Category Archives: Travel

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

Reading Terry Tempest Williams in Zion

Zion 2This week, I had the pleasure of joining one of my best friends for a trip through parts of southern Utah, starting in Moab and ending in Zion National Park. We went for the usual reasons (viewing nature, camping, hiking, burning a dictionary and cooking quesadillas over it). After hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail (a good ten miles of limb-crunching views), we went to our campsite and read our selected book in the fading light, both collections of short pieces on the Southwest and West, Getting Over the Color Green and Northern Lights.

In Northern Lights, I stumbled upon an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Williams grew up in Utah in the 1950s when fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada drifted beyond the test sites. As a result, many people downwind of the tests, including her family, suffered from radiation. Williams meditates in her essay on the many women (many in her family) downwind of the test sites who developed breast cancer from the radioactive fallout.

 

At the peak of the hike in Zion, I could see far, far out into the distance. I was surrounded by a place brimming with life; the whole area is a complexity of ecosystems overlapping, intertwined: red and tan oceans spotted green or lush with ponderosa and aspen or colored with sand and pale sunlight. Much of the Southwest doesn’t look alive to the untrained eye. Deserts play tricks on us by hiding their life, but life is always there. Overlooking Zion, I was overwhelmed and haunted by its history.

Zion

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers founded a town near Zion, Springdale, and named the nearby canyon Zion. To Mormons, Zion refers to a gathering place for the faithful, and naming the canyon was an act of claiming the land for Mormon culture. But while pioneers were in the process of colonizing the area, the region was home to Southern Paiute communities pushed out by U.S. settlement. Like much of the Southwest, Zion is part of overlapping histories and state-sanctioned narrative revision.

The place was shaped by geologic hands, the fingers of rivers, a mind of clouds and rain, then engulfed with diverse flora and fauna, indigenous communities, overrun by Spanish colonization, Mexican statehood, Mormon expedition, and U.S. authority that ignored all previous layers by deeming the Southwest an absolute desert, a place so deserted they could safely test nuclear weapons there without harming anyone or anything worth mentioning. But Williams contests, as many do, that all of it is worth mentioning, worth respecting and preserving and revering.

After reading Williams’s essay, I stargazed with my friend in the desert where the stars are aggressively visible. The Southwest is misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The stars are brighter here, the air is heavier with scent, the land is rougher, and the going can be tough. Zion, a place of peace, a place of eternity, may be an apt name. The whole Southwest may be a kind of Zion, a refuge for wanderers and romantics. Its beauty is rare and atypical, taking on strange shapes and colors, rich sounds and haunting narratives. Its beauty is misfit and misleading, but in its presence it’s impossible to miss.

-jk

From Coffee Shops to Mountaintops

Macy's

For a too-short time this summer, I’m on a pilgrimage to my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Here, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories that will become my Master’s Thesis in less than a year (no pressure), because I won’t have much time to write come Fall when I’ll take four graduate classes, teach two classes, hold office hours, and try to get published. Flagstaff is a nice place to be productive. It’s also a nice place to be useless.

This month, I’ve been scurrying from one Flagstaff coffee shop (many in gentrified neighborhoods, admittedly) to the next. Maybe sitting all day in Macy’s or Firecreek or Steep (technically a tea house) is a bit of a yuppee activity, but for many writers it’s an easy solution. Coffee shops induce productivity with comfortable spaces, lots of light, energetic music, and socially acceptable drugs like caffeine. They remove us from crammed apartments, English departments, and work places; they spark quiet, collective inspiration. I’ve also enjoyed the aggressively supportive environments that seem to define the West, where even complete strangers encourage you to keep going and pursue your dreams, even if they’re strange and uncomfortable. My writing has been very productive.

But there was another pilgrimage I needed. Yesterday, after writing and reading stories in Firecreek all morning, I took the afternoon to hike up Mount Elden. I did not take anything to write with, and although I’m a strong advocate for making art in the wilderness (alone or with friends), I wanted a more complete silence. I wanted the overwhelming smell of bark and dust and dew. When I return to Nebraska, I’ll have to find the same solitude in the prairies, out on the range.

Mountaintop

From the mountainside where I stopped to rest, the only thing I could hear were crickets and the distant whistle of a train. There was no traffic; there was no music; sometimes a bird chirped, or a deer fluttered through the forest below the steep cliff’s edge. I was not alone, but I was alone from people, and from myself.

It was windy, almost cold, but closer to the sun I felt warm. It was peaceful to be nobody for a while, to be free of the need to be someone. The pressure to be someone these days, the millennial fixation with making something of oneself, being a successful talented individual with a totally unique, self-owned identity, is sometimes too much.

Sometimes I’d rather sit on a mountaintop and be useless. No fast pace. No updates. No news. No one to impress. Just one more organism in an ecosystem finding, at last, its place therein: a lone and unimportant creature in a society of deer, coyote, foxes, crows, ponderosa, a cityscape of boulders and greenery.

-jk

Very Near the Last Best Place

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” -John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Snowy Horseman

It’s been especially cold in the Bitterroot Valley this week. The air is fat with moisture, and below-freezing temperatures are typical. Still, there is clarity in the cold, standing at the center of the Valley’s balding head. The crown of mountains rolling up and down across the horizon like changing statistics are garnished with snow and the torn fabric of clouds. The trees carry tufts of it, the fields and sleepy barns hold sheets of it stretched thin into ice, and the sky lets down more, flake by perfect, God’s-eye flake.

River Icy

In the middle of the ring of mountains, I stand surrounded by the monumental totality, the jagged white-purple strips draped below a hazy, bitter blue sky, like skin left out in the cold too long.  My nose hairs freeze as I breathe in and look at the sunlit snowscape, a territory lost in cold dreams of something to bloom later, something better to come, something beautiful in the future. I find beauty in the waiting, or try to. The snow is a fixation for me. This frigid terrarium of agriculture and forestry is astounding.

Fence

Maybe there really is such a thing as timelessness. Maybe there’s a way to stop time, step out of it like out of a beater truck, and frame time within electrical confines. Keep it forever, or send the past into the future untarnished by change. But the snow will melt, and something gorgeous will replace it. Trees will philosophize, flowers will converse, and a listlessness of birdsong will fill the air.

Snow Mountain

I pull my camera from my bag, take my gloves off, and take a picture of the landscape. The snow is so lovely, and it melts so quickly when touched, so I try to hold it in another way. I can hardly use my fingers when I lower the camera. I didn’t notice how numb they’d gotten in the photographic thrill of momentlessness.

-jk

All photos copyrighted material of Lost Compass Photography, 2016. Donations, or else get-well-financially cards, are always welcome.

 

Midnight Train to Colorado

LocomotiveYesterday afternoon, I crawled off the California Zephyr after spending sixteen hours next to a window watching snowy mountains go by as I sat alone with a good book (Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker), some new music on my iPod (Bombay Bicycle Club), and laptop to write short stories (Sci-Fi and Cli-Fi, with very little Wi-Fi). I was completely alone, standing up only to stretch and get coffee from the service car. It was spectacular.

A century ago, trains propelled people into expanses of uncertainty. They helped us contract time and space, a theme I regularly wrestle with. Trains pushed Europe into Asia, and solidified New England. They stapled towns together across the American Midwest like a string of Christmas lights, one after another after another, bringing them to the foot of the Rockies and knitting cross-communal quilts in the process. The railroad changed history entirely.

Today, trains are far from the fastest form of transportation. I could have gone home by plane in a fifth of the time it took by train. But for a historian and writer, trains are the perfect form of travel. Being able to slow down, lean back, and reflect on the past semester was just what I needed.

Midnight Train to Colorado

It’s difficult for me not to be reflective this time of year. Winter break imposes introspection. In one year, I’ve changed more than I thought possible. I almost wrote a novel but completed a poetry manuscript, and saw the publication of two poems, an essay, a story, and a ten-minute play. In the past year, I found more of my voice than I had in ten years prior. I also moved to a new home and school, leaving behind everything familiar. I raced through the last semester too fast to enjoy it, propelled by a locomotive of too much ambition.

These days, trains are a way of retracting time and space, and after running through the semester at full speed, slowing down to watch the nightscapes and frosted mountains go by was a healthy step back, a way to manage the introspection overwhelming me after a year of so many wonderful, terrifying changes.

-jk

When a Story Strikes

Blank PagesCreativity is sneaky; it can strike at the most inopportune moments, and writers need to be prepared. Writers can find inspiration while showering, cooking biscotti, giving back rubs, performing open heart surgery, or in my case all of the above simultaneously, and creative ideas can whither if not recorded quickly enough. Many writers, myself included, carry around small notebooks to salvage sudden ideas.

Sometimes, the best preparations fall short. While flying home this week, I was enjoying the on-flight complimentary burned coffee when something in my brain clicked, and an idea for a story crystallized.

Before I could pull out my notebook and pen, the plane began to shake. The pilot announced that we should remain seated through the turbulence, “even if you do like it shaken, not stirred.” My tray table lurched as I flipped to the next blank page and scribbled down every detail of my brilliant, wonderful story idea while it was still fresh.

Several hours later, as I waited for the shuttle to my hometown, I had a few spare moments to look back at the brilliant, wonderful, award-winning story idea. Instead, I found in my notebook a slim paragraph of what looked like ancient hieroglyphics. My handwriting is bad to begin with; add a jittery writing space and a lack of patience, and clarity is doomed. I could make out the words “old man” and “saucepan” amid the scribbles, but otherwise my brilliant, wonderful, paradigm-shifting story idea was illegible.

Rest in peace, story idea. I’m sure what I would have titled “The Old Man and the Saucepan” would have been excellent. In my rush to preserve it intact, I lost it entirely. As a writer, I should slow down sometimes. More importantly, I should learn to trust myself to utilize a half-formed idea. Even the best ideas I’ve recorded legibly have evolved. Art, after all, is a process of evolution, patient and sometimes careless. The key to producing good art is the ability to improvise. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean biscotti dough out of my shower drain.

-jk

Climate Poem: Murder of Crows

Climate fiction (cli-fi) and other forms of ecological literature have been around for a long time, from Edward Abbey to Margaret Atwood. Today, I decided to dabble in ecological poetry about my home state’s claim to fame.

Murder of Crows

See the Grand Canyon, an overture in foliage, The Bland Canyon
a cacophony of life. A murder

of crows, watchful, calculating,
circles above the ever-emptying Canyon.
They perch along the new uranium rigs,
rancourous tourist bathrooms, a clearance sale
of the canyon’s condors, now going out of business.
Sun-dried pilgrims flock into the sandy mouth
by gondola, elevator, jeep,
no descent beyond imagination,

to where the river once flowed when tourists trickled
by the curious dozen. The crows all grin
as the tourists cascade, a new waterfall of sweaty flesh
bringing with them whole picnics
to toss into the shock of relief,

greenless, insect-ripe, a sight to behold.
The murder of crows delights in the garbage,

lab-made meat patties, factory salads,
brownies with a genesis in HTML,
plastic coffee in plastic cups, and endless anti-depressants
packed into health bars laced with enough alcohol
to relax the fast-paced tourist.
The crows become drunk on their dessert

dropped by the sweating fingers
under their generation’s birthright summer scorches.
See the murder of crows feast

on the bodies piled into the Canyon,
sunburned limbs, imported clothes like packaging,
a soup of sun screen and contaminated sweat
fermenting in the Canyon’s deep barrels.

See the crows peck at weeds, fingers, preservatives
dumped into the bone-dry skeleton of the Southwest.

-jk

Copyright Keene Short, 2015. Photograph magnanimously donated by the spectacular travelers at Lost Compass Photography.