Story Molecules – Guest Blog by Ellen Behrens of Ellenbooks

Deb has a great way of finding the hidden stories in the places she visits and the people she sees, don’t you think? Writers get asked a lot where we get our ideas and we usually tell them, “Everywhere!” But how do we get to the point where we can see those hints of stories?

I can’t speak for Deb – she has her own way of finding threads of stories in the places she visits and people she meets, and her stories and novels are great evidence of this.

In my case, I give a lot of credit to my mother, who raised four kids (she had three kids three years old and younger at one point) and was forever inventing ways to keep us entertained, especially in the confines of our four-door car on very long road trips.

“Look at that house! Who do you think would live in a house like that?” she’d ask, and we’d quit squabbling long enough to swing our heads in the direction she was pointing to see what the house looked like. Sitting in a grocery store parking lot, waiting for Dad to run in for a few groceries on the way home, she’d say, “Which car do you think that woman will go to?” And we’d pick out the vehicle we thought matched her – and usually we were all wrong. People, of course, surprise us all the time.

Pretty soon, everything started to be a question: “Why in the world would anyone want to be out in weather like this?” Mom would say, hand on hip, looking out the big front window into blowing snow. We’d swarm to stare with her at the hunched man, head bowed against the brutal, sub-zero temperatures. Hmmm… What would drive someone out into the drifting piles of frigid white? Was he out of bread? Would the store even be open? What would he do if he got all the way there and it was closed? Our brains turned the possibilities over. We traded theories, my mother long vanished back to the peace and quiet that reigned once again in our small house.

My imagination is in overdrive these days. Living and traveling full-time in our RV, I’m bombarded every day by this sort of stimuli: how do people make a living in this tiny town where every business is boarded up? Why is there a two-track trail leading into that stretch of prairie? What does that sign “No NPS Allowed” mean?

That sign had a lot of meaning behind it, it turns out. That detail, plus a few others, swirled around in my head. I started writing. Then re-writing. Eventually I had a story, then a book I titled Pea Body, after the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, in the Outer Banks.

Pretty soon its main characters, Walt and Betty Rollin, full-time RVers, reappeared in Yuma Baby, the second in the Rollin RV Mystery Series, another story born from images and details gathered during my nomadic life.

Superstition Victim, set in a Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona (though never named in the novel), is in progress, plunging Walt and Betty into yet another who-dunnit.

Ideas? They’re out there, floating around in numbers as uncountable as molecules of air. What have you seen today? What did it make you think of? Will you write about it?

Many thanks, Deb, for letting me share a bit of what goes on when some of those story molecules hit me!

Ellen Behrens is a novelist, short story author, and nonfiction writer. Her Rollin RV Mystery series has given her the reputation as “RVers’ favorite writer.” Her books are available in print and e-book format for all major e- reader devices. Behrens’ first novel, “None But the Dead and Dying,” came out in 1996 from Baskerville Publishers. Former Fiction Editor for Mid-American Review, she received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship in 1993. Find out more about her books at ellenbooks.com, or drop her a note at ellenbehr@aol.com if you’d to be part of her inner circle and receive personal alerts about upcoming publications and events.

 

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Another Curve Ball . . .DUCK!

I don’t know why I expect plans to go as scheduled. It hasn’t happened in so long. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing Ping Pong with life and there’s so much English on the ball, I can’t possibly return the serve. Yet I lunge and give it my best shot.

Our plans to explore Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Colorado this summer shifted dramatically when the hubmeister experienced a severe set-back due to high winds, blowing dust and pollen in New Mexico. After an overnight stay in the hospital, he’s been released to his primary care physician in Tucson for a follow-up. And since we don’t want to drive south for a month then take off again, we decided to make the best of it by hanging out in the SonoranDesert’s higher elevations.

So the upside . . . and there’s always an upside to every disastrous event . . .is that instead of searching out new  adventure I now have time to write (you’ve heard these promises before, sigh), work on my gourd art and attempt some creative flair with a box of driftwood I’ve gathered from earlier excursions. Oh yeah . . . and paint some more rocks. No long hikes until fall since I don’t care to encounter slithery creatures lurking on those hot desert trails

As for writing, hopefully you’ve enjoyed my ongoing short story series spawned by my print published anthology, Road Tales. I’m almost done with an eBook version, Road Lore and MORE, which will incorporate the short story collection as well as even MORE myth, lore and back road oddities. The second Dead Men novel is close to sending off to beta readers. I anticipate a release date of June 15th. Even more exciting – my pet project is about to come to life! . . . The Claim Adjuster is an intriguing thriller unlike anything I’ve written. Prepare for a fall release. 

Until next time, I’m positing some photos of my latest escapades. Look for new short stories scheduled during the summer months.

Painted Desert
Hiked a LOT! This is Sabino Canyon, 7 Falls Trail
Sedona – sigh. Hiked a few trails. Must return!
Walks with my buddy. He is getting too old for hiking but still likes to catch a few sniffs on the shorter trails.
Hid some of my painted rocks
Pottery shards at Homolovi State Park. They were everywhere!!! And no . . . I did not take any home but it sure was tempting.
Beautiful Usery Park near Mesa, AZ. LOVE it! And the trails.
Homolovi Ruins
Petrified Forest
Mexican Food and Margaritas!
Gourd craft – decanter for box wine. Oh, yeah 🙂 Want to sell these on Etsy.
Dinosaurs, oh MY!
Standing on the corner . . .
San Felipe Church in Old Town Albuquerque. Built in 1706. Amazing!
View from the balcony of the iconic Painted Desert Inn – now a museum.

 

Interview at Ellenbooks

There’s an elite group . . . and I don’t say that lightly . . . of authors who manage to balance life on the road with writing. I was honored when Ellen Behrens, an outstanding author and fellow RVer, asked to interview me for her blog. Please click the link below and stop by to say “howdy”. While you’re there, check out Ellen’s delightful series, Rollin’ RV Mystery series!

Fellow RV Novelists: Deb Sanders

FISH BAIT

The Lore:

Crazy Woman Camp, Why, AZ

In the far reaches of southern Arizona, just north of Organ Pipe National Monument, lies the tiny hamlet of Why. Little more than a wide spot in the road, the town’s main attraction is a rustic market and gift shop –  aptly named “The Why Not Store”. One can purchase fuel, snacks and Mexican insurance before traveling across the border. Some partake of homemade biscuits and gravy at the restaurant next door, and many of those folks are winter visitors who populate the nearby RV parks and BLM land in campers and RVs.

Gunsight Wash is a favorite of those “dry campers” – people with self-contained rigs who prefer solitude to a crowded RV park.

The local Border Patrol division maintains a strong presence in the area, monitoring the adjacent Tohono O’odham tribal land providing campers with a sense of security. Well traveled routes are used by illegal immigrants and Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, many illegals venturing into the U.S. with a backpack of canned tuna, a change of clothes and dreams of wealth face harsh conditions in the desert. Hikers and OHV riders often stumble upon shallow graves or sun bleached skeletons.

On a day hike near Gunsight Wash, I discovered a primitive but elaborate campsite with an odd history. It was located in the middle of nowhere, next to a dry wash, which made the find even more astounding. How could anyone survive out there for any length of time?

At first glance, it was obvious the occupant exerted great effort to make the area “homey”, circling bushes and trees with carefully placed stones.

A four-foot tall rock oven with metal grates had been built beneath a sprawling Ironwood tree. Positioned on top of the fireplace was an empty liquor bottle bearing a hand-written card – “Crazy Woman Camp”. Upon closer inspection, I found a note inside which read:

“The way the story goes is this – A woman and her son lived in town where the son got into drugs and such. Determined to free her son of his demons, she set camp on this spot. Days filled with desert solitude, loneliness & hard living, the son was forced to give up his sinful ways. Living in a tent, they built the stonework you see & buried their horse in a grave just to the west of here. Locals called her Crazy Woman but far from crazy, I think she was a loving mother who was willing to suffer along with son to bring him to a better life.”

After wandering around the area, I discovered two graves a short distance away which may or may not have been the final resting places of Crazy Woman and her son. Closer to the camp was a large mound where their horse allegedly was buried. Scratched into the surface of a flat stone read the words, “A Man’s Best Pal”.

I often wonder what happened to Crazy Woman. The desert and isolation can magnify irrational thought. Perhaps she could no longer function in society and found peace with her own reality in the harsh elements. Regardless, I feel there is more to her legacy than what was written inside that empty liquor bottle.

The Story:

Fish Bait

by Debra S. Sanders

Jack Brody eased back on the accelerator, bringing his ATV to a halt near a barren patch of desert next to an Ironwood tree. Removing his helmet, he glanced around the primitive campsite before shutting off the engine and disembarking.

She’s not here.

Walking to the back of his vehicle, he removed a case of water strapped to the rack and placed it next to the tree. A tiny puff of smoke emanated from a rock fireplace a few feet away, suggesting Crazy Woman might be hiding. He grinned. She was a feisty old gal.

“Hey, Nana . . . where you at?”

Jack sauntered to the edge of a wide wash and slid down the four-foot embankment to soft sand and gravel. It was hot and dry this time of year. Even the rattlesnakes stayed underground during the day. His brows drew together as he searched the dusty landscape. What if Nana was sick? Heatstroke  wasn’t uncommon during the summer months in southern Arizona, especially for the elderly. Why the hell an eighty-year-old woman would want to live out here was beyond his comprehension. Maybe she didn’t have any money or family – at least none who cared.

Jack scratched the back of his head, eyes running up and down the wash. One of his buddies said she moved to the desert with her son ten years ago. The teenager fell into dangerous habits involving drugs and she thought the isolation would cure him of his “demons. If that were true, the kid must have hauled ass a long time ago. And ho would blame him if he did? This place was as close to Hell as anyone could get without dying.

He crawled up the embankment and headed for the shade, still worried but needing a cooler place to think. Nana was tough but not that tough.

After discovering the withered old woman during his first week working at the local Border Patrol division, Jack took it upon himself to bring her care packages on a regular basis, keeping his off-duty activities a secret until another agent saw him in the desert.

“She’s loco,” he warned Jack. “We stay away from Crazy Woman’s camp. You best do the same.”

Jack refused to heed his co-worker’s advice, continuing to make weekly visits to the woman he nicknamed “Nana” and establishing an uneasy trust similar to feeding a feral animal.

As he brushed dirt from his jeans, a low, husky voice crept over Jack’s shoulder like a slithering serpent.

“Jaaaack . . .”

He whirled around, smiling at the hunched figure eyeing him from a few feet away. White hair stuck out in tufts from under a sweat-stained cowboy hat. Coppery wrinkles lined her face, the result of too much time under an unforgiving sun.

“I brought you a case of water.”

“I see. You good boy, Jack.”

He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s gonna be real hot for the next few days. Why don’t I take you to Ajo? One of the churches opened a shelter for people with nowhere to go.”

“I got a place. This my home.”

“It’s a tent, Nana, not a home.”

She jutted her chin and looked away. “Home.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday. Maybe longer. But today, Jack, I eat good. Let me cook for you.”

He arched a brow. “What you got to cook?”

The old woman flashed a broad smile. Most of her front teeth were missing, evidenced by a gaping hole. “Big surprise. You stay, Jack. I cook.”

His mouth twisted to one side, contemplating the invitation. He was off work until Thursday. It wasn’t as if anyone was waiting at home. Why the hell not? “Okay, Nana. I’ll stay but I want to work for my supper. What can I do to help?”

“Rocks. I need more rocks for my garden.”

Jack bit his tongue to keep from laughing. No wonder all the agents called her Crazy Woman. She’d gathered stones from the desert and boxed in every bush and tree around her camp. Some of the edgings were shaped in hearts, others a linear border. Further away, small bits of white quartz formed a maze. Or walk. Or some kind of odd shape she’d dreamed up in her head. Not that it mattered because in Nana’s mind it was pretty.

Pulling a backpack from his ATV, Jack wandered a short distance into the desert and began filling the bag with baseball sized rocks. Damn, it was hot. How did the old gal keep from getting heat stroke?

He looked up just as she removed something from inside a ragged piece of old canvas. What the heck was she up to now?

Jack dumped his bag of rocks near the Ironwood tree and grabbed one of the waters from the case. He drained half the contents while watching her place a slab of pink meat on the grill. “What ’cha got there?”

“Fish.”

His brows shot up. “Fish? Where’d you get fish, Nana? There ain’t no water around here.”

“I know where to go but not as many fish as there used to be. Harder to catch.” She stoked the coals without looking up. Smoke curled around her hunched figure, hiding her face.

He shook his head and walked back to the ATV. That wasn’t fish. Maybe rabbit. Jack stopped and looked back. Aw, hell . . . it was probably coyote.

“Jack, come here. Eat.”

His first instinct was to leave but he didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings. Wiping his hands on a faded rag, Jack turned and made his way back to the masonry fireplace.  “Smells good.”

She shot him a toothless grin. “I smoked this piece just for you. It real tender. Sit on that rock.”

He did as requested, easing his large frame onto a flat topped boulder. A few minutes later, gnarled fingers handed him a six-inch strip of meat on a mat woven from grass. A gooey sauce lathered its surface topped with what he guessed were dried herbs.

Jack stared at the charred meat for a full minute before tearing off a sliver and sliding it into his mouth. He rolled it over his tongue before swallowing, surprised by the flavor. Not gamey at all. And tender, just like she said.

“This is good, Nana. I really like the sauce.”

The old woman cackled. “See. I tell you.”

He needed no encouragement to finish the meal. “It was nice of you to share your food. I know you don’t have a lot to eat.”

She shrugged. “It been slow fishing with all this heat but I got good bait. I know how to catch ’em.”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me your secret. The last time I went fishing, I didn’t even get a bite.”

Blue eyes twinkled beneath the brim of her hat. “Used to be easier. You soldier men chase the fish away.”

A thick line formed between his brows. Was she talking about the Border Patrol agents? “How did we chase the fish away?”

Nana didn’t answer, her pinpointed gaze tracking his movements as Jack reached for his water bottle..

“Man, you must have coated that meat in red pepper. It sure is spicy.” The back of his hand swiped across his forehead. “I’m sweating even in the shade. How do you stand this heat?”

“I like it hot. Good for jerky. Dries the meat real fast.”

Jack handed her the grass mat before struggling to his feet. “Whoa, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Mind if I stay for a bit? Just until it cools down.”

“No, no . . . you sit. Feel better soon.”

His knees buckled as he tried to sit, causing him to miss the boulder and land in the dirt. Something was wrong. The fish must have been tainted. “I . . . I think I got food poisoning. I don’t feel so good.”

“Not poison. That ruin meat. Just herbs to make you sleep.”

Jack blinked several times as his vision blurred. His tongue felt thick, swollen. Opening his mouth, he gasped for air. Words gurgled in his throat but never made it past his lips. Pushing to his feet, Jack took one step before collapsing.

“He asleep?” A man with long hair and a scraggly beard emerged from a deep hole covered with brush.

The woman nodded. “Get the rope, boy.”

She tied it to Jack’s feet. The man threw the other end over a sturdy limb and hoisted the unconscious body into the air. He walked away, returning a few minutes later dragging an empty metal drum which he centered under Jack’s body.

Nana grabbed Jack’s hair and pulled his head back, revealing a wide expanse of neck. “I stick him. He bleed out quick. You get rid of motor car.”

“Can’t I keep it, Mama?”

“No, no, not good. Someone might see it.”

“But I want it. None of the other fish ever have anything we can use.”

“You get rid of it like I say!” The old woman whirled around, pointing a bony finger at her son. “I’ll sharpen the knife. We get lots of jerky outta this one.” She tugged on Jack’s arm, examining the muscular tone of his shoulder. “This white meat. Not like those dark ones we catch in the desert. I feed you good, boy.”

“Do ya want me to bury the bones in the same place as the others?”

She nodded. “Now you know why I say dig that hole wide and deep. Gotta cover up these fish guts afore they start stinkin’!”

What does KY Warming Gel, Preparation H and Cowboy Hats have in Common?

Each product was part of an interesting conversation at the high traffic tourist stop where I work near Bryce Canyon. Hubs and I decided to “workamp” this summer. For those not familiar with the term it describes seasonal or temporary workers who live in their RV. In exchange for hours worked, we receive a wage, great perks, a nice campsite for a pittance of what we would normally pay which includes full hook-ups, wifi, and cable. We also have plenty of days off to explore the beauty of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Not a bad arrangement.

Hubs works light maintenance at one of the hotels. I work a variety of positions in the retail store.

About eighty percent of our customers are European, Asian or Australian . . . and many speak limited or NO English. I’ve become adept at hand signals/charades, choosing the right coins from paying customer’s outstretched hands, and learning common words in various languages. It’s fun but can sometimes present challenging situations.

For instance – I had a German gentleman with very limited English skills purchase a western hat. He was part of a group who clearly found his hat amusing. I cut off the tag so he could wear it immediately, telling him he looked like a cowboy and now he just needed a horse. He didn’t understand the word “horse” so I pretended to ride an imaginary equine, using my hands to imitate holding the reins. “Ride horse,” I said. His friend must have understood because he translated in German. The man laughed and pointed at his wife. “I have her.”

Oooookay.

A young couple came to my register with KY Warming Gel. They’d just returned from hiking. He asked if the contents would help his sore ankle. ???? I said no. He then asked in broken English what it was for. My face was red. I pointed to his girlfriend and replied, “For her.” Both looked at me funny. “It’s used to enhance intimacy.” At that, they both laughed. He returned later with a tube of Icy Hot..

An Asian man brought a tube of Preparation H to my associate, a young male in his late teens. The customer asked if it was face or hand cream, once again in broken English. The boy turned to me and said, “She can help you.” Really? I told the man it was used to ease hemorrhoids which thankfully he seemed to understand. I then instructed him to a different area of the store for hand cream.

After these encounters . . . and more . . . it makes me wonder what non-English speaking countries think of Americans when we try to communicate during travels and vacations. I’m not sure I want to know. Hopefully, no one blogged about me during my last trip across the border.

Fun Is Over . . . Back To Work!

Living on the road is an unstructured lifestyle, certainly not conducive to routine activities . . . like writing. I don’t exercise enough self-control when it comes to hiking or exploring because immersing myself in such awe inspiring beauty motivates my spirit – which is good for creative endeavors. Daytime was play time because I would write at night. But a funny thing happened during the past few months – my insomnia dissipated . . . and so did my writing.

Yosemite, California

Not that I had much time to write, anyway. March was a whirlwind of activity filled with author appearances, presentations, gatherings, and making a mad dash to California to visit the hubmeister’s family. I managed three book signings, one at the prestigious Tucson Festival of Books, a successful Gold, Ghosts and Gravel Roads presentation before almost two hundred attendees, spent four days at the Escapees Escapades – a gathering of over 2000 RVers, and enjoyed great fellowship with some new friends in Tucson. I also was awarded a signed copy of Red Steagall’s book, “Ride for the Brand” featuring his poetry and songs when I won the Cowboy Poetry Contest at Escapades57.

The Colorado River below Hoover Dam, NV

But all that is behind me now and it’s time to get back to business. Starting May 1st, we’ll be “workamping” at Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon, Utah. Even though I’ll be settled in one place for five months, my job in the Rock Shop will compete with writing time. I’m hoping my psyche will respond to the newfound “structure” and re-ignite good writing habits to take with me after we leave. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Follow me on Facebook or Instagram for updated posts and photos from my travels.

Here’s the poem that won the Cowboy Poetry contest . . . based on the legend of the ghost horses from Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. You can read the history behind the lore in my Road Tales book.

 

The night was as dusty as an ol’ wrangler’s chaps

After rounding up strays on the West Texas flats.

As I searched through the darkness for Camp Cookie’s fire

The wind cut right through me like a strand of barbed wire.

My horse gave a whinny, his eyes grew real wide

Hooves pawed the ground as he danced to the side.

Something was out there. It was too dark to see . . .

But the ground rumbled ‘neath us and I whispered . . . “Stampede!”

I pulled my horse next to a stand of tall trees,

Praying we’d survive the oncoming steeds.

I tugged down my hat and held the reins tight

As thundering hooves galloped past us that night.

A hundred wild ponies, fast on the run . . .

I heard them. I felt them. But saw not a one.

When the sound faded into the folds of pitch black

I spurred on my horse, and never looked back.

Now I’m an old cowpoke with my share of strange tales

But I never had nothin’ turn me death pale

Like the Devil’s ghost herd on that cold Texas trail.