Monday, August 30, 2010

In the River of No Return Wilderness

Writer pal Pat Browning, a fellow blogger on Murderous Musings, wrote a week ago about places you can only get to by air. It brought to mind a memorable venture I took in the early 1980's to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The destination was Harrah's Lodge in the heart of the River of No Return Wilderness, a 2.3 million acre area 100 miles northeast of Boise, Idaho.

Built by casino-operator Bill Harrah, the facility hosted many Hollywood stars and at least one president, Jimmy Carter. It has been rebuilt and improved in recent years under new ownership and is now called Middle Fork Lodge. I won a five-day stay at Harrah's while attending the American Society of Association Executives convention in Phoenix the previous fall.

My wife and I flew into Boise, which back then seemed like a quaint town in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We were met by a representative of the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau, which sponsored the prize, and got a tour of the city. Several spots provided reminders of Idaho's most famous product, the potato. The following morning, we returned to the airport and boarded a small plane for the one-hour flight into the Rockies. The only way to reach the lodge was by air, water, or horseback. If you look at the area on a road map, it appears as a vast vacant spot bisected by a green line representing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. There are no roads in the wilderness area.

Getting there was one of the most exciting parts. After flying over mile after mile of the rugged landscape dotted with pine, spruce, and fir, we spotted the winding river below and what the pilot assured us was a landing strip beside it. And that it was, a strip of land. An 8,813-foot mountain jutted up across the river. Not far away on the other side was a 9,722-foot peak. I guess it helped that the Indian Creek Landing Strip lay 4,662 feet above sea level. That only left about 4,000 feet to maneuver our way to the ground. The pilot began to let down in a corkscrew pattern between the mountains. It was breath-taking to watch.

Finally on the ground at the dirt strip, we hauled our bags over to the water's edge, where a large rubber raft awaited us. The plane also carried supplies for the lodge, which were loaded into the raft with us. A couple of other passengers were along for the ride, and after all were secured with life jackets, our "crew" shoved off into the current. Oh, yes, I didn't mention that the Middle Fork is considered America's premier whitewater experience, with more than eighty rapids rated up to Class IV.

We had brought jackets for the cool nights, but with the sun bearing down, it got a bit warm during the trip. The view was awesome, though. The area has been protected since Teddy Roosevelt's days, and the 107-mile stream is America's most pristine. With the soothing sound of the cold, clear water rushing past banks populated by occasional aspen and towering pines, we soaked up the untainted landscape little changed since the time the Shoshone Indians roamed the area. Rising high above the banks that varied from clumps of pine to piles of boulders were soaring crags of granite.

Soon the sound of the water shifted into a roar, and we bounced through our first taste of the rapids. We hit only one spot where the raft tossed about quite a bit, but it was an exciting ride. After a couple of hours, though not too many miles, in which the river dropped more than 250 feet, we reached he landing spot for Harrah's Lodge.

The main building stood back from the river, a large, two-story log structure with long porches on both levels. Scattered up the grassy landscape to the right were a few small log cabins. We occupied one that had a bedroom and bath, comfortable though not roomy. The lodge featured a large room with sofas and chairs and a massive stone fireplace. Leading off of it was the dining room and kitchen. Meals were served family style, and we were encouraged to raid the kitchen whenever we wanted a snack. The cook probably got his start feeding cowboys from a chuck wagon as the meals were sumptuous.

A swinging bridge gave access to the other side of the Middle Fork, and we did a bit of hiking along a trail that followed the riverbank. They had horses we could have ridden, but we passed that up. One of the highlights was gathering around a campfire at night, listing to a veteran guide tell stories about the area. The tale I remember best (I recorded it on my mini-tape recorder, which crashed several years ago), was the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that lived in Oregon and Idaho. He told of the Nez Perce's "trail of tears" after refusing to go to a reservation.

Chief Joseph led them on a wandering 1,100-mile journey through Idaho and Montana, hoping to reach Canada. They fought the U.S. Army all the way and were trapped forty miles from the border. The once-large tribe had dwindled to only 431 warriors. On October 5, 1877, Chief Joseph gave his famous surrender speech which concluded with, "My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." You'll find all of his brief speech here.

We enjoyed the sunny days, relaxed on the porch as we watched and listened to the Middle Fork splashing along its banks. We spotted animals like elk and big horn sheep wandering about. The refurbished lodge features satellite internet connection, but when we were there it had no link to the outside world except a radio used to communicate with Harrah's offices in Boise. All supplies were shipped in, and all garbage was shipped out. It was illegal to leave anything behind that you brought in.

After those few idyllic days, we boarded a larger plane, a DeHavilland, I believe, at the Thomas Creek Airstrip across the river and headed for home. Thanks to Pat Browning for reminding me of that journey. I used the location in the third novel I wrote back in the early nineties. It's one I plan to revise and try again at publication.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Killer Konference

Last weekend's Killer Nashville mystery conference was a huge success. Attendance doubled from the previous year, and the folks I talked with gave it rave reviews. KN has grown to the ranks of second tier conferences (Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime would be first tier). As such, organizer Clay Stafford announced that the 2011 edition would move from its Marriott Cool Springs (Franklin) location to downtown Nashville.

One of the reasons for its success is the tireless efforts of my writers group and Murderous Musings blog colleague, Beth Terrell (author of Racing the Devil). Beth serves as Executive Director of the conference, handling everything from scheduling panels to supervising volunteers to keeping things moving smoothly.

Thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, author of a long string of best sellers, served as Guest of Honor for the fifth edition of Killer Nashville. He showed his laid-back attitude in a session where he was interviewed by Clay Stafford. In a following session, he discussed how he goes about the job of writing thrillers. And he made no bones about it. It's a job.

"Writing is a business," he stressed. You get up in the morning, sit down at the keyboard, and start writing. People in other professions don't get up and say "I don't feel like working today." Neither should writers.

One of the most popular features of the conference was pitch sessions with agents and editors. For most of three days, writers trooped in and out for ten-minute pitches with four agents and two editors. Several authors have succeeded in getting agents and publishing contracts from previous years' pitches, so the hopes were high among the current crop.

The rather pricey Guest o f Honor Dinner Saturday night was well attended. Awards presented included the Magnolia Award (from Southeast Chapter Mystery Writers of America) to Charles Todd, the Silver Falchion Award to Radine Trees Nehring for Journey to Die For, the Claymore Dagger Award to Tom Wallace for Gnosis, and the TBI Crime Scene winner was Laura Hayden. After Jeffery Deaver received his unique Killer Nashville Guitar, writer Don Bruns played it and sang one of his songs.

If you've never attended Killer Nashville, now's a good time to be looking ahead to August 19-21, 2011.

Check out the contest for my new book, A Sporting Murder, at my website.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Protags...who are they and where do they come from?

There's a thread running around the mystery lists currently about physical and other attributes of protagonists. Some writers leave physical descriptions to the imagination; others go into great detail to paint characters in unmistakable terms. It got me to thinking about my own private detectives, what I say about them and where it all came from.

The first one I created was Greg McKenzie. I had a plot in mind for Secret of the Scroll, and it involved the protagonist going on a mission to rescue his abducted wife. I wanted someone with professional investigative experience, someone more toward my own age (though not quite that far--I was 73 at the time). Falling back on my own experience, I made him retired Air Force and of Scottish lineage. I had been in intelligence rather than criminal investigation, so I made Greg a former Office of Special Investigations agent.

When it came to physical characteristics, I chose to make him larger than me, five-foot-ten, and on the hefty side. I've made his struggle with keeping the weight down a constant problem through the series. It provides opportunities for wife Jill  to needle him on occasion. In the first book I had him going through the throes of giving  up cigarettes, backsliding as events closed in on him.

When I started writing this post, I looked back into my directory and found a March 6, 1999 file titled BACKGROUND. It contains this bit of description, some of which has never made it into the books:

"Gregory McKenzie was born in St. Louis in 1935. His father, Clyde, was a burly, garrulous, red-faced Scotsman who was a master brewer for Anheuser-Busch. And since he took his stature more from his smaller mother, Greg had grown up almost in awe of this jolly giant who was fond of quoting Bobby Burns in butchered Gaelic. What he had learned from his father was that being assertive was a major part of being a man. It had not always stood him in good stead.

"Greg was in Air Force ROTC in college, where he majored in political science. His elective courses varied from statistics to archeology.

"Martha McKenzie had some Highland blood in her from her mother’s side of the family, so Greg proudly claimed his Scottish heritage. In fact, at one point he had seriously considered learning to play the bagpipe. But when he was at the point of joining a class, the Air Force transferred him 3,000 miles away.

"Jill was a bit more reserved than Greg, and she wasn’t the demanding type. But whenever she put her foot down firmly, he knew better than to try and budge it. After he retired, Greg told her if he was going to be an RV vagabond, he should grow a beard. She quickly retorted that no man with a beard was going to sleep in her bed. He didn’t really think she would kick him out of bed, but he knew she was capable of it. He recalled that she had complained occasionally that he scratched her face when he kissed her before shaving. He quickly abandoned the idea of a fuzzy face."

I added this to his colorful background later, most of which appears is a book or two:

"Greg is descended from a long line of Scottish military men. It started with the first muster of the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders in 1794 at Stirling Castle, north of Glasgow. Sixteen McKenzies answered the call. Greg’s grandfather, Staff Sgt. Alexander McKenzie, was a member of the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment, a descendant of the old 98th. He fought in the Boer War in South Africa and in Europe during World War I. A battle wound forced his retirement and led to his emigration to America when Greg’s father was fifteen."

Creating characters with all their imperfections and strengths is one of the more fun parts of fiction writing. I'll take up some of my other creations, particularly Jill McKenzie, in future posts.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Down Memory Lane

I'm taking a trip down memory lane this weekend. It goes back sixty years to the middle of 1950. If you were around then, you probably remember that year's most significant event was the invasion of South Korea by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as Communist North Korea, run by ruthless dictator Kim Il-Sung. It was the year following the end of the Berlin Airlift. The Cold War was just heating up.

I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve on graduation from the University of Tennessee journalism school the previous year. While working as a reporter for The Knoxville Journal, I heard about the organization of an Air National Guard unit designated the 119th Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron. It would be equipped with radar as part of new efforts to control the skies over the U.S. I joined the unit as its intelligence officer, a field that appealed to me. Newspaper reporters are always eager to be "in the know." It sounded like just the ticket. (That's me at right on R&R in Tokyo, 1951.)

The 119th AC&W Squadron was a small unit of around 100 men. We met at the National Guard Armory on Sutherland Avenue on the west side of town. The radar sets were a fascinating new toy, with small oscilloscopes that featured a radius line sweeping around as the odd-looking antenna rotated. It would pick up airplanes as small dots on the screen and track their progress across the sky.

As the first year of operations wound down, we held our first summer field training exercise in 1951. As best I can recall, it took place on somebody's farm where we camped out in tents. By this time, the war in Korea had begun to require a force buildup that entailed calling up National Guard and reserve units. We knew our time was coming.

Air Guard personnel could attend regular Air Force schools, so I put in for Intelligence School at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. I hit the road in my little Plymouth on Labor Day weekend. I had never driven that far alone, and it was a memorable journey. This was before interstate highways, and those with a U.S. designation were usually well-paved but only two lanes wide. Traffic usually moved at the speed of the slowest driver.

At St. Louis I took U.S. 40 west, which generally followed the current route of I-70. I approached Kansas City in late afternoon and saw huge buildups of dark clouds across the Missouri River in Kansas. The road soon turned dark, as did everything within sight. Kansas looked like a mass of wheat fields with no people, no houses. Then came the thunderstorms. Searing, jagged streaks of lightning slammed into the ground around me, illuminating the fields in brief flashes of light. Thunder roared like explosions echoing in the night.

I decided I'd better find someplace to spend the night. That's when it dawned on my that this was Labor Day weekend. Tourist courts, the forerunner of motels, were scarce, and those I saw had NO VACANCY signs out. When I saw a cutoff to Manhattan, I headed into the small town. There I found an old hotel with a room available. The light was a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. I took it happily and slept through the remainder of the stormy night.

I drove on to Denver the next day and checked in at the base. I finished the intelligence course at the end of November and arrived back in Knoxville just in time to go on active duty with the 119th. A few months later I was on my way to Korea and Headquarters Fifth Air Force in Seoul, my home for the next year.

I'll be recalling those days this weekend as the 119th Command & Control Squadron (a linear descendant of the AC&W unit) holds a 60th Anniversary Celebration. I'm told there will be at least two other charter members of the organization there. Plus, I'm sure, lots of other oldtimers. It should be a fun event.