“One of the most spectacular finds from prehistoric North America.”—USA Today
Fall is here. Have you noticed the weather’s changing and nights are colder?
Once upon a time, a thousand years ago, a boy discovers a trap door into a tower on a high, ominous mountain. The boy, a character in my newest novel Spiral, goes by the name of Little Hawk. Though his mother has forbidden it, Little Hawk has been longing to get to the top of the tower ever since his mother, his dog and he arrived at this strange, new place.
Sliding through the trap door, he finds a ladder in the middle of the circular room leading to a hole in the roof high above. Pallets have been laid all over the floor as if waiting for someone to lie down on them. He finds corn in jars that stink with a strong smell like the drink the priests guzzle that makes them crazy.
But he must get to the top! Carefully climbing the ladder to the next level, Little Hawk spies skeletons without heads arranged in a circle, their feet facing the center, as if it were a fire pit and they only wanted to warm themselves.
What does Little Hawk do? He spits on the skeletons!
You can download the complete Spiral ebook for only $3.99!
Imagine Little Hawk and his mother traveling to dark, menacing Chimney Rock Mountain in Southwest Colorado from their home in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I had to see for myself! Check out My Road Trip to the War Gods of Chimney Rock, CO, a video with original music by Chris Goslow.
You can download the complete Spiral ebook for only $3.99!
Read Spiral on your Amazon Kindle, iBook, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, Palm, Desktop Computer or Tablet.
How far would you go to save your own child? In the excerpt from my new novel, Spiral, a mother is fighting to save her infant son from the tyranny of a group of Elders, those “wise ones” who rule Chaco Canyon and sacrifice children in the name of the Sun God.
One afternoon just before dark, the three of them had just returned home when Owl Watching noticed a small object on the hard-packed floor. He picked it up.
“What is it?” asked Willow as she carefully took off the heavy cradleboard with the sleeping child inside.
“The Elders have been here,” he said, scowling as he held out the little copper bell. He grabbed Willow.
“We must hide him before it’s too late.”
“Too late? What do you mean? What should we do? Where can we go?” she cried.
When her mother found out, she took the bell to the Master Pot Maker, and they threw it in the hot kiln. Together the two shaman women made powerful secret magic, chanting, threatening and howling with the wind to twist the Elders’ power and render it harmless. The bell melted in the fire, turning into a small dull stone.
Now Owl Watching insisted Willow he and the baby leave his relatives’ house each morning. This way, he said, the Elders would not find them at home when they came back. Stepping gingerly over the icy brittle snowy ground, their little family traveled up and down the canyon in the frigid air, paying visits on the Coyote Clan. The baby was held out, admired and feted. People discussed a good time for a naming ceremony. Names were suggested for him.
The winter was worse than any Willow could remember, the wind blinding, ripping through the canyon, and the daylight too short to stay any length of time at her mother’s house or to make pots. Owl Watching grew more worried with each day he ushered Willow and his son out into the cold. They both knew it was only a matter of time. Finally, Willow refused to leave the house. She was just too exhausted.
Owl Watching said he was going out one morning to search for more kindling while Willow ground corn and the child slept close on the warm hearth. The baby boy was wrapped in his bunting, adorned with the necklace of turquoise and bird bone she had fastened around his tiny neck. How sweet he looked! Willow was daydreaming, admiring her baby when the Elders came again, the staggering men stomping and dropping snow and ice on the floor. She jumped up but not soon enough, for Thin Nose had already grabbed the infant out of her arms. The baby let out a scream.
“No!” Willow cried, reaching for the child wailing in the Elder’s scrawny arms.
“I’ll take that blanket too,” Thin Nose laughed, picking it off the floor. Surrounding them, the others began to chant, skipping with their bells around and around in a little dance. Afraid to pounce on him or grab her crying child for fear she might hurt him, Willow grabbed for the blanket instead. Thin Nose let it go as he held the baby higher in the air. The child began to scream.
“Pray with us, sister,” said one Elder.
“You should be honored we have chosen your child for the sun dagger,” another said.
“Aeeeeah, Aeeeeah,” Willow screamed, choking, emitting high quivery gasps like a stricken coyote.
“The perfect sacrifice!” Thin Nose called out, stumbling toward the door with his prize, Willow following, kicking at his boots wrapped with delicate metal bells.
“Stop!” She screamed, lunging after him. Suddenly she saw Owl Watching hovering behind the deerhide door, which was flapping in the wind.
“Help me!” Willow cried.
Owl Watching rushed past her, shouting to the Elders, “Just the blanket!” He pulled it out of Willow’s hand and thrust it at the Elders. “You said you only wanted the blanket! Here! Here it is!” he cried, holding it up in front of Thin Nose and the screaming baby.
“Give our child back!” Willow screamed.
Holding the blanket, Owl Watching attempted to take away the baby. But he too hesitated for fear of harming him. The Elders’ feet tinkled as they pounded the ground, forming a circle around the child.
Suddenly Willow leaped onto Thin Nose’s back. They swung around as if in a dance. Owl Watching tried to grab her. Tipping back and forth, the rest moved in closer, pushing, pushing. Thin Nose stumbled, almost letting go of the child and knocked Willow off his back. Lunging for the baby, Owl Watching fell sideways to the floor with her. Thin Nose held out the screaming baby in front of him for all to see as he and the Elders danced away.
Owl Watching looked up just as they spirited his child out the doorway.
“No!” he wept. “No!”
“You brought them here!” Willow screamed, twisting out of his arms, turning on him.
“They said they only wanted the blanket!” He sat up, desperate, dazed, still holding the blanket.
“You fool!” She jumped up. “When have they ever told the truth? When?”
“He said they needed the blanket,” Owl Watching groaned. “Forgive me, Willow.”
Order Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net now!
“Just ordered my copy. I so enjoyed Sundagger.net: such vivid depictions of place & time and such interesting characters. I lost many hours of sleep staying up late to read because I just had to know what happened next. “— Sarah F.
Order Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, now!
“Just ordered my copy. I so enjoyed Sundagger.net: such vivid depictions of place & time and such interesting characters. I lost many hours of sleep staying up late to read because I just had to know what happened next. “— Sarah F.
“The Center of the World”, Chapter 1 of Spiral by Margaret C. Murray
It was the most special of days, the fall equinox, a time of equal day and night in the canyon, the center of the world, and above the canyon too on the flat mesa tops with their sinkholes, badlands, scarce pinyon and twisted juniper.
Willow waited by Chaco Wash in her best deerskin skirt, biting her lip. She stood very still, small for her age, fourteen, and sturdy, with long shining black hair falling to her waist. Each time Willow bit her lip, the single dimple in her cheek deepened. But what did that matter since Water Hunter was not there to admire it? She threw her sandals at a sagebrush tumbling by in the wind.
What if Water Hunter did not come? But he must. She could not bear that possibility and so put it quickly out of her mind. Hoping for any sign of him, Willow squinted on tiptoe in the sunlight, her eyes following the sage, as her mother taught her, until it disappeared into the horizon. “Become the rolling sagebrush to find what you are looking for,” Mother had counseled.
The soft autumn wind behind her blew her skirt out and away from her strong, taut body, but she didn’t feel the pleasure of the wind. Willow was troubled. The tumbling bush reminded her that her mother did not approve of her waiting here at the Great House, Pueblo del Arroyo, for Water Hunter. But more troubling was that the sagebrush had not shown Willow where he was.
Nothing seemed to move in the haze beyond the wash. Willow scanned all the way to the south mesa gap where the People were gathering for the great celebration.
She clasped her hands to her chest to stop them from trembling. Today the powerful and frightening Elders were climbing the Butte, as they did at each turn of the year, to implore the sun to bring rain. At the top where the sun dagger appeared, they made sacrifices so that the sun would bless the People. Soon Willow would hear their ominous shriek-chanting and the beat of their foot drums as they danced and prayed to the sun to return them to that perfect balance of light and darkness that their ancestors saw when they crawled out of the sipapu, a hole in the third world leading to this sacred canyon.
Abandoning the thought of finding the disappearing tumbleweed, Willow focused on thinking like Coyote, scanning east, west, north and south.
“Coyote, help me find him!” she called.
After all, she was named after a coyote cub. Her secret, never-to-be-spoken name was Srahtzee, meaning Close to the Ground, an attribute of the clever coyote. But Coyote wasn’t helping her now. Willow blushed with pleasure and shame, recalling that she had told her secret name to Water Hunter. How then could he have forgotten she was waiting for him? Her heart dropped.
She rubbed her eyes, hoping to see him loping over the desert; she would recognize him by his powerful frame and his uneven gait.
“I have made friends with my one short leg,” Water Hunter had told her in his slow, quiet way the very day they met. She vowed his lame leg would be her friend too! She loved his one short leg as she loved all the rest of his big hunter’s body. Willow shivered with longing. How desperately she desired him this very moment. She ached to have him stand next to her now. Her mother would never understand.
The sun of midday streaming down swallowed Willow’s compact shadow along with the shadows of the Fajada Butte and the Great Houses of the canyon. Behind her and across the grassy bottomland, the block-long, five-story complex that the Spanish centuries later would call Pueblo Bonito was marking the sun’s trajectory. It had been built to match the path the sun took across the landscape this very day, when all the shadows hid, and day and night were equal.
At this moment everything was perfectly aligned. Every year at this time all the clans from far outliers journeyed to Chaco to see their shadows disappear too. And as always, Willow’s own Coyote Clan, and her mother especially, made the preparations for the Elders’ supplications on the Butte. Her mother’s people were shamans in their own right and once had been favored allies of the Elders, but no more.
Oh, when would he come? Willow gave a little cry and pushed her fists into her eyes to hold back her tears. Carefully she placed her bare feet on the ledge of the gully above the wash and peered across toward the broken south mesa. A great fissure cut through the middle of the mesa, and through it the crowds were coming, chanting, blowing conch shells, and dancing with tinkling footbells. There were so many people! She hoped Water Hunter wouldn’t be coming from that direction. He never had before. Besides, he was of the Bear Clan, and everyone knew they came from the North where they served the High Ones on Standing Rocks Mountain.
But he would come! He must. It would be like the first day when they met on the Great North Road, one full moon ago. She had been holding her little brother’s hand. Her mother was carrying her best bowl. Behind them traveled the entire Coyote Clan on their way to the Giving Place, laden with offerings to the ancestors in their best jars that they would smash when they reached the great hill of shattered potsherds.
Willow had trusted Water Hunter at first sight when she saw him walking with the Bear Clan. She had heard of this famous diviner who found water where there was none, thus attracting the big game that followed the water. She was amazed when he singled her out, smiling over the crowd at her alone. Even her mother noticed and stopped to introduce her daughter to him, saying that the Coyote Clan welcomed the Bear Clan as cousins. It was the Bear Clan who, before migrating north, had laid the foundation for the newest of the Great Houses, Kin Kletso, where Willow and her mother and brother lived before the Elders forced them to move further away down the canyon.
That day Willow felt so special. She had felt even more special when Water Hunter motioned her to walk beside him. It was midday then too and she could not see her shadow. The sun had been a shining orange ball in the sky, the land bleached and brown from summer drought, and dead stalks of flowering cacti spotted the sandy ground.
They were walking slowly, she following his lead, enjoying the sunlight warm on her shoulders, bare breasts and arms. Facing ahead, her gaze was steady in her deep, dark eyes. Balanced, straight-backed, Willow paced herself to the hunter’s slow, up and down gait. “I will walk in a way that we will be together,” Willow had thought then.
Her unspoken words filled her with satisfaction now as her eyes skimmed the brown rocks, the fissures and outcroppings, twiggy bushes and cacti, the whole landscape in harmony with her and the sun above. She felt her heart sing again. He must come. He promised.
Order Spiral Now!
“Just ordered my copy. I so enjoyed Sundagger.net: such vivid depictions of place & time and such interesting characters. I lost many hours of sleep staying up late to read because I just had to know what happened next. — Sarah F.
Order Spiral for $17.95 and, for a limited time, receive a free ebook of Sundagger.net, the sequel to Spiral.
Spiral, a novel of magic realism and epic adventure set in the ancient American Southwest
At the end of a culture that built structures as big as the Roman Coliseum when medieval Europe was still in the Dark Ages, on a high desert landscape of brooding wind and dark storm clouds that never drop rain, the Elders threaten to sacrifice an infant boy to placate the sun dagger and thus end the drought.
Meanwhile young Willow waits by the dry, dusty Chaco riverbed for her lover. But when he finally comes, it is to say goodbye. Betrayed and desolate, Willow becomes an expert pot maker, turning for comfort to a gentle hunter of her own Coyote Clan, with whom she has a son. When the Elders kidnap him, Willow has a plan.
Against the backdrop of the Anasazi Southwest, Spiral plunges the reader into a whole gripping, enchanted world spiraling in crisis.
See the music video!
Follow author Margaret C. Murray on a road trip to research Spiral, Road Trip to the War Gods of Chimney Rock, CO, with original music by Chris Goslow.
Praise for Sundagger.net
Before the sun dagger, there was the spiral.
“In her Sundagger.net, Margaret Murray gives us a mystery novel in a new dimension, moving us from Post 9/11 Silicon Valley to the Ancient Anasazi of the Southwest.” — Tony Hillerman, famed Southwest mystery writer
Buy a book for a friend!
How to begin writing a novel?
How to keep on writing?
I don’t often think about these questions while I write. Mainly I just keep on in my writing groove, inspired by the vision I had at eight when I read The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner, a teacher turned children’s writer. Did you read that book too? I wanted to write just like Gertrude.
I started thinking about how I write a novel while waiting for my daughter at Many Rivers Books & Tea, a bookstore on the corner of Main Street in the Sebastopol, CA. Though it was Sunday, my daughter was at school—she teaches 4th grade this year—preparing the next week’s lesson. We were going to celebrate Annemarie’s birthday by having tea together. But my daughter was late, so I browsed the aisles of books, teas and objects designed to further the bookstore’s mission “to provide customers with tools to support genuine spiritual practice.”
Soon I got into a conversation with Jim Wilson, one of three owners of Many Rivers Books & Tea, that continued until Annemarie arrived. Then we had tea and she bought two bags of rune stones for her class studying medieval England. I got a present too, because Jim invited me to read at the ongoing “Thursday at Many Rivers” event on April 9th, 2015.
So how does writing novels fit in with spiritual tools and spiritual practice anyway? Four words came to me as if displayed across a screen of a Powerpoint presentation: Earth, Sky, Spirit, Story.
I realized I begin a book starting with the earth and write from the ground up. I write from the place where my characters are, seeing what they see. With them, I look upward to the sky, searching for—call it spirit, a vision—and from that cloud-spun, high unknown space, the story emerges. I do this again and again, beginning in the same way: earth, sky, spirit, story. It becomes a practice.
Decades ago I began writing Dreamers from the vantage point of the cobblestone streets of Pittsburgh during the civil rights upheaval of the 60s. As a streetcar turns the bend in a snowstorm, it smashes into Thomas’ brand new, borrowed Impala, upsetting baskets of newly-clean laundry. It is this seemingly innocuous accident that drives the love affair of Thomas and Annie.
In my novel of magic realism, Sundagger.net, I compare two deserts, chapter by chapter, matching the actual Anasazi ruins of the American Southwest with the spiritual desert I experienced working as a tech writer in Silicon Valley.
Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, begins with Willow, a girl coming of age, standing at a dry riverbed, searching Chaco Canyon for a famed hunter with whom she’s desperately in love. From the desert floor, Willow talks to lizards and to crows.
The ancient Anasazi of the Four Corners area, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, knew the connection between Earth, Sky, Spirit and Story too. All you need to do is to look from their amazing Great Houses to the heavens to realize it; they designed their buildings and created rock drawings to align with the equinoxes and solstices.
I too followed the same migration route my characters take in Spiral, beginning from the Great North Road, sixty miles long, which you can only see with aerial photography. At my Reading on April 9th at Many Rivers Books & Tea, I’ll share selections from my novels as well as a short videos from my three trips to the Four Corners area, where I explored Chaco Canyon, NM and its furthest, northern outlier, Chimney Rock, CO.
NOVEL WRITING AND MY SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS TO FOUR CORNERS
Earth, Sky, Spirit, Story
with Margaret C. Murray
featuring her upcoming novel, Spiral
Thursday, April 9th, 2015
7:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Many Rivers Books & Tea
130 S. Main Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472
When I stand in my backyard and look up at the night sky, I feel both very small and very big. The small part is my physical body, the big my spirit, from which I am able to imagine any story. Each night it’s a different sky I see and a different story.
All my stories begin with what I see from where I’m standing. It’s the forested hills, valleys and rivers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in Dreamers. The Oakland Hills, San Francisco, Death Valley and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in Sundagger.net.
With my upcoming novel, Spiral, I take the old story family of Sundagger.net on the same migration route as the prehistoric Native Americans took in their struggle to survive in a dying culture, one that built Great Houses as big as the Roman Coliseum at a time when medieval Europe was still in the Dark Ages.
Spirit and story begin with the land and the sky. The ancient people of the Americas knew this too.
Many readers of Sundagger.net have told me they were awestruck by the sense of the spiritual upon visiting the ruins of Chaco Culture Natural Park. Here’s a short video of the ruins of Chaco Canyon with music by my son, Chris Goslow, that recreates this awesome feeling. Notice the sun dagger at the end.
The primitive people saw, felt and witnessed the deep spiritual connection between earth and sky too. In the bottomland of a desert canyon sometime near the end of the first millennium, a native American climbed a butte and cut a spiral in the sandstone behind four 2000 pound boulders that just barely allowed the sunlight in.
This artist positioned a 19-circle spiral so that, on the one day of the summer solstice, the center of the spiral was split by sunlight in the shape of a dagger. Furthermore, this spiral pecked out of sandstone was of an exact diameter so that, at the winter solstice, sunlight framed its outmost circle by two smaller daggers of light. Likewise, the equinoxes were shown with smaller daggers.
What an artistic feat to show such brilliance and balance between earth and sky! And that’s not all. Great Houses and kivas, incredible feats of engineering, were constructed over centuries with their outer walls matching the path of the sun and moon light across the land at solstices and equinoxes.
Visiting Chaco for the first time, I first “saw” the story I would come to call Sundagger.net when I stopped before a nondescript ruin of a small house, a house that called out to me with an ancient sad face and spoke of sweet dreams and great disappointment.
I had just come home from Chaco where I had taken many notes on the land and its history. The first scene I wrote describes a man–he didn’t have a name yet–walking in a circle on the desert floor. It didn’t make much sense, except that it did. Sitting at my desk in Pinole, CA, I created my novel around this troubled man like you might if you drew circles without lifting your pen from the center point.
The man became Rowan, a big boss at TekGen, a network communications corporation in Silicon Valley. Why is Rowan obsessively circling? He’s been taking photos of the wild turkeys in the Canyon, talking to them. He’s rethinking his business venture scheme and worrying about the young woman he convinced to come with him, who’s waiting back in the rented car at the Visitor Center. When finally he looks up toward the sky, he spots his ancestor, a primitive man in skins and feathers, RoHnaan.
Spiral, my upcoming novel, takes on RoHnaan’s story, beginning with the young Willow, his mother, waiting at the deep, dry, jagged bank of Chaco Wash, frantically scanning the horizon for her much-older lover.
The Anasazi too had their love affair with the sky beginning with the land. Their first structures were circular pit houses, underground mostly, entered through a hole in the roof by ladder, but by 800 A.D. they were building above ground, raising up to 5-story Great Houses with hundreds of rooms and no evidence that anyone lived in them, round kivas likely used for spiritual ceremonies, as are the kivas of the present-day Hopi and other Puebloan tribes.
This past summer on my third trip to Chaco Canyon, when I came out of the only entrance to the biggest Great House, Pueblo Bonito, the interpretive ranger remarked that I was in the exact spot to watch the sun rise at its southern-most point on the winter solstice. She also pointed out that the east-west wall of Pueblo Bonito precisely divides day and night at the equinoxes, marking the middle of time.
What happened to these pre-Puebloans called Anasazi (“Enemy Ancestors”) by the Navajo arriving three centuries later?
Earth, Sky, Spirit. Story. Before the sun dagger, there was the spiral. Each time the Anasazi migrated, they left behind a spiral to show they were leaving. Why? There are so many questions to ask, so many secrets remaining.
“It’s a mystery in another dimension”, as famed Southwest mystery writer, Tony Hillerman, said about Sundagger.net. So might he say about Spiral.
Spiral is coming soon.
I was on the seventh day of my road trip. After days of driving and camping—interspersed by a stay in Flagstaff with my friend Joyce—I had finally arrived at Chimney Rock, Colorado, the site of my upcoming novel, Spiral.
I had been working on Spiral, a prequel to Sundagger.net, for five years now and I just had to go see for myself. I had to take the same pilgrimage my characters Willow and her son, Little Hawk, take after they flee their home in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and set out for Chimney Rock, the furthest outlier of Chaco culture.
Driving from California on Highway 40 to Flagstaff and from there to New Mexico, I was intent on first spending a few nights at Chaco Canyon World Heritage Site where Spiral begins.
The Pre-Puebloans (otherwise known as the Anasazi, a name given to them by the Navajo, meaning “enemy ancestors”) likely came the same way, from the South.
Like me, these ancient migrants would have passed by the same red rock mesas. They too would be inspired, awed, by the deep color of the high desert, the vast vistas and endless sky.
Maybe they too were anticipating a great spectacle–those ceremonies in honor of solstices and equinoxes held in the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon.
Bumping along on an unpaved dirt “washboard” road, I slowly drove through the Navajo Reservation, stopping my car in front of the only sign for 23 miles:
May be Impassable
Travel at Your Own Risk
The ancient people would have experienced rough travel without cars, wagons, wheels, horses or any other means of transportation.
A thousand years ago, this same road would likely have been full of people migrating to and from Chaco to witness the sun’s return or thrill at the lunar alignment.
What a surprise when I turned a rocky bend and saw Fajada Butte. How close and massive it seemed from the dirt road, like a cathedral carved from sandstone.
I’d been to Chaco Canyon two times before but never approached it from the South.
I felt a strange kinship with this great rock.
At Gallo Campground in Chaco, the wind blew my tent away before I even got it secured in the ground. With the help of the campground host (from Vallejo, Ca!), I tied it to heavy metal rings. I slept that night surrounded by mesa walls, greasewood and blowing sage.
The Pre-Puebloans would have come through the South Gap into the Canyon. On the far side of the gap are more than 50 pit houses. Are they “motels” the migrants camped in while at Chaco?
Across Chaco Wash is Pueblo Bonito, the grandest of the Great Houses, where I stood while taking this photo. Debbie, the interpretive ranger who took me on a tour of Pueblo Bonito, said the arriving visitors likely might have been thrilled by the noisy celebration, the singing in many languages, dancing and music from flutes, conch shells, rattles, foot drums and more.
So many people to see the show! Was it like our rock concerts? Disneyland ? Or like High Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral? Who knows? The only evidence are ruins and potsherds. There’s so much mystery here.
Leaving Chaco Canyon reluctantly (and missing the Full Moon ceremony), I drove to Navajo Lake where I camped a few days and then headed northeast over the Colorado border to Chimney Rock.
And now, finally, I’ve arrived. Even from so far away on the road, I am repelled first sighting the mountain. It’s chilling just seeing bulbous Companion Rock and high narrow Chimney Rock on a dark mountain of chert and lava rock. I’m amazed at how close my feelings are to the atmosphere of terror pervading Spiral that Willow is so desperate to flee.
Still, looking out of my car window, I take comfort in all the mailboxes along the road, proof that ordinary people live beneath this mountain that appears so isolating and ominous seen from afar.
After setting up my tent at Ute Campground, I drive to the park entrance and learn I’m not even permitted to go up Chimney Rock alone. So instead I and five other tourists take a fascinating guided tour with Wayne, an interpretive guide and volunteer.
Today Chimney Rock is the powerful landmark and spiritual center for the Pueblo People–the Taos, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, Tewa and more.
The two towers signify the Twin War Gods of the Taos Pueblo who slay monsters to help their People. The war gods are also revered by the Navajo who know them as Monster Slayer and Born-for-Water.
War Gods? Yes, of course!
After my climb to the top, I understand why.
“The right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of.”–Michael Ondaatje.
It’s time for me to take the trip to Chimney Rock, Colorado where Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, is set. I have to do it in order to write the ending—the right ending. It’s no accident that you, Dear Diary, a decrepit yellow fifty year-old notebook, end with a trip too.
That September of 1964 when I returned from my summer in Provincetown, MA I hadn’t added a single word to my diary or to the 25 pages of a novel I took with me and planned to write. How would l know all those words were not to be abandoned but revived.
There are no entries about leaving home in my diary. Dad must have driven me to the bus station. My mother would have stayed home, crying angry tears, shunning me. She didn’t approve of me going to that godforsaken place, Provincetown. Did I even hug her goodbye? Did she push me away? Did I thank my father for driving me to that dingy Greyhound terminal in the smoky bowels of downtown Pittsburgh? I know I took a brown suitcase because I remember lugging it back home from the airport on two streetcars and a bus at the end of that summer.
My trip didn’t begin pleasantly or easily. I went with Maxine and Carole, fraternal twins, friends of a friend. I can see the small lights over my seat on the Greyhound Bus that night we left. I sat next to Maxine, the older and more gregarious twin. We were on our way to Providence, Rhode Island to transfer to another bus to Cape Cod.
On the bus I would have felt chastened, though stubborn and determined, free. Maybe also frantic, an imposter, with only a few hand-written pages in my suitcase to mark my identity as a writer. I didn’t know the twins well either. Maxine offered me the paperback she’d brought, a fey, quixotic novel of Anias Nin who I’d never heard of before; Anais proved a seemingly perfect companion through the unknown doorway.
That summer I worked as a counter girl at Howard Johnson’s, renting an old, wooden two-story summerhouse on the outskirts of P-town with the twins. I remember once looking out the smudged window above a double bed I shared with a different twin each week, realizing I wasn’t going to write a single sentence here. I considered throwing my writing out.
How different is the trip I’m planning now, how different and yet the same. I’ve been frightened of and yet determined to travel from Chaco Canyon, N.M. to Chimney Rock, CO where Spiral takes place since I first started writing the prequel five years ago. Chimney Rock is the furthest settlement of the Anasazi culture from Chaco.
I’ve discovered much fascinating research, e.g, light-talking. One of the best resources is Greg Childs’, House of Rain. In this book the journalist Childs replicates the migration route the Anasazi travelled from Chaco north to Chimney Rock, east to Mesa Verde and the Utah Canyonlands, and then south through Arizona and back toward Mexico.
I can’t decide which route I should take from Northern California –going North or South from the Bay Area. I haven’t camped for five years and I’m not talking R/V camping but a 2-person tent where the 2nd spot is usually reserved for my 12-year-old Shepherd. But Ele won’t be coming this time. She’s just too frail and elderly.
When I follow the Anasazi migration route in my 2005 Honda Civic, my manuscript of 300 pages will be right next to me in my front seat. I’ll be scribbling, taking notes from the points of view of my characters, Willow and her son, Little Hawk (who becomes RoHnaan from Sundagger.net). They walk the nearly 100 miles from Chaco Canyon to Chimney Rocks, following the Anasazi light-talking mounds, small hills in the high desert where the Anasazi signaled messages from great distances using fire and mica mirrors.
At the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park campground, I’ll face the cracked mesa ridge where Willow waits impatiently for her lover Water Hunter. I’ll walk along Chaco Wash and talk to the crows like she does after Water Hunter abandons her. What would she have seen climbing up Fajada Butte after the despotic Elders to take back her infant son? I’ll see her leave Chaco with Little Hawk years later, sneaking away with a loaded travois and a stray dog.
Their route along the North Road across the desert is gone, just gullies, canyons today. How does the wind feel at night? Will I see the sky crowded with millions of stars that the 12th century Anasazi studied too? Or the bludgeoned skulls of the ancestors that traumatize Little Hawk and his dog inside the Salmon and Aztec ruins?
From Durango in southwestern Colorado, I’ll look for a narrow four mile road leading up to Chimney Rock National Monument. Can I see the Piedras River from the top of the mountain? Watch the Standing-Still Moon rise between the two jagged promontories?
Atop this high, desolate settlement, I’ll surely walk along the First Ridge Mesa to the two stone towers. Like Willow and Little Hawk, I’ll be anxious about seeing Grandmother after all those years she was imprisoned in the tower.
Dear Diary, I have reached the end of you. After my trip to Provincetown that first time, I returned to the cocoon of my junior year at Carnegie-Mellon. From my last entry, September 23, 1964, I see how my spirits are rising “bright and quick” as I realize there was work to be done and I could do it now. Back so long ago I gave myself a job that I still have today. That first journey opened the door.
I just have to open the door a little further, take that trip.
For more about my experiences in Provincetown:
If you‘re like me, you loved all the Tony Hillerman books. To honor this famed mystery writer of the Southwest, I’m having library readings at Sonoma County libraries and I’d like to invite you. As you see, I already had one reading event on September 16th–thank you to everyone who came. It was inspiring!
Tony Hillerman (May 27, 1925–October 26, 2008) was an award-winning American author of detective novels and non-fiction works best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels set in the Southwest. I was very honored that he agreed to endorse my first novel, Sundagger.net, an endorsement that appears on the cover of my book.
When I had finished writing my first draft of Sundagger.net, set in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, I wrote to him to ask his opinion and thus began a correspondence that lasted until he died. I think of him as my teacher, my mentor, and my ally. As a writer in the world, I want to be how Tony Hillerman was with me–funny, open, giving, generous, very knowledgeable, encouraging, and insistent on practice as the key to success. “Keep on writing” he told me in his letters more than once.
Tony Hillerman influenced me long before I wrote Sundagger.net. In particular, I was drawn to his stark, evocative descriptions of the Four Corners area where the four Southwest states converge–New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. There he set his Jim Chee-Joe Leaphorn mysteries, dipping in and out of Navajo and Hopi landscapes to unveil and eliminate crime.
Tony Hillerman was the master of crafting a fascinating story. For me, all these 29 books were an “easy” read, pure enjoyment, that put me in touch with the pleasure of life. His Native American characters especially were quirky, comfortable, the kind of down-home people you could relate to–at times grumpy, jealous, self-serving, duty-driven, burdened with work, love lost, but in the end, bigger than all that and always very human. And women held a place of honor and respect.
All the Tony Hillerman mysteries unveiled a Native American point-of-view that opened my eyes to a different, deeper world. Touching on reservation life, they described traditional Navajo ceremonies and medicine men, attitudes toward death and burial, as well as political and social issues that affect us all in the bigger community, for example, the stealing of antiquities, illegal aliens, drug dealing across borders, and the embezzlement of billions owed by the federal government to the Indian nation.
Each book embraced a dimension I can only describe as quietly spiritual, based on venerating the magnificence of sky and earth. This was recently illustrated in a new coffee-table photography book, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, written by his daughter, Anne Hillerman, that I refer to in my reading events.
Here’s a letter Tony Hillerman wrote me that I display on an overhead projector. In it, he points out different attitudes of the Navajo about modern individuality based on their Changing Woman origination story. After receiving this letter, I revised a chapter in Sundagger.net where a group from the San Francisco area set out on a camping trip to experience a vision quest of their own and end up in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, home of the ancient Anasazi. During my event, I talk about the letter and read sections from the chapter.
Please join me to honor a master of story-telling.
You are invited to bring your favorite Hillerman book–and to read an excerpt aloud to our audience.
Hope to see you at the library!
FREE AND OPEN TO EVERYONE.