The Grand Canyon

This is the second story in a series exploring the origins of my novel The Slickrock Paradox, set in the American Southwest.

In the fall of 1993 I applied for a position with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to volunteer, full-time, in one of America’s red rock canyon National Parks. My love affair with Edward Abbey firmly entrenched, and a couple of years of seasonal work with Parks Canada under my belt, I thought I was a good fit. I applied to Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks and waited for a call. Grand Canyon was my fourth choice, and I only included it because there were four spaces on the application. I didn’t really want to work there: After two summers in Banff, at busy Lake Louise, I was already developing a healthy distaste for what Abbey called “industrial tourism.”

I shared his sentiment that “there was a small dark cloud on the horizon [whose] name was progress.”

I feared that Grand Canyon would just be more of the same.

Of course, that’s where the SCA sent me. Their explanation was that because I wouldn’t have a car, stationing me in remote Arches or Canyonlands would mean I couldn’t get to town to buy groceries or beer. The beer part was my concern. Grand Canyon, they explained, had all the amenities I could want within walking distance.

Perfect, I thought. I purchased a ticket to Las Vegas, Nevada, which I thought must be the nearest airport to the Canyon (it wasn’t; Phoenix would have been far easier), and in October of that year, said goodbye to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and flew south.

I arrived in Las Vegas and into a strange new world. I was twenty-two years old, and had spent some time on the east coast of America, in places like Boston, and rural Connecticut and Pennsylvania. That year I had even convinced a friend drive 6-hours out of the way to visit Home, Pennsylvania, the birth-place of Ed Abbey. There wasn’t much there except a cross-roads sign, but at least I could say I’d been.

But those foray’s didn’t prepare me for what I found in Vegas. The massive billboards in the airport cautioning me to relinquish my firearms were my first sign that I was no longer in Canada. I wasn’t packing, but kinda’ wished I was. I missed my shuttle bus for Flagstaff by mere minutes, so was forced to find a place to hang my hat for twelve hours before I could get a Greyhound into Arizona. I decided to drop my bags at a hostel and explore the city without my heavy pack on my back.

After trying unsuccessfully to sleep for an hour I set off to see what I could on foot. I spent a week in Las Vegas that afternoon. For someone who had just spent his second summer in the back country of Banff National Park, leading hikes and doing camp-fire talks, Vegas was a kick to the nuts. It was everything I’d ever heard, but revved up on speed. I got out alive, but not before leaving five dollars in nickels in the slot machines at the Sands and having a massive cola thrown at me by a passing car-load of college frat boys. My ninja skills kept me from being soaked.

Around midnight I collected my gear and hauled it to the bus depot and boarded a Greyhound that would take me as far as Kingman, Arizona. It was a congenial trip, with a nice girl sitting behind me, and I thought that if the rest of the trip went this well, I was in luck.

It didn’t. I wasn’t.

The transfer in Kingman happened at four am. That’s not an ideal time to get on a bus under any circumstances; when the bus you are boarding is being driven direct from LA to New York – five days of overland hilarity and mirth – then you, as the interloper, are pretty much screwed.

First off, everybody on the bus wanted to know who the jack-ass was who necessitated the stop in the first place. 43 sets of eyes glaring at me as I politely – excuse me, pardon me – made my way down the aisle, searching for a seat. I reached the back of the bus without finding one. The rear bench, next to the john, appeared to be only partially occupied. But the dark set of bloodshot eyes that peered menacingly at me from beneath a musty blanket were all the silent caution I needed. I looked to my left and found a seat directly in front of the loo. My seat mate, leaning against the window, was either in a booze-induced coma or was dead. To this day I’m not sure. Drool leaked down the window from his open mouth.

I sat down as the bus lurched back into the night. The lavatory behind me reeked of vomit and faeces and I soon realized that there was something under my seat. To my horror discovered a child asleep there. Curled up in a blanket was a girl not more than two or three years old. I looked around and discovered – I swear to God – four more children sleeping in various non-Department of Transportation approved locales, including the overhead luggage rack. I tried to settle in but feared that I might start an international incident if I stretched out my hiking-boot clad feet.

I didn’t sleep a wink between Kingman and Flagstaff, a trip that lasted another three hours. I later learned, while chatting in the bus depot with a fellow passenger, that the children belonged to five Hispanic woman who were traveling straight through from LA to New York. Five days. I got off lucky.

I had breakfast in the bus depot in Flag, and caught a shuttle to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the US Park Service was headquartered. As I passed through the tourist-hovel of Tusayan, I feared that my worst nightmare about the Grand Canyon had come true: that this plastic-and-Kleenex constructed dump was Grand Canyon Village. It wasn’t.

I was dropped off at the Visitor Centre (this was 19-years ago, before the new Visitor Centre was built). Even still, it was a nice, old, stone building that to my great relief wasn’t constructed of plastic or Kleenex. I presented myself, was welcomed by a straight-brim Stetson-wearing Ranger and shown to my accommodation. I was given a bicycle and told to report for duty the next morning back at the VC, if I could find my way back through the maze-like trailer park that was my new home.

I hadn’t slept for more than an a few minutes since leaving Canada thirty hours earlier, but there was one thing I had to do before I collapsed. I got on my bike and rode towards what I hoped would be the Canyon. It was late in the afternoon, and well into October, so the days were short and the light was fading when I found my way to the Rim. I came upon it quite by accident, and I learned quickly that this was the best way to experience the Grand Canyon.

In all my preparations to spend the winter in Arizona, one thing I hadn’t done was read much about the Canyon itself. I was glad, because what I saw stunned me speechless.

There was a space beyond the rim of the earth that was at once complexly empty and utterly full of light and colour and shape and sound. I sat down on a hump of rock a few feet from the edge of the canyon, where it dropped down one-thousand feet to the next sloping bench, and then fell further thousands to the Tonto Plateau – two-thirds of the way to the Colorado River – and just stared.

It was beyond description, and in many ways, still is. Nothing can prepare you for what you will see when you visit the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. There are so many shapes – domes, reefs, fins, buttes and buttresses of stone – making up the convoluted landscape inside the canyon, that the eye has nothing to rest on. I tried to take it all in, but was quickly over-awed.

The sun set and the diurnal light and colour show commenced, with thousand foot tall walls of limestone glowing orange and red while the dark core of the canyon – the Inner Gorge – where the Colorado River was slowing burrowing toward the center of the earth lay in brooding shadow. I remained stock still for more than an hour until the colour had drained away and the night had eclipsed the walls of stone and all that remained was the dim hum of the River far below.

It was my first Grand Canyon sunset, and every single night that I was stationed there I wove my way through the woods to the rim, hoping to recreate the feeling of surprise and wonder I felt when coming upon the place for the very first time. I came close often, but never duplicated the feeling that somehow everything I knew about the world’s magnificence had been cast into doubt and I had a new benchmark for majesty.

That’s when The Slickrock Paradox and the Red Rock Canyon Mystery series started. Aside from telling a good story, that’s what I want these books to be about: magnificence.

Read other blog posts about the origins of this series here. Follow me on Twitter at stephenlegault.

Twenty-Six Bucks is Twenty-Six Bucks

I got a royalty check from my old publisher this week. This was for my back-list books The Darkening Archipelago, which was released in 2010 and The Cardinal Divide, which came out in 2008. The royally period was for one year, ending June 30, 2012.

The amount? You guessed it: twenty-six buck-a-roos.

It hasn’t really been a good stretch for me and the publishing world. I’ve been struggling with what will be my seventh book, The Third Riel Conspiracy. And it seems like all around us news of impending doom for professional writers is crashing down upon us.

So opening an envelope and shaking out a check for twenty-six clams didn’t really help.

I have a business plan for my writing. I know where I am going and how I can get there. I want to be a full-time professional author some day. Maybe in five years. Maybe seven. That plan includes writing two books a year, and allowing (hopefully) increasing popularity to suck my back-list of books along towards ever increasing sales.

This so-called plan called for selling 150 copies of both back-list titles in 2011 and 225 in 2012. According to my royalty statement I sold 20 copies combined over a twelve-month stretch straddling those years. I’m going to have to get cracking.

Authors need to sell their back list in order to make good in the publishing business. Like any good business, you need to create products that continue to sell after you’ve made your upfront investment in order to create a stable revenue stream.

My revenue stream is currently a fetid brook choked with rotting newspaper and cast-off tires.

I’ve been staring at the royalty cheque for a few days now. I’ve got to get it in the bank before I accidentally launder it. I mean with the washing machine.

I have a fund set up in one of my accounts that my royalty payments go into, after my wife subtracts the obligatory levy to hand over to the Canadian government to support their corporate tax cuts to big oil and gas companies. Everybody is feeling the pinch right now. I’m pretty lucky that my current publisher is moving a decent number of my books, so there are actually a few bucks in that account. Not enough to afford a trip overseas, but enough to get my family a ski-pass this winter. Or at least, come close.

The twenty-six smackers is going into that fund too. Jenn says it’s my tea-fund. When I’m heading off for a day of skiing, I can use it to buy a cup of tea on the way. At two bucks a pop, that means I’m good for twelve days of skiing. Not half bad, when you look at it that way.

At the end of the day, twenty-six bucks is twenty-six bucks. It’s a hell of a lot more than most writers who dream of publishing a book ever get. I know lots (too damn many) who just give their stuff away and never see a dime. And that I’m struggling with the edits on my seventh book is nothing to get all whinny about either. Stop your bitching, Legault, and get your big-boy pants on for God’s sake.

Review of the Corpse with the Silver Tongue

(Disclosure: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is published by TouchWood Editions, which publishes my mystery novels. So I have been extra-critical….)

Reading The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is like having a conversation with a charming, slightly quirky, and highly intelligent aunt that you heard stories about when you were a kid, but never spent much time with. The aunt in this case is Cait Morgan, a criminologist by training with a specialty in victim profiling. She’s middle-aged, a little on the heavy-side and alluring. She loves to eat, enjoys good wine, and has a couple of extraordinary talents that make her a great amateur sleuth. First, she has the ability to profile not only people, but things, which she does in this debut novel from Cathy Ace. Cait also has a photographic memory: she can recreate a scene that she has only witnessed very briefly in startling detail.

These traits come in very handy when Cait finds herself in Nice, France, to present a paper on behalf of a sick colleague, where she runs into a former employer, Alistair Townsend. Before Cait became a victim profiler and University professor, she used her skills at understanding people at the ad agency run by Alistair. She, along with most of the rest of the world, hated the man. So when she’s invited to celebrate Townsend’s young wife’s birthday, she reluctantly accepts.  Alistair does a face-plant into his escargot at the dinner table, and we soon learn he was poisoned.

This is a perfect set-up for a “closed room” murder. The setting is the Palais du Belle France, a grand old residence that during the Second World War was the headquarters of the Gestapo. The suspects are the remaining dinner guests celebrating the evening. The likely motive: the Celtic collar, a birthday gift from Alistair to his trophy-wife;  a piece of ornate golden jewellery with a mythological history of killing those who wear it if they are not of Celtic blood.

What I liked about The Corpse with the Silver Tongue the most was the confined setting. We got to know one place, and its occupants, very well. There were just enough suspects in the murder investigation to keep me both guessing, and from becoming confused (something that happens much too often for my comfort). There were just a pair of clear possible motives. And the physical setting was both complex (I love underground tunnels in a mystery!) and confined. It brought to mind several of Agatha Christie’s classic who-dunnits, including Ten Little Indians and Murder on the Orient Express. When a second person dropped dead, I was delighted. Oh good, I thought, more mayhem!

I enjoyed getting inside the protagonist’s head. Cait is whip-smart, and professional, but also human. She smokes (it’s never even occurred to me to have a character light up a butt) and over-indulges and maybe spends a little too much time thinking about pastry for my liking, and she’s got plenty of flaws. But that’s what makes her identifiable. You could imagine your aunt, who happens to be a criminologist and busy-body, getting into this sort of trouble.

The solution to the mystery wasn’t particularly intricate, though I didn’t guess who the killer was. But then, I seldom do. I read mystery novels for insight into the protagonist, and the antagonist, and rarely trouble myself with trying to solve the riddle.  Cait is going to return, and I was also reading to see what sort of set up would take place for the second book in this series, The Corpse with the Golden Nose. No doubt about it, Cait Morgan is going to have her hands full, and with Cathy Ace penning her life’s story, readers are in for a grand time.

The Corpse with the Silver Tongue is published by Touchwood Editions. Follow Cathy Ace on twitter @AceCathy.

Follow me on twitter @stephenlegault.

Bedtime Stories

One: there is no end

The boys and I read a lot of books at bedtime. Both Rio and Silas are veracious readers; Rio is into Rick Riordan’s various mythology thrillers while Silas can read just about anything Dr. Seuss has ever penned. Most nights at bedtime we read stories; everything from Captain Underpants to Ernest Hemmingway. A little while ago we read The Oldman and the Sea. For a while we were making our way through Watership Down, and more recently we read Richard Bach’s There’s No Such Place as Far Away.

Bach, as you might recall, penned Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which didn’t do much for me, and Illusions, which did. No Such Place as Far Away is about a series of birds in conversation with Rae, who is on his way to celebrate his birthday party. Along the way he receives as gifts a series of oblique life-lessons from his friends. From the seagull Rae learns that “not being known doesn’t stop the truth from being true,” and from the hummingbird, he wonders “can miles truly separate us from friends? If you want to be [together], aren’t you already there?”

All good lessons, but a little obscure. The last lesson, however, was a whopper:

“You have no birthday because you have always lived; you were never born, and never will you die. You are not the child of the people you call mother and father, but their fellow-adventurer on a bright journey to understand the things that are.”

What do you think that means, I asked Silas and Rio as we snuggled together?

Neither boy was certain. I’m not sure they much carried. It dawned on me what Bach was saying: “There is no beginning and no end; not as we have come to believe in them. Life isn’t a linear progression from birth through adulthood to death,” I say, knowing that I’m treading on thin ice. Talk of death is difficult, especially before bed. “What makes you who you are, and what makes me who I am,” I pinch Silas’ cheeks, not to illustrate the point, but just because they are so pinchable, “has always been here. We’re just constantly being rearranged.”

I’m not sure if that made any sense. I still don’t.

Reading bedtime stories

Two: presence is your present

Sometimes one boy or the other has a hard time falling asleep. Not often, but from time to time. One of the things I’ve been teaching my children is the gift of the present moment.

If Rio or Silas is frustrated because they can’t sleep, I remind them of ‘present moment awareness.’ This is one of the most important lessons we can learn; this moment is all the life we will ever know. Both the past and future are illusion. This moment is the only moment we can live in.

How does this help a seven- or a ten-year-old fall asleep? I remind them that in this moment they are safe and have nothing to fear. I remind them that in this moment they are secure in their beds, comfortable, and so deeply loved. Safe in that knowledge, not worrying about tomorrow or contemplating yesterday, they can stay grounded in present moment awareness. I sometimes suggest they focus on their breath, as I try so desperately to do while meditating.

Recently we’ve been reciting something of a mantra, plucked from the final scene of the movie Peaceful Warrior (the book, which I read in high school, helped get me off my ass and started my lifelong passion for running):

What time is it? Now.

Where are you? Here.

What are you? This moment.

So I guess it should come as no surprise when, after reading a story a little while ago, and cuddling up with Silas, that he should remind me of the importance of the present. As I sometimes do, I told him: “I can’t wait to see you in the morning.”

He smirked and in a wry tone said “Stephie, present moment awareness!”

Three: The purpose of life

From time to time all the bedtime stories and the reminders about the present moment don’t help and one boy or the other has a tough time drifting off.

Such was the case a few nights ago. Silas was sad, missing his other household, and probably sore with growing pains. For several hours Jenn and I calmed him down and held him and he would drift off to sleep, only to wake again. Finally we went to bed ourselves, and a little while later I heard chatter from the boys bedroom, but it stopped, so I fell back to sleep.

When I got up to write the next morning, around 5:30, Silas was asleep on the floor. His comforter, not used during the warm summer months, had been bunched up to make a bed there. He was fast asleep.

Later, when Rio got up, he told me the rest of the story. Hoping to be able to fall asleep himself, and unable to because Silas was sad, he had climbed down from the top bunk and made a nest on the floor for his little brother, using extra pillows and the comforter to create a cocoon. Then the two of them had curled up there and fallen asleep together. Sometime in the early morning hours Rio had gone back to his own bed.

It’s the best bedtime story of all; it’s the story of our purpose: to love one another.

We are having a wonderful love affair together.