July 28, 2010

Now for a jump back in years

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:13 am

Boy, with the silence from NY on my novel, and the travelogue entries, you could–I could–almost forget that Suspense Your Disbelief is mostly about writing and getting the word out about authors. Stacy Juba is one author who’s appeared here, and today she does me the favor of featuring a few of my words on her terrific blog.

Stacy had a great idea for a writers forum, where she asks the question, What were you (or one of your characters) doing 25 years ago today?

Here’s what I said in reply. The other posts make fun reading too!

July 8, 2010

Sweet Home…Idaho?

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:15 am

My husband was asleep when we crossed into Idaho. A sign announced that we were also entering Pacific time. The kids could call their uncles and say, “We’re in your time zone now!” We were getting excited about arriving, but we didn’t know what adventures awaited us first.

The drive on route 12 through the Clearwater National Forest went through the densest wilderness we’d seen yet. My husband woke up and we began to wonder when (if?) we would ever emerge into something resembling a town. Eye-stunning beauty saved us from anxiety. We didn’t really want to emerge.

But every great journey reaches its end–that’s one of the things we’ve learned on this trip–and this one terminated in, well, nothing resembling a town, but the loveliest lodge we’d stayed at, right on that eponymous river.

River Dance was like nothing I’ve ever experienced…a combination of  summer camp plus luxury…and good food instead of soggy grilled cheese and bug juice. (Actually, I loved camp food, but I was 13.)

The minute we got there, we were treated to a tour of our spacious, two story log cabin–the kids loved the sleeping loft, while my hubby and I ogled the private hot tub on the deck). Next, we were asked what we wanted to do.

Do? You mean besides sit in said hot tub and gaze at the sparkling river? But when the options included a lesson on baking over a real outdoor fire–just like Ma did it–and a whitewater rafting trip even our non-swimmers could handle, we decided to get active.

What followed were two days of pure fun. That night we ate the carrot cake our leader showed the kids how to bake in a spider over a fire, right after a meal of European specialties fixed by our Czech hosts.

These included homemade stuffed peppers one night and prime rib the other.  Plus parmesan mashed potatoes. Salads were made up of a dozen  fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with dressing made with local berries. And there were appetizers fresh out of the oven–these too creative to be described. Let’s just say the kids never liked green beans so much as when they were served mozzarella stick-style with a teriyaki dipping sauce.

The rafting trip was another odyssey–I think my four year old may grow up to be a guide. The kids’ faces when we hit rapids were studies in bliss and excitement, but the guide made everything feel safe with her expert rowing and watchful eye. She served up lunch while we swam at one of Idaho’s white powder river beaches. Freezing water, homemade cookies. Then we followed an eagle the whole way down river.

And that hot tub did feel good.

July 7, 2010

My new favorite state

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:34 pm

Back in South Dakota, we stopped at a car museum for my son and a re-creation of an 1880s town for my daughter who is into all things old-fashioned. The kids got to lock themselves into a jail cell and even drove a real buggy with mules guided by the most colorful wagon driver west of the Mississippi (we noted the river upon crossing…what a history and geography and geology lesson this trip is).

But oh, did we love Montana. It helped that we could not buy a bad meal here. In the town of Broadus, literally a pair of crossed roads, we stopped at an unassuming cafe decorated with every imaginable kind of pig trinket and statuette. I had the best, freshest spinach and bacon salad I’ve ever eaten, homemade chicken and dumplings, spaghetti and meatballs for the kids, and a monster cookie that took the monster out of all of us.

In Livingston we had the kids’ first fancy meal out of the trip, at a farm to table restaurant where a mint clogged mojito wiped the last of the road dust off me.

And the day after a somewhat ill-fated night of camping–a freight train woke us every hour on the hour, so close we felt its vibration in addition to hearing the air horn, and the temperature dropped into the 30s–a community co-op woke us up with strong coffee and healthy treats.

Lest I sound like all I care about is the food (it’s really not ALL) Montana also offered some of the most striking scenery of the trip so far. We didn’t think it could get any bigger or more majestic. Our eyes are simply saturated with beauty. Here it’s roads so long the prospect of running out of gas is scary–in addition to food, I go in for the fearsome, the dramas in real life–and mountains that are suddenly snow topped after our blistering days in the heat.

From here we go into Idaho and enter the time zone we’ll be in for the duration. Gaining hours has been just one more plus of driving west, although I suspect little bodies are getting tired out as we take advantage of later nights.

And still no news on the sub.

July 6, 2010

Westward Bound

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 5:50 pm

So then it was on to South Dakota, a state I’d never been to but which, just coincidentally, happened to be the setting for the latest Reacher novel I’d devoured.

That took place in winter, and this was summer, and the difference seemed vast. Heat altogether different from any I’d felt in NJ. In NJ the heat can be sickly, oppressive, but South Dakota’s heat was punishing. It felt deadly. When we stopped in Badlands National Park–viewing a herd of buffalo amidst the otherworldly rock formations–the prospect of a hike seemed dangerous. If you ran out of water in this heat, you’d die.

Well, I am making it sound far more dramatic than it was, given that this is a family vacation. We experienced the worst of the heat from the car, getting jaw-gaping views while we were at it.

Which brings me to another aspect of this trip, the are-you-totally-crazy-to-drive-cross-country-with-a-kindergartener-and-a-preschooler one. Just how stir crazy would they get? So far they really haven’t. There’s the requisite silliness at the end of a day we allow to get too long, of course. But for the most part the country is entertainment enough.

(Well, that combined with the three digits worth of car toys we bought at this toy store prior to leaving.)

When things threaten to erupt, we put on music and that usually puts a mood on simmer.

The truth is having all of us in a car, experiencing the sights of a lifetime has been amazing. I feel like I could keep going for a long, long time.

We wound up in a fantastic lodge in the Black Hills, the temperature dropping with every foot of altitude we gained. The kids could hike and climb here, summit-ing one of those spectacular columns of rock, and dip their feet into the most frigid water I’ve ever felt.

The only bad note is that I really haven’t been able to put down the submission of my novel. I go to sleep and wake up with it. The excitement of our trip is at odds with the complete lack of excitement from NY. I guess the only similarity is that I have no idea what will happen with it, just like every day on the road is a total unknown.

Next stop Montana.

July 5, 2010

When books come to life

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:32 am

After leaving the first Laura Ingalls Wilder site in Walnut Grove, MN, we drove a few hot and dusty miles up the road to a private farm that just happens to sit on the property where the Ingalls’ built their dugout on Plum Creek. You put $4 in a little box and can tour such sites as the plum thickets, the flat table rocks, the scoop of earth where the dugout used to be, and of course, the creek.

There’s a bridge to cross over to see the points of history–fiction come to life–but we decided to wade in and see how the creek felt. Cool and refreshing, with a rushing current that wasn’t too strong for two young not-yet-swimmers. The joy on my daughter’s face, and in her ringing laugh, as the water pushed her along had to be quieted once one other small group of tourists appeared.

We all could’ve played there for hours, but then my daughter had her own Laura moment.

While I was helping my son in, the current took her over to a deeper area by a tree. As the water rose, she reached to hold on to a branch. It snapped off in her hand…and then she really started to get scared.

I was right there and so could put the don’t-panic lesson I’ve tried to instill for both kids to use right there and then as I made my way to her. But she was frightened enough that the part in ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK where Laura must hold to a fallen log to keep from drowning came even more vividly to life for her.

Scary or not, since this episode came to a safe, fast conclusion, I think it was almost a high point of the day. “Now I can really play Laura!” kind of thing. Helped along by the handmade rag dolls we bought at the store, of course.

There are other places where fiction can be toured and places once stored only in our imagination become physical reality. Mystery lover Marlyn Beebe went to Prince Edward Island and saw Green Gables this summer.

Do you have any such spots to add?

Off to South Dakota tomorrow! Another state none of us in the family has ever been in…

July 3, 2010

Little House on the Prairie

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 12:12 pm

Remember the books? Or at least the TV show?

This series is one of the first I remember reading and simultaneously composing a story in my head about three little girls in pioneer times–girls decidedly *not* named Laura, Mary, and Carrie–telling them to myself as I walked, drove in the car, or in general had any spare moment of downtime. And only on Monday nights was I allowed to stay up till the unorthodox hour of 8:30 to watch the show with my parents. I can still hear the theme song as that wagon bounced over the prairie with Karen Grassle holding down her bonnet.

It was the Best Editor in the World who first told me you could visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house and other Little House spots, which she learned on her own cross country journey, from NJ to Alaska, where she earned an MFA before the program became low-res.

(More on my thoughts about MFA programs when I’m not traveling across the great plains and encountering internet vacuums).

We aren’t going quite as far as Alaska (though I’d like to someday–maybe with a book in hand and bookstores to visit, or even an MFA class to say hello to) but the Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is definitely going to be a highlight of our trip. After all, I have a just turned seven year old who is already up to book five in the series and is as into “old-fashioned” as I was, in some odd display of genetic linkage.

(When I was about the same age I objected to my poor mother getting a food processor since chopping by hand was more life on the prairie-like).

The actual town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota is our first stop. It is hot and dry when we arrive. A few hours earlier, we had a surprisingly good lunch in a town with a population of fifteen that boasts three businesses, including our lunch stop. The cook is a master of frying and I had a German version of a hamburger, made with local beef, Swiss cheese, and some mustard-sauerkraut concoction that added exactly the right touch.

The kids really need to stretch by the time we pull into town, and what an array of options for stretching there are! The first thing they do is climb into a real, actual wagon. They can sit on the seat and look out, just like Laura and Mary did when they left the Big Woods! (This appeals more to my daughter than my son, who is more interested in determining the differences between wagon and car wheels, and incidentally discovers the very twentieth century foam they have wrapped around the frame in the wagon cover).

But the rest of the museum is decidedly authentic. There’s a little church with a pump piano. Ma and Pa apparently decided to settle in Walnut Grove because there was a church and a school to be had. Although Pa helped build the church, so I’m not quite straight on all my historical details. There’s also a little one room schoolhouse, a recreation of a pioneer cabin AND a dugout. Many of the displays are hands-on–and say so–encouraging the children to rub clothes on a washboard, don dresses and sunbonnets, and stir pots on a cook stove.

There’s even a four foot tall horse (not real) on which the kids can practice their mount and dismount.

It’s a great place to spend some hours off the road–rich in history, and fun, and able to bring the stories to life in ways that will captivate kids who know them. There’s a cafe with homey specialties (which we didn’t get to try) and a gift shop with toys you’ll never see anywhere else (and which should keep the kids engaged for another thirty + hours in the car).

However, the Minnesota heat is staggering. I’ve never felt anything like it, and the small, close buildings they’ve set up do nothing to lower the temperature. Which is why when we finally pile back into the car again and move on up the road to check out Plum Creek–the actual site where the Ingalls family all lived in their own dugout) we have a beyond nice experience waiting.

I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I can get back on the net.

Oh, and that second night of camping in Wisconsin? Let’s just say that between mosquitoes that enter the kids’ mouths and ears, and a fantastic, healthy, but–between the bugs and the heat, largely wasted–take out dinner hastily consumed in the car as my husband tries to throw together the tent–not all camp outs are blissful.

And maybe they shouldn’t be. That’s what we’re learning here on the road. There are high points where being together as a family feels like the only thing we’d ever need, everything that is essential contained in one snug space. And when it’s not so special–when the kids are engulfed by biting insects and rising to the occasion without panic or even complaint, or squabbles erupt and we have all the time in the world to really work them through–well, that’s when we see what we’re capable of as a family.

That’s when we know who we are.

July 2, 2010

Remembering why I used to love to camp

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 5:31 pm

I went on a two week bike trip when I was sixteen, camping from Kittery to Acadia, ME. Even before that, there’s a photograph of me, lying in a tent at dusk, and reading (of course). (I was about 8. All I did was read.) My feelings when I look at that picture are of such peace. My parents are not the camping type, and as I recall, were dragged along on that trip by a friend of my dad’s. It was their first and last time camping, but not mine.

But somehow, between a black fly horror show of a canoe trip that was my first honeymoon (slathered with Calamine lotion, we jumped ship and went to France instead), a feared mud slide while camping during a torrential downpour, and a few other lesser experiences, I haven’t camped in a while.

My kids have never been camping.

But our first night on the road, in Western Pennsylvania, camp we do, and it is BLISSFUL. The campground is spacious and nearly empty, the kids bike around a nearly flat path they can be independent on (my elder even learns to start herself, which was the Next Big Task), we roast hot dogs in an open fire, eat my writing buddy and dear friend’s homemade brownies and corn muffins, and all is quiet as we sleep. Showers are nice, we drive off refreshed and ready for another day in the car, and basically are spared all those problems that can ruin a good camp out.

It’s incredible because in these cosseted lives many of us lead, I don’t think kids get to experience much in the way of roughing it, or even getting to understand where things come from, what goes into producing them. Food just arrives on the table. Beds are made and ready to lie down in. But when we camp, the kids have a literal hand in preparing that night’s food, which they’re so hungry from. They construct their own beds–their own bedroom. I mean it’s not picking potatoes all day, but it’s a tad closer than we normally get.

Anyway, off to Ohio today, and Amish food at Mary Yoder’s Amish kitchen, which we discovered on our last road trip (only as far west as Michigan). I could eat those soft, puffy rolls and this haunting peanut butter cream they give you to spread on them till the cows come home. The same cows that probably give the milk for this luscious taste of how food used to be.

After this, we push ahead into Indiana, where my parents via the Food Network lead us to South Side Soda Shop in South Bend (can you tell that food drives a fair amount of our travel? When we recall great sights we saw, or hikes we took, all four of us tend to say, That was where we had those granola bars…Or, Remember? We ate at the Chinese place?) for a great dinner that actually includes turtle soup. We taste it, the kids don’t. Not bad, but it tastes nothing like chicken.

That night we stay at a hotel, which I expected to feel like pure luxury after the camping, but actually I’d be fine with another night in the tent.

Know what famous last words are?

Till my next post…

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