So every year the Best American series comes out. These titles include Best American Sports Writing, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and each anthology lives up to its name. They're big deals. It's not like a contest that anyone can enter, every year there is a new editor who makes an initial selection of publications from various journals and magazine, and then a new (smaller) list is made from the gathered titles. The first anthology came out in 1915. Many editions include big names such as Joyce Carol Oates, Benjamin Percy, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Susan Sontag, Ron Carlson, and Raymond Carver.
On Friday I was writing early in the morning like I always do. On my desk was the 2017 Best American Mystery Stories, which I had bought months ago. I'm not sure what I was looking for or why I flipped it open, but the pages flipped to the back and I did a total triple-take.
I saw my name.
I saw my last name and my first name.
My brain wasn't sure what was happening. Apparently my story "A Quiet Place to Hide" was noted as one of the 'Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2016' and no one had bothered to tell me!
Obviously, receiving an honorable mention isn't the same as being included in the anthology but it sure felt like a great pat on the head. I just wish someone (somewhere) had told me! The darn book came out in October! You think someone I know would have noticed.
What a thrill!
The morning came cool and blue and gray. Hawkeye and I sipped coffee and watched the giant rocks and hills growing pink and rosy. We’d slept well and had a lot of energy. The end was near. Because we’d taken a day to haul water from the river up the mountain, we knew we didn’t have enough time to hike to Apache Junction. We’d continue on for a day and then walk into town. From there we’d have to figure out a new plan. But until then we had to hike. We’d have to cross the highway and up another hill. And we’d have to find the cache that we hid in a small canyon almost a week ago.
We packed up our tent and our bags as a soft mist floated over the desert. The terrain was flat and easy to navigate. Hawkeye led the way and we talked about women, books, and food—we were hungry and ready for a real meal. We’d been living off of cliff bars, oatmeal, and beef jerky. Now we wanted big juicy cheeseburgers, pancakes and bacon, ice cream sundaes drowning in hot fudge. And beer. Lots of beer. Buckets of ice cold American lager.
We knew we’d eat well when we dragged ourselves into town. But until then we had to walk. And we had to cover a lot of ground.
Hawkeye and I reached the highway early in the morning. We took a break to rub our feet, get a snack, fill our water bottles at the rest stop. I didn’t realize just how far we had to walk. I thought it was going to be an easy last day. Hike a few miles, be done by lunch, set up camp, and kick back and read some Louis L’Amour. I didn’t know what was ahead.
On the western side of Highway 60 we passed through ruins of old cabins and brick lodges collapsed to ruble. Small graves were marked with crosses at the base of trees. We wandered through decayed and forgotten ranches and deeper into the Sonoran and into the hills. My feet were really starting to ache when we began to ascend. My feet had been killing me the whole trip. It didn’t help that the trail was all flint and jagged stone. Every step made me wince.
I kept on. I followed Hawkeye and tried not to let on how much pain I was in. I started counting my steps and doing math in my head to figure out how much we had traveled. I calculated how long until we did a half mile. Then I’d start over and count again until a full mile was completed. It distracted me a little. But only a little.
When we started to near the top, Hawkeye stopped and looked at his GPS. He began nodding to himself. His eyes rolled up the way he did when whenever he was thinking hard. I stood there panting.
“We might as well set up camp relatively soon,” he said. He didn’t look at me. He stared down at the valley and the endless sprawl of Arizona.
“Why? Why here?” I said.
“Well,” he said, “pretty much from here on out we’ll be the same distance from the cache.”
“And since we’ll just have to backtrack tomorrow morning to get to town, we might as well stop, drop our bags, go find the cache without all our gear weighing us down, and come back for the evening.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “How far away is the cache?”
Now… here is where things get interesting. Apparently, Hawkeye said “0.8th of a mile.”
But what I heard was: “An eighth of a mile.”
“Yeah?” I said. “That’s nothing! Let’s go get it!”
We stripped off our bags and began to wander off the trail and through the rough brush and cacti, careful not to step in cow shit, looking for snakes all the while. The decline was steep and difficult. I started to wonder how I’d haul my cache of goodies back up through the wilderness. We reached the dry river bed at the bottom and started moving north.
“We should be getting close, right?” I said.
“Nah,” said Hawkeye.
“It feels like we should be there by now.”
“What do you mean? How far do we have to go?”
And that was when I realized how I misheard Hawkeye. We essentially had to march a rough mile through heavy sand, which took forever. And since we had to move under barbed wire fences and through cow pastures and around thorny bushes, we probably walked more like two miles. But finally we found the small canyon where we hid our food: granola bars, fruit cups, freeze dried meals, beef links, and gallons of water.
We sat on the rocks and ate salami and canned peaches. Wind whistled through the canyon, and large birds floated in the distance. Hawkeye and I devoured our lunches without speaking. We knew we wanted real food. And a shower. And a bed. The adventure of the big hike was great, but we were getting ready to return to civilization. To our homes and our friends.
The hike back to our bags wasn’t that bad. We found a trail so we didn’t have to scuttle through the wilderness again. The evening, our last one in the desert, was a relaxing one with the Arizona sunset living up to its reputation. Hawkeye and I perched barefoot on a boulder and drank black coffee and discussed what we would do tomorrow. We’d have to get into town. That was problem one. Then what?
“We get food,” I said. “And then we start drinking. After that I don’t care.”
“Okay,” said Hawkeye. “But we will need to get back to Phoenix to catch our flights.”
“We’ll figure that over beer,” I said.
The next morning we hiked back down the hill. We sang old Guns n Roses songs to keep our spirits high. We kept talking about how much beer we were going to drink. We started singing “99 Bottles of Beer,” and we actually finished the whole damn song, too.
Going downhill wasn’t that bad. But then we returned to the highway, which we had to take into the small town of Superior. We had about four miles to go. Hawkeye wanted to run into the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, but I decided to sit by the side of the road, take my shoes off, and rub my feet instead. The hard blacktop was murder on my dogs.
Finally we stepped into the city limits. We scanned for some place to eat. We didn’t care about quality or price. We just wanted food.
We wandered into the Buckboard City Café like two old prospectors or wild men who’d been stranded in the wastelands. We took off our packs and collapsed at a table. I’m sure we smelled awful. A waitress appeared.
“Water,” said Hawkeye.
“Water,” I said.
We ordered the biggest hamburgers they had. We devoured them in seconds. Then we ordered another round of cheeseburgers. I wanted apple pie for dessert, but they were out, so Hawkeye and I split a cinnamon bun and slurped down some room temperature coffee. The diner was nearly empty. Hawkeye noticed that there was a bar on the other side of the restaurant. He went and checked it out. When he returned he told me they’d open in about ten minutes.
“Sounds good to me.”
We paid our bill and drifted into the saloon. The bartender was a large man with a thick white beard. He said his name was Roy. We all shook hands and ordered our first round. Roy used to be the mayor of Superior and had lots of stories and was one of the kindest guys I’d met. Hawkeye and I sat outside and took off our shoes as we drank our beer. I saw a skinny guy in short-shorts marching toward us. He had a big ’70s style mustache and wore sunglasses that shined like jewels. He carried a heavy backpack on his shoulders. When he got close to us he asked if we’d been on the Arizona Trail. We said we had. He smiled, took off his pack, pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds and lit on. He’d just gotten off the trail himself. He’d been hiking all the way from the Mexico border but had to get back to Iowa tomorrow for work. He said his name was Taylor but his trail name was Slug.
Taylor joined us for the rest of the night as we drank beer and listened to Roy tell us all about Superior’s history and his youth growing up in the town, how the place had changed. A tamale festival was going on, so the one hotel was booked, but Roy said we could set up our tents in the back, and that’s exactly what we did after we got our fill of Budweiser and IPAs. Other folks started coming in. Miners and cowboys. All friendly and eager to buy us a round, glad to hear how much of the trail we’d hiked. It almost felt like we’d been coming to that bar all our lives.
In the morning we crawled out of our tents and returned to the Buckboard City Café to get breakfast. Hawkeye fiddled with his iPad to secure us bus tickets back to Phoenix. Taylor had a buddy coming to pick him up. Hawkeye and I got a photo with Taylor before we went our separate ways. But as we stood on the corner waiting for the bus, an SUV sped by and Taylor stuck his head out the window and screamed “Adios, my friends!”
And that’s where I want to end this. I could tell you about the bus ride back to Phoenix, our navigation downtown, our search for hotel, the dinner of Thai food, and how Hawkeye was finally able to Facetime his wife and son again. But all of this is really about two friends hiking around the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, two guys out in the rough desert away from people, technology, and everything. To write about our return might not dilute any of that, but I feel the adventure ends in Superior. That’s where we stopped walking. That’s where we left the trail. That’s where we concluded our big hike.
Hawkeye and I rose early the next morning. Our legs stiff with the desert’s chill and the previous day’s descent and climb. In the dark we fixed our oatmeal and our coffee. We stared in hard silence at the licks of blue flame from the stove while we waited for the water to boil. Dawn came over the mountains as we pulled on our packs. Though our limbs ached, our feet throbbed, we also felt rejuvenated and confident. We had water, plenty of water, at least for the day. And we knew we were close to the pinnacle of the week’s climb. Once we reached the top it would (mostly) be downhill.
And it was easily the best day of the trip.
At least for me.
We climbed to the crest fairly easily and soon. The sky still had some streaks of plum and nectarines in the horizon, and the air was still cool and fresh with the sunrise. Looking out and across the desert lay a land untouched by man. The cliffs and the rocks rose out of the ground as twisted statues of forgotten and lonesome gods.
We walked slowly and tried to breathe it all in. It wouldn’t be long before we’d be on a plane and back to our respected lives and jobs and all of it would just be memories. We didn't talk about it. But we knew we were both trying to remember every detail as best we could. The cacti, the rocks, the sapphire sky without end, even the pain in our feet. We found ourselves stopping a lot and gazing at the distance and listening to the silence, maybe the wind through the valley and nothing more.
The day grew warm.
We had several miles to go until we reached the next water spot, which was a water cache where people left jugs of water—some for themselves to find later, some donated by other hikers for people like Hawkeye and myself. I didn’t tell Hawkeye, but about two miles out I was out of water. I knew I would be okay, but I felt embarrassed for consuming it all after we’d gone through the dangers and the hassle of collecting water just the other day. My feet were killing me, but I tried to move quickly. I figured it was best to get to the water cache as soon as we could. When we crossed over the dry river bed and saw the brown iron box, we hesitated before opening the door. I think we were both afraid that we might open it to find it empty and then we’d be in trouble. But the cache was fully stocked with gallons and gallons of precious H2O. Hawkeye and I hugged each other in exhaustion.
We set up a little shelter using a tarp to shade us from the sun and refilled our camelbacks. For lunch that day we ate beef jerky, salami, dried fruit, peanut butter on tortillas, and cliff bars. I took off my boots and let my feet breathe. As we sat there about five people came by on horseback. We said hello and they decided they’d have lunch there, too. One gentleman approached us and asked us what was with the iron box.
“It’s water cache,” said Hawkeye. “People put jugs of water in there for anyone who comes along.”
“You mean like Mexicans?”
Hawkeye and I glanced at each other.
“More like hikers like us probably.”
“Are you guys packing?”
Hawkeye and I noticed he had a snubbed nose .38 strapped to his hip. Having grown up in Arizona I was used to seeing people open carry, but I think Hawkeye was a little confused.
“Nah,” I said.
“Oh, man, I wouldn’t be out here without a firearm. You don’t know who you’ll run into.”
The man started to tell us how undocumented workers wandered through the Tonto National Forrest on their journey from Mexico to Phoenix, but I stopped listening. I had met plenty of guys like him before. He had a thick New Jersey accent. He was riding a horse out in the desert without a hat.
“Where are you guys riding from?” I said trying to change the subject. I wasn’t sure how close we were to Apache Junction, but we’d encountered other horseback riders from there.
He shot me a look with a shrug.
“From the parking lot! Where else? Idiot.”
“Ah,” I said.
When he and the others got back on their horses and rode away, we all waved and wished them well. As soon as they were out of sight I turned to Hawkeye and said, “Well, that guy sure was an asshole,” and we broke out laughing.
TO BE CONTINUED
It was just after New Years that my buddy David “Hawkeye” Latham called me up and asked if I wanted to do a big backpacking trip. He’d been reading about the trails in Arizona, which is where I’m from. He said he wanted to see some saguaros with their arms stretched out like they were being robbed. January was shaping up to be a bad month, and I was losing my mind a bit. I needed something to look forward to. I needed to get away. I needed an adventure to shake me up. I was more than ready to hike back into the desert.
It took some planning. Lots of e-mails and phone calls. Lots of lists. But in mid-March we met up in Phoenix and headed east toward the Superstition Mountains. Having grown up in the Grand Canyon State, I knew that those mountains had a lot of bad mojo—lots of folks died in those hills. Some people went missing looking for treasure, others claimed to have seen giant Lizard People. Most of the men and women who never came back alive were the hikers who tried to walk across the desert in July and August with little water. Anyone who has read Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway will tell you that’s a bad idea. But March was wonderful for hiking the hills and valleys of the Sonoran desert. Never too hot, never too cold, and with a bit of color in the cactus flowers and a faint mist in the mornings.
Our first few days went wonderfully. It stayed overcast and sprinkled a bit as we trekked in the mornings. We were miles away from everything. We followed the Gila River for miles before turning north and into the Tonto National Forrest where we wandered by steep cliffs and rugged paths of stone and sand. My legs and back were strong. David and I carried probably between forty and fifty pounds on our backs—maybe more. We aimed for roughly ten miles a day and kept a moderate pace. But it wasn’t long before my feet were killing me. I didn’t know my feet could hurt that bad. And then, as if being alone in the desert wasn’t enough, we ran into our one fear: We ran out of water.
We’d finished the day’s hike without coming across any of the water spots on the map—or those spots had been dry as a barrel of dust. Latham and I sat down on the narrow trail and looked out across the valley and the scarred mountains around us. We caught our breath and talked out the scenario. We could abandon ship. We could try to press on and hope for the best, which was the most risky option.
But Goonies never say die.
We waited until dark. We got a little sleep but then, at 2:00 AM, we got up, emptied our packs in the brush by the trail and descended five miles back toward the Gila River. We took our Camelbacks and anything that might be able to hold water. Plastic bags, bottles, jugs, and cans. A person can go days without food. Water was more important. It wasn’t too bad a walk. It was cool in the early morning, our packs were now super light, and we were going downhill. We made it back to the river by the dawn.
It took us a while to fill up everything. One of our water pumps broke on day one. But we were not in any rush. We sat by the cold rushing stream and filled everything we had with precious H2O. We rested and ate a simple breakfast of tortillas and dry salami. By the time we returned to our stuff at the top of the mountain we were exhausted from lack of sleep, adrenaline, and pushing ourselves to retreat and return through the desert. But we’d done it. We had plenty of water. That night we ate our freeze dried dinners and treated ourselves to scalding black coffee for desert. We slept under the stars ready for the gravy of the next day.
TO BE CONTINUED
And I've got more good news!
My short story "All Ye Faithful" will be in the upcoming issue of Manzano Mountain Review. I wrote this story a while back and read an early draft of it at the Western Literature Association in Montana. MMR is a newer journal, and new journals like these need readers, so I urge you to check it out. I'll include a link once the story is published.
Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter already knows this, but I'm thrill to say that my short story "Witness to Everything" will be in the upcoming issue of Tinge Magazine based out of Temple University. This story may be the best thing I've written--the type of story I've always wanted to write. But for some reason I could never find a home for it. I wrote this back in 2012. It's been rejected 62 times. So to all you scribblers out there: Never, never, never, never give up.
I'll post more once the story is up.
I’m just a few pages away from finishing Ted Geltner’s amazing biography of the writer Harry Crews: Blood, Bone And Marrow. It is an incredibly in-depth book about not just a man, but an artist who had more demons than he could handle. Some parts are incredibly sad, others are pretty hilarious. In other words, the life of Harry Crews was a lot like his books. Harry Crews isn’t as popular as he once was, which is a shame. A good amount of his books are not even in print anymore. I’ve never been able to find a copy of his second book, Naked In Garden Hills. I once had to pay an arm and a leg for a paperback copy of The Hawk is Dying, which I sadly lost in a flood a few years back. To be honest, it has been a while since I’ve reread any of his novels, but for a long time Harry Crews was an inspiration to me. And reading Geltner’s book has been a bit like stepping back in time for me—all the memories of the man’s books, me reading them and wanting to write like him, reading his essays and other people’s accounts of him. Harry Crews was a man larger than life. A cliché for most but plain fact for him.
No one would have predicted Harry Crews to become a novelist. He was born into the poorest of poor sharecroppers in Georgia during the depression and grew up in a house where the only book was the bible. He suffered through a childhood bout with polio and later fell into a cauldron of boiling water. For years his body was scarred from the scalding water. After a long recovery and hard work, he became the first member of his family to graduate high school. And he barely graduated.
It was in the Marines that Harry Crews discovered that each base had a library, and he described that as like throwing a turkey to a starving man. He went and read everything by Mickey Spillane, and eventually he read everything by Graham Greene. After his discharge, he enrolled in the University of Florida (though the college discouraged him) and decided he was going to learn how to write. I’m not going to go on and on about the rest of the man’s life—you can go read Ted Geltner’s book for that. But reading Mr. Geltner’s book is testimony that writers are MADE! Harry Crews learned how to write the way everyone learns: reading everything, and writing and failing and trying again. The blank page does not care how much privilege you come from, how tough your childhood was. The blank page is there to be filled. And it is only the most determined who can put down word after word after word.
I can’t really remember how or when I first heard about Harry Crews, but I would have been a teenager. I remember seeing a picture of him and thinking, “Holy shit!” This guy wasn’t robed in corduroy and tweed. He had a sleeveless L.A. Raiders shirt, big biceps, sunglasses, and a huge tattoo of a skull on his arm. He looked like he was going to kick my ass and then beat up anyone who messed with me. And he wrote books! Lots of books, too.
Most writers, when they’re young and starting out, look for folks similar to them. As a kid in Arizona, this was difficult for me. All the writers I found were either from Europe and dead or from the Northeast and old: Salinger, Updike, Cheever(he was dead, too). I think this is why I drifted toward southern writers. Even if they were describing places as green and humid with ghosts of the civil war and slavery everywhere, they also got at a lot of harshness that I recognized in my own splotch of desert. Pick-up trucks, guns, car crashes everywhere. I latched on to not just Faulkner (the king of southern literature) but Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Tim McLaurin, and, of course, Harry Crews.
All of Harry Crews’s novels deal with outsiders—the freaks and the strange. One man dedicates himself to literally eating a car. A town goes mad with the annual snake hunt. A man makes a living by knocking himself out. But while many may be shocked (or even disgusted) by Crews’s writing, his books are truly tragicomedies where everyone is trying to get by despite the problems life has handed them. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t. Ultimately, Harry Crews remains the dark prince of grit lit—the balladeer of the broken and the bruised.
Recently one of my friends brought up how music influences her writing. I think it is something pretty common with writers, yet it doesn’t get discussed much. At least not in great length. Author Rick Moody once said that he writes his first drafts with headphones on with music on full blast so he can’t hear his own inner critic, and he would have to have complete silence when revising. Jack Kerouac listened to jazz as he slammed the keys of his underwood typewriter as he wrote On The Road. Richard Yates listened to classical radio as he wrote his first drafts in longhand. And I’m sure there are tons of other stories of novelists and poets going through CDs, MP3s, and vinyl as they write one word after another.
Music is a big part of my life. I played saxophone in school band, and I’ve played guitar since I was thirteen. The first albums I owned were by Charlie Parker, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, and my first CD was Prokofiev’s score from Peter and the Wolf. I’ve gone through phases of discovering blues, rock, classic country and western, funk, doo wop, and various eras of classical music. When I write I almost need to find the perfect music, I know some might view that as a type of crutch, but if I can get the right song then everything else becomes easier to see, hear, taste—music can open up my imagination better than anything else. In fact I think a lot of my ideas come as I listen to music—almost like my brain is making up flashes of music videos.
Sometimes it isn’t so much the music that fits the mood, but the music that would be playing in the background. If I’m writing a scene where some truckers go into a cowboy bar, I might need to play some Waylon Jennings. A while back I was working on something I eventually threw away, but the one scene I liked was where a guy got his wrist broken by a bookie, and I knew there was a song playing in the background, but I wasn’t sure what it was. The trouble was I couldn’t finish writing the scene until I found the right song. I scrolled through everything on my iTunes, I searched YouTube videos, dug out my CDs. But once I realized that Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 You” was the song, the rest of the scene fell into place. Similarly, when I was working on my novel, I knew the characters would be listening to the oldies station most of the time—so I found myself cranking the hits of Harry Nilsson, The Left Banke, The Byrds, and Scott McKenzie. Those songs helped me make my characters and descriptions becomes true.
Some pieces of music come back to my writing again and again. The song “Criminals” by Uncle Tupelo is one that springs to mind. I think that song can sort of play with anything I’ve written. Various film scores have served as inspiration along the way, too. I used to write all the time to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, but I haven’t listened to that one in a long time now. These days I’ll lean toward the more ambient styles of Thomas Newman.
But then comes the struggle of starting a new story or book and there doesn’t seem to be the right music. I’ll put on some Beethoven or some James Brown. I’ll close my eyes and listen to Guns n Roses. Maybe I’ll try some Philip Glass. And after a while, I’ll realize that the piece doesn’t really fit with any music (and/or vice versa) because the bit I’m writing just isn’t very good. Bad writing doesn’t have music, just noise.
I have set up a giveaway for my novel, Cities of Men, over at the Goodreads website. I will give out three copies of the book, AND I will sign those copies to the winners. And if you're not on Goodreads already, I strongly urge you to check out their website as it is a great way to meet other readers and discover new books and new writers. The Giveaway lasts the entire month of June. So spread the word: FREE BOOK!
I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
Even when I was a child I knew I wanted to write stories and novels. I wanted to put words together in a way that moved readers. I wanted to create characters and worlds. Books were cherished in my house growing up, and I would spend hours going through my father’s mysteries and my mother’s classic paperbacks even before I could read, and the weekly trip to the library was like going to church. When I was younger I wanted to write big page-turners like my father read. During my teens I wanted to write lush and complex prose like Faulkner or Joyce—my heroes for years. And as time went on, and as I wrote more and more, I discovered my own voice and the stories only I could tell.
I received my first rejection letter when I was sixteen. I didn’t get an acceptance letter until I was twenty-nine. I would say I’ve written about a hundred short stories and about five novels over the past twenty years. And in a few days my debut novel will hit bookstores and go out into the world.
Writing is incredibly difficult.
Anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or a fool.
It took me five years to write Cities of Men. The first draft took me about a year, and then I revised and rewrote it and added on and cut stuff out and reimagined it again and again and again. That was a lot of early mornings and weekends dedicated to a manuscript that may never have been read. I lived with the characters and their problems for half a decade! And I think people forget that part—they may read a book in a few days, but that writer was involved with the same book for years.
Publishing a novel has pretty much been my dream for as long as I can remember. And now I’m not sure where to go besides trying to write the next one. But that is where the fun and joy are. Sitting at the desk and trying to write good sentences. I mean it feels like HELL when the words just aren’t working, but when you find the right note, the right verb or noun, that’s electric.
When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature, he said, “Writing, at its best is a lonely life.” Those are words I think every writer should remember—hell, maybe get tattooed on their bicep. You sit alone at a desk, you spend all your time with your imaginary friends, and you find yourself avoiding real people so you have time to scribble one word after another.
So now Cities of Men hits stores on Tuesday, May 23. I hope people like it. I hope it sells a gazillion copies. I hope it wins awards. But right now? I really want some time to work on the new book and start the process over again.
I always told myself that I’d celebrate the publication of my first novel by hiking around Scotland, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. I guess I’ll settle for Six Flags instead.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas