Keeping Close to Nature’s Heart

Those words begin an observation made by John Muir.

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Sheepherder’s Bath

“Keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Most of us who have spent any time in the mountains know the truth of this sentiment. On a family trip to central  Idaho’s majestic mountains, we traveled north from Ketchum along the 75 through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery God ever designed. Along Idaho’s volcanic spine are scattered numerous hot springs. Some are better known than others. We visited one a few miles north of Sun Valley that fits into the category of better-known. A sign directed us to the spring that has been commercialized for years, boasting a swimming pool at a consistent bath temperature. We passed on the experience of bathing with a bus-load of excited, splashing children.

The manager, taking pity on us, told us a number of stories concerning the springs in the area. As I pulled out my pen and began taking notes, he surely recognized he had an interested, even if not captive, audience. To my delight (and I suppose his), I filled the page with dates and names. Customers willing to bath with the masses took his attention away for a time. When he was once more able to speak with us, he paused for a moment as though appraising our worthiness of this next piece of information. Having apparently passed his assessment, he leaned in confidentially and said, “There is another spring not far from here that the locals know.”

Our interest peaked, we too leaned in to accept this conspiracy of information. Giving us clear directions, he explained that it was once known as Sheepherders’ Bath. That name didn’t stick for Google, but the locals still refer to it as such. Just as the miners of the late nineteenth century used the numerous warm springs to wash off the week’s settlement of dust and grime, so the sheepherders of the early twentieth century took comfort in the thermal waters. Convenient to their grazing grounds, the shepherds availed themselves of nature’s provision.

We drove the short distance where we found the spring just as described. No hordes splashed in it’s crystal waters. As though we were alone in the wilderness, we stepped into the 80 degree waters. With a view of the mountains to the east, we could imagine John Muir himself, walking with stick in hand, a flock of sheep trailing behind, walking asking to share the healing waters.

We’d have willingly made room so that we might together wash our spirits clean.

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Listen to Many, Speak to a Few

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Shakespeare wrote that with his quill pen a good while ago. It’s not a bad motto for life in general, but I’ve come to believe it is also an exceptional way to approach book research. Thank you, William, for the notion. Traveling through Central Idaho on this recent research trip, I had many occasions to employ the philosophy.

In Idaho City, a once bustling metropolis in the mid-nineteenth century, I found historians in unlikely places. Reduced to a scattering of novelty shops and a few rustic cafes providing a variety of berry pie refreshment for those traveling the scenic route through the Central Idaho mountains, there remain those who are passionate about the region’s history. When one of my questions stumped the volunteer at the excellent Boise Basin Museum, I was directed to the Simply Fun Toy Store on Main Street to speak with the proprietress. She knew kids and she knew her history. More will follow on that visit in another post.

A few days later, our travels took us north along one of Idaho’s most breathtaking highways that links Stanley to the more celebrated, ski resort of Sun Valley. We stopped in at Easley Hot Springs where we met a friendly manager who directed us to another local historian. As we lingered at the desk, perusing their visitor guides to the area, he volunteered a little more interesting local lore. Not far from these commercially developed hot springs there were more secluded and little known spas surrounded by the natural forest, with views to the Boulder Mountains. Glad we listened and followed up on his advice with a visit. Look for another post on that tranquil experience.

However, the greatest example of Mr. Shakespeare’s wisdom came as I was spending a lovely day in the research department of Ketchum’s Public Library. After spending a productive morning pouring through out-of-print books and scanning fragile black and white photos with nervous fingers, I still had not found some of the answers sought. Just as the need for a second cup of coffee suggested it was time to close my laptop and head back to the condo, a distinguished-looking gentleman took a seat at the table behind me. That’s when William’s maxim came into play.

It wasn’t that I was intentionally eavesdropping; it was simply due to the small space we shared and certain key words that I over-heard the discussion between the man and our helpful librarian. They were discussing the late nineteenth century in Sun Valley and the effect of the Oregon Short Line Rail on Ketchum’s economy. My ears tingled. My pencil scratched a few interesting tidbits, but after a few minutes, well, William, I did speak a few words.

A quick introduction on my part, followed by an even quicker explanation for my research and the door was open. I learned from the candid description of the librarian that my fellow researcher was an expert in all things related to the railroad. My pulse quickened. A lawyer by profession with ancestral ties to the area, he was compiling facts for a definitive history of Sun Valley. Why speak? So, I listened, priming this amazing pump with just a few questions. Finding me a receptive audience, he shared his passion for history. In a mere twenty minutes, I gleaned the answers to all my questions and more I had never thought to ask.

He generously offered to become a resource for me. We have corresponded since as questions have arisen. The wisdom of the Bard proved quite true. Listen to many, Speak to Few. As a result, my lovers in Redeeming Lies can meet in Shoshone on the train platform where the inciting incident of Maddie’s father’s death will propel them north to Ketchum on the Oregon Short Line. It’s a gratifying experience when fiction coincides with fact. I confess that I did a little dance when I returned to the condo at the end of the day.

Of course, you may take issue with my interpretation of Shakespeare’s words, but I think they can be applied here without much of a stretch. If you have another perspective or a similar research experience you’d like to share, I’d like to listen to it in the comments below.

Ghost Town Settings for Historical Fiction

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One log structure remains near Beaver Creek.

Comes the Winter is another sweet historical fiction set on the eastern side of the Sawtooth Range. In 1886, Alena Sommers arrives to the boom town of Sawtooth City expecting to begin a new life with a man she hasn’t met. Together they were to operate a lodging house, more correctly considered a partnership than a romance.  But her future takes a sharp turn when the man who was to be her husband dies before she sets foot in Idaho Territory.

This summer I visited the site of Sawtooth City. Not much remains, some rock foundations scattered here and there across a narrow valley. Just a few miles off Highway 75, it can be found quite easily by driving down a gentle dirt road that winds along Beaver Creek. That ease of access probably explains why so little remains of the once thriving mining community.

There are a few stone foundations, evidence of fireplaces here and there. We were there shortly after the snow melt flooded the rivers and streams of Idaho. Beaver Creek rambled, split, and came together again in lively pathways. It’s been reforested, making it a little more difficult to imagine the saloons, boarding houses and restaurants that written accounts and a few grainy black and white images prove were here. Still, the setting came alive after we found one partial log wall near the stream. The window and door frames were evident. It might have been a nice place for a lodging house.

It was a perfect summer day, lupine and yarrow dressed the tall grasses. Searching for anything that bore witness to the city existence made for a pleasant few hours. Reluctantly, we drove out of the valley, east to the main road. My husband had seen a notation on Google Maps of a cemetery. A little more than a mile beyond the last foundation a narrow forest road let to the top of a knoll with a view to Beaver Creek. I would imagine Sawtooth City would have been visible as well. We found the rustic remains of wooden crosses, nearly lost in tall grass.

The crosses were in random positions close together. No names survived the years of weathering. People who came to strike it rich never returned home. Lonely as it is, the site is peaceful and I could imagine Evan sitting beside his brother’s grave admiring the view.
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Driving west toward Sawtooth City.

Lightplay on Snow

 

 

img_4123Years ago when I wrote about the Sierras, it was natural to draw on the observations of others. John Muir referred to those magnificent craggy faces as the Range of Light. But as I walked through powder snow of an early winter snow this December in Idaho, I was struck by the sharpness of the shadows and the dramatic sunlight highlights on the faces of the range of mountains about us.

It is an easy landscape from which to draw inspiration for writing. I know that for me, it gave me the vision for writing the third book in the Sawtooth Range series, Comes the Winter. I’ve come to the point in the story I dread, when I must bring the plot to its crisis and when the writing will take on a faster pace as the story heads downhill to its inevitable conclusion.  I’ve stalled the momentum, imagining I’ve placed a rock in front of the wagon wheels.

These final chapters will be difficult to pen because I am feeling the anguish of my female protagonist facing the crisis alone. Without revealing spoilers, she’s a bit blind to her weaknesses, as are we all at times. But as the author, I know what painful events are awaiting her in those coming pages. Honestly, I like her and like the mother I am, I want to shield her from that painful revelation. Silly? Perhaps.

But I’m taking a moment to remember December in Idaho and the glorious light reflecting off the snow and the river and the high range of mountains. It was exhilarating in the near-zero temperatures walking across snow fields not marred by human footprints, under a brilliant sun with not a cloud in the sky.

Walking in darkness is not a good place to be. From a practical perspective, toes get broken. But in a spiritual sense, we can take wrong turns or not see life choices clearly. I need to take this step back and allow my protagonist to make wrong assumptions and lose her way so that she can find it again. The sunlight will break through the storm clouds in the end, a few chapters from now. I just have to walk with her through the storm until arrives for her happily ever after.

But maybe that can wait until I take another walk in the sun. It’s a bit gloomy lost in Lena’s world as I’ve been. I’ll let you know when the sun comes out there in 1886.

 

 

 

A Setting Speaks

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Nestled up against the rolling foothills bordering the Salmon River, the town of Stanley, Idaho has an expansive view of the Sawtooth Range. This time of year the town has already put on its down jacket and hunkered down for the winter that will soon be bullying its way into the basin trailing harsh winds and snow. But this week, it’s a lovely place to be, free of tourists, dressed in the warm golds and reds of autumn. With a populace numbering far less than 100, it’s a hardy community that’s already stacked in the firewood under wide roof eaves. Shops are closed or only open for limited hours of business. The change of season is caught in the crisp air scented by sweet leaf mold from trees quickly discarding their summer clothes like the residents.

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Highways bringing summer visitors from either Sun Valley to the south or Boise from the southwest converge here, the road bending sharply changes one’s perspective of the landscape from rolling ranch land to majestic mountain peaks. But there is no mistaking this for a hospitable place to settle year round. In the 1820s hardy Hudson Bay fur trappers learned it and were quick to leave when the beaver population did not yield the bounty they’d hoped for. Miners stayed only as long as the veins produced ore. But other souls have found a home here, settling in for the long winter months with ready acceptance, fair trade for the beauty that greets them each day in the form of snow-capped peaks and quiet isolation.

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As a writer, this place speaks to me. Place your romantic fiction here, it whispers, but do not neglect the harsh realities of such a setting. Use it as a character, one that inspires and directs the plot. Let your characters be shaped by this land and this climate that changes so sharply with the seasons, transforming the residents as dramatically as the landscape. Allow your people to learn from the seasons, the rhythms of life that bring comfort in their consistency. Transport your readers here to this place so removed from the modern pace of their lives.

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And so I shall.

Back Under Idaho Skies

Cherry Springs in Fall
Cherry Springs in Fall

After spending the last two months in the forested Pacific Northwest, it feels exceptionally fine to be back in Idaho under this expansive sky I’ve come to love. From the western border of Oregon all across the mountain passes and later spanning the broad rolling plains of central Idaho, the past becomes almost palpable. The imagination seems to be sparked by ghostly voices of earlier travelers.

Each time I make the passage, I am struck with the contrast of traveling at 70 and 80 miles an hour against the struggles of those determined souls who were grateful for a few miles travel in a single day. This especially presses in upon me as we pass along the Snake River, starting with Three Island Crossing. Such a short time ago, the collective breath of an entire wagon train would have been held as each wagon made its way across the fast-moving, sometimes unpredictable Snake. For us, it is passed in a mere eight seconds.

Then there is Massacre Rock and Register Rock nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the route except for a few ignoble road signs. Once again, fear would have gripped the travelers as they approached the narrow passage between two rocks that now have been blasted away for the freeway. Not knowing if vengeance-bent natives were waiting for them on the other side, they made their way through, one wagon at a time. We pass through without a thought in two seconds.

Today we walked along a familiar trail that follows Cherry Creek. We’ve missed the fall color, leaves scattered across the path now by winds notorious to this area. But it’s still beautiful. Leaves shush beneath the feet as birds who will brave the winter or wait for a later migration note our passage casually with soft sounds from the bare branches.

Cherry Springs Nature Area is a riparian habitat that winds along a gentle stream carved between a narrow canyon covered in brush. Shade provided by a variety of trees supports an even greater variety of wildlife, including beavers, voles and even weasels. The signs warn us that this is the time of year to be alert to Moose during the rutting season of late September and October. We missed sighting them all. But the thrill of that possibility added an element of anticipation.

There are places that speak clearly to the soul of man. Idaho sings to me.

Why Write Westerns – by author Mike Torreano

This post by Mike Torreano, hosted by M.K. Tod, should resonate with all writers of historical fiction.

A Writer of History

the-reckoning-mike-torreanoI met Mike Torreano at the 2015 HNS conference in Denver and chatted about our preferred time periods and the careers we had before becoming obsessed with writing. Mike’s novel The Reckoning – a post civil war mystery – has just released from The Wild Rose Press. Today Mike talks about writing a western and the Code of the West. Over to you, Mike.

So my western mystery, The Reckoning, was just released by The Wild Rose Press. It takes place in 1868 and is the story of Ike McAlister, a Union soldier who returns from the Civil War to his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas to find that his parents have been killed by Quantrill’s raiders. He sets out on a single-minded hunt to find the killers, a search which takes him to the high plains of Colorado.

I’ve heard some people say the traditional American western is dead—all…

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Roseberry, Idaho Photo Tour

Driving down a narrow road through pasture lands affording wide vistas took us north through Payette’s long valley. The route paralleled the primary route from Boise to the popular tourist destination of McCall. But this was our true destination, a place to savor the atmosphere of Kat’s fictional hometown of Snowberry, Idaho. We arrived just as the Music Festival was tuning up, which lent an even more celebratory background to our brief visit.

The Long Valley Preservation Society has established its base here working to preserve not only Roseberry history but that of the entire Valley County. Roseberry, like so many other towns built with such hope or a thriving future, met its decline when the promised railroad chose to locate its station elsewhere. In this case the move was to Donnelly, only a few miles west. In fact, some of the buildings now located in Roseberry were originally constructed in Donnelly, having been moved here to become monuments to the nineteenth century settlements.

While there we met some enthusiastic volunteers who shared a passion to keep the memories alive of those who lived and dreamed here. You can learn more about their efforts and town history here. http://historicroseberry.com/

 

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