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March 23: Flash Fiction Challenge

Ahead, partial sunlight illuminates sand that has seeped from a massive geological structure aptly named, Sand Mountain. From the north, it rises like a slope out of the shores of a deep blue body of water, Sand Hollow. On its south-side the underpinnings of metamorphic rock expose ridges of red cliff. Those curious blotches of sand seeps are orange and remind me of powdered koolaid. In fact, the scene on the backside of Sand Mountain translates easily to a candy shop given the unnaturally sweet colors. Grape gumdrops push up against the strawberry taffy base not far from the powdered orange koolaid.

Among the sweet treats of this lower staircase of land, beneath the Navajo Sandstones of Zion white as cookie dough and the gnarly basalt of the Virgin Plain black as licorice, is a level that holds something more of child-like interest: Jurassic dinosaurs.

All of Zion, its surrounding mesas and transitional zone, are all Jurassic in age, spanning back 145 to 200 million years. The candy around here is stale and crumbly. Once it was an area with swaths of mudflats, an early flood plane. Conifers, ferns and cycads lined the shores, sand dunes swept to the northeast and fish populated the seasonal lakes and streams. Dinosaurs tip-toed through soft sediments to leave behind impressions in what looks like petrified chocolate.

If there’s anything better than going to a sweet shop, it’s going with a friend. Today, I have Norah Colvin in my pocket.

Norah is not only one of the first generation Rough Writers at Carrot Ranch, she’s also the One. She’s the one who discovered a brand new flash fiction challenge three years ago. She’s the one who introduced other blogging friends, and the ranch gathering has become like writing at the local soda fountain where we have learned what malts or sodas each prefers. Through our sweet shop talk, I’ve come to learn that Norah’s grandchildren are dino-crazed. And what a good interest to have! Science, mystery and Jurassic monsters all rolled up in one. What else I’ve come to know about Norah is her dedication to early childhood education. Her newly launched website readilearn is an accumulation of her experience, creativity and passion for teaching.

Our truck kicks up fine red dust as we travel across the hard-packed land. After our last outing, the next destination is my choice, and I want to find dinosaur tracks for Norah. I learned about these tracks when we first landed on Mars (also known on maps as southwestern Utah). Because of anticipating her excitement for such a discovery, I’ve been on a mission to step where Jurassic lizards have trod. We’ll be leaving Mars soon and still, I hadn’t found the tracks. So we are searching among the purple gumdrops and oozing orange koolaid.

Tiny mesquite leaves unfurl among spindly brush and newborn cactus needles blur the outline of the plants with fuzz. Garnet red buds line the tops of prickly pear cactus and tiny yellow bells trumpet from thorny shrubs. White flowers on a single stalk rise up like spears from the dark brown clay. This is Warner Valley in spring. Somewhere out here, the toes of Dilophosaurus and Megapnosaurus trailed across a mudflat millions of springs ago before this was a desert. in 1982, a man from Cedar City, Utah was walking down a wash and found an exposed fossil of over 400 tracks.

Locating the site is like finding a lost cactus spine in the sand. Unless you directly step on it, it remains hidden. The Hub and I traverse several BLM (Bureau of Land Management, public lands) roads. The reason we had found the Honeymoon Trail earlier is because I was looking for this site. I understood the old pioneer trail was nearby. But, as often is the trouble in this steep terrain, the Honeymoon Trail plummets over the Hurricane Cliffs in what is now regarded as an extreme Jeep trail. Thwarted in our search, we’ve come to the Warner Valley a different way — this is below the Hurricane Cliffs and behind Sand Mountain (which was the first place I search for the tracks).

Our BLM map shows the valley as deceptively flat. We trundle over hillocks, and dip down and up through dry washes. We stop to chat with a motorcyclist, and he confirms the dinosaur tracks are out here, “somewhere.” Another cyclist comes along and encourages us to continue down a road we decided wasn’t going anywhere. Turns out, that road led us to the grape gumdrops and we are on a two-track that feels similar to a carnival roller-coaster. The purple landscape might be a clue: according to geology books this level gains its color and treacherous stickiness when wet from ancient volcanic ash. That sounds Jurassic to me.

We come to a fence, turn up the road and a BLM sign marks the spot — to park, that is. From here, the search continues on foot. The rolling trail continues and I walk past smooth sandstone clusters that look like ruins of Bedrock from the 1970s cartoon, The Flintstones. The closer I get to the cliffs and scree of Sand Mountain, the more obvious the carving of the land by water. The trail dips into a flat wash that continues to travel down as if servile to water when it marches this way. Finally, a broad flat of chocolate malt rock spreads out before me. I have found the Holy Grail of sweets in this gumdrop desert. Norah, this treat is for you!

It might sound silly to take along a friend in a pocket, but truly, as writers we do that. When we go on these journeys of discovery, and writing is both, we think of audience. Many talk about turning off the “inner critic.” Critics are for editing. Creative flow needs friendly encouragement. That’s why I like to write to a friendly audience. And you don’t have to actually know your reader. Norah doesn’t always have to ride in my pocket! Many times, I make up the audience. And the reason is sane and important to writing. You might write first for yourself, but if you want to connect with others, you write next for an audience.

It’s easy for me to match up an adventure involving dinosaurs to a friend who appreciates the Jurassic lizards (or ancestors of birds). So how do I do this with an unknown audience?

My beat used to be organic and local food systems, such as cranberry farms, artisan cheese-makers, grass-fed cattle ranches, urban community gardens, Hmong collective farms, CSAs, farmers markets and cooperatives (farm, producer and retailer). For 15 years, I interviewed people where they tilled black soil, bogged cranberries or fought for food justice. I wrote for publications like Edible Twin Cities, Stress-free Living and This is Living Naturally. I’ve been featured on NPR, interviewed for local news and contributed to regional cookbooks.

Each time, I was aware that I was writing for an audience. If I was alone, prone on the soft earth in a French vineyard that endured Minnesota weather for three decades, poised to capture the sunrise over grapes that suffered, I talked to my readers as if they were blind. I took notes and photographs as if I were their eyes. I included other senses, too and built relationships with the land and those who tended it as if I were match-making with readers. I was the experience, and that’s how I learned to write sensory. It became engaging to the point that I had real readers who wanted to go with me.

And many did. I’d put out a call and take others along. They asked questions I hadn’t thought of which taught me to anticipate what a reader wants to know. One memorable experience was with an accountant who didn’t agree that local food should “cost” a premium until I invited him to go with me on assignment to an organic cranberry bog. We toured the entire day, the farmer introducing us to neighbors so we could see the multiple ways farmers harvest cranberries. We left, but the accountant never fully left the bogs; it was in his system and he became a local food advocate.

What about fiction? I start with the story, and think as a story-teller — what would an audience want to know and what will surprise them? But first, I write my novels for me. Now, I’m writing them for readers. I carry along readers in my pocket to remind me to look at the journey for them. This is one way to write for readers. I’m sure more than a few of you, especially bloggers, have experienced processing a post mentally as if you were in conversation with those you know read. And for those we don’t know, we think of them as friendly. We, the writer, return from the desert with a gift we can share.

And thank you to everyone here at Carrot Ranch — Rough Writers & Friends, Readers and Lurkers — last week resulted in a profound collection of writing that supports the idea that art is free and within us, no matter political climates and cuts. I know many of you read as responses are posted, but if you get the chance, take a read of the Without Art collection as a whole. Thank you. That is the gift writers share, and reading is the gift in return to writers.

March 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an audience. It can be broad or small, and gathered for any reason. How does your character react to an audience? Is the audience itself a character. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by March 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 29). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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Surprise Audience (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni met Peter at the archeological site when a bus pulled up.

“Guess what? We have a school field trip. I told the teachers we’d have Q & A with an archaeologist.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Danni.

“This way, I knew you’d show up. It gives us a chance to tweak your Little Ranger Program. It’s sound, but not kid friendly. Time for you to learn your audience. What age, are you thinking?”

“Is this a cruel test?”

“Kind of. How old?” Peter folded his arms, grinning at the kids.

“Can I look at their teeth?” asked Danni.

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