hills do close in a bit about the road the closer one gets to Del Norte from Monte Vista.

The second thing you may have noticed from my initial photos is that the area is somewhat...depressed. According to an uncited statement in the Wikipedia entry, the San Luis Valley is “one of the poorest rural areas of Colorado,” but my wife and I saw far worse while house-hunting in the eastern plains. At least it’s not like the lower Arkansas River Valley, where you can all but taste the despair in the hot, dusty winds blustering through the small towns there.

One is tempted to say we’re the Real America, where all the settlements outside the cities are poor, just getting by at best. After all, wouldn’t we live in the city if we could afford it?

If I could afford it, I’d move to Aspen. Colorado Springs cured me of cities for a while. In any event, we’re glad we got out. There are far worse places to end up than Monte Vista in the San Luis Valley.
If nothing else, our views of the sunset from Big Pink’s front porch are satisfactory.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Most Critical World-Building

a discourse on creating a creating kind of space

We closed on Big Pink two and a half weeks ago. We were in the Hotel Purgatario for a full month. I wasn’t getting much done for the six weeks the house in Colorado Springs was under contract, and certainly not for the week when we had the house up for showing.

Thirteen weeks. It’s a long time to be out of the novel-writing rhythm, but it is what it is. 

Now it’s going on fourteen weeks. I’ve got most of the office in order, most of the boxes unpacked. We’re not happy with the movers, as they were not gentle with the boxes, and indeed lost one altogether. 

There are other stressors. An older home in need of repair was all we could afford in our budget, and this old house seems to have something going wrong with it every day. It’s a potential death by a thousand cuts that could ironically put us back into the same nigh-insurmountable debt that compelled us to sell our house in Colorado Springs.

I look at the wipeboard I have on the wall inside my reading nook and it’s full of people I have to pay. Our first bills. Today I’m an accountant, I think. When do I become a writer again?

Ever more impatiently, comes the answer.

I’ll do it when I do it.

And I know it will only happen when I have enough space cleared, inside and outside of my head.
Even so, not quite yet.

One thing I’ve learned about myself throughout the long, arduous process of writing my first novels is I cannot simply write anywhere, at anytime. A familiar space in a familiar place is necessary. For years, the southwest corner of my finished basement office served this purpose. Now that place is gone. I’m three hours away in another house, another town, in another part of the state, 1,000 more feet in elevation. My workspace is a south-facing attic dormer room.

From basement to attic. That’s good, right? It’s a larger space, with plenty of room for nervous pacing, and even a sweet nook for reading (when there’s not a cat in the chair).
Dammit, Jack....

Still, it’s a struggle getting into the writing mindset. It’s hypersensitive, special-snowflake, neurotic bullshit, and there’s nothing I can do except push through it until I’m finally through it. Whenever or wherever or whatever that is.
Place butt in chair. Arrange hands in home position on keyboard. Come on, son. You got this.

It’s the most critical kind of world-building there is for a fiction writer. Facebook posts and the occasional photo essay are one thing. A place where I can lose myself in a fictional world in which the dead return to eat the living, and people resolve their conflicts accordingly, is another project entirely. 

I imagine the scenes happening wherever I am. I’ve been working on the character arcs for my leads all the while. Sitting down and processing this information into a narrative that people feel compelled to follow is the issue. The space is every bit as mental as it is physical. And I’m not there yet.

I’m getting there. Every day is a little bit closer.

“What is the human’s problem?”
“Who cares? We’re cats.”

I’ll do it when I do it.