Clouds stiff as meringue coast overhead and cast shadows upon the red and white sandstone pillars of Zion. I watch as light returns, then gives way to shadow again. The cliffs, canyons and mesas morph in the obscuration of partial clouds. Reds deepen, crevices appear, whites highlight. It feels like watching a live kaleidoscope. All this show, and I also indulge in an afternoon cappuccino and crepe. I think of flying monkeys and wonder what shadows such creatures would cast.
My visit to this tourist hamlet of Springdale today is to uncover stories of flying monkeys. If Virgin (where I now live) is the gateway to Zion Canyon, then Springdale is the doorway. Tens of thousands of people pass through Zion National Park daily during the height of season. Despite a warm sun and partial clouds, tourism is receding. And no, flying monkeys did not chase off anyone. But I want to know more about them, and starting at the wood-fired grill of their namesake seems right. I have coffee at Me Me’s next door.
When I enter The Flying Monkey, savory smoke grabs me; my nose convinces my stomach to let my mouth experience a pizza here. There must be magic enough in the aroma to make monkeys fly. I return to my mind when the hostess approaches. I’m here to ask about monkeys not the fire-roasted pineapple and cilantro pizza.
“So, about the flying monkeys, ” I start to say.
“Oh, you want to know about our name.”
“I know where you get your name. I live in Virgin below Hurricane Mesa.”
“Oh…I’ve been up there…camping…”
“Did you see anything?” I’m excited now. The hostess may actually be an eye-witness.
“It was dark. But I always look at that strip and think about them, you know.”
“They all lived!”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Who is the local expert on the flying monkeys?”
This is how I often begin historical research. Casual conversation. I know what you’re thinking, how can conversation about flying monkeys be casual. I listen for rumors, look for odd local business names, seek the resident story-tellers. Today, I got two hits. Maybe the jeweler on the other side of Me Me’s knows something or perhaps the man across the street at the tire shop. The hostess tells me they’ve both lived in the area forever. She’s from St, George and this is her second season working in Springdale.
Geology opened this Pandora’s box. I wasn’t looking for flying monkeys, but places to rock hound. After my first big adventure in southern Utah, the one sliding across slimy red clay in the rain, I came home with some local jasper. I bought a book, Rockhounding Utah: A Guide to the State’s Best Rockhounding Sites. That’s where I read about Hurricane Mesa and it’s curious feature (in addition to agates and petrified wood). Author, Gary Warren, warns:
“There’s some private property up on the mesa now, so be sure to heed any posting. Be especially careful not to enter the test track area. It may be tempting, but it is a great big no-no!”
Knowing the military had a test track up on a mesa piqued my curiosity. That’s when I dug deeper into aviation records locally and discovered that in 1955, the Air Force developed a facility on Hurricane Mesa to test jet-propelled airplane ejection seats. Looking up at that mesa every morning, I think how tempting the big no-no is. Not only am I curious, I’m visual. I want to see what there is to see. And that was before I knew about the flying monkeys.
Now that we are officially Virgin locals (not to be confused with virgin locals), we find other locals readily talk about this magnificent area with a unique history. Filmography has convinced us this is the Wild West, but reality is rooted in Mormonism and mysterious testing. The Mormons pioneered to this geological land of wonder, once home to Paiute, Navajo and perhaps even Anasazi. Tensions between cultures led to deadly encounters. Global tensions after WWII led to the terrifying testing of nuclear weapons for which this area was fallout. We often hear tragic family stories of generational cancer. One John Wayne movie filmed here is reputed to have led to the deaths of all involved by cancer.
Locals tell us radiation surrounds us as much as geological beauty.
Do monkeys fly because they are local aberrations? Creatures resulting from radiation exposure? A Native American myth? A mushroom picker’s mistaken identity? Another local writer’s unchecked imagination? No. The answer is found back on the test track at Hurricane Mesa. Monkeys flew as live test subjects in the jet propelled and track ejected cockpit pods. Before men tested the ejection seats, monkeys did. And, so far, according to local lore or wishful thinking, the flying monkeys all lived.
November is, of course, NaNoWriMo. It’s the perfect season to write a first draft about mysterious government testing, monkeys and how women might have been involved. That is always my angle — history often forgets women among men and monkeys, and those are the stories I ultimately seek. However, No NaNoWriMo for me. More like, November is NaNoRanCho month. With a new home, office and ergonomic chair, I’m ready to get back to my ranch.
You might think that statement as odd as, well, flying monkeys once soared over Virgin, Utah. Why not “get back” to writing novels. First, I never stopped. Each week I work on revising two novels, in fact. Some weeks my revisions are processing, some weeks are filling research gaps, and more weeks are needed for constructing transitions and new material. I’m not on a deadline for my novels. Perhaps if I had an agent or active publisher, my schedule would be different. As a marketer, I also know I need to have a well-crafted final manuscript for sale and a well-crafted platform from which to launch my books (like flying monkeys).
Carrot Ranch was originally a website I started when I left my last marketing job. I did marcom consulting, spoke at national workshops and managed communications for business clients. But as I worked on my first novel, I felt disconnected to my literary goals. I made the leap and transformed Carrot Ranch into a platform with a literary focus and a flash fiction challenge. No matter what I do, I always want to do good in the world. I began to focus on supporting a literary community. When my own personal crisis hit with a series of setbacks, including getting scammed by the publisher at Go Idaho and getting evicted from our home (and my office) because the owners thought it would sell better empty, my community helped me get through.
Much has changed since last November when I had high hopes for completing my second novel, launching our first anthology and setting up writers retreats in beautiful Sandpoint. A lot of the work I did, such as creating a library program called Wrangling Words and hosting a successful BinderCon event in Montana, has gone aside. Our anthology was delayed as I dealt with issues of homelessness. My confidence and plans felt shaken. But shit happens. I may not be able to control the circumstances, the injustices or recoup what I lost, but I can choose how to transform and reinvest in my platform, my writing and my community.
Therefore, I’m taking a NaNoWriMo-like daily focus on writing a new business plan for Carrot Ranch as a non-profit to support literary writers around the world with weekly flash fiction challenges, encouraging responses, an annual anthology, collective promotions (community books and blogs), contests for good causes, literary craft insights and practical marketing solutions for the everyday writer.
Carrot Ranch is my platform and it also belongs to the community here. By the end of the month, I’ll have all this crafted into a plan. I’ve retained a lawyer for the non-profit side; a designer to complete our first-still-in-the-works anthology and create a branded look for the continuing series; and an academic advisor to help me create a survey that will reveal what writers need to complete a practical and individual marketing plan.
While I’m sad to let go of my dream of having writers retreats in Sandpoint, I enjoyed the writers I did get to host at Elmira Pond. I missed out on one of our own Rough Writers who had plans to stay. I’m grateful I didn’t shut down the ranch, although I admit I’ve struggled mightily to keep my focus and presence since that awful day in March when we were told our lease would not be renewed. Many good turns have happened and in the end, I did deliberately choose my next home to be an RV. We could have rented, we could buy next year, but we own this RV outright and it meets every basic need have (and when you are homeless, you come to understand clearly wants verses needs). It gives us options.
And it has a chair that allows me longer stretches of writing! I didn’t share my greatest challenge: that how we were living led to debilitating pain. I could barely meet ranch duties each week, only write in short stints and I couldn’t read for long. I’ve had three back surgeries and without an ergonomic place to sit or sleep, I developed nerve pain in my legs, shoulders and hands. I thought it would take time to build up to my previous level of desk-marathoning, but the new home-on-wheels with it’s proper bedroom and real bed plus an ergonomic chair and office space has me happily pecking away at the keys. What a relief! I now have a choice of recliner or couch for reading, too. And I’m continuing my walking and pool therapy. Thank you, to all of you’ve who’ve hung in there with me.
I feel like I can start dreaming and doing again. So, of course, I believe in flying monkeys. First, a few shots of the new Carrot Ranch office:
November 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using flying monkeys as a device or phrase. As a phrase it can be something like, “When monkeys fly over Grandma’s tea party.” As a device, you can use flying monkeys as characters (a circus act, astronaut companions, zoo critters). Think of what they are doing and why. How can flying monkeys inspire you this week?
Respond by November 8, 2016 to be included in the compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Danni’s Circus (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Danni’s yard had become the local circus. Instead of flying monkeys she had ten canine clowns.
By nine weeks, the puppies were the biggest attraction in town. Tourists gathered and Deputy Erikson cruised by daily. He informed Danni she could keep the litter up until twenty weeks unless she was training any, and at that required a special license.
Twenty weeks. Danni would let the circus run away before she lived with this chaos that long. It was time to sell the clowns. Yet, she looked at the male, Bubbie, and wondered if she should apply for a license.
Tales from Kansas (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Then the witch sends out winged monkeys to stop the farm girl from Kansas.” Jesse Williams read Sarah her favorite chapter from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Sarah sipped her tea, not wanting to leave the warmth of Jesse’s family parlor. “I knew of a real fantastical man from Kansas.”
“Tell me, Sarah!” Jesse seemed more of a child than a near-grown woman of 16. Maybe it was because Sarah felt so old. She was ancient.
“He came to Rock Creek after wresting a grizzly bear.”
Jesse’s Dad coughed, and laid down his newspaper. “You knew Wild Bill Hickok?”