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Anson Stevens-Bollen

2016 Writing Contest

My Great Adventure

November 23, 2016, 12:00 am
By SFR

SFR asked writers to compose works on the theme of “your great adventure” for the new iteration of our annual contest for short fiction and nonfiction. They responded in droves, sending nearly 100 entries for our judge to consider. We’re proud to present this collection from our community. Watch for this year’s key words in the fiction entries that follow (“deplorable, “reservoir” and “swindle”), and see if you spot the familiar in the nonfiction pieces. Write on.

>>> FICTION

1st PLACE

A Bisti Encounter

By Shaula Lesath

I had not noticed the tall elderly man who had moved into the seat and was now sitting next to me in the airport lounge. He cleared his throat and plunged straight into conversation.

“I could not help overhear your travel plans,” he said, pointing to the crowd still milling around flight agents’ desk at the closed terminal gate. “I see you are heading to the Southwest... into the great wilderness... You must plan well before the trip… I was there once and…”

I impatiently cut him short. “I am not sure that anyone here is going anywhere for a while. Were you at the agent’s desk?” We were snowed in at the Anchorage Ted Stevens Airport and all flights were either delayed or cancelled indefinitely. I had time to kill until my flight to Denver was announced.

But I was wary of encouraging unsolicited storytellers. They were veritable reservoirs of anecdotes that were of interest only to the narrator. But he had other redeeming qualities—especially to a photographer—when I studied him closer. His height, his shocking blue eyes that peered through his deeply furrowed tanned face, the bright purple vest and the hat with a single feather, and the light backpack resting beside him. How did I not notice him at the agent’s desk?

“Would you mind if I took a few photographs?” I asked, looking for the model release cards in my backpack. “My contact information is on the back,” I said as I pulled out a couple of the cards for him and reached into the camera case for my favorite 70-300 tele-zoom lens.

It didn’t seem like he had heard me or seen my outstretched hand with the cards.

“I was out there in the wilderness,” he continued. “Nothing but the howling wind and the tall winged rocky pillars all around. I had always thought that I could never get lost if I had a good GPS or compass on my trip. But there is a first time for everything, you see. You want to photograph the Milky Way in winter—but do you know how cold it gets out there at dusk even in October? I was out there once to capture star tracks against the rocks and winged hoodoos. Something special—something no one else had published before.” He chuckled. “Youthful ambition and adventure, you see. But the Bisti can be unforgiving...”

“Did you say Bisti? As in the Bisti Wilderness near Farmington?” I asked. The man had captured my interest now and I had recently learned to pronounce it properly—Bee-steye, not Bee-stee.

“How did you...? Well, yes, you overheard me talking about it over there. I am all prepared for the shoot. I have been repeatedly warned told not to venture into the land without a good GPS, extra batteries, and plenty of water and rations just in case. In addition to my gear of course,” I patted the massive camera bag by my side. “I hear that you can be out of cell phone range there.”

He turned to me. Unsmiling. “But your GPS can die on you. Or you misplace your compass. The sky gets grey with approaching snow. You can no longer follow the stars. It is dark. It is cold. You no longer know where you are. Are you prepared for that? Can you stay calm and not panic?

“I had been walking most of the day. I had to get there before sunrise to capture the first rays against the winged hoodoos. I set way points on the GPS to make sure I knew how to get back to the truck. I was an awesome experience—most spiritual—most satisfying—surrounded by these serene tall rocks—some winged like angels—otherworldly and godlike in their supreme aloofness. I don’t remember how many images I got that day—I was mesmerized by the shifting shadows falling on the rocks as the sun moved along its daily route—and lost track of time—at least until the darkness dropped in and I started gathering my stuff and decided to head back. The sky had become a very dark shared of gray—no stars—no Milky Way—that would be for another night.”

I tried to interrupt with some questions about how long ago he was there and what time of the year he had taken this trip, but the man continued on like he hadn’t heard me.

“The truck was parked on the west side of the wilderness area. Had I started my return at dusk as originally planned, I could have followed the setting sun back, I thought. I was still a good four-hour walk. I started walking back briskly since I didn’t bring along any camping gear. I had always prided myself on my sense of direction. It had been quite warm during the day so I was down to my shirt and vest. Now I rummaged for the hooded jacket, pulled it on and resumed my march back to the truck. I was still walking along confidently when I came to a group of strangely formed rocks ahead of me. I did not remember walking past them earlier in the day—granted the dull, dark, shadowless gray of the night could play tricks on your eyes. I walked on—with an unsettling feeling that I could be lost.”

The airport public announcement system sounded with its usual loud but unintelligible tones—was the runway getting cleared? But I was compelled to continue listening to the man’s story—was there a punch line? A lesson perhaps?

“So how long did it take you to get back? I am sure your GPS was invaluable—right?” I asked.

He seemed to hear me this time. He nodded.

“Ah yes! The GPS! I pulled it out to check the bread crumbs I had so carefully strewn on my way into the wilderness. I could see I was a little off from the nearest way point—and I started walking back. About 10 minutes later, the screen began to get less visible and was just a faint greyish palette—no contrast, no information. I quickly pulled the spare batteries from my bag and replaced the ones in the GPS unit. There was a slight flicker and then nothing. I tried the last set of spare batteries I had and again, it was the same. The deplorable little man at the hotel shop where I had picked them up had sworn that they were especially long-lasting lithium batteries designed for GPS units. And none of them worked. I was angry. I felt I had been swindled out of a potentially life-saving essential wilderness survival item. I would report him, I promised myself, when I got back to my room—if I got back to my room. The flash of anger quickly morphed into despair. The night was getting colder exponentially and I realized the folly of not having brought along at least one of those cheap metallic gas station warming blankets. I pulled out my phone to call for help—there was no connection. I sat down on one of the strangely formed rocks to nibble on a few crackers and sip some water before deciding on the next step.”

“I thought I heard noises behind me. A coyote or other wild animal perhaps? I didn’t think too much wildlife could thrive in a wasteland such as this. Pretty, photogenic, but an empty wasteland nonetheless. I was beginning to worry and a bit of panic was setting in. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps behind me! I turned around and there was this man, a stranger, in khaki-ish clothes—hard to tell in the failing light—with what appeared to be a backpack slung on his shoulder. A park ranger perhaps—these were, after all, BLM lands—but at this hour and on foot? A hiker like myself? More likely. He started walking briskly in the direction away from the low rocks and waved his hand signaling as if to follow him. I did so gratefully. At least I was in the company of another human. We walked for about another three hours or so, without stopping, without speaking, me following the guiding stranger in a half run and half walk until we reached the wide arroyo which I recognized as being close to the parking lot. I saw the low-tech marker—a long strip of flaming orange survey tape—I had tied with a fancy bow around a pointed rock.”

“That was clever,” I remarked. “I must add that to my list of items to take along in case the high tech ones should fail.” I chuckled.

The man looked at me—unsmiling again with a serious look on his face continued, “The stranger then placed a round object in my palm—and said pointing, ‘That way—15 minutes or less.’ And he was gone, before I had a chance to thank him or say anything at all.

“Back in the safety of my truck I examined the object in my palm—it was a vintage lensatic compass with some worn out etching or engraving on the cover. I would examine it when I got back to the hotel.”

“So did you eventually...” I began as the airport public announcement came on again. I heard the words “passengers,” “Phoenix,” “Denver,” jumped up to check the large flight status video screen suspended a few feet away. I turned to the man and said, “Please wait. I will be right back. I want to check if and when my flight is leaving.” I darted away requesting the man to keep an eye on my baggage. I would be right back.

When I returned a good 40 minutes later to my seat, after securing a boarding ticket to Denver, the man was gone. My baggage was still there. I checked to see if my camera and other accessories were still in the bag. Nothing seemed to have been touched moved. There was no sign of the man and I never saw him again. On his now-empty seat was one of the two business cards with the model release that I had offered him and a small weathered soft leather drawstring bag. I opened it to see the other business card stuck inside along with a circular object. It was an old engraved lensatic compass.



2nd PLACE

Reservoir Maman

by Ann Laase Bailey

Anson Stevens-Bollen
I carry my mother around Paris on my back. She’s been dead three years. It’s taken me that long to grieve. I still haven’t accepted that she’s gone. She’s ever present, standing just outside my field of vision. I turn quickly, try to catch her, she’s faster; I know she’s there. Now I’m in Paris on the trip we’d planned to take together. And we are together, Mums and I. She’s in two places, walking a step behind my left shoulder, and in my knapsack, ashes in a simple wooden box.

Skydive, spelunk, learn to tap dance, swim naked in the ocean, cuddle a koala, visit Jim Morrison’s grave. My mother wrote her bucket list the day she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Her appointment was in the morning. At noon she called to invite me for dinner, not an unusual request. We’d always been close, and since Dad’s passing two years earlier we ate together several times a week.

She broke the news over dessert. She was calm, serene. I cried, and held onto a sliver of disbelief. Mums was young, 59, and still, as my father oft described her, lithe and lovely. Yes, she’d lost some weight, but the death of a husband, best friend, and lover, after 30 years of marriage could do that to a person. “You’ll beat this, you’re a fighter.”

“The cancer’s too widespread. Now’s the time to accept and celebrate life. I want you to join me in completing my bucket list.”

Bucket list? Mums, my hero, my role model, her life a cornucopia of experience—growing up in rural Iowa, moving to New York at 20, working first as a model then an actress, becoming a distinguished playwright; not to mention the people she’d met and the places she’d been—what hadn’t she done?

“Sarah, did you hear me?” Mums asked, pushing her list across the table towards me. “I want you with me on the rest of my journey. I’m not about to swindle myself now.” My mother’s philosophy of life, I’d heard it so often. Once, as a college freshman in a homesick state of melancholy, I’d almost tattooed it on my forearm: Life, the grand adventure; don’t cheat yourself of a single day.

I embraced her list with gusto. The confessionary dinner was on a Wednesday. By Saturday we’d joined a weekly tap class in Tribeca. Within a month we’d ticked off the next four activities on Mums’s final checklist and captured them all on film. We jumped out of a plane over Long Island, strapped to the muscular chests of skydiving instructors Todd and Jimmy. I drove us to Pennsylvania where, clad in coveralls, hard hats, and headlamps, we rappelled in the dank darkness of underground caverns. Swimming naked in the ocean off of Manhattan Beach in the middle of a hot summer’s day took some ingenuity, but we pulled it off. We entered the water in bathing suits. On my back was a lightweight drawstring sack containing a waterproof Nikon purchased for the occasion. Once in deeper water the camera came out of the bag and our Speedos went in. I snapped pics of Mums giggling as she floated on the waves, her breasts flowers tracking the sun. The koala posed the biggest challenge; there were none in the New York area. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I got in touch with a zookeeper in Cleveland. We flew from LaGuardia to Cleveland and back the same day. Mums was delighted and surprised—the koala was heavier than anticipated (about 25 pounds), more wooly than silky soft to the touch, and smelled like cough drops courtesy of its eucalyptus leaf diet.

“Why Jim Morrison’s grave?” I’d asked Mums when I read her list, “I didn’t know you were a Doors fan. Besides, you’ve been to Paris many times.”

“I wasn’t dying on my previous visits, so it wasn’t important. Now I want to go to say thank you.”

“Thank you?”

“Yes. If it weren’t for Jim Morrison, I’d never have had the courage to leave Iowa. In 1974 I heard Break on Through on the radio. I hadn’t heard it before, because, well, that just wasn’t the kind of music we listened to in my hometown. I didn’t understand the lyrics or much like the music, but that one line, ‘Break on through to the other side,’ stuck in my head. That was the start of my life as a grand adventure.”

In preparation for our trip to Paris, we enrolled in a weeklong French immersion course at Berlitz in Rockefeller Center. My mother’s language skills were deplorable and endearing. She’d chatter away with confidence, substituting somewhat similar sounding familiar words for the French ones. Chérie was cherry, aujourd’hui became aubergine, and au revoir turned reservoir. The instructors adored her. Each misspoken mot brought laughter and joy that filled the class, spilled out onto West 51st Street, and infected all of Midtown. I almost forgot she was dying.

We were ready for Paris, airline tickets purchased, hotel booked, when the cancer struck. Overnight the slumbering guest lodged in her body turned violent home invader. Mums didn’t fight. She seemed to taunt the disease like a child frolicking with the tide. When the pain surged she stayed just ahead of it, receding into herself, her vitality an invisible wind as it drained first from the room, then from her body, until she simply vanished. She didn’t suffer, but I did.

I’ve wandered the streets of Paris for five days. Today I’m ready. Time to say thank you Jim Morrison. I’m up early, 6:30 am, and out the door of my hotel by seven. It’s a drizzly, cold, mid-September morning. I walk down Rue Monge in the eerie twilight before dawn. The air smells rich, a combination of history and culinary flavors, older, more mature than the salty, steely odor of Manhattan. I stop at Maison Kayser, boulangerie-pâtisserie, for coffee and pain au chocolat, then wind my way back up Rue Monge to Rue des Écoles and the Jussieu metro station. Rush hour has started; fashionable Parisians crowd the platform. I catch line seven, direction La Courneuve 8 Mai 1945. I close my eyes, listen to the train’s rhythmic hum, and submerse myself in the subterranean soul of Paris, the collected energy of the city’s denizens that concentrates underground. The underbelly of every city has a unique sensorial aura. At home in New York it’s Jackson Pollock, Basquiat, Miles Davis, and Tupac. Here I’m engulfed in the impressionist colors and brushstrokes of Monet—soothing—with Edith Piaf singing in the background. As the rush of passengers builds, Monet shifts to the staccato of Seurat’s pointillism. It’s seven stops to Opéra, and a change to line three, direction Gallieni, then ten more stops to Père Lachaise.

I emerge from below ground to clearing skies and a risen sun. Across the road I see a gate into the cemetery. I approach; it’s locked. I skirt the perimeter, walking about half a mile, until I find the main entrance. Eight a.m., opening hour, the monolithic gates unfurl. I cross the portal. Shadow Mums skips happily behind me.

I pick up a map and scan the names of the dead. Impressive. Mums belongs here amongst her artistic and intellectual peers. I formulate a plan and a trajectory through the tombs. I choose carefully. Who would Mums like to meet? Fifteen stops; Pissarro, Collette, Chopin, Balzac, Delacroix, Apollinaire, Proust, Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Modigliani, Sarah Bernhardt, Molière, Jim Morrison. I stop, remove the box of ashes from my backpack, and unseal it. Under the shadows of tall trees, back into the ever-increasing sunlight, along paved streets, cobblestone alleys, and dirt trodden footpaths, first up the expansive hillside, then down, I meander from grave to grave. Some are easy to find, Oscar Wilde’s imposing lipstick-covered monument. Others more elusive, Apollinaire, playing hide and seek in the tangle of plots at the heart of the park. At each stop I introduce the newest member of their society, noted playwright Alice Robertson, my mother, and sow a portion of her ashes. I feel Mums’ approval, a warm glow behind my left scapula.

It’s taken almost three hours to complete my route. I arrive at my final destination, Jim Morrison’s resting place. Japanese tourists surround the site. They snap selfies and, flashing peace signs, pose for group photos. I stand to the side, waiting patiently. And then, I’m alone. I step over the barrier and face the headstone. “Mr. Morrison, I’d like to introduce you to my mother, Alice Robertson. She’s here to thank you. You gave her the courage to live life on her terms, to break through her self-imposed boundaries. I’d like to thank you, too. Because of you, I grew up experiencing the world with the most incredible mother. And now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to leave her here with you.” I scatter the remaining ashes and place the empty box against the backside of the memorial. I extract four photographs from my wallet—Mums in skydiving free fall, her broad grin turned grimace with the effect of gravity; Mums, with an ever-so-serious coal miner’s stare, in her caving attire; Mums gleefully splashing in the ocean; Mums cradling a koala, amazement in her eyes—and lay them gently upon her box. My task is done.

As I climb back over the barricade, a small group of scruffy teenagers approaches. A boy with a guitar strums the melody to “The End;” the others join him in song.

This is the end, beautiful friend

This is the end, my only friend, the end

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Of everything that stands, the end

No safety or surprise, the end

I’ll never look into your eyes, again…

I am still. Tears wet my cheeks. I wait for the song to finish before I move. As I take my first step, the ragtag band launches into “Break on Through.”

You know the day destroys the night

Night divides the day

Tried to run

Tried to hide

Break on through to the other side

Break on through to the other side

Break on through to the other side, yeah…

I laugh, a loud raucous roar, and tap my way towards the exit. Mums is dancing too. She’s moving up and away from me, her new acquaintances beckoning her to their salon.

“Reservoir Maman, au revoir. Good-bye Mums. I love you.”




3rd PLACE

Anoxia

By Vaughn Fortier-Shultz

The company that employs me offers four days off for bereavement (two if the funeral is in-state), and, galled by the price of plane tickets for so soon a trip, I began packing my compact SUV.

Seneca is a small community in Thomas County, slightly northwest of Nebraska’s center. Established during a railroad work stoppage in January 1888, the town’s meager population had dwindled with each census to the point that, in 2014, residents voted to unincorporate rather than struggle to retain municipality. The United Church of Christ sits on a dirt road a block from the post office, and it was in their small back cemetery lot that my mother wished to be buried.

She spent her entire life in Nebraska, seldom venturing further than two counties over for anything. Her maternal grandparents had arrived in Grand Island during the boom of the 1880s, and her mother and father met working at the local sugar beet processing factory. A heady sense of homesteading nostalgia led the couple to settle down on a farm in Alliance, on the Western side of the Sand Hills. My mother was born at home, Crenetha Joanne McMurtry, the youngest of eight children, in August of 1920.

I shut the hatchback and walked into the house one last time, to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything, and to look once more at the walls, covered in framed photographs and paintings, ephemera that now seemed so arbitrary and meaningless. Was this my house? Familiar, but unrecognizable, unnecessary. There are no words to explain the value of one’s possessions when dealing with death. It all seems irrelevant compared to the inscrutable void of beyond; owning property is the ultimate swindle.

The passing of a life often comes unexpectedly, but my mom’s flame had been flickering for years. At one point she slipped, fell and broke her hip, leading my siblings and me to urge her to move into a retirement facility where she could be taken care of full-time. Resistant and resilient, she stayed put in her two-story farmhouse, hidden by trees, the paint peeling from the siding. Within the year, a second accident left her with two broken wrists and a near-fatal scalp laceration. My sister Mary was living in North Platte at the time and began staying with our mother, helping take care of her.

Forty months passed, and Mary’s regular phone calls kept me informed about Mom’s condition, waning gradually until expiration. In my mind, I was prepared for this inevitable conclusion, but when the news broke I had trouble drawing breath. My face was hot, my sweat was cold, my stomach knotted like a lanyard. Memories of warm smiles and stern reproaches whirled through my head, dizzying me.

Arming the security system, I locked the door and got into my car. It was still early, and I had 12 hours of driving ahead of me. My destination was the town of Arthur, where the family had rented a house for relatives to stay at during the proceedings. I hadn’t been to a funeral in years.

As a young man, road trips were a source of excitement and adventure, intriguing and eye-opening. I felt a spiritual kinship with America’s roaming storytellers, Jack Kerouac and Jerry Garcia influencing my choices and making banalities fascinating. Walking into a bar for the first time in Webster Springs, West Virginia and drinking with miners gave me a sense of belonging unmatched by any neighborhood association or professional tenure. I was most at home the further from home I got.

Later, wife and career brought me to Boise, and following the divorce, I wound up living and working in Twin Falls.

"My midlife crisis was spectacular. I almost died mountain biking in Moab, and looking back, my tattoo doesn’t bring me the joy I hoped for. With no children of my own and little interest in dating, I resided alone in a house full of belongings that failed to make me happy."

My midlife crisis was spectacular. I almost died mountain biking in Moab, and looking back, my tattoo doesn’t bring me the joy I hoped for. With no children of my own and little interest in dating, I resided alone in a house full of belongings that failed to make me happy. It seems like people used to be more content with their disappointment. My life certainly felt like a deep reservoir of sadness and shame. Most folk don’t relate to Baudelaire’s poems.

I got on I-84, continuing south after the junction with I-86. I passed a sign for Beet Dump Road, and chuckled. Sounded like a road you’d go down if you had to shit out a beet. I thought about my grandparents working at the beet factory. They probably took plenty of beet shits.

There aren’t a lot of people in north-central Utah. I drive past farm routes with numbers for names: 22500 Road forks with 18400 Road, and 23600 Road intersects 20000 Road to form four right angles. It makes sense in these remote parts of the Great Basin to apply such impersonal monikers; the roads look ready to return to the anonymous dust at any moment.

The car gets decent highway mileage, which it should for a suburban vehicle. My ex-wife’s lawyer let me keep it during the settlement negotiations. Figures, since after she took my money, the former love of my life leased a new Maserati.

Ogden came and went. The Wasatch Range looked beautiful out the window, teeth in the Rocky Mountain zipper. How could anyone have climbed over those mountains for the first time? Went around them, more likely.

I let the sights wash over me as my thoughts bounced around like a pinball. Long stretches behind the wheel make me contemplative, but I suppose the predisposition was already there after the emotional turbulence of losing a loved one. Living by myself under self-imposed isolation made me docile, sheltered me from the harm of the outside world. I believed myself to be safe, a patient recovering in hospital, but perhaps I was more like a prisoner in solitary confinement.

Briefly, I mistook a small bird flying by for a wood thrush.

How cliché for me to reevaluate the deplorable state of my life, to reconsider my values and priorities, to allow the external transgression of death to cross the threshold into my hearth of rigid compartmentalization. Driving into Wyoming, I told myself that her death just strengthened my resolve, highlighting the absurdity of existence and confirming that love only leads to loss and suffering.

She had been the strongest female figure in my life. I was still in the formative first decade of existence when my father left, and I suppose my mom had seen it coming, since she didn’t miss a beat taking charge and raising us children on her own. We were instructed to tell people, if they asked, that our father was dead. “He is to me,” she said on a few occasions. After a while we stopped mentioning him altogether.

My mom wasn’t much of a storyteller. She believed in honest work and self-righteousness. Pride came naturally to her, and she wasn’t one to answer questions she didn’t want asked. My siblings and I were always encouraged to stand up and look out for ourselves. I don’t think she respected me very much after my divorce. I can’t blame her.

I passed a sign for Kemmerer, home of the first JC Penney store. More claim to fame than anything I’d ever done. I exited and pulled into a rest area to use the bathroom. My prostate is about as bad as any man my age should expect, so I’m not complaining. Diet and exercise are concerns for the young.

Yet as I continued on the road, passing Rock Springs on the way to Rawlins, a familiar feeling crept over me, one which hadn’t made itself known in years: excitement. Rolling down the window to breathe fresh air, the wind roaring in my ear, I felt the same giddiness as in younger years on cross-country drives. The eternal spirit of adventure and conquest are embodied in the roads of this nation. A twinge of guilt makes me sheepish; Europeans stole this land from the Native Americans. My privilege is showing.

Wyoming is one of three states to have borders constructed only along lines of latitude and longitude, rather than by naturally occurring formations and landmarks. It does seem kind of silly to define something by random lines rather than any tangible substance. I unwrap and chew a Tums to avoid considering the parallels between Wyoming’s random borders and my own capricious values.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch during a warm summer day. My mom was folding a large sheet in the middle of the room, and as she shook it out, I fell asleep. When I came to, she was holding me in her arms, crying gently. I closed my eyes and pretended to have not woken. That was the only time I ever saw her vulnerable side.

The population of Wyoming rivals that of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Passing through Cheyenne, I became uneasy. This corner of the state seemed weird to me. Pine Bluffs was hit by a hail storm earlier this year so devastating that the National Guard had to be called in. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to live there.

I fail to stifle a giggle driving past Dix, Nebraska, and further down the road, Lodgepole. Brule. Ogallala. Getting close now.

The conflicting emotions inside me raged on. How did I become so set in my ways? When did sadness become the norm? At what point was my love of life lost? Though I hadn’t experienced a profound epiphany during the drive, it provided much-needed food for thought. Who was it that said something about an unexamined life?

Reminiscing about the travels and exploits of my younger days, and reflecting on my mom and family, I began thinking of the great adventure that is life, part roller coaster ride, part heroic saga, part roll of the dice. By virtue of drawing breath, it seemed my adventure was still continuing down a path that curves so much you can’t see what’s ahead. Was I ready to put it all behind me and resign to fate’s cruel maneuvering, or did I yet have accomplishments to come?

I pulled into the covered carport of the rental house in Arthur and put my car in park.


>>>NONFICTION

1st PLACE

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: A Winter Adventure

By Richard Jay Goldstein

January is never easy. But this is a pilgrimage, a resetting of thresholds, so I’d rather not hear any voices but my own. It’s just me, the slush, and the loneliness of a winter Tuesday morning. I’m taking my place in line behind John Muir, Gertrude Bell, Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, Arlene Blum, all the other lunatics. But there’s only so much room in a Tuesday morning. No time to go halfway around the world.

Anyway, I have a Purpose, a job to do, an accomplishment to accomplish. Authorized personnel only. Do not try this at home.

I park my truck on the shoulder of the road, cross the river on the old wooden bridge, parallel to the steel highway bridge. The old bridge was restored a while back and for a long time was fragrant with cedar planking. I face a trail brimming with mud, patches of dirty snow in the shadows. I also face a sign—which I ignore—forbidding me to do what I’m going to do. Low gray clouds tatter overhead.

The trail follows the river, snaking away between chamisa and juniper and boulders the size of boulders.

I’m not going to tell you where I am. Too many people already ignore the sign. If you recognize the place, keep it to yourself.

Now it’s up the soggy trail, feet shattering the ice-lace, running lightly in my high-tech trail running shoes—my all-terrain mud-&-snow sneakers. My physiology cranks. Time attenuates.

Empty mind, full mind. The wind blows through my ears.

Anson Stevens-Bollen
I come to a stand of sage. The sage is luminous gray, heavy seed-plumes nodding. I stop, select a thick and vigorous bush, flick open my trusty pocket-knife and slice off a small plume. I rub the greasy leaves between my fingers, rub my fingers under my nose, then stick the twig behind my ear. The clean sweet smell lurks in my mind and I turn back to the trail, heart beating.

I can see a high curved cliff, like a shallow amphitheater, to the southeast of the trail. It looms a few hundred feet above me, a half-mile away. Hard sandstone, decorated with horizontal strata a million years apart, the face split into quantum segments by vertical cracks. Time and space. What more could you want, besides a good cheap pizza?

This is world-class scenery. But this place—this trail, that view—is really just a cranny tucked away between towns and highways, always at risk of being paved over. Should be a national park, if simple beauty were the criterion. Because every timelogged cliff and trail from which to behold it, every hill and creek, every tree and meadow, should be celebrated, not just the huge wild places. Instead, we’re forced to hold beauty contests to see who will survive.

Here she is folks! Miss Fourteen K Peak! Isn’t she lovely?

Who will save the homely little places like this one?

Like this one. Bony hills dotted with piñon and juniper scrub. Ghost-laden sandstone cliffs. The brown river, like milk chocolate. This is precious. I slip and slide in the ice-cold mud.

Now the trail dips down by the river and passes a beach. But this one is too close to the road for my Deep Purpose today. This is the beach you stop at when you don’t have much time but you tell yourself I’ll just zip in, mellow out, and get on home. Now, in the low water of winter, a thin sand and rock island appears just offshore, looking as if it’s racing upriver.

The trail jogs up onto the laps of the hills, and follows a cut bank glittering with quartz. A hundred years ago this was the bed for an old narrow-gauge railroad, and here and there crumbles of ancient ties lie like pale shadows across the trail. Early on a different morning I got caught here behind a big skunk who was ambling along home. He wouldn’t pull over and I wasn’t about to pass him. We crept at skunk speed for about half a mile. Every so often he’d look around at me moseying 10 yards behind. Yep, the human’s still back there. Well, ho hum, nice morning. Finally the skunk got where he was going and turned off, but meanwhile I’d discovered I liked his pace and so I kept it up for a while longer, getting a new skunk’s-eye view of the old familiar trail.

The trail leaves the roadbed and the mud, and tracks up an arroyo slicing down the hillside. Riverside willows and cottonwood give way to piñon and juniper and cholla cactus. If any living thing does, cholla demonstrates the blurred border between life and death. Summer or winter, some of the plant is green and juicy, covered with bristling spines which seem to wave like a parched sea anemone, and some of the plant is nothing but dry cactus bones, webs of gray fiber that look like one of those woven straw finger traps.

Some people call cholla “jumping cactus,” because you can be passing one, yards away, plenty of room, and zap!—it’s stuck to the back of your jacket, and you have to cash in lots of chips to get a friend to pick it off you. If it gets to your skin you’ll be tweezing out toxic little hairs for weeks.

I pass a dead juniper snag. Plants handle death better than we animals. A dead tree, like this one, becomes even more beautiful in death. It dries out into an oriental painting, then turns silver in the sunlight, and finally decays into a fragrant dust, a little humus for the rocky floor. We, on the other hand, are unspeakable for ages. It’s only when our bones are finally free and clean that we reveal our kinship with trees.

The trail circles around the top of the arroyo, crosses on a dry bridge of stones slick with fossil water-polish, and then zigs back down the other side. I get a free gravity-ride, hip twisting between the rocks, a sand-skier with titanium ankles. The sun comes out as the low clouds fritter away to the east. Up against the hill it’s summer-hot. Sweat cools my face and clammies the inside of my nylon clothes.

But back down by the river it’s still January. This is the season of renewal for sure, the shadows long and cold, the sun between them wan and warm and gentle, the sweet sad smell of molding leaves moving in the air, the rattle of wind in the trees.

I come to a great chunk of a limestone boulder, tangled in the roots of a bare knobby cottonwood. The boulder has a faded petroglyph etched in the rock-varnish in the middle of its face, a strange bird-bodied creature with a spiral sun-circle for a head. It marks the entrance to a gully which leads to the second beach, my destination.

This beach is hidden, reached only by the gully. I slip in, ducking under willows. Here the river cuts in against its bank, making a shallow bay with tiny sand clifflets. This beach has a field of river rocks scattered along its leading edge, just what I need.

And now my Purpose is revealed. This is not a simple run on a muddy riverside trail. Call me crazy, but I plan to walk along this beach, looking at the ground, recklessly seeing whatever there is to see. To find a flat round river rock. To skip it across the river. One stone, one skip, no matter what happens, and then the lonely run back to my truck, filled with some flavor or other of completion, sweet or bitter.

I stand for a minute, catching my breath, then drop down a small bank onto the beach. I scuffle along, eyes on the ground. A new world comes into view. An Eleodes stink beetle doing a headstand, lured from the dirt by the sun and now regretting it. A myriad of burrs clinging to their dry stems, waiting to attack my shoelaces. Birdtracks, and a rust-colored feather—a junco, checking out the river. Raggedy thistles. And stones, constellations of polished rocks. I pick one up, fondle it as if checking an apple, heft it, discard it. Another, too spherical. Another, too light. Finally one sticks to my hand, won’t be let go of. I hold it to my nose, and smell its history, the slow abrasive tale of stone.

It’s time. I approach the river bank. There’s no dodging it now. This is what I came for.

Here’s how to skip a stone, as if you didn’t know. You cradle it between thumb and forefinger, curve of forefinger wrapped around the perfect circular edge. Your bent middle finger supports the underside. Your way to the river is clear, you approach with a step and a hop. Your arm hooks back, your leading foot plants itself, and your arm whips sideways, so the stone flies out flat to the plane of the river. You poise on one foot and count the skips. The best part, if it’s a good toss, is the little run-out at the end, where the stone bobbles along the surface of the water too fast to count the bounces.

So I do that. The stone follows a pure line through the air, smacks the skin of the river.

One two three four fivesixseveneight

A decent toss, not incredible, not disappointing. The stone sinks from sight about two-thirds of the way across. It’ll be back. Some day some kid downstream will pick it out of the mud, cock it back, and just before letting it go will feel the echo of this toss of mine. Every good skipping stone carries the traces of previous skips, audible to those who know how to listen.

Well, that’s it. Transcendence in our lives does not demand the miraculous, or the intrepid, or the foolhardy. The inside is bigger than the outside.

Don’t forget. Don’t tell anybody where this is, if you happen to know.

Feels good, a fine day.

I head back to my truck.




2nd PLACE

July 1977

By Mario Gonzales

In July 1977 Elvis was large, soon to drop. Although he wasn’t on my 10-year-old mind. Disco was growing, too. But in a different way than Elvis and Fresno’s FM stations looped Andy Gibb and Thelma Houston continuously. Yet I hardly noticed. For sure, the bigger world was out there in song and more. I could feel it somehow and it seemed to come with its own heat. Because even then the world was getting hotter. I just wasn’t aware of it yet.

When I was 10 and still green in July 1977 I’d take a quarter from my mom’s purse and buy baseball cards. This was before steroids, lights at Wrigley, and interleague play. I’d walk three blocks to Toby’s Market, past the old Mexican men playing Conquin in the shade of a mulberry tree and past Mrs. Murrianga’s house with her nearly blind demon Chihuahuas yapping and snarling. Sitting behind the counter would be Tobey: thick glasses, thin mustache and Tres Rosas pomade slicking his dark hair to his crown. I’d buy a pack of Topps baseball cards. Inside were 12 waxy pictures of baseball players and a hard rectangle of gum, powdery so as not to stick to the cards. All the LA Dodgers players I could find were kept: Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Reggie Smith. All the SF Giants players: Willie McCovey, Chris Spier, John Montefusco, were tossed, sometimes at the Chihuahua’s evil mugs. The gum was chewed until the hinge of my jaw ached. Walking back home I’d see our 1974 LTD sitting in the driveway, still intact.

In 1977 I was afraid of the hardness of a baseball. It was the first year I played Little League and I was afraid of getting hit by a pitched ball. I told my oldest sister Michelle and we went to the baseball diamond and played catch. She said, “It’s okay. The ball won’t hit you.” Michelle was 10 years my senior and so she knew about the bigger world. She must have already known something about hearts breaking and how Elvis was too fat and dying. She could tell that a hard ball thrown fast could hit you, making you fear everything about fear while you waited in the batter’s box meekly holding a piece of wood.

“The ball won’t hit you,” she said. “Because you can swing and hit the ball back.”

I believed her. In everything and anything I believed her. Like when she ironed her hair straight and said Brown Power because we are more than just lettuce pickers and janitors. She took me to the Teatro Campesino in Del Rey. Sitting there was a masked man, skull-faced and proud. Pachucos and Cholos, Chicanos and Mexicanos de Aztlán were on stage ranting and shouting about beauty and color and the rise of dignity were in their voices. It was there I heard all day music by Santana and War. “You can dance if you want to but believe me,” she said, “and everything will turn out good.”

The year before when I was nine she took me to buy tickets for a Peter Frampton concert in Fresno. On the ride home she played Frampton Comes Alive on the LTD’s tape deck. Baby, I Love Your Way she sang. I tried singing but couldn’t because my goldfish Riptide was found belly-up earlier that day. My mother said I had fed him too much and he had a heart attack and drowned. Michelle took a detour to Woolworth’s and bought me a big goldfish with an unbreakable heart and a pack of baseball cards. I’ll call you Frampton I said to the goldfish swimming in the clear plastic bag. Michelle laughed. She was good at laughing.

You could wait all your life to believe someone, to call them your sister, your friend, the person that says they love you without speaking. You can have a summer just like 1977 when the road is still clear and the journey not too far. You can have all these things and still not feel the heat of the days yet to come.

But after, when the LTD is in pieces on the roadway and Michelle is lost to you, you have the beginnings of nothing, a world hot with the heat of indiscriminate loss.

What I mean to say is that your heart is now broken and you are free to watch others break theirs.

All it takes is a late July evening, a sharp curve on a country road and a muscle car with faulty tires.

Many years later, a woman I knew revealed to me how she had lost both parents within a month of each other in the summer of ‘77. This was in Hutto, Texas, and she was a senior in high school. At the time, I thought to reassure her. Give her the warmth of a human voice, the emptiness of unbelievable words. “It’s okay. Life is a journey. It’s an adventure,” I said.




3rd PLACE

How to Say Friend in German

By Diane Stayner

Her name was Annette, and in the autumn of 1986 her grand adventure crossed paths with mine.

I had been living in New York for the past five years, studying acting and writing plays performed far off Broadway, in church basements, school auditoriums, and coffee houses, feeling gradually more claustrophobic and needing to get back to mountain time. My abuela in Santa Fe offered to put me up on her couch, saying it was time for my cousin Abran to move off of it and reminding me I should be thinking about getting married. I hopped on a Trailways bus headed home.

Outside the window, as green hills melted into brown fields and finally became desert, with three days and two-thirds of the country behind me, I propped my swollen ankles on the empty seat adjoining mine, leaned my headful of dirty hair against the window, and slept. I slept right through Santa Fe.

A sunbeam boring through my eyelid into my brain jolted me awake somewhere around Embudo.

“When’s the next stop?’ I asked the driver.

“Pilar. Plum Tree Hostel.” That’s where I got off.

The room was spartan but clean, and I saw a backpack propped against the other bunk. For eight bucks I could share the space.

I met my roommate that afternoon on her way back from a hike. She was about my age, German, traveling alone around the world for a year on leave from teaching. Her hair was cut at different angles so that it stuck out in several areas, and it was dyed green, magenta, and blue. Her clothing was colorful, too. She spoke French in addition to German and English.

Pete, the hostel owner, had cooked up some fresh fish for dinner, and we sat around talking and drinking beer until late, renaming the stars in the sky.

Eventually, Pete asked if we would be going to the Taos Balloon Rally.

“You go up in a balloon?” asked Annette.

“Sure, if you want to,” he said.

“Diane, we have to go!”

Her elaborate earrings clicked as she nodded her head excitedly, deciding for me.

So we thumbed the 16 miles to Taos. We were both experienced hitchers. I had thumbed home from Florida once, and Annette had stuck her thumb out on several continents. You learn to trust your instincts about when to accept a ride and when to turn one down. We didn’t talk about close calls, but I’d had a couple and I thought she probably had, too. On a chilly evening with the sun going down and traffic getting thin, instincts can be pushed aside and fingers crossed, prayers said.

When we got to the field, there were two men inflating a blue and gold balloon. Annette walked right up to them and asked if we could go up. They said yes, if we helped them “chase,” we could ride for free.

As we floated over Taos pueblo on that bright morning, a gust of wind made the basket lurch and pushed us all into each other. Quite naturally, the pilot’s arm went around me, and there it stayed.

When we landed, he asked if I’d like to go up again, I said yes, and that was the beginning of our life riding the clouds together.

As first-time fliers, Annette and I had some champagne poured over our heads. As we were drinking the rest, my pilot asked where we were off to next.

“Australia, I think,” answered Annette. She looked at me. “You come, too.”

I looked at him.

“Not just now.”

“Well, I am feeling restless. I need to leave soon.”

“Maybe we can catch up with each other later. We’ll keep in touch.”

The next day, she was gone.

Many years later while watching a true-crime show on TV, I saw a familiar face. As her name and story unfolded, I realized it was Annette, looking the same as she had when we met. She had been murdered in Australia by a serial killing father and son who hunted hitchhikers.

Though it has taken some time to get past the shock of her death, I’ll always remember how alive she was and how happy to be in a balloon that day. Now every time I go up, I know she’s with me. She’s been with me all the time.


Our Judge

Anne Valente

“A catchy opening and an interesting premise are things that will make me want to read more,” says contest judge Anne Valente. The fiction author, who is also a creative writing instructor at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, says this year’s submissions were a strong bunch. The theme proved that a “great adventure” can be many different things. “Everyone did a really nice job of meditating on their interpretation of that meaning,” Valente says.

The winners won for different reasons. The fiction story is all about the now. “The chance encounter really drew me to this piece,” Valente says, “how impactful a moment can be and how that was rendered on the page was really exciting to see.” And the nonfiction piece is all about the self. “There’s this really beautiful moment towards the end about the build up being a build up toward skipping stones, and the notion that it’s a solitary endeavor and just for the speaker. That was really poignant for me.”

Details brought these short stories to life. “The topic really lent itself to including either directly personal observations, or a lot of research that broadened the world of all of these pieces,” Valente says. “I incorporate a lot of research into my writing and that was apparent in these pieces, too.”


 

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