december-8Driving up Flying Monkey Mesa days after rain is risky. Wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, if you were to wind around a sharp corner to find slick clay or tumbled rocks, you could have difficulty backing down. The mesas up close are a marvel — made of such soft clay and sandstone it is a wonder they stand cohesively at all. The debris that slumps and gathers at the base of mesa reminds me of mountains that have dropped their drawers. Driving up a geological mess is taking a risk with heights and unstable material. But I really wanted another gander.

Rock Climber, middle daughter, joined The Hub and me in southern Utah for Thanksgiving week. I wanted to share all my stories of this strange new place, and I wanted to do so within the live setting.

We climb the mesa where live monkeys once tested the ejection seats for jets. In 1957, Marine test-pilot, John Glen, led the US into the supersonic age and space travel. He would become the first astronaut to orbit the earth in a capsule. I wonder if he felt like those monkeys did, having no control over that orbit beyond the ability to see if humanity could leave the pull of earth’s gravity. I wonder if he ever drove up this road to review the work that once happened at this base which led to mechanisms he depended upon.

Thoughts of monkeys and space travel fly out the window as we gander like geese — the sketchy road, the slump we rise above, the dry canyons that periodically pump with flood-water like intermittent veins, the promise of solid bedrock above, the surprise of a juniper forest taking shape. Much to see. Much to consider. Each time up this mesa is a deepening of its stories to me. And Rock Climber is entering the scene.

My children grew up knowing my affliction to gather rocks. While one embraced the science of geology, the other two have learned to run at the sound of me rattling my rocks in a box. They’ve not been keen at looking over my collection. And I’ve even begun to question my desire to collect. If they are part of a story, how can I capture what a rock has to tell? I share rocks with any friend who shows a remote interest. Some receive live photos of my finds. It’s not as important for me to have as it is for me to share. I share with Rock Climber the area on top of the mesa, littered with petrified wood.

To my surprise, she gets pulled into the search, laughing at all the rocks she’s pocketing. It’s as rewarding as someone who reads my stories, wanting to read more.

The Hub doesn’t share the rock enthusiasm, although he picks up a few. He’s antsy to get going. We both want to share an amazing view with our daughter although we aren’t certain the road will be good enough to drive there. Once on the Flying Monkey Mesa, the road winds up steep stone cliffs to the higher Smith Mesa. We encounter a Jeep on the flat and ask the driver how the roads ahead are. He’s says they’re bad and he had to turn around. The Hub continues on, reasoning the Jeep is shiny and new, and it’s driver is only reluctant to get it dirty.

We get muddy, blasting through several large pools of red water that obscure the road. It’s not on a dangerous incline, but still I squeal as we hit each pool, feeling the tug and slip of the tires. The water saturates the truck and we all laugh at the fun of it, until we remember our picnic in the back. The canvas pack is muddy, but our cheese and sausage are fine. We sit on the very rim of the highest mesa in the region and look out at a hidden geological gem — Zion’s secret mini-Grand Canyon.

The view takes neck-work. In a panoramic view, we can see all the way north to Kolob Canyon, the lesser known part of Zion National Park. Following that canyon east with its stunning giants of sandstone we see the swath of multiple canyons and smaller mesas known as Kolob Terrace. To drive up the Terrace is to go to elevations where elk and pines thrive among mountain meadows as if there were not a desert at its base. Stretching across the eastern horizon and yet towering over the Terrace are the famous features of Zion — the Patriarchs, the Angels, the Temples. It is a divine view.

Rock Climber has since gone home to Montana, full of living stories and a few rocks.

We settled into our work routines, we realized we yet have more to look at and resolve. The Hub struggles with managing his combat PTSD in the workplace. It’s not blatant and he often misunderstands directive and his superiors misunderstand his response. It’s something that has dogged him since leaving the military, but as he’s gotten older his struggle seems harder. Having dealt with it for so long without any help from the VA, we started pushing for help two years ago, and beat down the doors when we found ourselves homeless in June. While he has overcome some symptoms of PTSD, he’s developed severe anxiety to the point that the VA recognizes it as a service-related disability.

But will his new employer accommodate his disability? He’s on unpaid leave while they take 30 days to decide.

Advocacy on behalf of another is relentless work, yet with the VA it’s never-ending. In Spokane we had a team of doctors, nurses, mental health providers, social workers, and access to a vocational rehabilitation counselor. Trying to transfer everything to southern Utah has been slow. The VA clinic in St. George is elusive as monkeys on a mesa. They don’t answer their phone; in person they say The Hub isn’t in their system; and they don’t return voice calls.

When I twist my neck backwards to take in the view of hindsight, I see where his life, our life, could have been different if only he had received support from the VA to bridge back from military life to civilian. If only the VA had accepted accountability for his blown knees at age 25, he might have received re-education benefits. Instead we struggled through it on our own. Spokane is still helpful to us, but St. George is silent. I even called the Veteran’s Crisis Hotline to speak to a mental health provider and find other resources here. They had nothing closer than Las Vegas so they referred me to the Suicide Hotline, saying it would get me through to the local support network. Local, is Salt Lake City.And there’s no support here.

Tomorrow, we storm the doors of the St. George VA clinic. I want to go all Trump on them, but I will remember to take the higher road.

We are okay. We are safe in our new-to-us RV with a supply of propane for heat and cooking. I have my writing, which is always interesting to hear therapists applaud. It makes me think about how grateful I am for the community of writers here because I can tell my stories without feeling isolated.

The future, including Trump and circumstances, actually looks hopeful from this view. It’s not rose-colored glasses. It’s about making choices, taking accountability, and a willingness to give and receive kindness. After what we came through this year with all our losses, even losses for Carrot Ranch, I recognize the gains. It’s like I’m looking at that panoramic view, acknowledging that the grand beauty is the result of destructive forces. We might slump and weather, but something new is created in us during adversity.

I’m not afraid of the view. That’s the kind of writer you have to be if you are in this for the long-haul because there are no shortcuts up the mesa. And that debris is what every other writer has had to slump in perfecting craft, a weathering and writing process that never actually reaches perfection. But we strive. We write. Year after year. I no longer feel pressured to produce. It’s not production that matters as much as process. Keep progressing. Never mind the rock-slides that build up from rejection or disappointment in your own work. Never mind. Keep writing. A sandstone pillar will only emerge after much processing.

So let’s take a gander, this season of the Christmas goose!

December 8, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write using the word gander as a verb. A gander is a male goose, yet the Old English etymology of the word suggests it was once gandra which described a waterbird with a long neck (like a crane). In 1912, it became the act of taking a long look. What is the long look your story or character is considering?

Respond by December 13, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published December 14). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Silly Geese (from Rock Creek by Charli Mills)

Sarah walked in the shadow of cottonwoods across the chasm called Rock Creek. The water flowed tepid and slow, but spring floods gouged a deep course that made crossing difficult for wagons until the toll-bridge. Cobb’s family lived at the trading post and she slept in the smaller toll booth. Cabins separated by the natural divide. Sometimes when she walked, his children would see her. Their heads bobbed like silly geese above the blond waves of autumn prairie grass. Occasionally, Cobb gandered a look across the creek, but mostly he stayed with his flock.

He never really saw her.


Just Looking (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

A sea of long tails and chunky puppy faces churned in the birthing box. Soon they’d need to relocate. Ten puppies! Danni found herself gandering at the box several times while cooking dinner. The roan male, fat as a tick, stared back. The last time Ike called from Iraq she’d told him about the tails. He wasn’t thrilled she didn’t get them docked.

“The male has a tail like a sparkler with a tuft of cowlicks at the end.”

“That can’t look good.”

“He’s gorgeous, Ike.”

“What? Danni Gordon thinks a dog is gorgeous?”

Maybe, she thought. Just looking.


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