Monday, December 31, 2018

Back in the Saddle(bag).

The latest issue of Saddlebag Dispatches is now available. Dedicated to rodeo, this issue of the magazine includes three contributions from me.
First is a cover story, “The Man Who Invented Rodeo.” It’s all about Earl Bascom, whose inventions and improvements and developments back when make modern rodeo what it is today. Bascom is enshrined in numerous rodeo-related halls of fame recognizing his achievements. He was also an accomplished artist.
My regular “Best of the West” column features Larry Mahan, record-setting rough-stock rider and hero of my rodeo youth. Also included is a poem about the struggles of rodeo wives left at home while their cowboys struggle on the circuit. It’s titled “Nowhere Rodeo.”
Go online and take a look at Saddlebag Dispatches, or order a printed copy of the big magazine. If you’re a rodeo fan, you’ll be a fan of this issue.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A song in my heart.

Brenn Hill, cowboy songster extraordinaire, just released his fourteenth album, Rocky Mountain Drifter.
There are sixteen songs to enjoy and, as with all things remarkable, it’s hard to pick a favorite. “Old Black Joe” and “Buffalo Beard” appeal to me for their originality. And I like “My Angel Wings.” It’s a sort of old-timey, touching kind of tune. You can’t listen to “Muddy Creek” without tapping your toes. Brenn does a fine job with one of my favorite Guy Clark classics (there are two tunes on the album written by someone other than Brenn), “Desperados Waitin’ for a Train.” I could go on and on, because everything on the album is good listening.
I confess I am drawn to one song in particular: “And the River Ran Red.” It’s a haunting, reverent song about the Massacre at Bear River, a tragedy I have written widely about. One reason I really like this song is that I had a hand in writing the words. Brenn makes those words sound better than they are.
It’s unlikely any more of my words will ever be set to music. But when it’s this good, once is enough.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Crass commercialism for Christmas.

Although it has nothing to do with the reason for the season, this is the time of year we shower one another with gifts. Books make fine gifts. They last a long time and the reader gets to open them again and again.
If you want my opinion (a big IF, I admit), books with my name on the cover make fine gifts. Poems. Novels. Short Stories. History. Humor. Adventure. Drama. Conflict. All set in the American West, the best part of the world. You’ll find enjoyable, engaging reading for anyone and everyone from junior high to geriatrics.
Visit and for information and links to people who will take your money (but not much of it) and send you books.
Thanks, and have a Merry Christmas—and all other gift-giving occasions.

Monday, December 3, 2018

My Favorite Book, Part 17

You’ll have to excuse me. I am not going to tell you about one of my favorite books this time. Instead, it’s an entire library of good reading from one of the finest writers of our (or any) time.
Wendell Berry loves the land. For years, he farmed the old-fashioned way in Kentucky, with horses and hand tools and husbandry that is about as far removed from modern “agribusiness” as you can get. He’s an outstanding poet, but we’ll leave that for another time. He writes some of the most incisive essays and social commentary you’ll ever read, but we’ll leave that for another time, as well.
His novels and stories of what he calls the “Port William Membership” are more than worth reading. Every one of them, and there are at least a dozen of them (I don’t have an exact count, because some of the novels stand alone but are also included in short novel collections), is worth reading.
Port William is a fictional small town in Kentucky, surrounded by land farmed through generations by the Catletts, Coulters, Penns, Feltners, and others. They are deceptively deep, touching, realistic stories of people and land, loves and friendships, work and play. Sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous, and always beautiful, Berry’s stories can make you wonder why we let the world change the way it has.
Read Wendell Berry. He writes every word of every book with pencil and paper—handcrafted prose in every sense of the word.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Giving thanks.

No matter your opinion of the stories and myths and fables and fairy tales about how Thanksgiving came to be, there is no doubt we all have a lot to be thankful for. And it is good to have this day of celebration to remind us of that.
So, amid all the roast turkey and stuffing, the marshmallow-laden sweet potatoes, the parades and football games, the political arguments and family spats, let’s not forget to thank the Lord above and those around us for all that is good in our lives and our world. By any measure, on any scale, our blessings outweigh the trials and tribulations.
Happy Thanksgiving. And Thank you.

Monday, November 12, 2018

We’ve got to involve young people!

Over the years I have been involved in a number of membership organizations related to Western culture and history. There is a common outcry among them: “Look around! Everyone here has gray hair! If we don’t get young people involved, we’re done!” (Add as many exclamation points as you like.) You’ve probably heard the same stuff.
It would be silly to deny that most such organizations are largely populated by people of late middle age and beyond. The evidence is there, for everyone to see.
But does it matter?
Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with attracting younger members and I am all for it. On the other hand, I see no reason to panic.
Because, if my observations over the past couple of decades (or longer) are any indication, while members aren’t getting any younger, they aren’t getting any older, either. On average, of course. I suspect the age range, the mean, the average, and all those other measures have remained fairly constant.
The reason? I believe interest in such things is something most people have to grow into. When you’re a teenager, a young parent, a working stiff, your time and energy are necessarily devoted to other things. You tend to be more concerned with whatever you’re dealing with today and what you’ll be facing tomorrow than with what happened in the past.
But when the pace of life decelerates, and your outlook on life changes with maturity, so do your interests. And, for a lot of people, those interests include history, and ancestry, and all the other things that made cowboy culture what it is. And continuing and preserving all that stuff becomes important to us.
Keep after those young people. Some of them will see the importance of the things we older folks value. But most of them probably won’t.
At least not until they become older folks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 47: Your story needs an arc.

I read and hear a lot about “story arc” these days.
I confess I don’t really know what it means. As near as I can tell, it is more or less the same kind of thing as the “dramatic structure.” It could be the “three-act structure” or maybe the “five-act structure.” Or even the “hero’s journey” structure I used to hear a lot about, but not so much anymore.
It all comes down to (as near as I can tell) what happens to your character(s) between the beginning and end of your book. How they change, and what changes them, or something like that.
Why this sort of thing needs a name, I don’t know. But “arc” does not seem to me a very good name. I see an arc as a curved line connecting two points. But stories seldom follow a curved line. They go up and down, down and up, sometimes sideways, and sometimes they go backward as you move along from page to page. Now, some may say this is all part of the “arc.” But, if your line isn’t a curved line connecting two points, is it still an arc?
Maybe it is. I don’t know. All I know is that your characters should (and will) decide how the story goes. And if you let them, they’ll blaze a much better trail than a carefully plotted “arc.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Really Stupid Words, Chapter Four

American English is a rich language. It’s always changing and evolving. New words and usages come and go. Many that come along are helpful. They clarify, they improve, they enhance and enrich.
But some are just plain stupid.
They obfuscate, they complicate, they confuse. They reveal a lack of understanding.
One that really sets my teeth on edge (sometimes) is “issue.”
Now, this one is complicated because “issue” is a word of many meanings. Magazines have issues. Births have issues. Politics has issues. Discussions have issues.
People do not.
Ninety-nine times out of ninety-nine, when someone says they have an “issue” what they really mean is they have a problem.
What’s wrong with “problem”? Everyone knows what it means and, unlike “issue,” it means pretty much one thing.
But some time ago, within my memory, someone in the psychobabble business decided “problem” was negative, and, well, we can’t have that, can we. If we use a word like “problem” that may have negative connotations, we might hurt someone’s feelings.
“Issue” is a whole ’nother thing. Nothing negative about “issue.” In fact, in this use, there’s really nothing much at all in the word “issue.”
Except that when it gets abused like this, I, for one, have a problem.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Turn to page 26.

The latest issue of True West magazine features an article I wrote about the Massacre at Bear River (a subject I have written a lot about) and Sagwitch, the Shoshoni leader who managed to hold the survivors together and maintain the very lifeblood of the band.
The United States Army slaughtered some 250 to 350 children, old folks, women, and men on January 29, 1863 on the banks of the Bear River in Cache Valley. Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, the man behind the massacre, estimated 164 Shoshoni survived. That survival was tenuous, given that the army destroyed their lodges, pilfered or ruined food stores, stole the horse herd, and left them to die in sub-zero cold.
Sagwitch, wounded in the hand and having a horse shot out from under him, managed to escape the slaughter and, later, led his people to a future much different than any of them could have imagined.
Read about it in the November 2018 issue of True West. If you’re not a subscriber, pick up a copy from a newsstand. Then turn to page 26.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Utah, top to bottom.

Utah is about 400 miles, more or less, from top to bottom. Soon, I’ll be covering most all that distance over the course of a few days.
On October 10, I’ll be addressing the Cache Valley Historical Society, talking about “Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed,” which happens to be the subtitle of my book The Lost Frontier. We’ll meet in Logan, Utah, which is a scant 20 miles short of as far north as you can go in Utah.
A few days later, on October 12 and 13, I’ll be presenting workshops on writing poetry, improving prose, and writing short stories at the Kanab Writers Conference in Kanab, Utah. Which is only about seven miles shy of Arizona.
So I will be traveling, essentially, from border to border in my fair state. Fortunately, the miles in between are populated with beautiful scenery, interesting places, and friendly people.
And, I always enjoy a good road trip.
If I’m lucky, I’ll see you there—at one end or the other.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

“Father” goes to college.

The latest issue of Utah State magazine, the alumni publication from Utah State University, features my new novel, Father unto Many Sons. Included is a brief excerpt from the book—the Preface—and a brief bio about yours truly.
Although it has been a long, long, long time since I graduated from USU, I still have a lot of fond memories of my years going to school and working in Cache Valley, and am always on the lookout for an excuse to visit. (One such excuse takes me there October 10 to address the Cache Valley Historical Society; more on that later.)
Take advantage of this opportunity to increase your education. Take a look at Father unto Many Sons in Utah State magazine.   

Monday, September 17, 2018

I’ll be Write Here.

Writers conferences are fun. You get to meet people who love words and stories. You get to share thoughts, exchange ideas, and discuss experiences.
Most of all, you get to learn.
When I go to a writers conference, it’s usually to teach. But even then, I always learn something—perhaps more than I teach.
Come September 21 and 22, I will be at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, for Write Here in Ephraim. I’ll be hosting a “bootcamp” session and giving presentations on improving prose and writing effective opening lines.
And, lo and behold, I will be giving the keynote address.
I have taught at conferences large and small, and I think Write Here in Ephraim is about the right size—enough participants to provide a broad spectrum of experience and approaches, but not so many that participants get lost in the shuffle.
If you’re a writer—or want to be a writer—you would do well to join us at Write Here in Ephraim.
I’m looking forward to being Write Here (or right there).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

My Favorite Book, Part 16

It would be difficult, I believe, for any list of outstanding Western novels to exclude Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I have read several McMurtry novels, and the truth is I run hot and cold on his writing—some of the books I like, some do nothing for me, some I would not recommend.
But when it comes to Lonesome Dove, I am hard pressed to do anything but stand in awe.
The main tale, a trail drive from Texas to Montana, is simple enough. But the many intertwining subplots give the book depth and richness, with stories both intricate and complex.
But it is the characters that set the book apart from all others. Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae are an unlikely pair, with well-developed personalities that are at the same time contradictory and complementary. And the supporting characters, the whole long list of them, are likewise realistic and representative of the depth and breadth of humanity.
To win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—which Lonesome Dove did in 1986—is an accomplishment unrivaled for a novel. For a Western novel, it is almost unprecedented and, for a “cowboy” novel, I believe it is unique.
The film adaptation is well done, but it’s about time for me to dive back into the book for, I think, the third time.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Ranching and rodeo with the Wrights.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of writing about the Wright family of Milford, Utah. You know the ones—the family with more saddle bronc riding success in rodeo than any other tribe has equaled, or even approached—or ever will.
There’s a new book about the Wrights, written by New York Times journalist John Branch. It’s titled The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West. Over the course of a few years, Branch spent a good deal of time with members of the Wright family at home, at the family ranch on Smith Mesa, at grazing permits above Beaver, Utah, and goin’ down the road with the best batch of bronc riders in rodeo.
It’s a well-written book that lays bare all the triumphs and tragedies in the family, and there are plenty of both. In a family of thirteen kids raised by a pair of hard-working parents, there is never a shortage of domestic dynamics.
For one unfamiliar with ranch and rodeo life, the author does a pretty good job of capturing the ins and outs of the West; only a few odd expressions and descriptions betray his inexperience.
Evelyn Wright, matriarch of the clan, a friend, and one of the finest women I know, tells me it is strange to read about your life and your family, and that she and her husband, Bill, found a few errors but nothing significant. After reading the book, you’ll be impressed with their bravery in allowing the reporter into their lives, knowing what would be revealed.
The Last Cowboys is a fine book about a fine family surviving broken dreams, broken hearts, and broken bones.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 46: This would make a great movie!

If you’ve published a novel, chances are someone (perhaps yourself) has said it would make a great movie. Maybe it would. Yours, and probably hundreds of others.
The thing is, there are a lot more books published than there are movies produced. A lot. Especially since digital publishing made it possible for anyone and everyone to get a book in print. The same is not true for movies. But while digital technology has changed movie making as much as it has publishing, it is still an expensive proposition, involving lots of talented people on both sides of the camera. And still, it is the people who have the money to make a movie who decide which movies get made, and it seldom has anything to do with the quality of the script.
Even if someone decides to make a movie of your book, you may not recognize it when it’s finished. I once heard it equated to selling a house with a view. Someone with money likes it and buys it. Then they tear down your house and build their own house. It turns out it was the view—the idea, maybe, a character, or the plot—they liked, not your writing.
But, it can happen. Your book just might become a major motion picture. It happened to my friend Thomas Cobb. Many years ago, he wrote a novel called Crazy Heart. Movie makers liked it. In fact, it was optioned about a dozen times, but nothing ever happened.
Finally, another production company picked it up and Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his starring role.
Thomas has written several novels since, some of them are likely better than Crazy Heart. He’s not expecting to see any of them on the big screen. He describes his experience with Crazy Heart as “being struck by benevolent lightning.”
And you know the old saying: lightning seldom strikes the same place twice.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The birth of Father unto Many Sons.

Those who read this stuff regularly know that Father unto Many Sons is a novel. It was conceived on my computer. Gestated in the inner workings of Five Star Publishing. And now its birth is imminent.
The delivery takes place Friday, August 24, at 7:00 p.m. at The Printed Garden, 9445 South Union Square, Suite A, in Sandy, Utah. It’s a fine bookshop, just a mile or two from where the book originated. If you’re within driving distance you are invited—nay, entreated, encouraged, urged—to attend the blessed event.
It will be a multiple birth, and while it is difficult to say how many copies of Father unto Many Sons the stork will drop off, there will surely be enough for you to adopt and take one home for your own. Many of the new novel’s siblings will also be there looking for good homes.
Put it on your calendar. Saddle up the horse. Hitch up the buggy. Gas up the car. Bring your friends and neighbors. See you at The Printed Garden, Friday, August 24, to welcome Father unto Many Sons into the world.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Really Stupid Words, Chapter Three

American English is a rich language. It’s always changing and evolving. New words and usages come and go. Many that come along are helpful. They clarify, they improve, they enhance and enrich.
But some are just plain stupid.
They obfuscate, they complicate, they confuse. They reveal a lack of understanding.
One of my favorites is “readjust.”
Now there’s a word (if it is a word) with absolutely no reason for being. If something needs to be adjusted, you adjust it. If it needs doing again, you simply adjust it. You can adjust it again. Then you can adjust it some more, as often as need be.
Adjust is somewhat related to “change.” You can change things repeatedly, but no one ever calls it “rechange.” Same with move. You can move things over and over. But if you “remove” them, that’s something else altogether.
I am firmly against the use of “readjust.” And I will remain that way, unless or until I readjust my thinking.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Happy Holiday!

Today, as I post this, is July 24. Here in Utah it’s a big day. Pioneer Day. A state holiday. Lots of folks who work for a living get the day off. There’s a big parade in downtown Salt Lake City and fireworks will light up the sky tonight at many places around the state.
For some reason, Utah’s Pioneer Day holiday is confusing to a lot of people. Immigrants enjoy the day off, but can’t wrap their heads around the reason for it—well, lots of them know the why of it, but still don’t grasp why that why matters.
It all started back in 1847 when Mormon leader Brigham Young’s wagon pulled into the Salt Lake Valley and he raised up from his sickbed and said this was the place the Mormons (having been chased out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois) would settle. His declaration was no big surprise—some advance members of the expedition were already here plowing when Brother Brigham showed up—but he made it official. He hadn’t asked permission to settle here, either from the bands of Ute and Shoshoni and other Indians who frequented the area, or from Mexico, which held title, such as it was, to the place.
But here the Mormons settled anyway, intending to form their own little nation with a theocratic-type government. But, much to their surprise, they soon ended up back in the United States in 1848 when the land was seized following the Mexican-American War.
Commemorating the arrival of those Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley is the reason for all the hoopla. I don’t know why that’s so confusing. When I lived in Nevada, most of that state shut down for a day in late October to celebrate Nevada Day, commemorating statehood. (Nevada, by the way, was originally part of Utah before the federal government started slicing off chunks to make and add to the new state. The same thing happened with parts of Colorado and Wyoming, too. The Mormons originally claimed big chunks of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oregon as well, but the government never recognized that claim. It’s all covered in a chapter of my book, The Lost Frontier.)
But never mind all that. Just have a happy holiday. We could all use an excuse to celebrate.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

My Favorite Book, Part 15.

Since the late nineteenth century, the American West has been an environmental battleground. At one extreme, rabid capitalists see the region as nothing more than a rich land to be exploited for personal gain, never mind the effects their profiteering has on the land and the people who live on it. At the other extreme are radicals who believe mankind has no place in the West; that it is best left to the elements and we humans should only be allowed to sneak in and take a peek every now and then, then leave.
Most folks, as is usually the case, are sandwiched somewhere nearer the center of those extremes and look to achieve some kind of balance betwixt and between. Even then, viewpoints are fervent and disagreements intense.
Although somewhat dated since its publication in 1971, Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee paints arguments between conservation and development in vivid colors. And, the fact is, the arguments have changed little since then—or ever.
The book sets the views of David Brower, outdoorsman and long-time leader of the Sierra Club and the titular “Archdruid,” against three powerful men with contrasting views. One of the encounters lies outside the West, featuring a real estate developer on Hilton Head Island off the South Carolina coast. Another concerns mineral mining in remote areas, specifically in a wilderness location in the Cascade Range. The third, and most engaging for me, pits government dam builder Floyd Dominy against Brower during a float trip through the Grand Canyon.
McPhee, a meticulous reporter and imaginative writer, allows each man to state his case during each encounter, and allows readers to take from the debates what they will. And, like all good art and literature, Encounters with the Archdruid asks a lot more questions than it answers.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Viewers Guide to Roadside Animals.

Few things—if anything—in life gave my Dad more pleasure than horses and cattle. He knew them well and worked them like few have the ability to do.
But even when not working, you might find him out in the corral “messing” with the horses. You’d often find him horseback in the pasture, or sitting on the tailgate of the pickup truck, or on the tractor seat after winter feeding just watching his cows, long beyond his original reason for being there.
When traveling, he always noticed cattle and horses in the pastures and on the open range flying past the windshield. He’d comment on how “slick” (or maybe “poor”) the cows looked, admire the growing calves, point out a well-made range bull, praise horses and colts.
While not as practiced at it as Dad, it’s a practice I picked up from him. Our car often hears comments about grazing cattle, usually accompanied by regret that almost all of them nowadays are black. Sighting a herd of our favored Herefords gleaming red and white in the sun is a rare and precious thing. Were you with us, you’d also hear my mockery every time we pass one of those yellow diamond-shaped roadside signs warning of livestock grazing on open range—with a picture of a dairy cow on it.
But, perhaps, my favorite remark concerning roadside animals is one I heard decades ago from a rodeo traveling pal; a comment that betrays a real love for the sport. Drive past horses in a pasture and Marlowe “Bird” Carroll would likely say, “You think those horses would buck?”
I still wonder.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Reporting on poetry.

The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Saddlebag Dispatches is now available, and it’s a keeper. Most of its pages, rightly so, honor the late, great Dusty Richards—founder and executive editor of the publication, as well as award-winning author and all-around good guy. A car accident took Dusty’s life earlier this year, and his passing was noted in a post at the time.
But, as always, there’s more to the magazine. Including a big, colorful article about one of the world’s best Western celebrations, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
I had the privilege to report and write the story, and illustrate it with photos I took (despite specious rumors and claims to the contrary) at the 2018 Gathering. Quoted in the story are first-time visitors and some who have attended for years, as well as poets.
My regular “Best of the West” column features the great Western movie High Noon.
The story—and all else in the magazine—are well worth a read. Visit Saddlebag Dispatches for online access or to order a printed copy.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 44: Editors Love Enthusiasm.

Once upon a time I wrote a short essay about passion—being passionate, following your passion, lack of passion being a fatal flaw, that sort of thing—rendering my opinion that the whole notion is overblown.
It caused something of a stir. Some agreed with my ruminations, others did not. One reader (and fine writer) opined that passion was a prerequisite and that fire and enthusiasm for the work were important considerations for editors.
Perhaps. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with being passionate about your writing if that’s what butters your biscuit.
But it ain’t necessarily so.
A reliable—but not precise—accounting of editors I have worked with includes some 15 or so with magazines and periodicals, at least two dozen on anthologies of short fiction or poetry, and somewhere north of 20 in the process of getting books, both fiction and nonfiction, into print. Some editors I have worked with on only one or a few occasions; several of them many, many times.
None ever asked about, commented on, or required enthusiasm—passion—on my part.
But I have absorbed a few notions about what seems to be widely regarded among the red pencil set. Here’s some of it.
Good ideas are valuable. Not just ideas that are good on their own, but good ideas that fit the nature of the editor’s requirements. It should go without saying that they expect quality writing—well-structured and readable and all that, with a certain amount of flair. Research—when applicable—should be thorough and your facts should be straight; even fiction should feel credible. Your manuscripts should be clean; as free of typos as possible with proper grammar and punctuation and spelling and such.
Finally, and probably most important, editors like reliability. If you meet deadlines, keep your promises, and do what you say you will—and are asked to—do, you’ll be doing everyone a favor. Including yourself and your career.
If you’re passionate on top of all that, fine. But don’t plan on enthusiasm alone getting you through.
Woody Allen is credited with this little bit of wisdom: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” In the broader sense, that advice certainly applies to writing.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Really Stupid Words, Chapter Two

American English is a rich language. It’s always changing and evolving. New words and usages come and go. Many that come along are helpful. They clarify, they improve, they enhance and enrich.
But some are just plain stupid.
They obfuscate, they complicate, they confuse. They reveal a lack of understanding.
Think about “proactive.”
I was surprised to learn that it has been around, in a limited way, for a long, long time. Fortunately, no one used it much until, say, 30 or so years ago. Since then, it has become one of the most overused words in our language. Not only in business circles, where made-up trendy buzzwords often find a home, but by regular folks, as well.
It’s supposed to mean the opposite of “react” or “reactive.” Apparently, no one stops to think that those words are opposites of perfectly good words—act and active—so don’t really need an opposite themselves.
If “active” doesn’t seem to fit, try “aggressive” or “concerted” or “determined” or “resolute” or “take the initiative.” We could go on.
Whatever words you choose to describe an active approach to something, there’s no point, really, in resorting to a stupid, meaningless, but apparently important-sounding (to some) word such as “proactive.”
Therefore, I will be proactive in my efforts to eliminate it.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Along the Old Spanish Trail.

There’s a well-known saying about the Old Spanish Trail: it isn’t old, and it isn’t Spanish. But from 1829 until 1848, more or less, it was an important trade route linking Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Mexican traders (and others) loaded strings of pack mules with woolen goods in New Mexico, trailed them to California, and traded for horses and mules. The animals—many thousands of them—were trailed back to New Mexico then sold on to Missouri, Old Mexico, and other markets. Thieves also raided California ranches for horses and mules for the same purpose, as well as selling them to the U.S. Army for use in the Mexican-American war. Traders in Indian slaves used parts of the route as well.
Not long ago, I had the privilege of exploring the Old Spanish Trail through Utah with the Utah Westerners. Through slickrock and sagebrush, deserts and mountains, sand and shadscale, we followed the route as nearly as possible, almost from border to border. Along the way, we were guided and educated by well-informed local historians as well as members of the Westerners.
The Utah Westerners set off on such a field trip every summer, but this was my first with the group of historians and history buffs. It will not be my last.

(Thanks to Utah Westerner Steve Berlin for the photos.)

Monday, May 21, 2018

My Favorite Book, Part 14.

A River Runs Through It is a small book. Something over 100 pages in most editions. And it’s the only “book” Norman Maclean ever wrote. (There is a published but unfinished nonfiction book about the Mann Gulch Fire, Young Men and Fire, and a few long short stories, published with A River Runs Through It in some editions.)
On the surface, A River Runs Through It is a story about fly fishing on Montana rivers. I am not interested in fly fishing. What the book is really about is love—not romantic love, but the love among a father and a mother and their two sons, with a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure. It contains elements of some old stories. There are hints of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and the story of the Prodigal Son.
Unlike many books, but like many of my favorite books, there’s a lot of ambiguity in its pages. You have to pay attention. And it doesn’t end in what many readers would consider a satisfactory way.
Again, there’s some ambiguity there.
Maclean doesn’t provide many answers, but he does deliver a lot of questions. And that means the story stays with you long after you close the book. So much so that, like me, you’ll be inclined to open it again (and again) sometime to see what kinds of questions it asks this time.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Post-game interview with a writer.

We’ve all heard athletes face the microphones after a game. What if writers had to do the same after a day at the keyboard?

Question: What have you got to say for yourself after today’s performance?

Answer: Needless to say, it wasn’t the kind of showing we hoped for. We hoped for a better result. It just didn’t happen for us this time, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. So, we have to put it behind us and move on. There will always be ups and downs in this game.
As writers, we face adversity every day. We just have to step up and show what we’re made of; show some character. Establish our identity and show what kind of writers we want to be.
It’s important to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long season, and it’s not over until we type that last period at the end of the last page. We just have to keep at it, one letter at a time. Do our part to get the next word right, the next sentence, and not worry too much about what the next chapter might bring.
We have to concentrate on the things we can control, and not dwell in the past. We have to brush off that split infinitive, forget that dangling participle, and get back out there and write. As you know, it’s a simple matter of putting in the kind of work it’s going to take if we want to control our own destiny.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Higher Education.

Colorado Springs, Colorado is 6,035 feet above sea level. As cities in the United State go, it’s pretty high. (No jokes about the state’s marijuana laws, please.) Being invited there to teach workshops at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference should qualify as higher education.
I was there recently doing just that and enjoyed the visit and the conference.
It’s a big event, with somewhere near 400 writers attending to improve their craft. There are five sessions underway at any given time, with a total of 75 workshops over the course of two-and-a-half days of the conference, not counting preliminary events and other offerings.
At 6,035 feet, the air is pretty thin in Colorado Springs. But writers are thick during the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. It was good to be there and share ideas with some of them.

P.S. The photo above is Garden of the Gods, a beautiful park tucked between the city and the mountains. Well worth a visit.