Short Arm and the Wood Duck Box

Call it ironic, a twist of fate, or a case of life imitates art. For the past year, I’ve been writing the latest installment in my Nick Drake mystery series. The Demon Skin features a raging river as the principal setting while a deadly whitewater raft trip serves up the action. Shortly after I sent the manuscript to my advance readers and editor in preparation for release, the river I live on began to rage itself.

It all started when back-to-back storms fueled by tropical moisture carried by atmospheric rivers battered California with gale-force winds toppling trees and dumping an estimated 25 trillion gallons of rain, enough to cover the entire state nine inches deep. The relentless deluge turned hillsides into mudslides, destroyed houses, roads, and piers, and so far has tragically killed at least 19 people. Overnight, seasonal creeks and slow, meandering rivers were transformed into torrents. There they remained, including the one I’d always greeted each morning with an appreciative nod while sipping a mug of coffee before sitting down to write.

John Steinbeck once described the Carmel River as “everything a river should be.” It’s not very long and rises in the Santa Lucia Mountains and wraps around boulders and flows through groves of sycamores, white alders, and black cottonwoods on its way to join the Pacific. In summer, sun-dappled pools hold crayfish and trout dart among the riffles. Cool water and leafy trees offer respite from the heat for foxes, deer, mountain lions, and people alike. In winter, the river flashes with short outbursts of fierceness following rainfall. But not this year. The weeks-long tempest fueled by climate change-charged intense weather pushed the Carmel River to the breaking point.

Those who live alongside it were left both wary and in awe of the river’s size, speed, and ferocity. We also rallied to keep each other safe. Sand was hauled in by the truckload and piled in strategic locations on the two-lane that parallels the river. Residents, volunteers, and members of the California Conservation Corps joined forces to shovel, fill, and stack thousands upon thousands of sandbags atop the river’s banks and around houses and businesses. Village restaurants and stores offered free meals. An emergency center was set up at the library.

A nonstop flow of news and calls and texts of what do you know and how can I help traveled up and down the river, trying to keep pace with the hard-charging current that kept rising and was sure to surpass flood stage and trigger an official evacuation order. While we monitored the online network of gauges that measure rainfall, river height, volume, and the speed of the current right down to cubic feet per second that could predict the crest, we also relied on homegrown landmarks to tell us how fast the water was rising in front of our yards and how close it was getting to breaching our sandbag defenses and flooding our homes.

For my wife Annie and me, it was two markers: the stunted bottom limb of a black cottonwood we could see from our kitchen window that we called “Short Arm.” The other was a wood duck box my brother who lives on an Oregon river had given us. I’d fastened it to the trunk of a white alder in hopes of luring a pair of the colorful but elusive waterfowl to take up residence in it and hatch their young.

Short Arm, Annie and I knew, was exactly six feet above the normally lazy gravel river bed. I had to duck my head when walking beneath it. The wood duck box was twice that high. I’d needed a ladder when securing it. As the river rose and started swirling around the trunks of both trees, we kept our eyes on the markers as we stacked sandbags. With rain pounding down, we gritted our teeth and worked faster as Short Arm’s fingers waved a final goodbye before going under. The river kept rising.

With the last sandbag stacked and our go bags packed, we counted down the gap that was quickly shrinking between the top of the river and the bottom of the wood duck box. Five feet. Four feet. Three feet. Two. Our phones were chirping with calls and text messages from Monterey County Emergency Services that the Evacuation Warning had become an Order telling us what we already knew: It was time to get out.

Two single-lane bridges lay between us and the road out. Both were thrumming from the cauldron of whitewater churning inches beneath their steel mesh decks as we crossed over. Heading west on the two-lane, we passed convoys of National Guard trucks and vehicles speeding east carrying emergency responders, heroes all.

We are lucky. We didn’t have far to go to reach a safe and dry place to wait out the storm. Later, when the river had crested just below a historic high set decades ago, we returned home to find the wood duck box had been swept away by the flood, but the top of our sandbag walls that measured a foot higher had held. Our home stayed dry inside. Sadly, we learned, neighbors both upriver and downriver didn’t fare as well. Many homes were flooded, but, fortunately, no lives were lost. The river continued to fall only to rise again as the rains kept coming. Five days later, it reached flood stage for a second time and the order to evacuate sounded once more.

Rain is still falling as I write this, but the forecast calls for a reprieve starting tomorrow. Maybe the storms are over for now. Maybe the sun will break through and shine. If there is solace to be found, it lies in the fact that good comes when a river floods. It washes away deadfall and woody debris. It disperses plants and provides a lift for salmon and steelhead that need to reach the ocean. It primes wetlands and recharges groundwater. And it carries salt from rocks to the sea.

All are good lessons to remember. So is the one Annie and I learned. With a changing climate, intense weather and flooding rivers will certainly continue. As soon as the river is low enough, we’ll shake hands with Short Arm and hang a new wood duck box on the white alder even higher.


Author Talk

Snow, birds, and words were flying on my recent road trip through Harney County, Oregon scouting locations for my next Nick Drake Novel and stopping by the Harney County Library in Burns for a lively conversation with local readers and writers about how I made the transition from nonfiction to fiction, my writing process, and indie publishing. Watch the video here.

Join Me in the High Lonesome

Join me on May 10 when I’ll be talking with readers and local storytellers about Nick Drake and the writing process at the Harney County Library in Burns, Oregon. Come early and check out this remarkable institution that serves as the educational, cultural and literary epicenter for this 10,000-square-mile county in the High Lonesome. The library’s Western History Room is unparalleled. See you there.

Brothers and Swans

Here in the West reports of temperatures reaching 125 degrees in places are, well, downright chilling. The wildfire season got an early start. California has already seen over 2,700 wildfires, burning five times more land compared to this time last year. A historic drought is underway. The coastal river that borders my place is a trickle of its former self. Many towns and counties are contemplating, if not already, enacting water restrictions.

All this puts a sharp focus on water usage and the competition for it among various users, including ranchers, farmers, towns, cities, Native tribes, and wildlife. There are examples of cooperation between users that provide both solace and hope for the future. I’m proud to say that one is taking place on my brother’s organic barley farm in Klamath County, Oregon. (Readers know I use that part of the world as a frequent setting for my Nick Drake Novels.) He and his partners have taken proactive steps to increase the size of the wetlands, improve the ditches and dikes to maximize irrigation efficiency, reduce water usage, and increase water storage. There is also a plan to build a pond to raise shortnose sucker fish, a federally endangered species that is special to the Native Klamath people.

Many species of wildlife are already recognizing these improvements. His farm attracts Tundra Swans by the thousands as a vital resting and refueling stop on their twice-a-year migration to and from the Arctic.

To view a spectacular short film shot by documentarian Nick Alexander of the Tundra Swans at Lakeside Farm, click: TundraSwans

Finding Light Among the Flames

The official “Evacuation Warning” came yesterday, the first in a set of commands that are simple in wordage yet portentous in meaning. The warning was no surprise. Annie and I have been closely monitoring the news ever since two of the 12,000 lightning strikes that hit Northern California in the span of 72 hours found tinder perilously close to our home on the banks of a river in a narrow valley that cuts through the coastal range. A third fire is burning only a half-hour to the south as the condor flies, but it was lit by a pyromaniac.

Since ignition, we’ve been watching online briefings held regularly by CalFire and the county sheriff’s department, reading social media posts, and exchanging what-do-you-knows and what-have-you-heards with friends and neighbors. No matter the source, the story remains the same: firefighters are working tirelessly and heroically but all three fires are spreading in what appears to be a relentless march to join forces. Containment and control are hampered by record-setting heat, rugged terrain, thick smoke that limits air tanker assaults, and firefighting resources spread thin due to the dozens of major wildfires burning concurrently in the state. To compound matters, meteorologists are now making ominous pronouncements. Starting Sunday afternoon, a new storm will hit with unpredictable winds and even more dry lightning.

When the “Evacuation Warning” came, Annie and I knew the official “Evacuation Order” (the final step in “Ready, Set, Go”) would soon follow. We gathered up memories—the irreplaceable touchstones to our ancestors and children along with inimitable paintings and photographs created by artist friends—and boxed up important papers, laptops, and prescriptions. Deeming housewares and clothes expendable, we left them in the cupboards and closets in hopes that one day a favorite fry pan would again host a Sunday omelet, a pair of broken-in boots welcome feet eager for a hike on a nearby trail.

With our memories and essentials packed and our Go Bags at the door, all that remained was waiting for the inevitable. In a rite that was equal parts honoring, bonding, and mourning, we watered the veggie and flower garden planted in horse troughs perched on bricks to keep the roots away from gophers. We admired the white cosmos and orange nasturtiums that brightened the greenery of lettuces, peppers, and squash, and wished them well, for they would be on their own now without regular irrigation or, worse, face withering flames without mercy. We took our two dogs who’d rather swim than walk down to the river and sat beneath the willows and sycamores that shade the bank to watch them play while we marveled at how incredibly lucky we are to have each other and the lives we have.

As I thought about what was, what is, and what might be through the lens of an inferno bearing down on us, my thoughts soon drifted from recollections of what makes a house a home—from voluble family gatherings, sweaty but rewarding work restoring the land, and writing stories in a study with an inspiring view—to remembrances of the creatures who share this special place with us. There’s a hummingbird who hovers above the river every day in the late afternoon to catch insects—yes, a hummingbird who’s a fearsome predator, not a nectar sipping showboat. A bright yellow and black kingsnake lives beneath the stack of firewood out back and keeps the blue-belly lizard population in check; she’s surprised the heck out of me with her silent speed more than once. And then there’s the one-footed crow who doesn’t view his physical impairment as any impediment to his ownership of the suet cake that hangs from a tree branch next to the back porch.

Of all the animals we live with, it is a mallard drake and hen who nest on the other side of the river that epitomize nature’s will to survive. The first time we spotted them paddling proudly from their shoreline nest, they had ten downy ducklings in tow. In the days and weeks that followed, the brood winnowed to nine then eight then seven then six as the youngsters served to sustain herons, foxes, and red-tailed hawks raising their own nestlings. Such is the circle of life, but despite the heartbreaking losses, the mallard pair never gave up, never gave in. When the drake and hen finally took wing, more than double their number flew right behind them, ensuring their labors had not been in vain.

This morning, the “Evacuation Warning” became an “Evacuation Order.” The wait was over. Time was up. We had to leave immediately. We loaded our bags and taped a note on the front door for firefighters, telling them thanks, that we’d cleared out, and they needn’t worry about us. We were among the fortunate, for not only were we able to escape safely, we had a place to land.

As I pulled out of the drive that leads to our home beside the river, I didn’t know whether we’d ever see it again. But I didn’t latch the gate behind me. I left it swinging freely, wide open to possibility.

Keeping It Real

The facts of life of fiction writing, plus a video with clues about the next Nick Drake novel

I’m rushing to write this because I need to get back to my current work-in-progress. I owe an explanation to readers who’ve asked how could I leave Nick Drake in the equivalent of professional and romantic cliff hangers in the last book while I run off to chase facts in Harney County before finishing the next.

Walking away from a manuscript in midstream is considered a major sin in novel writing circles, but I’d argue not confirming what you’re describing is an even greater transgression. Part of this belief comes from the many years I spent writing newspaper articles, magazine stories, and books on natural history, conservation, and outdoor adventure travel subjects. To me, facts not only matter, they’re sacrosanct.

Spare me the joke that journalism is the world’s second oldest profession and nowhere near as well-compensated as the first. Plenty of creative juice gets spilled reporting the news, whether or not you subscribe to such journalistic techniques as Tom Wolfe’s mau-mauing or Mark Twain’s never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Good reportage has its place in good fiction writing too.

Characters, conflicts, and very cool stuff was always to be found in the subjects I covered, and I’ve learned the natural world not only is a source and inspiration for a mystery series set in the high lonesome of southeastern Oregon in the late 1960s, but also helps lend authenticity to time, setting, and dialogue. Wildlife, weather, and landscape all play integral roles in the arcs of my stories and development of my characters. They provide action, motivation, and revelation, be it the mindset of a Vietnam War veteran trying to find inner peace as a wildlife ranger, an old lawman striving to bring justice to a beat as flinty as himself, a fiery and beautiful large animal veterinarian proving her gender is no disqualification for a tough job, or a Paiute elder keeping her people’s traditions and culture from going extinct.

Chiseled on a tablet somewhere is the adage Write about what you know. It’s no mystery why I reach back to my environmental reporting days for subject matter when it came to writing crime fiction. What isn’t carved right alongside that advice is the answer to Why do you write in the first place?

Though I once reported about wildlife genetics, I can’t say for certain if genes are a factor when it comes to writing. The same absence of certainty is also true when it comes to whether or not upbringing plays a role. My grandfather was a story teller, penning Jazz Age romances for weekly magazines before getting the call from Hollywood. My mother raised me on a steady diet of what it was like growing up with an itinerant writer for a father—true life adventures of being chased by bill collectors from one town to the next and waking up in a rented bungalow to find Raymond Chandler passed out on the sofa, his fingers still ensconced in the white gloves he wore the night before while drinking gin and playing poker with my grandfather and a pack of other Paramount scribes. Is my writing a product of nature or nurture? Who knows?

What I am certain of is, the natural world provides me with the genesis of stories and it’s up to me to listen and give them a voice. That’s what I was doing on my recent road trip in Harney County. I needed to drive every dirt track I’d be putting Nick and Pudge on when they chased bad guys, learn from experts about the challenges of managing public lands, visit with the archivist at the Burns public library’s fantastic western history room to get dates straight, and talk with long-time residents about everything under the high desert sun, from Paiute traditions to haying techniques. Most of all, I needed to stand atop Steens Mountain and in the middle of Diamond Craters and on the edge of Blitzen Valley to feel the wind, watch the birds gather, and admire the grasses and aspens as they flashed autumn colors.

I don’t profess to being the first author to discover the natural world delivers honesty as well as a roundhouse punch to a story. Read my grandfather’s old pal Raymond Chandler’s opener to “Red Wind” to see what I mean:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Okay, I know what you’re thinking by now: “Enough with the navel-twiddling explanations already. Get back to the work-in-progress. Tell us what happens to Nick, Gemma, Pudge, and November.” I will, I promise. In the meantime, here’s a short video of my recent Fall trip through Harney County. I put a couple of clues in it, along with a red herring or two, that reveal plot lines in the next installment which is shaping up to be one heck of a harrowing ride. Everyone likes to be a detective, so let me know what you find. More later.

Click here to watch.

Powerful Medicine

How readers help this writer stay the course

When I completed my latest Nick Drake novel, “The Shaming Eyes,” I experienced a hangover of sorts, a mix of satisfaction, exhaustion, and restlessness. It turns out that’s not uncommon among writers. A clever yet insightful article in the New York Times even coined a term for it: “postwritum depression.”

The piece reported how some authors behaved after typing ‘The End.’ Some did so in celebratory fashion, others seeking solace in the mundane. Jean Auel finished “The Mammoth Hunters” following a 28-hour stint at her desk by quaffing a bottle of champagne and collapsing into bed. Ernest Hemingway yanked the final page of “For Whom The Bells Toll” from his typewriter and then went off to get (wait for it) a haircut. Joyce Carol Oates said finishing a novel is such a wrenching experience that she locks the door to her study, moves to another part of the house, and needs a couple of months to decompress.

I confess to trying a variety of hairs of the dog, but none seemed to relieve the symptoms. Then I took a cue from the first chapter of “The Shaming Eyes” and headed to Wyoming with a goal of seeing the headwaters of the Snake River.

It wasn’t my first visit to the northwest corner of that state. When I was a kid, my parents were in a near fatal car accident that left my father confined to a hospital bed for months. As soon as he was able to walk again, albeit with the aid of a wooden cane, he loaded us into the family station wagon and, against doctor’s orders, sped off to a friend’s ranch in Jackson Hole. There, among grassy fields riven by the braids of a sparkling creek and surrounded by jagged peaks, he recuperated while the rest of us recovered from the trauma of almost losing him by helping out on the ranch, riding horses, and fishing. One night while we were sitting around a campfire, my father wordlessly added his cane to the flames. Its blaze marked the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new.

I’ve made subsequent trips to Wyoming, and on this latest visit, my wife and I rented a cabin made from hand-peeled lodgepole pines 30 miles north of Jackson. Pastureland running to the Snake River that flowed along the foot of the Grand Tetons served as our front yard while cattle and horses were our neighbors. Using the cabin as a basecamp, we explored nearby Yellowstone National Park, taking in everything from roiling mudpots to bear cubs to bison (aka buffalo). The headwaters of the Snake were to be found in the 2-million acre park at the confluence of three streams on the southwest flank of Two Oceans Plateau, so named because creeks on the west side flow to the Pacific, and those on the east to the Atlantic.

We spent a lot of time in neighboring Grand Teton National Park where we kayaked a stretch of the Snake River under the watchful eyes of bald eagles and ospreys who were teaching their fledglings how to fish. We also kayaked on high mountain lakes, took long hikes, and viewed herds of elk grazing peacefully in meadows spangled with wildflowers.

Day’s end would find me wading in the Snake or Gros Ventre or Buffalo Fork casting dry flies for cutthroat trout. Every night, we cooked our dinner outdoors on a charcoal grill as the sun setting behind Mount Moran colored the sky more romantically than any fancy restaurant’s soft lighting ever could. 

I wanted the trip to put time and distance between that novel and the next, and all the outdoor pursuits were proving to be a much needed physical antidote to having sat at a desk pounding a keyboard for months at a time in my usual sprint-to-the-finish manner. The paucity of cellular and internet connection provided an additional layer of insulation from the outside world. I must admit while sitting on the front porch each morning to greet the day and then again in the evening to bid it farewell, I often thought about how easy it would be to slip into that way of life fulltime. I pictured my wife and me felling lodgepole pines ourselves, dragging them to a plot of land alongside a river by draft horse, and building a log cabin like the owner of the beautiful place where we were staying had done.

But as seductive as that siren call was, others grew louder. First came the now familiar voices from five hundred miles away in Harney County, Oregon. With the Snake River serving as a conduit between the two states, I could hear Nick, Gemma, Pudge, and November whispering they still had a lot more stories to tell.

Louder still were the voices of readers who’d discovered the series. Many reached out to tell me they’d taken the characters to heart. There was the sister of a fallen soldier who sent me copies of old snapshots her brother had taken at Khe Sanh, an Army vet still wounded by PTSD who sees himself in Nick, real life ranchers who call Harney County home, and sheriffs and game wardens from around the country. The stories had spoken to them as they had to so many other readers who’d posted comments on social media, emailed me their thoughts and suggestions, and left reviews on Amazon and other sites. Many of those missives shared a common theme: they wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters next and how long they’d have to wait to find out.

The readers reminded me that, with writing, comes great responsibility—a responsibility to honor the connection readers make to the characters. In the end, that reminder, along with their heartfelt words of encouragement and support, proved to be just the remedy I needed.

I’m home now, rested, refreshed, and ready and raring to write. More Nick Drake tales are coming, so please stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are some Wyoming memories.

Click here to watch.

The Tale of a Tiger

Finding inspiration can be as close as home or as far away as the other side of the world. (Video below.)

Before I turned to writing crime fiction novels, I wrote books and magazine articles on wildlife conservation, natural history, and adventure travel. This background has worked its way into my fiction (it’s no coincidence the main character in my Nick Drake Novels is a wildlife ranger). I’ve been fortunate to visit many lands, from the Amazon to Zanzibar, and to spend time with rare and exotic wildlife, including orangutans in Sumatra and great herds of migrating elephants and wildebeest on the Serengeti.

My itch to be in wild places among animals—it’s where I draw inspiration for my work—always needs scratching, and so, when my wife was invited to speak at the World Sustainable Development Summit in India earlier this month, I grabbed my laptop that held my current Nick Drake work-in-progress and buckled up for a 16-hour nonstop flight to Delhi.

When her conference concluded, we drove into Rajasthan, which translates to “Land of Kings.” The largest state by area in India, Rajasthan is in the northwest part of the country and shares a border with Pakistan. It is achingly beautiful with friendly people and a culture steeped in history. It is also home to four national parks and fifteen wildlife sanctuaries.

The first stop on our journey was Keoladeo National Park. Smack dab in the Central Asian Flyway (my Nick Drake readers know he works in a parallel flyway in southeastern Oregon), the park supports more than 360 species of resident birds and many migrants. Among our memorable sightings was an up-close view of one of the world’s highest flying birds, the bar-headed goose whose migration takes it over the Himalayas, and the world’s tallest flying bird (ostriches and emus don’t count), the five-foot tall sarus crane. Incredible.

We concluded our Indian wildlife journey at Ranthambhore National Park. This very special area was once home to palaces and maharajas. Now its king is the endangered Bengal tiger. It also supports leopard, striped hyena, jackal, sloth bear, monkey, and a variety of deer. The sanctuary is a phenomenal conservation success story. Fifteen years ago, only 26 tigers lived here. Through improved management techniques, education, and a crackdown on poaching, the population has reached 75 and is growing.

There was no guarantee we’d see a tiger in the rugged 150 square mile park, but to aid our chances, we befriended a local expert tracker and guide. Did we succeed? Did I find the inspiration I was looking for? See for yourself in the short video below.

Hello, Inspiration. Or, as they say in India, Namaste.

Click Here to Watch

A Philosophical Take on a Murder Mystery

The second in my Nick Drake series, The Pity Heart, was launched less than a month ago, and I’m humbled and honored by the attention it’s getting from readers. Richard B. Schwartz, an author and academic (he’s a Professor of English at the University of Missouri), and a Top 500 Reviewer at Amazon, views crime fiction through a literary and philosophical lens. Here are his thoughts.

Nick Drake Returns in “The Pity Heart”

Every fall, 25 million birds migrate through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. It’s a wonder to behold, an amazing display of nature’s beauty, power and grace in a starkly spectacular corner of the world. It’s also the location for my new Nick Drake novel, “The Pity Heart.”

Set in 1968 and picking up from where “The Sorrow Hand” left off, Nick Drake is a troubled Vietnam War veteran seeking redemption as a game warden in a quiet land. But when a fighter pilot from a nearby Air Force base mysteriously plummets onto one of his refuges, he is plunged into a deadly showdown with the military. A vexing mystery involving multiple murders ensues, and Nick must turn to the old ways of his Paiute neighbors to hunt for a vicious killer and bring justice to the pitiless high desert.

Early reviews are already awarding “The Pity Heart” Five Stars. Here’s what readers are saying:

★★★★★ Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.

★★★★★ Beautifully written and pulls you right in.

★★★★★ Vivid, realistic and engaging.

★★★★★ Nick Drake is the Real Deal.

★★★★★ If you like C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett, you will love Nick Drake.

Read the reviews for yourself at “The Pity Heart.”