Finding the Romance at Lake Ozette

Once one really begins to look for the stories, they appear along every trail and byway. Sometimes they take you by surprise even when you aren’t looking. That happened last weekend here on the farthest NW corner of the contiguous 48 states while we were hiking one leg of the amazing loop trail from Lake Ozette to the the coast. We stumbled upon the remains of a homestead after meandering through the Ewok country of the Olympic National Park.

 

Stumbled is not a mere literary affectation. While we were hiking west, nearly to Cape Alava, a young couple told us of the homestead just off the boardwalk. On our return we looked for the small opening leading north off the main trail. It wasn’t obvious, but a narrow path did appear. Looking more like an animal trail at first, we were a little uncertain that we’d found what we sought. We had just heard a bull elk bugle off to the south making us a little jumpy about trekking too far off the trail. After a few steps, the ground showed clear signs of recent human tracks.

Expecting the “homestead” to be little more than ruins, we nearly turned back. Then, through the trees, the structure rose up like the “Shack” from novel and movie fame. Creepy and wonderful at the same time, it invited investigation so we made our way up the gentle rise to the front door. Our first thoughts were to marvel at Washington’s seemingly casual attitude toward allowing the public to explore such historic sites. No fences surrounded the one-story building and only one small sign gave us stern warning not to deface the property.

What remains of Lars Ahlstrom’s shack at the edge of the prairie is a single room with loft. History reports he had a fine house once, but it was destroyed by a fire that grew out-of-control when his friend and neighbor attempted to clear the prairie of brush. The forest is reclaiming the land, encroaching on the house walls. But it stands quite confident in itself. Such a discovery for a writer is the stuff of inspiration. My stories have been rooted in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Until seeing the house and since learning of the history of this area there was little to inspire my muse. This Scandinavian community thrived at the same time as the stories I’m writing. I can imagine it now.

And there were love stories.

Of course, there were. Faith, hope and love are interwoven into the human experience. At one time, the land surrounding Ozette was home to not only the Makah but 130 homesteaders. They thrived in relative isolation, clearing the land by burning trees and brush, growing crops and raising livestock. By the time they abandoned their dreams and left the lake community, they had constructed a church, a school, three post offices and stores. All came to an end when in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt decreed the land should be used as part of the Mount Olympus National Monument.

But the love story? That is worthy of further research. Conflicting reports exist of the mysterious disappearance of handsome boat-builder, Alfred Nyland. The accounts of the discovery of his skeleton eleven years later agree, but the reason for his sudden departure vary. One report explains how his boat was found floating in Erikson Bay after his disappearance in April. The story proposes that he lost his way as he returned home through the woods. It’s certainly plausible when one sees the density of the forest.

The second report includes the personal tragedy of a love for a woman who rejected Alfred’s offer of marriage. Some suggest that sorrow sent him into the woods to seek consolation. Those who know the answer are forever silent. The fact that he was found, back against that tree with his hand over his chest, makes one wonder. Did he die of a broken heart as this story proposes?

Love and loss – dreams and failed expectations – hardship and courage. All are strong elements for story and character arcs. Heady stuff for a writer’s soul.

 

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Strong Like Wyoming

A war to win, a promise to keep, a heart to reawaken

A short story

Strong like Wyoming

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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.

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.

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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Traveling Through Dr. Kat Meriwether’s Country

While traveling through Idaho this past month, we’ve had an opportunity to visit many interesting historic sites. We started in Payette’s long valley leading along the river, where Kat’s Law has its fictional setting. That portion of our travels took us to the bustling recreational center of McCall. But this past Sunday, known locally as Pioneer Day, we spent several hours touring the Fort Hall Museum in Pocatello, Idaho.

One room is dedicated to the frontier doctors who served the community at the end of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. From instruments of torture that represented early dentistry to one of the earliest drug stores in this area, there was almost more to absorb than hours in one afternoon provided.

It was interesting to read the labels of “medicines” to treat everything from toothaches to heart palpitations. Worthy of further research was the use of sassafras for a wide variety of ailments, including the relief of constipation. I remember it from my childhood as simply a great tasting tea offered by my great grandmother. Little did I know I was apparently being dosed!

The handsome Rosewood medicine case belonged to a Dr. Augustus Fisher. The label reads that it was made in Germany and that the bottles are labeled in Latin. It made me wonder how long the shelf-life was for these elixirs. But I would imagine most patients would have been impressed by the case alone with all the mystery of strange amber liquids with exotic labels.

The picture on the right is of Dr. James H. Bean, one of Pocatello’s earliest doctors. Receiving his medical degree in 1857 would have made him closer in age to Kat’s father, Nathaniel. What gives him some notoriety is the fact that he owned and operated one of the first drugstores, opening it’s doors in 1891, shortly after Idaho earned statehood. The newspaper clipping reveals the frontier nature of the town at that time. It reads, “A man, Cal Durfey was shot to death while seated in the chair occupied by Red(the dog in this picture). It was an accident. A man named Taylor saw Durfey reach for a handkerchief-thought it was a gun.” 

That small footnote seems to be a good writing prompt to me. Doesn’t it make you wonder what Dr. Bean did? What became of Taylor? Why was the man so obviously jumpy, as to draw his gun as a reflex? So may questions, so little line space in that yellowed newspaper article.

I love museums, don’t you?

 

 

Book Review of Doc Susie

While Kat’s Law was in final revision, a friend told me about a book she had just finished reading called Doc Susie: The True Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies.  The research completed by the author, Virginia Cornell, makes this a fascinating read for anyone interested in the real history of the area and the lives of pioneer doctors. Although this is not a recently released book, writers and readers alike may find the detailed account of life in the high altitude, logging town of Frazier, Colorado a compelling read.

This biography begins when Susan Anderson, a trained frontier physician, arrives in the Rockies seeking to save her life from the ravages of tuberculosis. She hopes to be cured by the pure mountain air. At the age of thirty-seven she still has much experience to offer the few residents of this isolated community, but initially she attempts to hide her skills as a physician, attempting to heal her heart as well from a failed romance.

The treatment works for her lungs, so for the next fifty-one years she stays on to minister to the community of loggers, farmers, and railroad workers. Ah yes, the railroad. The politics of the railroad construction enter into the story quite prominently. This is where Doc Susie’s plucky, independent spirit takes the plot of her life in a different direction as she confronts those who would exploit the workers on the precipitous route of the rail lines.

Part humanitarian, part feminist, Doc Susie manages to improve the lives of this small community through educating her patients and risking her own life to treat the diseases and horrific injuries common to the logging and railroad construction enterprises at the time.