Feb 25 2012

Open Range Adventure

Melissa Crytzer Fry

About five minutes from our house is a remote, little-known road that runs along the San Pedro River. Its tarred and chipped veneer quickly gives way to scraped dirt, the whirling dust of passing vehicles, and the emerald green fields of surrounding ranches. It’s one of my favorite places.

View of a lovely mesa along River Road. The still snow-sprinkled Galiuro Mountains rise in the background. Click to enlarge.

Naturally, when my mom was visiting from Pennsylvania last week, I took her for a ride along this magical path. Aptly named River Road until it forks, this dusty trail leads you to either 1) civilization* or 2) more desolate, rutted dirt passageways where you’re lucky to see another human being.

Of course, I chose Option 2 for our picnic in the desert (southwestern chicken salad over lettuce, which I prepared that morning. Chicken, corn, black beans, cilantro, red peppers, red onions … ummm).

This is our dining destination and, incidentally, also the spot where we both had to use nature’s wide-open restroom (and I mean wide open). Wouldn’t you know it … pants down … car coming in the direction of my squat. Uh-huh. Click to enlarge.

Along the way, we came across a few road signs that are the true markers of the Wild West.

Open range means just what it says. Cattle. In the open. They have the right-of-way to vehicles. And if you hit one, you are responsible for paying for said-demolished cow (and your crumpled car). Click to enlarge.

The signs proved prophetic. On the way home, we saw the flesh version of the black silhouettes painted against reflective yellow. And yes, they were on the road, on the edge of the road, moseying around like they owned it. Come to think of it … they do. Sort of.

This photo needs no description. Someone else was also having lunch. Click to enlarge.

Something else caught my eye along the edge of the road: a bit of a makeshift temple with something white perched on top. I didn’t expect to see what I saw …

Someone took the time to display this dried out desert tortoise along the edge of the road, placing him atop a shrine of rocks. I didn’t realize that the ridged plates on a tortoise’s back were separate from the skeleton-like shell. See how the octagons have fallen away? Rest in peace, little buddy. Click to enlarge.

My mom had a great time with Betty (my new “old” Jeep) and me. Where others might have been bored and seen nothing but dust and wide open space in the wide open range, my mom and I saw adventure, embraced the bumpy ride, gulped in the fresh air, and wondered at the clouds that had graced us in a sky that is generally a sheet of smooth cobalt blue.

* I use this term loosely. The town that the “Y” in the road leads to no longer has a grocery store; its quaint golf course shut down; and the one business that located in the area also chose not to rebuild after fire damage. They do have a Subway, though!

For Readers, Writers: I just finished reading a wonderful novel by Sarah McCoy, The Baker’s Daughter, and was in awe of her ability to parcel out just the right amount of information without broadcasting upcoming plot points or weighing down the reader in unnecessary detail. She allows the reader to make the discoveries herself, to put the pieces together and have those ‘ah ha’ moments. She is the master of inference and implication, unveiling surprises through her characters’ actions. [Check out my review of her book in the top right column under “Melissa’s Bookshelf” or visit my Goodreads page.)

I tried to get my cats to pose with Sarah’s book. Can you see Macho’s blurred, sniffing mug in the right corner? Both he and Niña were more interested in smelling the book than posing (maybe they smelled the baking brötchen within?).

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to Sarah’s storytelling techniques and the open range of the desert.

The desert reveals details at the right times and in the right doses – the little tortoise, the desert wildflowers tucked behind boulders, the squirrel hopping from tree to tree, the lizard camouflaged in the desert wash. It’s up to us to look, to see more than what appears on the surface, in the open range and between the pages of a book – to put the pieces together and realize what is woven into the surrounding landscape.

Do you enjoy novels that allow you to draw conclusions, or do you like all the details spelled out? What are some of your favorites? If you’re a writer: how do you achieve the balance of the “reveal?” What do you think of the open range?


30 Responses to “Open Range Adventure”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    First: Your outing with your mom sounds amazing! From the fork you took to the picnic lunch to the cattle who own the place and everything else. SO FUN! Second: Can’t wait to read Sarah’s book especially now realizing it reveals details at the right things in the right doses — because I love that kind of novel, too. (p.s. cute pic of the cats 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Julia. Ever heard of the term ‘herding cats?’ Well, trying to get them to pose was akin to such an impossibility!

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  • avatar StoriesAndSweetPotatoes Says:

    Oh my goodness the poor turtle, although that is pretty cool to see. I didn’t know “open range” was a legal thing. My Dad recently had a collision with a cow on a highway…not open range territory. How cute is a desert picnic with your Mom? 🙂
    I already was interested in The Baker’s Daughter but now you have me feeling like I need to get it ASAP!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I hope your Dad was OK; eeks! You DO need to get The Baker’s Daughter in your TBR stack. NOW!

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Melissa, (speaking of reveals ;))I’ve been so looking forward to learning of your travels with your mom (and Betty!) and those pictures, as usual, do not disappoint! Neither does that menu–that chicken salad has me drooling all over my keyboard! Sarah’s book is next on my night table (I just finished Alex’s A GOOD AMERICAN and it is so, so wonderful) and your review has me even more excited.

    Oh, the reveal! It can be an impossible balance–and I think it is so often a personal preference for every reader. Some of us like that tension and suspense of knowing what’s just around the corner/page and others don’t. Over the years, I’ve had to dim my reveal signal (my agent wonderfully called it when I get “too Scooby Doo”) because I think too often my instinct is to broadcast.

    (PS–your kitties are such charmers!;))

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    Melissa Reply:

    I can’t wait to read Alex’s book, either, Erika! I was laughing all over the place at your comment about “Scooby Doo” – maybe we can call it “Scooby Dooing” – something I fear I am instinctively guilty of as well.

    It’s not only tension and suspense that I like, but I also like when an author doesn’t handhold and lets the reader figure out connections and the “whys” behind a character’s action without writing a “tell” one-line sentence to explain it. That’s a real art, I think! And I’ve read your work: you’re a master!

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    That is an awesome adventure! I always learn new stuff about the desert on your blog, 🙂 I feel for the tortoise, but it seems oddly at peace on the rocks like that. I love the pic of the cows, too, and juxtaposition of life and death is really poignant.

    I’m a fan of inference and putting things together for myself (I love how Margaret Atwood does that), so that’s cool to know about The Baker’s Daughter.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Funny… I had the same feeling about the tortoise. The shrine seemed to have been made w/ love. I wonder if someone just found him (maybe hit by a road grader) and propped him up?

    May need to get some Margaret Atwood, b/c I, too, love inference.

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    I love “in your face” plots when I watch old broadway musicals, but in novels, I’d rather the author let me discover things for myself. Your desert analogy is perfect. It takes a little work to notice the important details, but it’s so worth the effort.

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Melissa – Your mom sounds like a terrific (obviously, the nut didn’t fall very farm from the tree)…

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  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    Hey there! I do love a book that leads you on…but there are times when I get annoyed if the writer drags it out too long. I like to come to one conclusion…and then that leads to another..and another and another…

    So glad you got some time with your mama!! xoxo

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    Melissa Reply:

    You make a good point about pacing and reveal. SO important.

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    That book sounds really good. And love the picture of your cat with the book. I can relate.

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  • avatar Michelle Poncelet Says:

    Wonderful photos Melissa – really got the sense of being in the desert with your descriptions. I enjoy reading novels that reveal details in different ways so your imagination is unfettered.

    Sad to hear about the town losing its grocery store and golf course. The picture of the tortoise is very moving. Glad someone set it aside.

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  • avatar Barbara Anne Waite Says:

    Oh I enjoyed this post. I just wrote a “tidbit” on my website this weekend about Arizona outhouses. I wrote the memoir taken from my grandmother’s letters and diary, “ELSIE-Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916.” I realized Elsie wrote in great detail about living conditions in rural arizona in 1913. She never once mentioned bathroom facilities. She did mention bathing in Oak Creek in her “old pink crepe dress.” Elsie might have been shocked by you needing to stop along side the road for a “potty call” but I enjoyed a laugh picturing you seeing the dust from the approaching car. Arizona has changed much but the beauty remains. I liked the sad picture of the turtle.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m glad SOMEONE addressed my potty call (which I, too, found hilarious). Your book sounds wonderful. What FUN to have access to your grandmother’s letters. I am a transplant from PA and am hopelessly in love with Arizona. Bathing in Oak Creek (LOVE that area) in a dress… hmmm. Yes, Elsie would be shocked at my behavior.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    This is such an interesting question, Melissa. And one my workshop argues over occasionally. Some people just don’t ‘get’ it unless it’s spelled out for them, others are bored and feel beaten over the head with things that are told openly, or in too much detail.

    Personally, in my own writing, I love to be subtle. But then, of course, I get some comments saying I should say more about how someone is thinking or feeling. Some readers have a hard time infering it from actions. Sinc ethere’s no pleasing everyone, we just have to write the kind of writing we like to read, I guess. I often find myself telling a writer to ease up on the pointing things out.

    That photo of the tortoise is so SAD! Poor little guy.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I, for one, love lots of internal emotional explanation. I don’t mind being hit over the head with it. But I think this discussion also relates to revelation of key facts. For instance, I like having that lightbulb come on. “Oh, really? That’s her BROTHER?” or “No way. He survived?” I love when those kinds of things aren’t broadcast, and Sarah McCoy handled that kind of reveal so well in her novel. It’s so much easier to introduce a character, tell who he is from the start. But to reveal that later, weaving it through other characters’ actions, his own actions, etc. – for me- is what makes reading fun! And it’s something I aspire to do in my own writing.

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  • avatar Patrick Ross Says:

    Glad to see you’re back at the blog, Melissa, and once again enjoyed exploring the desert vicariously through you.

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    The dried out old turtle blows me away, like the sadness of a dried out saguaro. GAW! Now, I must insist that I get a twin jeep soon. What shall we name her? Veronica?! =) So glad you had a great visit with mammacita.

    I can’t wait to read Sarah’s book! Just my kind of reveal. I have no idea how to accomplish that in real life, as I’m no where near that stage, but I hope to learn by example.

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    Melissa Reply:

    A twin Jeep. YEEESS! Come see me, and we’ll tool around. Veronica… love it! (And I agree – little tortoise very sad. But I think someone actually ‘honored’ him by building up his little shrine.)

    I am a firm believer that reading the work of others is the best teacher. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Sarah’s book!

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    Oh gosh, those are hard questions that I’m not enough of a writer yet to answer. From the reading point of view, I like both kids of books. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to do so much work. (Nicole Krauss’s Great House comes to mind.)

    How cool that Betty is a completely character on your blog. I love it! By the way, do you think of your cat whenever you see my name? 😉

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    Melissa Reply:

    Now you’ve got me intrigued about Great House!

    Ha – I have thought of my kitty on occasion after seeing your name, though she is a Niña, and you’re a Nina -so you’re very different (not only in terms of number of legs and fur). 🙂

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  • avatar Katie Pickard Fawcett Says:

    Great pics, Melissa. Your open range looks so much like central Mexico. I just returned from Guanajuato and have a bunch of photos taken in the middle of the desert that could pass for the same place. What a nice place for a picnic.

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    Melissa Reply:

    You’re so right that Arizona looks so similar to Mexico. I hopped on over to your blog and saw your recent post. Were you recently in Guanajuato? The only difference between the Mexican desert and the US side’s Sonoran desert are the saguaros. This is the only place in the world where they grow!

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  • avatar Susan Okaty Says:

    I just put Sarah McCoy’s novel on my Nook’s wish list. Thanks for the suggestion. Two novels that I thought were fabulous are The Wednesday Sisters and Lucia, Lucia. Have you read either of them?

    As for this post, I loved seeing the desert pictures. It made me miss Texas even more than I’ve been missing it lately. Our desert is quite the same as yours, but West Texas can be pretty desolate. My favorite part of Texas is the hill country around Austin. Just the dryness of your pictures reminds me of that area.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh yay! So glad you put Sarah’s book on your list. I hope you will love it as much as I did. The Wednesday Sisters has been on my list for awhile. Now that you’re saying it’s one of your all-time favorites, I need to get busy! I haven’t read Lucia, Lucia – but am looking it up right now!

    I had to laugh at your comment about the dryness seen in the photos. This is our GREEN season; can’t you see it on the edge of the road? Ha ha.

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  • avatar Bryan Says:

    I may have to bug you about where this road is. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Happy to share – as long as you take me along to hunt for rattlers :-). My most recent post includes yet a DIFFERENT road with possibilities. Was wondering, just today, if you’d seen any snakes yet? I saw a dead little guy on the road while I was jogging today. It wasn’t a rattler, though.

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    Bryan Reply:

    They are out, but minimally. The weather is just fine for activity, but the traveling is just getting started, to where they’re dispersed out in the hunting/breeding areas. Once night time temps are consistently in the 70’s, you’ll be all over! I just got my first rattlesnake relocation last night.

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