Jun 13 2011

Shots Ring Out

Melissa Crytzer Fry

When I think of the remote desert southwest, which is my back yard, I think of these things, to name a few (and I smile):

This baby javelina posed outside the French doors at my home. Mama and sibling were nearby. Notice the bristly little back. Click to enlarge.

This wonderful desert ocotillo plant, about ready to bloom, stands in contrast to those beautiful blue Arizona skies and wispy clouds. Click to enlarge.

I feel blessed to have this train trestle right in our back yard (a remnant of the once-bustling copper mines in the area). In this photo, I am standing about a mile behind the trestle on a hill, looking toward our property. Click to enlarge.

As you can likely tell, the desert makes me happy. In fact, it keeps me creatively motivated and gives me a sense of peace I’ve never before experienced – even knowing that I risk chance encounters with rattlesnakes, coyotes and big cats. For whatever reason, I have always felt naturally at ease in this outdoor wonderland.

But last Friday, some of that tranquility was stolen from me. And, to put it mildly, I am pissed.

I was jogging my regular route, past the neighbor’s goat hill (you may recall my goat post) when I heard a couple of loud bangs. It registered, at first, as heavy objects falling upon one another up near Goat Hill House. I assumed the neighbors were doing some construction work, but in the back of my mind, a “gunfire” warning also sounded.

So, instead of running past the clearing along the railroad tracks that opened on to Goat Hill, I yelled, “Hello!” to make whomever know that I was passing by (in case they were shooting at some invisible animals/target that I couldn’t see). I obviously didn’t want to put myself in the direct path of potential gunfire.

I made it through the clearing without incident, and the banging sounds stopped.

This is Goat Hill. I assume the little trailers are storage areas for goat feed (as well as chicken feed for the nearby chicken coops). Click to enlarge.

But the story doesn’t end here.

As I reached a stout palo verde tree, the gunfire (yes, it was gunfire – likely a .22) started again. And this time, three shots were aimed in my direction. The whole time, I am screaming, “Stop! You’re shooting at me! Stop!” (I was still thinking this was a hunter or target shooter who didn’t see me, perhaps). After two bullets literally whizzed past my head – I could hear them go by, they were SO CLOSE – my instinct kicked in and told me to get the hell out of there as fast as I could.

I sprinted to the next bluff, which meant running in wide-open, unprotected spaces once more. And then, that was it. No more shots. I made it the quarter mile back home in record time, adrenaline as my aid.

I can’t even say fear pushed me forward during that last open stretch along the tracks. It was this crazy survivalist mentality that I’ve never experienced before (I know I sound melodramatic, but unless you’ve had bullets come that close to vital body parts, you simply can’t understand the ‘what if’ possibilities that present themselves to you once you feel ‘safe’ and begin to process the situation).

I think I was still in shock when I told my husband to call the sheriff’s office, the whistle-like buzz of bullets still rattling in my head. It’s a sound I will never forget.

(In case you’re wondering, Goat Hill neighbors told the sheriff that they, too, heard shooting toward the railroad tracks and denied playing any role – and that they’d had problems with someone shooting at their goats. This incident will always remain a mystery to me, I suppose. I don’t like to think that I was an intended target, though I also can’t justify why someone would shoot into a palo verde tree if they weren’t aiming for something behind it: in this case, me. Plus, I was wearing a bright royal blue tank that could be seen for miles against the desert’s drab earth-tone hues).

For Writers, For Everyone. So why am I pissed rather than scared? Because for months, I associated Goat Hill with fond memories. In fact, every time I ran by and a goat baah’ed at me, I’d smile. Goat Hill had become a positive symbol for me, a morning ritual. The elderly neighbors even waved emphatically as I jogged by.

And in much the same way, the desert and all its critters, hills and cacti had become a symbol to me. Of creativity. Of harsh reality, but stunning beauty. Of wonder. Of relaxation.

Now I feel like someone ruined that for me. I do not want to feel unsafe in an environment that has given me so much. I don’t want to be fearful instead of unencumbered and in sync with my surroundings. I don’t want to look over my shoulder and wonder if some lunatic goat and human sniper is wandering the desert.

So, yeah. I’m pissed.

But, you know what? I’m not going to let some a-hole take this from me. Maybe the first few weeks, I’ll avoid that route. But I’ll go back. I will run our acreage and enjoy it. What I won’t do is live in fear. I simply cannot let someone steal the gift I’ve been given by living in this rural-but-terrifically-inspiring part of Arizona.

Do you think I’m nuts? You might when I tell you that I did manage to find a writing lesson in all of this craziness… In hindsight, perhaps it’s my therapy; writing about it is helping me process the uncertainty and to take a stand.

The writing lesson? It all goes back to symbolism. What happens to your characters when you take something symbolically significant to them and turn it on its head? What if something with once-positive connotations suddenly turns into something painful (like my situation?) or, conversely, something once terrifying becomes electrifying? Consider: a piece of beloved jewelry becomes a weapon used against your character, a once-tranquil home becomes a crime site where your protagonist’s spouse is killed, or – on the flip side – a fear of heights is transformed into a love of skydiving ? Does that transformation, and grappling with it, not add a tremendous amount of emotional wallop to your storyline, to your characters’ trajectories, to their growth, to the plot?


Jun 6 2011

Desolate Desert Digs

Melissa Crytzer Fry

To the untrained eye, a pile of rocks in the desert might appear to be just that: a pile of rocks. In fact, most untrained eyes probably wouldn’t even see that pile of rocks during the height of summer, when the sun glares angrily off the scorched desert floor.

The chiseled pieces of feldspar, granite, sandstone and limestone would likely melt into the thirsty landscape. That is, unless you’re Neighbor Mark on his Polaris Ranger (think Superhero sporting a logo with NM in the middle, bionic vision enabled). He is the one who found this discovery and shared it with hubby and me:

Mark’s Magellan-like skills, which allow him to read mounds of earth and patches of prickly pear and saguaro like road signs, led us to this old shelter. Click to enlarge.

It turns out that this pile of rocks that Mark had recognized as a building foundation (about a year earlier) is being renovated. By someone. For some reason. In the middle of nowhere.

Fresh ocotillo stalks and dried century plants now provide shelter over the structure that long ago shed its original roof. Bags of cement now wait inside for their transformation into globs of mortar that will be splattered haphazardly among the rocks, meant to stabilize this old relic.

Refurbishments include a paper-towel dispenser, a table, and a bucket-chair to go along with the existing fireplace. The renovators also collected and placed geodes and other minerals along the face of the fireplace. Click to enlarge.

Finishing touches include roll-up blinds made of dried ocotillo stems and 2x2 framing around the windows. The haphazard cement is very visible here. Click to enlarge.

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what we were looking at. What was this building’s story before the renovators came along? Who stayed in it? For how many years? Alone? What wild animals did the inhabitants come across in this remote location?

Mark thinks it’s likely that the shelter was originally built by cowboys of the Old West. But my mind was still firing off all kinds of questions, conjuring all kinds of scenarios. Who was renovating it now? How on earth did they get the supplies way back into the desert? WHY would they? What is their intended use for this structure in 2011? A hunting shack? An isolated but rudimentary get-away?

I still don’t know. And I could probably never find the place again if I tried. Which I won’t. Unless Neighbor Mark drives.

What more does one need in the middle of the remote desert than a shovel and some Jagermeister? We found these items set back into a crevice in the wall. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: The unknown renovators of the rock pile shelter appear to be doing their best to build upon something that already existed – despite the remote setting, the failing condition of the foundation, the harsh sun. They’re simply trying to improve it, add to it, refresh it to suit today’s needs.

Is novel writing much different? Aren’t we really just writing renovators, building upon the existing themes and work of authors who have gone before us? Do writers naturally draw from other works – consciously, subconsciously – simply adding their own finishing touches and “refreshers” to what already exists?

Or do you think your ideas are completely your own, completely unique?

NOTE: If you have a chance, please visit Shari Lopatin’s “Rogue Writer” blog where I guest this week.