WHO NEEDS A DESK JOB?
WHO NEEDS A DESK JOB?
Most people envision novelists as being chained to their desks, slaving over the keyboard while they wait for the Muse to inspire them. Not for me -- with all of Colorado's beautiful, peaceful wilderness calling, the last place in the world I want to be is in my office at the computer.
In the past decade, ever since I became a professional author, I have trained myself to write the first drafts of my science fiction novels by dictating them into a microcassette recorder. Many of my writer friends shake their heads in disbelief, but to me this technique is the most effective (not to mention enjoyable) way to meet my deadlines. I can get exercise, see spectacular scenery, and get writing done.
Even though my STAR WARS or DUNE novels are set on strange alien worlds, I can take inspiration from the natural beauty and the spectacular landscapes as I walk along. DUNE: HOUSE ATREIDES (co-written with Brian Herbert) is set on a stark desert world, and I dictated many chapters while hiking alone in Death Valley or out at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, near Alamosa. (In fact, that's where the author photo on the dust jacket was taken.)
Many of my STAR WARS novels were also written while climbing dunes or walking through rocky canyons as I talked about Luke Skywalker and his sandy homeworld of Tatooine. Once, under a deadline, I rented a cabin in the mountains where I could work uninterrupted. I promptly got snowed in, but that didn't deter me from slogging through the new-fallen drifts, crunching the surface of the snow, breathing cold steam out of my mouth, smelling the brittle air -- all the while dictating an adventure with Han Solo in the polar icecaps . . . .
When I wrote my second X-FILES novel, RUINS, which is set in the Central American jungles and among the Mayan temple ruins, I spent a week down in the Yucatan exploring that landscape so that the texture and the details all came out precisely right. Along with my wife, author Rebecca Moesta, I have also been to the Andes Mountains and the cloud forests of Ecuador, to the northern Sahara and ancient fairy-tale cities of Morocco, on the shuttle launchpads at Kennedy Space Center -- and it's all part of the job.
Working and hiking at the same time -- does it get any better than that? Actually, yes. This summer I had the opportunity to participate in the "Peak Challenge 2000," in which myself and about 315 other volunteers climbed Fourteeners around the state to raise money for the Emily Griffith Center.
The Griffith Center is a 100-acre "refuge" ranch near Larkspur, established to care for boys suffering from a psychiatric, behavioral, educational, and social disabilities. Founded in 1927, the Center has helped thousands of emotionally disturbed or abused children and families; for the past twelve years they have led the annual "Peak Challenge" to raise money for the costs of treatment, education, food, and clothing at the ranch.
My hiking partner Tim Jones and I managed to obtain permission from a private landowner to climb Culebra Peak (14,047 ft) in southern Colorado. The ranch manager rarely grants access to hikers on Culebra, due to frequent problems with poachers, trespassing, vandalism, even theft of ranch equipment and raw timber (!) from the mountainside. Recently a small, organized group from the Colorado Mountain Club was allowed to ascend Culebra in a one-time hike; all other requests have been denied this summer. However, as a special release for the Peak Challenge 2000, Tim and I were allowed through the gates.
After spending the night in the small town of San Luis, which is near . . . well, nothing at all, we drove a dozen miles through narrow country roads, paved and unpaved, winding ranch routes, ascending through scrub and desert terrain until we met a ranch hand at the locked gate. Even the ranch hand was quite surprised that we'd been given permission to hike on Culebra.
From there, we drove steep four-wheel-drive roads up to a parking area and the trailhead only ten yards in front of a beautiful cold brook and small waterfall. With Culebra calling, packs on our shoulders, walking sticks firmly in hand, we left the car behind.
I got a head-start on Tim so he could take pictures, and I could start dictating into the tape recorder. Before long, as the trail wound through beautiful forested territory, pines and vegetation at the edge of the treeline, I was already mentally involved in plotting the detailed scenes of a new DUNE novel. Walking along (yes, and huffing and puffing a little bit), I was soon lost in interplanetary politics, terrible space battles, monstrous giant sandworms on the desert world of Dune . . . .
Unfortunately, the disadvantage of talking and thinking while hiking is that sometimes I become so involved in my work that I can be three pages into some exciting action before I realize that I'm no longer on the path . . . especially with isolated Culebra, where the trail is minimal, at best.
So much for a quick and easy ascent of the mountain. As we turned around and backtracked for about an hour, we consoled ourselves by admiring the scenery along the wrong trail. When Tim and I finally made it back to the alleged route, it was little more than a few worn patches on meadow grass climbing steadily up a treeless slope.
Off again. I kept dictating, but as the mountainside got rockier and steeper, my sentences grew shorter . . . and filled with . . . a lot of . . . ellipsis dots.
When I climb Fourteeners, I tend to do most of my work at the beginning of the trail when my stamina is greatest and the hike is easiest, and also at the end of the day's march, when I'm striding downhill. Between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, though, it's much more difficult to think of clever turns of phrase and brilliant metaphors -- the boulders are slipping and sliding, sometimes I have to shove the tape recorder into my pocket so I can climb with hands and feet, and there just isn't enough oxygen to be creative.
When we were still a mile or so away from the top, even though it was only mid-morning, the black clouds began to roll in, an ugly-looking storm racing us to the peak.
While climbing one of Colorado's mountains and you see a storm approaching, you can hope one of three things happens: 1) that the thunderheads will shift direction and leave the skies clear again; 2) that they're just pesky rainclouds, without any thunder or lightning; or 3) that you can find meager shelter among the rocks and wait it out, then trudge on up again.
Your other alternative, of course, is to turn around and run back to the car.
We picked up our pace, trying to hurry in an all-out forced march because we knew we'd never convince the ranch manager to let us on Culebra a second time. (Our unscheduled side-trip down the wrong trail hadn't helped with our timing, either.) We paused a moment to gulp some water and for me to stuff the tape recorder into the backpack -- no time any more for dictating; it would take all my effort just for panting and plodding at full-speed.
Up endless rocky slopes, crawling over boulders, reaching an exposed ridge (not a place you want to be if the lightning starts), and up several disheartening "false summits" (it looks like the top, but when you get there you see a previously hidden, even-higher summit behind it). Finally, near the top we encountered a brown bear grazing among the rubble completely unimpressed with the approaching thunder or with two human interlopers.
When the bear decided to lumber off and let us pass, Tim and I made a final push to the summit, a beautiful peak surrounded by pristine range land, more mountaintops, and the San Luis valley in the distance.
And, unfortunately, storm clouds. We rested for just a few moments, took pictures, celebrated with trail mix, then turned around to retrace our footsteps (this time without the bear). Somehow we managed to make it all the way back to the car moments before the full downpour hit.
Net result of our hike of Culebra Peak: this article written plus another non-fiction piece, two chapters on a new science fiction novel . . . and nearly $2000 raised for the Emily Griffith Center. All together, the Peak Challenge volunteers pulled in over $150,000 for charity. Not bad for a day out in the wilderness, climbing one of Colorado's most isolated mountains, and enjoying myself immensely.
Copyright 2007 The Herbert Limited Partnership