Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Herding Cats

Some of you may know that Dennis Kastendiek and I co-host a writing class at the Bear Canyon Senior Center from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. each Monday afternoon. We have an open membership policy, so anywhere from twelve to seventeen people attend out of a more or less active roster of twenty-seven souls. Need I say more about herding cats?

Our group is made up of published authors, those who should be published authors, people who pen pieces for their own enjoyment, individuals interested in leaving family members details of their lives, and rank amateurs. We write fiction, erotica, memoirs, essays, and poetry. We attend to learn, to get class comments on our own writing, as a social outlet, for inspiration, and likely for motives I don’t even recognize. Again, do you see where I’m going with the cat thing?

We have a poet whose English-as-a-second-language phrasing is so fresh that I am loathe to correct her grammar, for which she constantly scolds me. “How can I learn proper English?” she asks. I don’t want her to. To Americanize her charming, graceful, and often dramatic poetry would be something akin to a crime.

We have a man who’s stories take the reader straight back to the down and dirty Texas plains country. An ex-Marine, bearing visible scars of combat, who tells his life story in a gritty, gripping, yet often humorous way. I prod him constantly to submit his work to publishers. A retired airline hostess who writes of her own funny, awkward, and touching experiences. A university professor with a quirky wit that starts you down one path only to jerk your feet out from under you and leave you laughing. He's fascinated by railroads and has published some pieces on early lines. Dennis, my co-host, writes what he calls "whimsical claptrap."
There is a paint artist who’s beginning to reveal bits of herself to us through her prose and poetry. A retired minister whose verses never fail to touch me. A novelist and poet who keeps bringing things back to us until she feels she’s got it exactly the way she wants it. A woman who is laboring to put her travels to foreign countries down on paper. Other members contribute their charm and talents, but I merely wanted to give you a flavor of the people who devote their time each Monday to the class.

Many of the members do good work. Since I’ve been attending the class (probably about three years before Dennis and I took over a year ago), two of the best have passed away. Tom Glass was a red-headed (well, it was red at one time) cowboy taken by the French and Indian Wars. He wrote novels using that time and place as the setting. Digby Henry wrote beautiful poetry, essays, prose…virtually anything he wanted to put his mind to. Both of these writers were a loss and will be remembered fondly.

Before I go maudlin, let’s get back to the issue. The class covers the usual dos and don’ts of wordsmithing: point of view, grammar, story progression, character, tenses, conflict, etc. And like cats, many of us continue to go our own way. I’ll read one of the pieces and realize there was an unexpected change of viewpoint (head hopping is one of my pet peeves). We’ll harp on progression, and then read a work where the story is told backwards or out of sequence. We’ll start an interesting piece and immediately get bogged down in back story. Like I say…herding cats.

But you know what? As often as not, when I read one of my own pieces to the class…I get caught up in some of the same stuff. It’s sobering to realize I’m one of the cats.

Next week: Something will come to me.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Finally, to Bisti We Go!

I have been promising for weeks to get to the post on Bisti. Actually, I was stalling until I could get in contact with a man who has some fantastic images of the wilderness area. Photo credit for all of the incredible Bisti images in this post goes to my friend and neighbor, Joe Bridwell, Award-Winning Fine Art Photography. He has something like 10,000 amazing photographs of the southwest and can be contacted at You should also check out his blog at

The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area south of Farmington is central to the second book in my BJ Vinson mystery series, which features New Mexico as one of the major players. The opening scene of The Bisti Business (Martin Brown Publishers) take place there.


Anasazi Moon
A lopsided moon daubed wispy tendrils of scattered clouds with pewter. Glittering pinpricks of muted light smeared the Milky Way while moonshine bleached the barren landscape silver. Sharp-edged shadows shrouded the feet of mute, grotesque gargoyles of clay and sandstone: hoodoos masquerading as monumental toadstools, spheroid stones aping gigantic dinosaur eggs, and eroded clay hills with folds like delicate lace drapery.

A great horned owl soared above the high desert floor, its keen eyes scouring the panorama below. The plumed predator dipped a wing and veered eastward, attracted by the dull metallic shine of a large foreign object. Quickly discerning it represented no culinary opportunity, the raptor flew in slow, ever-widening circles in search of something more promising.

The huge bird’s flitting shadow startled two figures, interrupting their heated argument. Both glanced up quickly. Taking advantage of the moment, the larger man snaked a belt from his waist and slipped behind the other. He whipped the leather strap over his victim’s head, driving him to the ground with a knee to the back. After a short, desperate struggle, the man sprawled in the cooling sand ceased to resist. The violent tremors in his extremities passed, and he lay still.


And that is the reader’s introduction to this fantastic area. Let’s learn a little about this “other-world”
wilderness from government brochures and a few other sources.

Seventy million years ago, the Western Interior Seaway covered much of New Mexico. The area that includes the Bisti/D-Na-Zin Wilderness was once a riverine delta that lay just west of that ancient sea. Water built up layers of sediment. Swamps and ponds bordering the stream left organic material. Volcanic activity deposited ash, which was washed away by the river. As the water receded, the area became the home of prehistoric reptiles, large dinosaurs, and small primitive mammals that fed on one another and on the lush foliage along the riverbanks. Fish and turtles lived in the water. There is ample proof of this from fossils in the lignite sediment. Ancient mangrove forests rose and fell and left behind petrified remains.

The two major geological formations in the wilderness are the Fruitland Formation and the Kirtland Shale. The strange rock formations and fossils are found in the Fruitland, and this is what most of the visitors of the area see on the western side of the badlands, the former Bisti Wilderness. Hoodoos and spires and sandstone formations dominate the area. It is mostly a world of gray ash black and red cinders from coal burned in an ancient fire that lasted centuries. Clay laid over the burning coal layer formed “clinkers” that look like small pottery shards.

Kirtland Shale dominates the eastern side of the wilderness area (formerly known as the De-Na-Zin Wilderness). This formation contains rocks of many various colors, and is less traveled than the western area.

God's Hand
In 1966, the United States Congress merged the two separate wilderness areas into a single unit in San Juan County, New Mexico. The merging of the Bisti Wilderness and De-Na-Zin Wilderness placed all 45,000 acres all under the management of the Bureau of Land Management, except for three parcels of private Navajo land contained within its boundaries.

As the novel indicates, access (south from Farmington and north of Crownpoint) is rather limited, requiring some travel over unpaved roads. The area is not staffed by Bureau personnel, and there are no amenities. Water and food must be hauled in and rubbish carried out. The removal of fossils, including petrified wood pieces, is against the law. There are no established trails, so the tourist is pretty much left on his or her own.

The following scene in Chapter 12 (beginning on Page 99) is BJ’s first exposure to the badlands. The Aggie with him is the older brother of one of the men the private investigator is searching for, Lando Alfano. Let’s watch and listen.


Primordial Bisti
About forty miles south of Farmington, Aggie and I turned off of Highway 371 onto a gravel road, which looped back north. Six miles later, we parked on a stretch of ground that faintly resembled a parking lot near a bunch of tumbledown, rotting buildings. There were no other vehicles in sight. In fact, we appeared to be the only two people on the planet.

“You sure this is the right place?” Aggie climbed out of the car and looked around.

I nodded to a modest sign and what looked to be a register for tourists. “According to that, it is.”

“Man, this place is deserted.”

“Yeah, they don’t get much traffic out here.”

“Hope we can find our way to the right place.”

Forewarned by Dix Lee and Lonzo Joe, we hoisted packs stuffed with water bottles, energy bars and a compass. Feeling like I was provisioned for a week in the wilds, I clapped a broad-brimmed floppy hat on my head as protection against the sun and glanced at Aggie. He looked a good deal more comfortable with the situation than I was, but then he would be. He hiked and climbed mountains and conquered deserts more or less as a matter of course. We set off across the rocky ground, following the map Dix had sketched for us. She was supposed to be trailing along behind with someone from the Farmington BLM office. Almost immediately we were swallowed up in a fantastic landscape—not magnificent like the Grand Canyon, but spooky. Weird. Like a moonscape. Mysterious, as if some omnipotent sculptor had capriciously balanced massive, flat sandstone rocks atop slender necks of eroding clay in order to see how long they would stand.

“Damn,” Aggie said in a near whisper. “I’ve never seen any place like this. What the hell’s keeping those damned rocks from toppling over?” He indicated one of the distant capped pink and gray striated clay towers wearing what looked to be an outlandish stone beret at a rakish angle. “I wonder what the Good Lord was thinking when he did all of this?”

“Probably did it to watch all of us stand around with our mouths open.”

We were almost diverted from the gravity of our task by the multi-colored stones, petrified
Thor's Hammer
stumps, washes filled with wacky shapes, and the silent menacing hoodoos towering uncertainly over us. In one moment, our surroundings were whimsical; in another, ominous. The Navajo considered this sacred ground, and I could understand why. We trod forbidden territory, or at least that’s the way it felt. There were no footprints in the dry washes or anywhere on the stony ground we traveled, and I felt ours would disappear with our passing, as if we walked an alien planet subject to different natural laws., I glanced behind me to check and took false comfort when I saw my shoe prints still existed.

We had barely started our trek, and already sweat was staining my shirt. Following Dix’s hand-sketched map, we plodded on, taking frequent gulps of rapidly warming water, barely able to resist rushing off to explore some fascinating structural gem: thin spires of sandstone rising toward the sky like frozen tongues of flame, piles of mudstone carved by wind and water into ugly, fascinating gargoyles, specks of amber crystal winking in the hot sun, and those endless columns of sculpted, gravity defying capped rock.

        Eventually we reached our target, a broad wash holding clusters of flattened, broken round rocks streaked with wind- and water-carved wrinkles. I’d seen color prints of the Cracked Eggs, but the startling reality was greater than the image. The stones did appear to be gigantic dinosaur eggs broken open and abandoned to the elements—dozens and dozens of them. They weren’t, of course, they were merely clay and stone fashioned by that same capricious Hand. In the photos they’d appeared in a dazzling array of color, influenced by the time of day, the intensity of the light, the influence of the clouds. Now, as the sun beat straight down upon us, they were a flat gray with rosy highlights.


Eerie. Other-worldly, right? Felt that way to me. Further, it was a great setting for this mystery novel. A book featuring the Great State of New Mexico.

Winged Marvel

Next week: Well, we finally got to Bisti. Next week? I have no idea.


New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bravo to Santo Domingo Pueblo

Bobbi's Errant Watch
Last week, I mentioned the Skip-A-Hose incident wherein I tried to save two and one-half seconds by stepping over the hose hanging out of my gas tank instead of walking around the car. Since that time, my bum back has been bothering me more. Result: I wasn’t walking well. More pain in the area where my back surgery took place a year ago.

Since that time, my friend J has gone on a house cleaning (make that read “clearing”) binge, giving away items she doesn’t use but which take up space. (A useful and likely healthful endeavor for all of us, by the way.) The long and the short of it is, she offered me her Health Rider. Given a recent doctor’s appointment wherein the medic roundly scolded me for weight gain, shortness of breath, lethargy (read laziness), and a general decline in healthy living practices, I accepted J’s offer.

The day arrived, and my machine was delivered. I had already contacted my physical therapist, who counseled light but consistent use of the machine at the beginning. We settled on two-minute sessions for the first week. That’s hardly worth doing, right? Well after 120 seconds on the Rider, my legs had turned to rubber and my lungs proved totally inefficient at drawing in life-sustaining oxygen. Nonetheless, I survived. It was only sometime later I realized my back wasn’t bothering me. I walked down the hill to get my mail and back up again, usually a taxing enterprise. No sweat!

Immediately, I became overly ambitious. The Burning of Zozobra at the Santa Fe Fiesta was coming up on the fifth of September. Did I dare try to go? My publisher, Robert Brown of Martin Brown Publishers, had discussed the possibility of promoting my book, The Zozobra Incident, at the event, but I’d already informed him I wasn’t capable of the enterprise. Was there hope now?

As I toyed with the idea, a dear friend of mine, Bobbi, called and asked if I wanted to go to the Santo Domingo Pueblo market on Saturday. I like Indian Powwow dances…Indian markets, not so much. Nonetheless, this was an opportunity to test my legs, so to speak. There would be lots of walking, much standing, and little opportunity to sit down.

I agreed, considering it as preparation for attending Zozobra a week later. Around ten a.m. on Saturday the 31st, we set off in Bobbi’s van for the pueblo, which is about halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe just west of I-25. Bobbi was decked out in a lot of Indian jewelry. Her family comes from Gallup, which is Indian Country, so she has lots of the stuff. On the way, she told me she’d lost her watch in Wal-Mart the other day, but she’d heard it hit the floor and recovered it. Now, she slipped the watch bracelet off her wrist and handed it to me to examine. The beautifully-worked gold bracelet was heavily studied with highly-prized, sky blue Kingman turquoise nuggets. The piece, fashioned and signed by a famous Indian craftsman, was given to her by her father in 1970. When I returned to the watch, she slipped it back onto her left wrist.

The big market held well over a hundred booths of silversmiths and goldsmiths and potters and weavers representing tribes and pueblos from all over the southwest. The dances were intermittent, low key, and designed only to provide a momentary diversion for the hundreds of visitors.

As expected, the walk was long, the shade scarce, and the seating non-existent. After an hour, I felt my back begin to tighten, and I was walking with considerable effort. Ten minutes of sitting in Bobbi’s van allowed me to walk around the market for another hour…most of it spent trying to locate her in the mob. Shortly thereafter, we decided to go to Bernalillo for lunch at the original Range Café, a local eatery of some note.

On the way, I decided I had handled the Santo Domingo Market okay but regretfully concluded I wasn’t yet ready to tackle the thousands of jostling, excited people at the Zozobra Burning in Santa Fe.
Halfway to Bernalillo, Bobbi let out a squawk, scaring me out of ten years of my life…years I can no longer afford, by the way. “My watch! It’s gone,” she said in a stricken voice.

I understood. A signed work of solid gold encrusted with Kingman nuggets had to be worth a chunk of change. Not to mention it was a gift from a father who was no longer with her.

Amid self-recriminations for not putting the watch in her purse or wearing a cheaper one, we turned the van around at the San Felipe Pueblo exit and returned to Santo Domingo. At a considerably faster pace, I might add. Speeding on the Interstate is one thing, but exceeding the limit on a pueblo was a much scarier prospect. Nonetheless, I held my trembling tongue even though I considered this a fool’s errand. A valuable bracelet dropped on the ground in the midst of a thousand milling shoppers was bound to have been snatched up by someone who would endlessly brag about the fabulous “bargain” they’d struck at the Indian Market.

When we arrived back on the pueblo square, Bobbi headed for the last couple of places she’d shopped while I went to the man controlling the loudspeaker. He made a public announcement notifying the crowd of the lost article and asking anyone who found the watch to bring it to the announcer’s booth. After thanking him and saying I’d check back later, I went on the hunt for Bobbi, my eyes scanning the ground for the glint of gold as I went.

I found her, and we continued the search together. After a few minutes, I went back to ask the man to repeat the appeal over the loudspeaker. As I approached, he wore a grin. I wasn’t yet out of sight, he said, when one of the booth holders brought the watch to him. But I’d been walking too fast, so he simply held onto it for us. I found Bobbi and she came to reclaim her property, a big smile on her face and a great load lifted from her shoulders. Then we went to Booth #57 to thank the lady who’d found the watch on her display table where Bobbi had reached to examine a pair of her earrings.

Kudos and thanks and loads of gratitude to a very honest and honorable Connie Calabaza of Santo Doming Pueblo…who’s not a bad jewelry maker, by the way. Thanks, Connie.

Then it hit me. The announcer had said I’d been “walking too fast.” Score one for me!

Next week: We’re inching closer to Bisti.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How many “Oopsies” Do We Get?

I received an email the other day informing me about a writer’s conference. A few minutes later, I got another message with the title “Oops.” The sender had forgotten to include the date of the meeting. A rather significant omission, right?

That got me to thinking. As the co-host of a Monday afternoon Writing Class, I often send emails to my list of attendees. I recall a number of them with the subject of “Oops” because of an error or an omission I'd made.

That brings about a few other revelations. Now, I’m trying to decide whether this spate of incomplete, inaccurate, or downright wrong information is a function of a scattered brain or age. My hope is for the former, of course. Perhaps…just perhaps…I can do something about that one. Age just scoots on down the proverbial road bringing inevitable consequences…until it doesn’t. My post of August 15 is a reminder of how abruptly that can run its course.

As an aside, the Writing Class held a moment of silence for Digby Henry, our missing member, and then fondly called up special remembrances of the delightful man. We read a touching poem he wrote entitled “evening earthturn” in his honor. He was extraordinary and will be missed by all.

With this train of thought rolling, let me recall a few of my more recent foibles, some of which have been shared on the blog or with the class or with family…or with no one.

Let’s see…

  • There was the to-do about my new washing machine refusing to work the way I wanted it to. Turned out it was working the way I instructed it to. The damned thing should have known I wanted my clothes washed even if I did turn the indicator to Final Spin/Dry. The store’s repair shop is probably still laughing about that one.

  • I told some of you about playing skip-the-rope with a gas hose. Instead of walking around the car, I tried to step over the hose. The hose won. That spill sent me back to physical therapy, and I'm still not walking quite as well as before.

  • I usually back my auto into the parking space at the apartment complex because it is easier (and safer) to simply pull out whenever I leave. The other day, I pulled out and slammed on the brakes. I’d gone blind! I couldn’t see the road. Then I realized I’d forgotten to take the sun shield down from the windshield. Glad no one was around. My cheeks were rather rosy as I sat in the middle of the main drive to correct the situation. Then I sat there for another few minutes laughing my head off.

  • I came home from the supermarket with an armful of groceries and stood in front of my door wondering why it wouldn’t open. Turned out I was pushing the unlock button on my Buick’s remote. This time, I had to drop the groceries and run for the bathroom. Uncontrolled mirth and a full bladder do not a good mix make.

  • I don’t know how many times I’ve answered the TV remote or tried to dial a channel on my telephone. In this electronic world with a myriad of little black boxes sitting around, that might not be too unusual for many of us. But sitting for five minutes wondering why the damned thing doesn’t work probably is. My recovery time has slowed.
  • I dog-sit a little black and white Papillion named Gizmo, and the other day he interrupted me at the computer to let me know he had an urgent need to go to the bathroom. Dogs are not supposed to have facial expressions, but his was clearly one of disgust when I led him to my bathroom. After I sheepishly took him outside, things came out all right. Gizz hasn’t messed in the apartment but once, and that was payback for my leaving him alone for an extended period of time. He tolerates my occasional absence, but that time, I clearly violated our set of unspoken rules. We kissed and made up, anyway.

  • Can't forget falling off my shoes. Impossible you say? Only a klutz would do that? Thank you for making my point. I have a pair of moccasin-style black dress shoes with soles shorter and narrower than the shoe, itself. The other day I was walking down the sidewalk and turned my ankle. I'd have fallen off my shoes if there hadn't been a concrete wall there to catch my fall.

I’m sure I can come up with other “Oopsies” but this is embarrassment enough for one blog. If you wish to confess your own awkward moments, please do so, using the Post a Comment section. Everyone have a good week.


Next week: I have no idea.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

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