It’s Kate, back from a get-away to hike in the Canadian Rockies, with a very writerly confession: I have a hard time being away from my desk, and a harder time tearing my mind away from my work, when I’m deeply immersed in a project. But our long-planned vacation came just weeks after I’d set a serious deadline for myself to have a first draft of Death Dealer done by October 15th, so I glued myself to my chair and got as much done as I could before I had to lace up my hiking boots and go over the hill, or at least, to the airport.
In Calgary, I rented a car and zoomed up the Trans Canada highway to meet my husband, who was coming down from four days of serious climbing up on a glacier. We met at the Chateau Lake Louise, ready for four days of hiking and trying not to get eaten by bears.
Some years ago, I realized that I had developed the bad habit of not being “present” on vacations, but
only enjoying them once I was home, so I’ve been chanting “be here now” to myself frequently, and it does seem to be helping. But as my fellow writers know, when your mind is inhabited by the story you are shaping, it will keep popping up despite any amount of resolute chanting. Lake Louise is gorgeous. Seen from above, the red canoes people are paddling around the lake look like little water bugs skimming along the surface. Hike a few miles uphill, and there is Mirror Lake and then, farther along, Lake Agnes, and a tea house that has been hosting visitors for more than a century. I imagine doing the uphill hike we’ve just done in full skirts, high-button boots, and a corset, and I feel lucky. We drink lemonade and chat with the people at the next table, and their accents suddenly flip me back to my dozens of hours of interviews with Canadians on the eastern side of the country, and that leads me back to the book.
A hike up Big Beehive–yikes! more uphill–leads to a gorgeous vista, and for a while, my reluctant knees and the lovely views both hold me very firmly in the present. But later, I check my e-mail, and there are answers to several important questions from a police detective, and my mind drifts back to the scene I finished just before I left–finding the victim’s body, working the crime scene, and carrying her to a hearse. There are details in the e-mail that I will need to include, and I find I’m already rewriting, shaping the prose, looking to tell the story in better detail because now I can see it more clearly. I force myself not to send follow-up questions.
Sometimes, and I know other writers must do this, I can’t help using this trip to collect future material. The hotels are crowded with tourists, speaking a dozen languages, and I can sit in the lobby, or out by the lake front, and watch them parade past. Sometimes I play the game of “how would I describe that” as someone with an odd walk or an interesting feature, a surprising hairdo or a particular waggle of the hips, goes past. The man with the mouth that looks like a malevolent smear of some creator’s thumb, a perennial down-turn with deep, disapproving creases at the sides. The graying hipping with a receding hairline and a ponytail, as though the entire scalp is slipping slowly backward. The exuberant young woman in the tank top who swoops forward and shares…well…perhaps more than she should. She’s sure to make an appearance in the mind of one of my characters.
Another day, the hike is up to Moraine Lake, a place of such stunning beauty that I am utterly present. So present I can feel the powerful assault of the ever-changing blue of the lake, color so vivid it feels like it rises up and flings itself at my eyes, pushing me back so I’m not knocked over. I have never seen such colors, and as the sun rises higher, the blues keep changing in a breath-taking panorama. The air is stunningly clear, so that colors shimmer, not just the lake, but little streams dancing down the rocks to the lake, and the almost spring green of the tamarack as it begins to shift to its yellow fall foliage.
Instead of my usual headlong plunge–my husband often hikes in front of me so he can slow me down and make me take my time–I am content to spend hours walking slowly along the lake, taking photographs. Sitting on benches and watching the clouds blow past the mountain peaks. Stopping to chat with other hikers. For this time, at least, I am absolutely present, and glad that I am.
Bear have been sited along the next trail we want to take, and it is closed unless we hike in groups of four or more. As we’re contemplating the sign and wondering if we should try to find two more people to make a foursome, my traitor mind is drifting again, thinking about explaining to a reader unfamiliar with the outdoors how real a threat it is that a bear might get to the victim’s body before it can be found. Do I talk about how bones are scattered, or about the amount of a body that might ultimately be found if bear have bee present? How much do I need to include? Whose stories? Should I do one more interview? Will I be able to convey the sense of urgency this threat presents, and the huge risk of potential evidence lost? Around us, people stride past with bear bells jingling on their packs. I am here. And I am not.
It was a wonderful vacation. We walked uphill until, by the end of the day, we could barely limp downstairs
to the bar. We had a room with a jacuzzi and a fireplace, and nothing from my book distracted me from those. Now it is Friday, and time to settle back into the chair. Ask those follow-up questions. Set up one last interview. And now the tables are turned, for while I’m trying to explain about getting that body onto a stretcher, gorgeous snatches of Moraine Lake blue, and the stunning clarity of the mountain air, and the jagged spires of mountains, are going to be intruding.
Oh so THAT’s why I sit in the lobby eavesdropping on people. I thought I was just nosy.
Am I nosy because I’m a writer or am I a writer because I’m nosy?
Barb…it’s a chicken and egg problem, isn’t it? I actually think being a writer makes us more curious and attentive. I actively encourage my students to be nosy…I tell them their little notebooks are a license to be curious, and that being curious, noticing the world and wondering, “What’s that about?” is part of their job as writers.
I love that beautiful area and the lakes. Thanks for writing this. It brings back memories and I must go over to “my pictures” and look at that area once again.
Kate,It sounds like a great getaway. I know just what you mean about how hard it is to forget the work in progress, though, even for a little while.FYI, I just finished reading a novel that told me more than I ever wanted to know about bears attacking hikers, Linda Howard’s PREY. Talk about your gory details!
Kathy…Glad I haven’t read that book…It was intimidating enough just getting out there. One day, we took a trail that wasn’t marked with a bear warning…and walked for two hours without meeting anyone. It was just a little too spooky, given how crowded the park was.
I’m concentrating on what bears do to cadavers…not pretty…but also not uncommon. Ah, the stories wardens tell.
We had a little encounter with a problem bear in the Allagash. We had canoed across Chamberlain Lake up both the small and large falls to camp for a week stay. Things were quiet the first two nights but on the third we had a hungry bear visit our tent site. This was serious and very unnerving. The next day a Game Warden stopped buy to warn us that they had had a few encounters lately and to keep all food locked in our tents. We told him we also had a visitor and his facial expression made me nervous enough to make sure the food was inside but inside an empty tent where I would not be sleeping lol.
I guess I’m a cheap date. I’ve been collecting drop apples from the bumper crop down back and in between setting the best ones aside for applesauce, I’ve been listening to these ancient fruit producers whisper a new short YA fantasy story to me. Oh, yeah, and realizing I want the collective family to buy me a cider press for Christmas. I know what you mean about certain sights pulling you out of your head. When we did the Colorado train trip, there were several spots that totally killed any inner musings for long periods of time.