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Sixty miles and hour, windows rolled down, paved highway humming to the spin of tires, and I’m daydreaming about prairie flowers.
My hand rests on the steering wheel while I follow the truck and trailer in front of me. This must have been the view of pioneer women, only the pace much slower and the landscape emptier. No road signs to follow; only wagon ruts cut through the rolling hills. No modern rest stops or gas stations with odd names like Kum & Go; only free fuel for the oxen and skirts for privy privacy. When Mary Green McCanles followed her brother-in-law’s family out to Nebraska Territory, what did she dream during the long drive?
It’s easy to lump “pioneer women” into generic categories like loaves of commercial bread — you can barely discern a difference between white or wheat. In my mind, I recite the different prairie flowers to bloom during my stay in Kansas and focus on color, height and texture. Each one has a different season, grows in different soil and might even have surprising purposes. So it was with the women. My appreciation for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her pioneer years renews. She took the time to cast each character in a unique role. Laura was different from her mother, sisters and peers. Each was her own prairie flower within the settler ecosystem.
When I became interested in telling the Rock Creek event between two historic men, I wondered if I’d have anything new to say about July 12, 1861. James Butler Hickok has been thoroughly investigated by British historian, Joseph Rosa. Often accused of being yet another fancier of Hickok mythology, Rosa had a sharp mind and a ready pen. Best of all, he did due diligence in his research, something his peers and predecessors did not do as thoroughly. When anyone called out Rosa for his disclosures or discoveries on Hickok, he readily responded and editorial battles ensued in western history associations and magazines for all the world to read. And Rosa supplied evidence for his claims or counter-strikes.
However, when it came to David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles, Rosa pulled from the error and gossip filled annuals he corrected for Hickok, but not for Cobb. I understand. Rosa’s lifelong focus was Hickok, and that’s why no one expects anything new to be discovered. At first I felt annoyed that McCanles didn’t receive fair scrutiny. While his grandson attempted to “set the record straight” after seeing his family name besmirched in dime store novels and Hollywood westerns, the result was an over-correction. Who was D.C. McCanles? It depends upon which faction one reads, but each side has gaping holes in documentation.
Early on, I wrote the man as a character in a white hat, then black. But it wasn’t until I picked up on how the women would have seen him that the story came to life.
Like many before me, I first saw the pioneer women of Rock Creek in general terms — the wife, the former mistress and the station manager’s common-law wife. The wife/mistress tension had been played out ad nauseam and the more I wrote into the story, the less it held up as the linchpin to the events of July 12, 1861. I couldn’t find out much about the station manager’s wife. I felt if I could peer into the lives and minds of these women like a botanist scoping prairie flowers, I could understand better what happened that fateful day. I could come up with something new like Rosa had.
Women get lost in the records, often because of name changes. Thankfully Mary (the wife) had sons, and I could track her whereabouts through their names. After all, she did remarry. Sarah Shull also remarried, and other historians discovered her married name and subsequent locations, but they fixated on an imagined love triangle between her, Hickok and Cobb. Because it annoyed me that the lover’s spat angle was cliched and yet another way to diminish the expression of women on the frontier as anything else other than wives or whores, I followed the leads that pointed to Sarah’s profession. The pioneer was an accomplished accountant and store-keep. Given Cobb’s interest to expand his business holdings, it places Sarah in another role.
Jane Holmes was the hardest to research. We know through oral accounts she was the daughter of Joseph Holmes, a frontiersman and carpenter. She is also documented as being the common-law wife of the Pony Express station manager, Horace Wellman. She might be the young unmarried woman with an infant listed in the Joseph Holmes household of the 1860 territorial census. Her name is Nancy J. Nothing can be found of her before or after Rock Creek. Nor can I find a likeness of the sort of woman she might have been among the more proper journals, diaries and scrapbooks of pioneer women. She’s my imagined free spirit.
Research, writing and daydreaming has been my Rock Creek dance. I’m not penning a biography like Rosa did, but I will take a page from his strategy book. While thumbing through the crisp, brown and musty ledgers of the Kansas State Archives, I used Hickok as an entry point once I couldn’t find anything relating to my principal women. That led me to Rosa’s research. I mean, his actual research he himself did at the Kansas State Archives for decades. For 20 years he did all his research from London, writing correspondence with the state historians. After that he traveled to the Midwest annually to research for 30 days, his holiday. Once he began to publish, he stood on solid documentation. Like Rosa, my fiction will stand upon solid research.
Unlike Rosa, I dream the gaps. I drive and daydream of prairie flowers, digesting what I discovered in Rock Creek on this trip.
Mary, deepened in character when I gave her a competitive edge over Sarah to wield like power. Cobb’s father wrote of Mary’s vivaciousness and a photo no historian has ever published in a book about Rock Creek shows her to be a gorgeous young woman at the time of the incident. But what else? Even the prairie rose has more to offer than beauty. I learned several stories, digging into old pioneer accounts about the era after the Rock Creek incident. One, told by her two children Cling and Lizza (as “old-timers”) recounts how they grew up playing with the Otoe-Missouri children near Rock Creek. Cling says his mother traded with them.
In a second account in another book, Mary features in an obscure incident involving the Otoe-Missouri tribe. They often stopped at her ranch, even wounded. Further, the author relates a simple passage: “Mary often walked the trails alone and at night to midwife and doctor folks.” Not only was she not afraid of the “redman” her neighbors often feared, she took care of them as a prairie doctor. This rose suddenly bloomed in my mind, and I daydreamed about Mary and what her life was like and how she became a lone woman on the prairie, doctoring and delivering babies no matter the origins. No wonder many lovingly called her Grandma McCanles in her old age. No wonder proper history overlooked her improper activities.
A third story related to me by a local historian was that Mary’s second husband divorced her because of infidelity. She said I could find it in the county records. Not that it pertains to the events in my book, but it certainly colors the character of Mary who has only her first name inscribed upon her gravestone above “Wife of D. C. McCanles.” I once thought perhaps she was uncertain of who she was — a Green, a McCanles or a Hughes. No, I think she knew exactly who she was and didn’t require the name of a father or spouse to legitimize her life in death.
Another conclusion I drew from experiencing Rock Creek in person was that Nancy Jane might be missing from the records, but she served an important role in life. She was friend to Sarah Shull, and able to reinvent herself. I suspect her next relationship was that of marriage. The wildest of the three might have assimilated into a proper life. But I like to imagine her racing a horse across the hard-packed earth with hair as wind-whipped as mine while journeying north. She did not fear change. She might have been a bit like Calamity Jane whom Hickok treated kindly later in life. Newspapers and records might have missed their lives, but the women of Rock Creek live on in my dreams.
This week, Rough Writer and author, Ruchira Khanna, has offered a guest prompt. I’d like to pause, near the end of a long journey (or at least a rest stop) to thank everyone at Carrot Ranch for carrying on while I traverse the trails. Especially, I’d like to thank Norah Colvin, D. Avery and Ruchira Khana for stepping up to ranch chores. I’ll catch up with you all once settled on the healing shores of Lake Superior. Keep writing, keep pushing on, and happy trails to you all.
June 22, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a dream. This action could have happened while awake, such as daydreaming, or make up a dream when asleep. Go where the prompt leads as it could be a nightmare or just fond memories or ambition.
Respond by June 27, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 28). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lost in a Dream (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Young Sally stirred the bean pot and twittered about lace she’d seen in Beatrice. Sarah saw herself as if in a dream, a memory vividly sketched in mind but dormant for years.
“Beans look ready Miss Sarah?”
Her hands, no longer stiff and aged, trembled at what she knew came next. She heard herself repeat words from 70 years ago. “Check one.”
Sally blew on the wooden spoon, a lone pinto perched in thin liquid. Bread cooled next to churned butter and wild plum jam.
Sarah succumbed to the memory of the day. There never was a last supper.
Guest Challenger: Word Wrangler, Shorty’s Creator, Author, Ranch Hand & Pre-Dawn Warrior, D. Avery
No tales from the West or Midwest this week. This prompt was inspired from an opposite direction.
The native people of this place are the Wampanogs, the People of the breaking day. Their name for this place means Faraway Island. Here there are no mountains, no hills, not even tall trees to buffer the relentless brightening that rolls in from the east, unimpeded by the lapping waves of the Atlantic. The day breaks early.
There is scrub, which provides ample food and shelter for the birds that daily celebrate this brightening, most insistently the male cardinal, who chirps and trills from the highest perch he can flag, greeting the sun before it even cracks the horizon. It is hard to sleep through the unhindered light and the joyous symphony of early dawn.
Some people have always been less joyous than the birds about the transition from night to day. A couple of years back, while reading in the wee hours, I discovered this poem by Japanese poet Fujiwara No Michinobu:
In the dawn, though I know
It will grow dark again,
How I hate the coming day.
If you are one who often bears witness to the coming day, you also might attest to the uncanny arrival of dread in the predawn. Dawn can be the worst time, the time when we might be at war with ourselves, the time when we knead our worries, allowing them to give rise to restless wonderings and anxious what-ifs.
But that is not what the cardinal is chirping about; worry and doubt are not why he and the towhees, robins, and others are exhorting you to wake. For hopefully you also have experienced the inspiration that often steals in with the coming of day. And maybe Michinobu wasn’t so much dreading the coming day but was regretting the ending of night, for the hours before dawn can be a time of contentment such as this poet felt:
The hermit doesn’t sleep at night;
In love with the blue of the vacant moon
The cool of the breeze
That rustles the trees
Rustles him too.
The first poet wrote darkly of the light, the second wrote brightly of the dark. Both light and dark are necessary. Ask any tree. A seed starts in the dark, sends its radicle, its primary root, down into the soil before unfolding its embryonic leaves into the light. For many of us, inspiration also germinates in the dark and must take hold there, nurtured by consideration and intent before expending energy on shooting outwards and upwards. The predawn hours can be a time of contemplation and insight, a time to let the imagination out to play and to entertain ideas as possibilities. Though hinting at restlessness, the hermit of the second poem was inspired by night, and perhaps he also welcomed the morning light that illuminated his thoughts and ignited his creative impulses.
Are you a predawn worrier, or a predawn warrior? If you are reading this you are more likely a predawn warrior, someone who is open to inspiration and intuition. You are not afraid of the dark, and you certainly are not afraid of the light. You welcome both and use them both to creative ends. How does the dawn break in your place, how does it come to you? Does it arrive with the patience afforded mountains? Does it get filtered by tall trees, or buffeted by tall buildings? Do you greet it with offerings, with sprouted seeds of inspiration and ideas gathered in the night?
In this place the names of the European supplanters who came to these shores four hundred years ago remain, along with Wampanog place names. This place is not what it was. Cars rattle over the cobblestoned streets. Planes interrupt the skies overhead. Ferries disgorge numerous tractor-trailers laden with food and all other supplies. They disgorge carloads of people. In town, there is a “night life,” crowded and boisterous. But there are quiet places too, and quiet times. Expanses of sky and water mirror one another, both sparkling with starlight. Fishermen awaken in the dark that they might confront their quarry at break of dawn. These fishermen might be seen by artists endeavoring to capture on their canvas the subtle changes of light as night dissolves and day breaks over the shimmering harbor.
I, like many, still lie in bed, but not for long. As always, the transition from night to dawn is vibrantly championed by the birds who incite the night sitters and other dreamers to rouse ourselves, to unfold into a new day.
June 15, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that symbolically, mythically, mystically, or realistically involves dawn, as a noun or verb. Write about the dawn of time or the time of dawn, or the dawning of an idea. As always, go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 20, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 21). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
* I regret that I did not take note of this poet’s name when I copied this down years ago, nor can locate the book it might have come from.
Woofie runs in mad circles across the lush mowed grass of eastern Kansas. It’s a doggie game — I call his name in a playful pitch, and he responds with the energy of a spunky toddler. He has big brown teddy-bear eyes behind long black fur. His face is like that of a Wookie, and when he drinks water he likes to slop his cold wet beard on someone’s lap or leg. He’s definitely the youngest dog in the pack but not the only one to play games.
My Sis (technically, The Hub’s Sis) is married to the Dog Whisperer of Missouri (DWM). He’s good at teaching old dogs games, like counting to five. Bobo knows her numbers and eagerly plays the game before DWM goes to work. Woofie and Kale have other tricks and games. Kale would play doggie flashlight tag until he dropped. Sis has even come home to find him nested in her bed (her side) with the flashlight lovingly grasped between his front paws.
No one plays games better than The Hub, and often this is to my dismay. His favorite games involve annoying me. Like talking in a monster-truck voice at the grocery store, announcing every item I pull from the shelf. It’s the result of a cooped up extrovert, living in an RV with an introvert. We all know the silent struggles of introverts, but silence can be difficult for extroverts to manage. So The Hub entertains himself with games.
Leaving a down-home coffee cafe, a tetherball gets me thinking of games. I haven’t seen one of these poles set in cement since I was a child. I vaguely recall playing tetherball and it seems a fun, albeit vague memory. Remember the games we once played? Running around, playing tag as exuberantly as a galloping dog? Hopscotch, hide-n-seek, jump-rope. I’m not sure screen games compare, being of the generation who didn’t have screens growing up, nor did my kids. We still like board games and cards. Seeing that tetherball was a remembrance of outdoor recess at school and that joy of having time for games.
Which leads me to time, or a lack of it. I’m so busy playing adult games, I feel like the child who laments the setting sun because it’s time to stop playing and go inside.
In the morning I return to KATP archeology field school to play in the lab. Danni’s scenes, and I have so many, where she’s working were generalized. Now I know what she’d be doing exactly and why she could get lost in her work. I’ve met dedicated archeologists who know what it is to pursue their passion although it will never lead to wealth in the pocketbook. Many professionals are volunteering on this dig and loving every minute of it, gritty with sweat and field dirt, smiles on their faces. One archeologist told me a joke I’m determined to fit into my novel, Miracle of Ducks. I think it resonates with career writers as well:
What’s the difference between an archeologist and a large pizza?
A pizza can feed a family of four!
Ouch. But true. Why is it, the pursuits that expand our minds and understanding like literary arts and cultural anthropology, are the ones we value least with money? Funding cuts are slashing deeply across the arts and even sciences in America. What a poor world where books are merely reports and cultures diminished and homogenized. I want vibrancy and diversity. I want time to play tetherball or cards over coffee.
While last week was bitter disappointment at the VA, we may have a ray of hope beating like fireflies at dusk. I’ve picked up the past-time of telling so-called veteran’s organizations what I really think of their fundraising and lack of services. We’ve had such unfortunate experiences reaching out to organizations that don’t help and then claim it’s because they are “not services.” In other words, they collect government money, grants and donations to NOT serve, but merely direct veterans to organizations that do. No kidding, last year at the height of crisis, we went through dozens of organizations that all filtered us to one to another to finally sending us to the same service that didn’t help because of criteria or (ironically) lack of funding.
The blip of hope is that I told off an organization only to be contacted by someone who said I misunderstood. It’s a veteran-led organization that has experienced our same frustrations. After talking to one of the organizers today, I felt…dignified. That may seem an odd reaction but until you’ve experienced what it is to have your human dignity taken away, it’s an empowering feeling to have someone restore it. We’ll know more on Monday, but they may be able to help in practical ways, understanding what barriers we’ve faced and validating that the VA does indeed block transients from care. They know the back alleys, the underground railroad of sorts. And I hope they pull through.
I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been away from the Ranch. It’s unintentional but think of me as temporarily away at a rodeo where I may win a purse or at least bring back new tales and stock. Between Rock Creek research (and I get to go visit Rock Creek station next week!) at the Kansas State Archives, archeology field school, beloved family and dogs, a possible new client contract, interviews for future profiles and articles, and trying to cram more time into a day, I’ve been called away. This is temporary, and I greatly appreciate the way the community supports one another in the comments and across individual blogs. Please continue to do so and know I will get caught up with you all over the next few weeks!
If any Rancher is interested in some ranch chores, I could use help wrangling stories from the last prompt and this one. If someone is up to it, I’d also welcome a guest prompt post next week. If not, I may extend the deadline next week, depending upon what happens Monday and when we get to Rock Creek, Nebraska. I’m grateful for this community and appreciate you all showing up and being patient. Think of the ranch challenge as a game, one we enjoying playing like tetherball or other long summer nights on the streets or dirt roads with friends.
And an update on our first Anthology and establishing an imprint — we are halfway there and have enough to start. The cover will be revealed after the Fourth of July. This is going to happen! Thank you to all who shared and contributed. More forthcoming, when I have time to process it all! To our Friends attending the Bloggers Bash, have a blast!
June 8, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves playing an outdoor game, like tetherball, hoops, tag. It can be made up, traditional, cultural or any kind of twist. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 13, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 14 unless extended). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Games Across Rock Creek (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Rawr!” Cobb charged his five children on his hands and knees in the cropped grass in front of the west ranch house. Lizzie stood and giggled, blind since birth, she relied on her brothers to get around. Even playing games, the boys guided Lizzie. Cobb gently bumped her with his head and she squealed in delight. Young Charl tried clambering up Cobb’s back. Monroe boosted his youngest brother so he could ride Da’s back like a horse. Laughter carried across Rock Creek.
Sarah watched from the shadows on her side. Away from his precious family. The games they played.
After the thunderstorms, humidity clings to vegetation and casts a pink glow across the horizon with the setting sun. It’s juicy in the midwest, and my skin is a sponge after our arid journey. Insects skitter and frogs croak long into the evening. June bugs bump my RV screen, seeking the artificial light. The day birds go silent and owls occasionally pick up the tune. When the morning sun returns, red cardinals flash between trees and songbirds trill.
We are content in Kansas for the moment. A Respite.
I’m digging these days. Mostly into the Kansas State Archives which reside where Sis works. She’s The Hubb’s sister, but I claim her as mine. She’s kind and caring, funny and lovable. I dig hanging out with her! Going to work with Sis has been one of many highlights, sharing coffee, breakfast, lunch and thumbing through the index cards in search of history for Rock Creek. On weekends the grands delight us. Little A helped me dig a diminutive pot garden, and we planted parsley, lime basil and chives. Her little hand in the dirt with mine was a bonding moment.
The biggest dig of all happens tomorrow when I carry a shovel out to 4JF420, a real archeology site, gridded and ready to be worked. Today I started archeology field school, a 50th birthday gift from Sis. Kansas has a program to involve the public and train volunteers. What makes archeology different from other studies of history is its methodology. The dig records every bit of evidence and catalogs the complete inventory of artifacts and features. The artifacts and records can be pulled and examined by other professionals, professors or students the same way I pull index cards and ask to see the original documents. Today, I got to see my character Dr. Danni Gordon’s profession up close and personal. Tomorrow I get to dig like Danni.
I had such a feeling of contentment when we breathed a sigh of relief upon arrival. Contentment to be among loving family. Contentment to be up to my eyeballs in historic records. Contentment to be gifted a chance to dig.
And yet, the shadowy beast of homelessness follows, lumbering and restless. It’s been a year, and normalcy is something for other people. Rootlessness is something you can’t understand without experiencing it. And it’s punishable by society. The silent judgement of you did something wrong, you deserve this. We got to the VA in Topeka and two visits have nearly wrecked me. The Hub was like an angry bear the first visit. And who can blame him? They shamed him for going to ER for a sore tooth when their beds were full. No one should have to compare his condition to another just to get help. When I informed them he pulled his own tooth and was concerned about infection, they got a doctor in right away, prescribing antibiotics.
You begin to lose humanity when homeless. Sis has been a wonderful anchor, making sure our needs are taken care of. We are eating regularly and healthy food. We take more showers and have access to regular laundry. Not everyone is so caring. Someone I know sent me a link they thought I’d “enjoy.” It was a video of a couple who toured the US in their RV and the lessons of minimizing they learned. They concluded we don’t need “stuff” and I agree. I’m content with the basics. It’s the rootlessness and the silent censure from others. It’s being homesick. This couple in the video returned home after a year. They never were without it. They were travelers, not homeless and their privilege was missed by the person who thought I’d enjoy the lessons of a diminished life.
Another visit to the VA, this one with Vocational Rehabilitation. This was the meeting I hoped for. This was the hope I had clung to — The Hub qualifies and is eligible for re-education. He has a great plan for a machining business, and I have a plan to connect to it through Carrot Ranch. I’m experienced and good at developing magazines, knowing how they operate from top to bottom. But as you all probably know, literary magazines are not big sellers. But a trade journal for The Hub’s business fills a niche market. It would be part of the literary platform as an arch from what I do to what he does. I have a business plan and he has worked out all the important details such as development and market. We have others up north who are helping us get this polished and presentable.
The VR&E at the Topeka VA was someone who could explain the components of seeking self-employment through The Hub’s benefits. We both began to spill out our ideas and she said the first thing we’d be asked would be our credit. I caught it, The Hub didn’t. He kept talking. I sat there as hot tears flowed down my face. Credit? You mean like walk into a bank with a permanent address? To explain why we have no credit? To explain our foreclosure? To explain why I went to a doctor I had no insurance for because the clinic thought I had cervical cancer but I couldn’t afford the tests and have an outstanding bill? To explain why we never filed our MN taxes (don’t ask, it incites a riot between me and The Hub and MN doesn’t care that we actually paid taxes very year; they didn’t like our non-filing)?
We’re back to we did something wrong to be homeless. How the blazes does a homeless vet who is unable to work in a traditional job and qualifies for a program to start his own business, but doesn’t qualify for the credit (in part because he’s homeless) ever supposed to get out of this pit?
So a friend suggested I shouldn’t write about contentment if the word was causing a lump in my throat. She’s right. I do feel like kicking the world right now. Also, how intimidating these circumstances are.
Maybe I should tell you how the sterile walls of the VA mental health center made me feel. First we had to walk through a door that is posted, “Door locks behind you.” There’s no trust in walking through that door. I don’t trust I’m going to get out. I don’t trust that if anyone agitated my grumpy bear of a spouse that they wouldn’t even try to understand the stress and anxiety he’s under. I didn’t walk through that door because I trusted it would be okay. I walked through it because I knew I had to take the risk; risk feeling bitterly disappointed; risk being told no, not you; risk being misunderstood; risk being an artist, a writer, a historian and as of today, an archeologist. I walked back out that door with The Hub and when relief hit me it was short lived — because I noticed the sterile walls and it reminded me to be normal, fit in, do good.
And I did what I do best. I gave the bloody walls the middle finger and rebelled. I’m not a conformist or a status quo champion. Maybe I’m not content in the ways of nose-to-the-grindstone for someone else’s corporate gain. I’m not content homeless but like many on the streets, I’m not going to give in to a system that doesn’t honor human dignity. I’m going to take my fingers and find the words and craft them until I am beyond contented with the final product. And it will not go quickly and I will not go quietly. I will do what I set out to accomplish and I’ll help others, too. I’ll help The Hub, and one day I’ll be in a position to say, this is what compassion looks like; this is what human dignity is between humans. This is a home, my home. I’m content with the dream that has me and the stories that fill me and spill out. Like my Sis says, there are six elegant solutions, and I believe her. If have to, I’ll do business like a man who has no credit — I’ll go the Russians.
But tomorrow, I dig in the dirt.
Thank you, Ranchers, for making this community like a home. It gives me an anchor, and gives me purpose. I can build a platform for one or many, and it would be the same amount of work. That is why this is a place for us, for you, for me. Let your literary freak flag fly and keep writing like I tell myself every day: no matter what. I love the write. Some say it is good to have written, but I think those gathered hear better understand it is good to be writing. And thank you to those of you who have so generously invested where the VA has no intention. Thank you for not asking for my credit or censuring me for challenged roots.
We have raised a third of the money needed to design, format, publish the first anthology and start an imprint. One of the reasons for an imprint is to publish other books in addition to the anthologies. The first one is needed to set the marketing in motion, too. This is a platform, a community one, but marketing is something you do with a platform when you have a product. There is an expansion in mind with intent to support the community. We also have a generous offer to start a no-fee contest for a prize. It can be a sprout for using contests to benefit charities the community supports. There are good things on the horizon. There are good people in the world.
And good writers who write here.
June 1, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about feeling content. Explore what is contentment and any direction will do. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 6, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 7). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Happily Digging (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni heard Ike’s truck rumble down the gravel road. She knelt barefoot by a window to the past – a square troweled to reveal debris from long before. Sifting had revealed ceramic sherd, a few square nails, and a cigar token to the old Congress Hotel in Sandpoint. A window gave an archeologist quick insight to a possible site.
Danni pondered possibilities when she heard Ike’s truck door close. The sun had warmed the soil all day, and Danni was content.
He approached the fence and freshly tilled soil. “I thought you were gardening today.”
“I am,” she replied, smiling.
White clouds scud across the blue skies of Kansas. An ocean of green grass spreads out below and I can imagine how the pioneer wagons with white tarps once mirrored the procession of cumulus clouds. In a modern car the going is smooth, but in a wagon the path was not easy. Wagons wore ruts and packed the earth so hard, grass doesn’t grow in some places even today. Ravines and creeks were dangerous, and pioneers often drowned crossing rivers. My idyllic vision of Conestogas crossing the prairie is far from reality.
Yet there’s a reality often overlooked in the western expansion of the US — the perspective from women who came west. Just as I’m driving the car in our mini RV train of sorts, women often managed the reins of the wagons. At the end of the day after traveling, I can still feel the movement of the road. I’m sure the wagon drivers laid down at night feeling the sway and jostle of their conveyances, too. But what’s significant is what’s omitted from the pioneer diaries and accounts. According to one historian, as many as 90 percent of the women who came west were in one phase of pregnancy or another. There were plains so flat and wagons so many, I wonder how women found privacy for the most personal of functions?
A community of women would have been important. They could look after one another and best understand feminine needs. But what about those on the fringes? I often think of Nancy Jane Holmes as a feminine rebellious spirit. But how rebellious could her gender be? Evidence indicates she had a child out of wedlock and later lived with a man as a common-law wife. She grew up on the prairie and I imagine she learned to hunt and fix game for meals. She was more hunter than farmer. Did she ever ride with the buffalo hunters? What did she think of the groups of women who passed through in the wagon trains? What did they think of her, or say to her?
For men, the westward expansion was more adventurous. In their prime, they were not burdened by bodies meant for fertility. They didn’t experience monthly fluxes, pregnancy or nursing an infant. They were free to roam, explore and be independent even with families in tow. If men were single and in a group, often they were pushing longhorns to Kansas from Texas or serving as soldiers in the US Cavalry or frontiersmen who scouted for wagon trains and hunted buffalo.
Driving across the lone prairie, I wonder at how to breakthrough the stereotypes of these past experiences, to acknowledge what was common and likely, yet imagine the unrecorded exceptions. History has documented James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, to the minute detail. There’s no new evidence of his experiences, yet I think there’s much left to say about them by looking at the other people he interacted with at Rock Creek. Especially the women. Historians have turned wild imaginations toward Sarah Shull, and yet have virtually ignored Nancy Jane Holmes (or Jane Wellman). She was on the fringe of what was typical of pioneer women. She was more of a frontierswoman. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Kansas provides rich history, and tomorrow my research here begins.
For the challenge, I’m thinking about the longhorns who also once spread across the plains. The word longhorns evokes notions of cowboys and cattle, which featured later in Wild Bill Hickok’s life. It’s also the name of western steakhouses, bars, football teams and a type of cheddar cheese. Dig deep enough and you’ll find some obscure term for computer technology. It’s the same idea with history, and I look forward to digging.
May 25, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a that includes the word longhorn. You can go with any of its meanings or make it a name of a person or organization. Cheese or cattle, technology or place, what can you create from the western icon? Go traditional or new; go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 30, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 31). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Myths of Longhorns (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
“Ever see cowboys riding the trail with their longhorns?” Jesse asked.
Sarah was tucked in a blanket, sitting on Jesse’s porch. Shulls Mill squatted dingy with lumbering dust and brick buildings. Not the crisp colors of the prairie. “No,” she replied.
“But I thought Hickok was Marshall of the biggest cowtown.”
“That was later. I saw plenty of oxen and some had long horns.”
“I pictured longhorns on the prairies.”
“Buffaloes. I once saw a herd so large the ground shook.”
“Weren’t you afraid of Indians?”
“Jesse, there’s much about the west not in those dime novels you read.”
Julia McCanles, the wizened old woman in the photo, grew so old as to regenerate new teeth. We know this miracle of age through a quirky newspaper report. Perhaps she lost molars and made room for impacted wisdom teeth. Maybe she really did grow new ones, though unlikely. Her shawl is clustered with crocheted pompoms, which says she had the wisdom to not give a wit what she wore, but dressed as she pleased regardless of teeth.
When I am old and gray, I, too will wear crocheted pompoms. Not purple, though. Turquoise.
Like all of us on the journey of life, I hope to indeed grow wise, gray and toothful. I’m making good headway, turning half a century old on Sunday, May 21. It finally sounds like I’ve achieved a dignified age, one that makes others pause. 50 sounds serious.
A few years ago I lied a few years to sound older. I was interviewing a potential client who turned out to be young and brash, definitely not wise. He had hired inexperienced writers from to submit content to websites he was developing for Spokane businesses. Now he needed a professional to rewrite the content to grow his business. He wanted a “partner” to do the task. His ad was misleading, and I had only been interested in a local writing gig, not investing my own sweat equity in his business. When my line of questioning irritated him, he asked, “Why does everyone just want to write? I need a business partner.”
Well, that wasn’t compelling at all for me. I answered an ad for a writer and explained perhaps he should advertise for a partner instead. He then proceeded to tell me about his marketing prowess, which by this time I doubted. He then made a strange assumption. He said based on all my questions and obvious reluctance to be his partner that I must be young. As soon as he assured himself I was young he began bragging about how big his web business was going to be.
I interrupted him and said I was 50. He hung up the phone on me! That’s when I knew 50 carried power. Who wants to tangle with a wise woman?
Gallup has changed me. I feel as though I’ve emerged from the wardrobe after living a lifetime in Narnia. We left this morning with a revived transmission. By the time we made the left turn at Albuquerque, north on the old Santa Fe Trail, I felt transformed back to the modern world. We can all learn from Gallup. Living in the moment and acknowledging the human dignity in one another, honoring art and making space for beauty, showing strangers the same kindness you’d show friends, not worrying over material things for they are only things, and connecting to history to future are all part of the Gallup way.
Sunday is a threshold of sorts. A time to reflect. I remember a couple’s retreat Todd and I did before we had children, and how industrious I was back then. We both came out of the hard-working culture of the west. In a class, we were asked to make a list of five goals we had for next week, and another for five goals we’d have if we were told we would die in a year. The idea was that the lists should align. If not, were we wasting time we might not have? Later the instructor pulled me aside. He said life is a stage and we should dare to be on the one that is our own. He said I wasn’t even in the audience watching life, I was in the lobby scrubbing floors.
That had an impact on me. Was I working hard toward something, or was I merely working hard?
From that day forward, I made a pact with myself. No matter if I was scrubbing floors, waiting tables, covering council meetings, raising children or going to school, I would make sure my hard work applied toward something. It put me in a never-ending pattern of writing goals. That was my ultimate dream — to be a writer of historical fiction. Therefore, as a mom of young children, I took them to historical sites. As a waitress at nights, I listened to the stories of elders for insights to the past. As a college student, I pitched an independent project to draft an historical novel. When my advisor would not let me pursue the novel as my honors thesis, I made sure the project he approved would teach me how to be a better historical researcher.
After college graduation, I did not get the sexy jobs a writing major dreams of. Instead I wrote obituaries as assistant editor to a daily newspaper. But I reflected on the history of each person. When I couldn’t get hired as an editor or writer in publications, I took a job selling magazine ads, working my way up to writing advertorials and representing my publisher at national conferences. The terrible year I worked as an independent insurance agent, I used my salary to buy the family a membership to all the state’s historical sites. As the kids got older, we found more interesting research, including cemetery look-ups as volunteer genealogists. Once I landed a marketing communications job, I made sure to become the organization’s lead writer and historian. When I left that job and set my goal on writing my first novel, I made sure it involved history even if it was a modern setting.
Writing evolved, not scrubbing floors.
But I don’t want a stage for soliloquies. I want a vibrant live play with unexpected twists, drama, scares, laughs, insights and poignant moments. I don’t want to be the only actor, the lone writer. That’s why Carrot Ranch is all about building a literary community. I will always write. My blood will pulse to the tempo of understanding the present through the lens of history. I’ll always be interested in taking something good and making it better. All those things come to life at the ranch.
Yet it’s a place that can mean something different for each person who finds the trail here, or passes through. This is not a community for historical fiction writers. It’s better that we have diversity. Different genres, experiences and interests. Writers are welcome to come and go. Of course, as this community has taken shape, I’ve set goals for growth. I have a vision for using creative efforts to form collective projects. In 2014, I went to LA with my polished first novel (Miracle of Ducks) and a collection of shared flash fiction from Carrot Ranch.
That’s where I met with several agents and publishers. A few took my first 50 pages. They all advised me to seek regional publication for an anthology, but they were also intrigued by what we were doing at Carrot Ranch. From that conference I was able to understand key marketing differences between my prior experience in print publications and book publishing. I began crafting articles to explain what a writer’s platform is actually composed of and how to use one’s unique platform strengths to market. The biggest component that stumps us all is defining and reaching our target audiences. I have theories and a potential partnership with a clever business psychologist (who also happens to be my son).
With all these ideas and experiences converging, I started to build regional connections, including relationships with two publishing houses in the Pacific Northwest. That’s when we began working in earnest on our first anthology. I developed a library program called Wrangling Words, began teaching it monthly and also partnered with a spoken word event to read flash fiction. I kept in contact with the LA conference and hosted several regional events for rural writers. I hosted numerous writers from across the US at Elmira Pond and set in motion plans for workshops. In fact, one was held last fall. Without me. And the regional book conferences I was to do Wrangling Words events (and theoretically sell our anthology) went on without me.
Last June we had to leave our rental so it could go one the market. In a rural area with popular summer tourism, there was a rental shortage and we ended up camping on the Coeur D’Alene River until we embarked on this transient lifestyle that took us from the Pacific Northwest to Mars to alien abduction (or our transmission) in Gallup to (hopefully) Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan. It’s not been pleasant and at other times it’s been amazing. It has challenged and grown me in ways I might have avoided. Sometimes I felt like giving up and becoming a hermit writer. But many circled the wagons at Carrot Ranch and we got through rocky times where I had to office in mining town libraries or rip out the back end of a leaking old trailer to build an office. One thing I learned was how to make the community platform work.
50 and homeless was not how I imagined life would be. I still sting over the loss of Elmira Pond and all the little injustices that plague those without an address. But I look for the beauty in the natural world, I never forget to see where history intersects modern understanding, and always I write. Maybe if I had been more of a floor scrubber I’d have my own floors. But I wouldn’t trade it for the dreams of a writer and the chance to lasso the moon. Wisdom? What would Great-Grandma Julia say? She left her home in North Carolina for the frontier. This land I’m about to see tomorrow, she saw. I anticipate its impact, the connection, the living for goals like I might die next year.
For my birthday, I want a book. Not just any book, but the first published anthology. We have the manuscript. If I can raise the funds, I will start an imprint for Carrot Ranch, expand our platform to benefit those who write in this community and seek new ways to inspire and inform other writers beyond the ranch hands. No matter what we have to start with, I will see it through. I’ve failed a few attempts already, but that just clears the way to find what will work. Writers have to persevere. A Patreon is under development and will launch after we get to Wisconsin and Michigan. It will benefit the writers here, as well.
Also, congratulations are in order: Carrot Ranch has been nominated for a Bloggers Bash Award as an inspiring blog. That’s a reflection on each and every one of your who make this a welcoming, fun and safe place to write, learn and explore. I want to thank you all, whether you are here regularly or not. Many of you don’t even write, but generously read and share our collection. Those who do write share diverse perspectives and talents. Thank you! You can vote at the link above, but know that it’s a greater honor to be nominated with you all than it is to win. Kerry E. B. Black gave us a great story last week about Blue Ribbons. Friendships matter more than competition.
What wisdom can you share with a forever-young, always-seeking, no-more-scrubbing-floors, newly-minted 50-year-old?
May 18, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a wise story. It can be about wisdom, expressing wisdom or advice for turning 50! It can be a wise-cracking story, too. Go where wisdom leads you.
Respond by May 23, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 24). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Seeking to Understand (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Does your creative outlet help you, Jen?” asked Danni.
“Does interviewing war widows help you?”
“Feels like I’m doing something,” Danni answered.
“Me, too. Same with the brothers. They want to feel useful. Do something good. Let me ask you, why did you stay?”
“You mean when Ike left for Iraq?”
“Yes. This was new to you. You must have felt deserted. Why did you stay?”
Danni paused, reflecting on all her earlier turmoil. She could have left the day she took Ike to the airport. Had she gained any wisdom? “I stayed to take care of his dogs.”
“A story? I’ll give you a happy one and a sad one.” She sits on a stool behind a long counter, displaying the most silver and turquoise I’ve witnessed in a single space. Her short gray hair and beautifully draped purple blouse suggest sophistication. Uncommon in Gallup, New Mexico.
But this trading post is not common.
“Okay,” I say, not sure what to anticipate but pleased that she’s open to my request. I’ve just cradled a carved turquoise bear in my palm as big as a croquet ball. Introspection. That’s the medicine of a Zuni bear fetish. A writer’s medicine, but the bear’s price-tag reads he won’t be going home with me.
I’ll settle for a story from this turquoise wonderland called Richardson’s Trading Co.
“There’s no place like this,” she begins.
The showroom is a fraction of the vaults that hold family heirlooms on pawn. I can glimpse through a partially open door and see rows upon rows of squash blossom necklaces, silver concho belts and endless pegs holding silver and turquoise. It’s a Navajo Gringots.
What follows is the fictionalized happy story this woman shared over the course of several conversations (because I had to return to fondle the bear again):
A boy squats in the dirt along side a Navajo man who is smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. They sit on the shaded side of the adobe building, watching the wagons kick up dust. Three women in colorful skirts, their black hair tied up in maiden fashion, laugh at a story one tells. The man nudges the boy and speaks in Navajo.
The boy smiles. “You’re just trying to make me laugh, Uncle.”
“The beauty way does not look for dust and tears. What beauty do you see this day?”
“I just see my Pa loading up the last of our wagons.” The boy studied his dirty boots, not wanting to watch.
“Look at Norma Jean. See how her skirt falls just at the top of her moccasin?”
“See how the green velvet shimmers with the beam of sunlight?”
The boy looked and noticed the light on the material. He saw motes of dust in the light and followed it upward where it dappled among the round green leaves of the tall cottonwoods. “Her skirt catches the light like the leaves. Kind of flows like it, too.”
“This is good. This is the beauty way.”
“But I don’t want to leave Tuba City. Why can’t we live with the Navajo? Why can’t I live with you, Uncle?”
“You are biligaana. This is land of the Dine. God’s children.”
“Pa says we can’t trade any more here because we’re white on white.”
The man nodded. “Trading here is for Dine. Sheep for pots, pots for sheep. Your father will start a new trade in Gallup.”
“They say Gallup is black with coal dust.”
“I have been to this Gallup. It’s where my father and others started the Long Walk. It has cliffs like Tłéé íigahiis’óóz.”
“White at night? You mean the flower my Ma calls a primrose?”
The man shrugged and rolled a fresh cigarette. “Could be. You see Norma Jean’s moccasins below her skirt?”
“Yes. Looks like a rabbit skin cuff. One of those snowshoe rabbit skins from up north.”
“Yes. The cliffs are white like that, but watch them carefully. They will change colors.”
“You have to watch them. They change.”
“What colors do the turn?”
“You have to watch them.”
“Because they are beautiful.”
The boy moved away to Gallup, his family among the last of the horse and buggy traders to the Navajo Nation. His father established a trading post in their family name. Gallup had coal, to be sure. It also had rowdy saloons where men drank and played cards. In rooms upstairs there were painted women. They wore shiny material brighter than the colorful velvet of the Navajo. But the boy liked the way the sunlight pooled in velvet. It was deep, and the satin just shiny, a distraction. The boy grew up, watching the cliffs. At first he thought his friend, the one he called Uncle, told him a tall tale. The cliffs were just white.
Or whitish. Yet, sometimes they glowed with a light blush when the sun set at a certain slant. One spring night the boy saw them in the moonlight and understood the connection between the glow of the cliffs and that of the paper-thin primrose that opened in the cool night air. He began to ride his horse along the cliffs and meet with the traders at a place called Church Rock. He wondered why it was called that, and began to look at the shapes of the cliffs. He began to note different forms that changed with shadows. Light revealed stripes, and one summer day the boy followed them up a canyon. That’s where he met the girl with hair as glossy as a fine chestnut horse. She laughed when he told her so. “As long as you think horse are beautiful,” she told him.
After the Great War where he saw much blood, machinery and destruction, he wept upon returning to the cliffs near Gallup, to his father’s trading post and to his girl, now the woman he’d marry. The first thing he noticed were the colors of the cliffs. Why had he studied them so hard when it was so obvious? They changed color throughout the day, and day by day. He took his bride on a walk up the canyon and they watched a monsoon poor over its ledge. They were soaked, but he felt refreshed, alive. That’s when he took over his father’s trading post and began to fill it with the most beautiful things he could.
When he bought rugs, he noticed the colors of each weave and how no rug was alike. When examining squash blossom necklaces one day, he over heard a customer say they all looked alike. “No, look,” he said and proceeded to point out the shapes, colors and crevices of each nugget of turquoise. He greatly admired the Navajo silversmiths who could shape the metal into new forms, etching bracelets differently and yet portraying the ancient sacredness of the symbols. The trader began to gain a reputation as an art collector. He also opened a pawn the newspapers called “The Navajo Bank.” He safeguarded Navajo heirlooms and sold art to the new customers.
First the train came to Gallup, after the coal mines tunneled the place. Fort Wingate which had been at the base of the Continental Divide (or the Top of the World as Uncle called it) expanded closer to Gallup and stored ammunition by the acres. Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles. It became a stopover between Las Vegas and Albuquerque. When movie people began pouring into town to film out on the Big Reservation, Gallup catered to stars and production crews. The trader extended his expertise to historical and cultural items. And he sold Navajo rugs and baskets, Zuni fetishes, Hopi pottery and Southwest Pueblo silver to those who flocked to his trading post.
Route 66 was diverted, the trains added more tracks and tourists and Hollywood crews diminished. Saudi investors began selling Navajos and other artists beads and turquoise from China. They sold knockoffs online. Yet the trader continued to safeguard heirlooms, expanded cases like a growing museum and sold authentic gallery pieces. One day, he asked his employee, a bilagaana woman to sit on the floor with him in the Navajo Rug Room. $200 million dollars worth of pawn, art and jewelry now sat in five blocks worth of building. In the Navajo Rug Room, a single rug averaged $6,000. The trader and his ensuing generations wanted for nothing — they all had fine houses, cars, college educations. Yet he sat on the floor, told her to look up and describe the colors she saw.
He said, “It’s beautiful. And the colors always change.”
This is the impression of a story that came to me from the employee who told me her boss was the last of the horse and buggy traders, forced to move from where his family traded because they were white and the land reverted back to its rightful owners. Only native traders could continue, or those whites who married natives. He opened this trading post and he did ask her to sit with him on the floor and marvel at the beauty. She said he never lost the wonder of how beautiful it all was.
She smiles at me and her eyes tear up. She smiles one of those tight forced smiles. “Now want to hear the sad story?”
“Okay,” I say, already feeling the sting of tears in response.
“Yesterday, Mr. Richardson died at the age of 98. When this place goes, and it will, there will be no more Gallup.”
I understand her point. I understand business and economics. I understand life wavers. But there will always be beauty and changing colors in those cliffs. There will always be Gallup, in one form or another. And the Dine will be there, walking the Navajo Beauty Way.
This week, I took ownership of the turquoise bear the only way I know how — I gave it to Danni in this week’s flash addition to my WIP, Miracle of Ducks.
May 11, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about trading. It can be the profession of old or of modern day traders on Wall Street. It can be trading places or lunches at school. What is traded? Is it a fair deal or a dupe? Trade away and go where the prompt leads you.
Respond by May 16, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 17). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
From a Trader (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Well, the bear fetish is invaluable during times of change. Turquoise is the stone of protection,” Danni explained.
Michael held it in his palm. “Bear is the Guardian of the West.”
Danni didn’t want to spoil their newly agreed truce. For Ike’s sake. Yet, it was also for Ike’s sake she’d placed the Zuni fetish by his photo. Keep him safe, Danni thought.
“Powerful medicine. Good totem for Ike in Iraq.”
Danni waited for the question she knew he’d ask.
“Where did you come by this?”
“A trader in Gallup.”
Michael’s grasp tensed. “Stolen. Danni, your bear needs cleansing.”