by Eric Blehm, January 23, 2010 11:58 AM
After September 11, 2001, my wife and I started a time capsule of sorts that we planned to open sometime years down the road, when our then theoretical kids would be at an age to be interested in their country's history.
I myself used to be enamored by the box my mom kept that contained tattered old ration books from her youth during World War II. She would explain why they rationed things like sugar and flour and described the blackouts in Los Angeles while showing me the safety pins her mother had used to hang blankets over the windows. There were packages from seeds she'd used to plant a victory garden, and copies of Time magazine and newspaper clippings that her mother had saved spanning Pearl Harbor to D-Day, victory in Europe, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.
That box of memories provided me a tangible connection to World War II — my parent's generation — and instilled in me a respect for our armed services. As a teen, I delved into books that documented many of the battles and all the wars in our recent history, including Korea and especially Vietnam.
So when the terrorists attacked our country and our generation was poised for war, my wife and I collected newspapers, printed out emails we'd exchanged with friends, saved magazines like Time and Newsweek, and put aside a few mementos from our wedding, which was on September 14, 2001. We continued to add articles after our military confirmed that American soldiers were on the ground in Afghanistan in late October, 2001. We were glued to the television as tiny bits and pieces of news circulated through — grainy night-vision footage of an Army Ranger raid on an airfield in Southern Afghanistan, pictures of Special Forces soldiers on horseback alongside the Mujahideen in the north. It was in early December that I clipped out one article about Hamid Karzai, a statesman who had been exiled by the Taliban and became a guerrilla leader. There was a photo of Karzai surrounded by a group of eleven Special Forces Green Berets, all of whom had been killed or wounded, Karzai included. The next thing I knew, Karzai was the interim leader of Afghanistan, soon to become the country's first democratically elected president. This was one of those stories I suspected would remain permanently archived deep in the bowels of the CIA.
I continued to follow the war — watching Fox and CNN and reading big publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, as well as more obscure websites I could find on Google — as the focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. Soon after, the time capsule was relegated to a dusty shelf in the garage.
Fast-forward a few years to 2006. The Last Season was going to print, and I was trying to figure out what my next book would be. I had told my agent that I really wanted to write something about the war — I felt that it was a way I could give something back. By chance, she learned that a friend of hers worked with the sister of the captain of a Special Forces team that had been with Karzai way back in 2001.
"Wait a minute," I said. "I remember that story." And I untaped the time capsule and skimmed the clippings from five years before.
With a little research, I learned that the story had never been told and that the captain was currently an instructor at West Point. After several phone calls to Army Public Affairs, I was able to talk to him and sit in on a couple of his classes. I told him that I was considering a story on the war in Afghanistan and that I would like to interview him about his mission there. He said that I should meet with the parents or family members of the men on his team who did not survive the mission and, if they gave their blessing to the project, that would dictate how much, if any, of the story he would share. As an officer, he would not ask his men to talk with me, but suggested I reach out to all of them. "You should hear it from as many perspectives as you can get," he said. I asked if he would provide me with the names of his men or the names of their families. At least their hometowns. He politely declined.
"You're a journalist," he said. "You found me. Figure it out."
This "test" was the starting point to the journey that became The Only Thing Worth Dying For. I ultimately located the parents, who invited me to their homes. I spent a weekend sleeping in the old bedroom of one family's son, surrounded by the sad but proud memorabilia that honored his death in the line of duty, including the Silver Star and purple heart that had been presented posthumously. We sat at the kitchen table for hours. There was laughter when they recounted the good times, followed by silence. There were tears throughout days that began with coffee, shifted to beer, and ended with good whiskey. They escorted me to their son's grave, I walked on the trails where he played as a child, met his siblings, and recorded hours of interviews that took me from the soldier's birth to the moments each member of the family was informed of his death.
At the end of the weekend, I was waiting on a platform for my departing train when the father shook my hand and said, "You're going to do a good job, I have no doubt. You tell it like it happened. Don't glamorize it, don't candy-coat it, tell it like his team tells you. The good and the bad. That's how you can honor our son. That's how you can honor their mission." I looked at the mother, whose eyes were getting glossy. "Eric," she said, "I was terrified to meet you. Now I'm terrified to see you go."
After that weekend, what I knew would be an amazing story became a calling.
I boarded the train with a piece of folded notepaper folded in my pocket. The father had provided me email addresses and phone numbers of some of the other team members, who in turn introduced me to others willing to talk about their mission. I peeled back the layers of the story, all the way to just hours after the Twin Towers fell and the first meetings held in the bunker where the war plan for Afghanistan took shape. Hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of emails later I was nearing completion when Hamid Karzai agreed to meet me. I sat face to face with him in 2008, a moving experience that became the prologue to The Only Thing Worth Dying For, which, for the record, is not an analysis of the war in Afghanistan. It's not pro-war, it's not anti-war, it's war, raw and gritty, from the perspective of men from a small team who shaped history not by design but because they were assigned the mission and because, as the men I spoke to understated it, "that's just how things worked out."
I let the father of the fallen soldier read a final draft, hoping that I'd done right by his instructions. He called me a few days later and said he couldn't stop reading, even when he wanted to, and that I'd come through for his family and the memory of his son. Th
by Eric Blehm, February 2, 2007 11:46 AM
Treading dangerous waters this morning as a writer, but hey... book reviewers like Janet Maslin of the New York Times
get paid to cast their opinions every day. Why not us lowly authors who pine for the bone they hope gets tossed their way in the form of a "rave" review in some such publication?
The Last Season has gotten many rave reviews, I think in great part because of Randy Morgenson's character ? be it considered flawed, funny, self-righteous, and/or downright heroic. Some people loved Randy's piss-and-vinegar, Edward Abbeyâ€“like prose, while others (very few, actually) got bogged down by it. Some forgave him the affair he had, while others cast their entire opinion on that "flaw." And a major draw for many who read and reviewed The Last Season was of course the book's main character, the High Sierra wilderness itself.
Those who could relate to this setting ? the harsh, rugged, lonely landscape where solo rangers patrol on foot ? were more captivated, say, than individuals who hadn't been exposed to such environs. Maybe this is why Outside magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Adventure gave the book the coveted lead review slots in their April 2006 issues. Might be why Audubon made the book its "editor's choice" that same month. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 reviews were all amazingly kind about The Last Season.
And then there was the New York Times, which I won't link here... it's easy enough to find online. To give you an idea of how it turned out, I'll quote my agent, Christy Fletcher, from the e-mail she sent me that morning back in May of 2006. "Eric, read the NY Times review, and alas, it's not rave..." She, like any good agent, went on to offer me words of condolence, the kind associated with a close relative falling gravely ill. Such is the stigma associated with the coveted New York Times, especially for a new writer.
Essentially, the review wasn't THAT bad. In fact, The Last Season received an entire column of words (most of which discounted the story's very premise ? that Randy Morgenson and the High Sierra deserved a book about them at all ? but hey, it was an entire column and it actually made my sales jump remarkably that week, proving the old adage: any press is good press). And for some reason, I wasn't all that hurt, though I did write Bill McKibben, an author who selflessly answered a cold call from me to read the book and provide a backcover quote, to tell him that I'd become an official writer because I got blasted by the New York Times.
He told me how many of his books had been blasted by the Times and other "big names." He told me to forget about it and "Whatever you do, don't write a letter!"
I didn't want to be one of those whiny writers who can't take criticism (constructive or otherwise). For instance, the Washington Post said nice things about the book, but constructively said it would have been more effective had it been a tad bit shorter. As for the NY Times review, I was fully prepared to not say a word ? until I was on a live radio show (kind of like this one I did day before yesterday) in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had done probably a dozen shows at this point and was pretty quick on my feet, able to answer most questions quickly and fairly succinctly. But this host threw me a curve ball with "So, what did you think about the New York Times review?"
There I was at home in my pajamas, mouthing the "F" word while shaking my head. I knew better. I would NOT say A SINGLE WORD about Janet Maslin in the negative. Instead, I would work really, really, really hard on my next book, and maybe then she'd give me a nice review.
So I calmly replied, "Well, I'd rather focus on ALL THE OTHER GREAT reviews than that one single NOT-SO-GOOD one," and the host let me off the hook with "fair enough."
Here is where my inexperience shined through... I was let off the hook but I kept on talking about it anyway.
"You know," I said, "I get the feeling that Janet Maslin's idea of an outdoor or wilderness experience occurs when she has lunch in downtown Manhattan. She walks up to the host and when he says, 'Would you like to eat inside or on the patio?', Janet says, 'Hmmm, I'm feeling adventurous today. How about the patio?'" In other words, I said, "I think she didn't quite 'get' the book. Couldn't relate."
I admitted what I'd said on this show to my HarperCollins editor, Henry Ferris, who was quiet for a minute, then replied with something like, "Most seasoned writers would have responded with, 'Everybody has a right to their own opinion,' but, yours... I like yours better. Congratulations, you're officially an author."
Anyway, that's the story of my first review in the New York Times. Now for some great local flavor from Powell's hometown, check out Jeff Baker's highly accurate review of The Last Season in the Oregonian last April.
Which brings up the topic of East Coast versus West Coast reviewers. The New York Times aside, I did not really notice any major differences between the two, at least when it came to my book, so I deduce that it mostly comes down to the individual reviewer, not the geography.
Not that there isn't something to that theory: Here's a slightly differing opinion from an individual whom I respect. He sent me the following e-mail after Monday's blog. He's a ranger, very well read, and I think he should write a book himself one day because I think he could give Edward Abbey a run for his money:
"Your comment about saying something eventually about east coast vs. west coast reviewers. I was just mulling that over the other day again. Seems like someone ought to do a New Yorker type essay on the subject. Influence of landscape on literature; how it's perceived between east & west. Classic is a Vogue (?) review of Ansel Adams about 5+ years ago. Same with rejection of Norman MacLean's River Runs Through It ? 'This book has trees in it...' Also it's rumored that Steinbeck wrote Winter of Our Discontent only to gain credibility with Eastern writing establishment ? and so the only way he got the Nobel. Too bad Stegner isn't around anymore to comment."
The same person, whom we'll call Ranger Dude, follow
by Eric Blehm, February 1, 2007 11:52 AM
Well, it's Wednesday, and I spent a half-hour this morning on the Louie Free Radio Show
that airs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and surrounding states. Louie is a cool guy who actually read The Last Season
, so we had a nice, unscripted two-sided conversation during which he admitted he is a sort of "aging hippy" and, as such, could relate to a few of the characters in the book. But one of the nicest things a reader (or a talk-show host) can tell a writer is that a book "delivers." Thanks, Louie, for broadcasting that across the airwaves.
On the subject of "delivery" (how's that for a seamless transition?), I know I built up the whole Beaver Incident and I really wanted to share with you the first (and noticeably so) assigned article that I wrote for TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine back in 1993. But apparently it's buried too deeply in the archives of my garage ? and, by the way, I narrowly escaped a horrible plight while searching for it. I was rummaging through my magazine collection, which is stored in dozens of stacked plastic bins, when my wife, Lorien (named after Lothlorien, the elf forest in The Lord of the Rings ? yes, her parents were hippies, too, but what a lovely name, no?) ducked her head through the door and said, "No way! You're cleaning the garage?"
I leapt straight in the air like a goosed cat and recovered, barely, with "No, no, just, whew, would you look at the time? I gotta go make this deadline." Sliding past her into the hall (no easy feat these days, considering the size of her pregnant belly), I escaped back to my office.
"That was a close one," I whispered to Jonesy, who promptly settled in my lap.
Anyway, I apologize for not having the actual beaver story, but I will tell you the context: I was doing a profile on pro snowboarder Neal Drake, and when I interviewed him, it was summertime and he was working on the Big Bear Lake boat dock. That morning he'd gone fishing, and a beaver had made after his bait, actually latched onto it. I swear that the first words out of his mouth when I turned on the recorder were "almost caught a beaver this morning."
So with all due respect to Farley Mowat, author of one of my favorite books, Never Cry Wolf, I seem to have cried "beaver."
While I was hunting for beaver shots on-line, I decided to "stalk" my book which is something every author does. There have been a few discussions going on, one of the more popular being the forum in the community section of the Backpacker magazine Web site. After watching it for almost a year, I decided to join in on the discussion a few weeks back. This particular The Last Season forum/discussion began back in April 2006 by somebody going by the handle "Strez." Currently, 40 people have responded and 1,100 unique visitors have viewed it. Everybody's favorite question is always: So, what exactly, does that mean for actual sales? To which I respond, "I have no freaking idea."
Other discussions are going on at High Sierra Topix. This one entitled Another Epic Tale from the Sierra is my current favorite.
The Whitney Portal Store Message Board has an interesting related topic about the controversial naming of a peak in the park after Randy Morgenson. A hiker named Richard Piotrowski started this Mount Morgenson discussion and provided a photo of the proposed peak, shown dead center in this photo.
The discussion talks about rogue rangers taking it upon themselves to name the peak. Nice photos and links here for those of you looking to procrastinate further while surfing the net, avoiding chores around the house, etc. (or perhaps you're reading this at work, on the clock, in which case, please carry on with my blessing).
Okay, I just got off the phone with Steve Fast and Beth Whisman, who host "The Drive" radio show in Bloomington, Illinois. Another fun conversation that Annie Rohrs, my amazing publicist at HarperCollins, set up for me. Thanks, Annie. And thanks, Steve and Beth.
But the most exciting thing has to be something I received today from Andy Brown at ATB Entertainment in Hollywood: the screenplay adaptation of The Last Season. ATB optioned my book last May, and producers Andy and Jen promised to have an actual screenplay for me to read by end of year or January at the latest. Talk about "delivery." Now it's in my hands and I'm jonzing to read it. A little scared as well... you know what Hollywood is capable of when it comes to book adaptation, right? If I find some reading time tonight, I'll give you feedback on it for the last day of my guest bloggership at Powell's.
And I know I still have one more heated topic to discuss as well. I'll deliver.
by Eric Blehm, January 31, 2007 12:26 PM
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
? John Muir
Many of you have seen this quote by John Muir, but some of you may not have seen it in its entirety, which goes something like this: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."
That one is for KC, who asked me in the comments section of Monday's Blog to talk about my most magical day in the Eastern Sierra.
Today was a good day to ponder that. I was in traffic (it was raining, a rarity in San Diego County that turns drivers into paranoid, bumbling idiots spurred on by local media who treat every low pressure system like the Storm of the Century), and as brake lights flickered on and off in front of me, my mind wandered through the flipbook of my times spent in the Sierra. Here and there, I paused at certain choice campsites, in meadows filled with wildflowers, on mountain passes whose summits greeted me with blustery gusts of wind and the hard-earned views of the next valley. And I tried to grade the moments, while searching for a "favorite."
Now-retired ranger Alden Nash (Randy Morgenson's supervisor for years) acted as my guide over many trips to the Sierra as we retraced Morgenson's favored off-the-beaten-path routes, including the route that was presumably his last during the summer of 1996. Here's Alden at dawn on one of our research trips (I seriously cannot remember a time when I actually beat him up to boil the first water for coffee), watching the sunrise east of the Sierra Crest.
This photo I took of him represents one of the many times he said to me, "Burn this moment into your memory, and pull it out next time you're stuck in traffic back in 'the city.'"
Now, it's hours after that traffic jam and I still cannot make up my mind which is the "most" magical time I spent in the Sierra, but there was one moment when the Sierra got even deeper down into my soul. I remember it like it was yesterday ? the cold, the hunger, and a decision that I didn't have to make. It just happened...
I told this story to Thomas Curwen when I was working on the third and final edit of The Last Season. Tom was editor of the L. A. Times Outdoors Section, the type of editor who really makes a writer's story sing.
Here it is as it appeared in the Outdoors Section, ONE OF MY TOP TEN wildest, weirdest, most-thought-provoking beautiful memories I have in the Eastern Sierra. A thank you goes out, btw, to all the editors who worked so hard on the Outdoors Section before some bean counter decided to cut it from the paper.
÷ ÷ ÷
MY LIFE OUTDOORS
Hiker gets more than he bargained for in golden duel
By Eric Blehm, Special to The Times
COTTONWOOD PASS to Yosemite via the John Muir Trail: I'd allotted myself 18 days for the trip. Two friends had backed out, so I was alone.
My father, not entirely happy at the prospect of my going solo, trudged with me as far as the pass and then returned to his car a few miles below at the trailhead. So I continued on with 72 pounds on my back and a fly rod ? hoping for the kind of alchemy that can turn a six-piece fiberglass pole purchased at a swap meet into at least a few golden trout.
It was mid-July, and the John Muir Freeway wasn't as crowded as I thought it would be. Maybe it was the afternoon thunderstorms that had cleared the trail. Or maybe it was the magic the guy at the swap meet told me came with the rod "at no extra charge."
For the next week, I nightly stalked the frigid, glacial-fed headwaters of the Kern River, sometimes by headlamp, hoping to supplement my wholly inadequate backpacker's diet with palm-sized brook, rainbow and golden hybrids hiding in the turquoise-blue pools beneath waterfalls and glassy eddies fed by whitewater rapids.
On the ninth day, I was caught in an extended cloud burst. I hunkered down on the side of the trail, under a canopy of altitude-stunted lodge pole pines. My shelter faced west, where craggy, granite peaks faded in and out through a surreal mist. When the sun emerged, it brought a rainbow arching into the distance. Another good omen.
I resumed my hike and was at least 25 miles from the nearest road, above 10,000 feet, when I saw in the distance a subtle game trail that a park ranger had told me about.
It was barely a route, scratched cross-country over talus and granite slabs toward a cirque, where a series of shelves formed spillways among a string of lakes. The uppermost lake, snuggled against a granite wall, looked promising. I left the main trail, and two miles later was peering into the lake's clear depths. No signs of life. The opposite shore was still snowbound, and submerged icebergs were casting light blue streaks toward the deep, dark bottom.
My stomach grumbled.
One of my food bags had been marauded a few nights before by what I guessed was a marmot. I'd have to ration my meals for the remaining nine days. For breakfast I'd had one Jolly Rancher candy and a single packet of oatmeal. Lunch had been a quart of water. Dinner was pending.
I'd hiked 14 miles and was on autopilot, semi-staggering but determined. Making camp as the uppermost granite spires around me turned pink, I rigged my reel and went on the hunt. A ripple on the surface betrayed a slight breeze, so I chose the snowbound shore to capitalize on the wind at my back.
I'd brought along two tiny reels: a Ryobi for flies and a Shimano for spinners. The spinners were my bread and butter, but as I pulled their flashing blades through the water, there was no response. As the evening colors deepened with impending darkness, I bit off a swivel, discarded my spinners and desperately affixed my fly setup ? a last ditch effort. Mosquitoes, nymphs, tiny shrimp, nothing provoked a strike. Not even a boil.
Digging into my tiny assortment of flies, I tied an old, ugly gray moth that had collected dust in my tackle box for years. Zing, zang, splash. It landed beyond a granite shelf, in the zone. But who was I kidding? Forty-five minutes hadn't presented anything. No alchemy tonight.
Then, whap! Something, a fluke materialized, and I was on. For the first time this trip, my $12 pole creaked as it doubled over, and the reel sang until I controlled the line and introduced myself to the fish. The two of us argued for a bit, I being careful on the ice-covered shore as my quarry took me for a walk, following a determined path to freedom.
Thank God, was all
by Eric Blehm, January 30, 2007 12:47 PM
Okay, so the surf looks pretty dismal again this morning. It's small and the wind is already on it and it's a good morning to swill coffee (French roast, double cream, single sugar) and get some shi... stuff done. Monday and life is good ? dare I admit in part because one of my favorite shows is on tonight. I love the outdoors, recreate "out there" as much as I can, but one of my vices is educational television. You know, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, Cooking Channel, and... well, oh hell, tonight is all about Prison Break
. Are there any Jack Bauer
fans out there? You know, the lean, mean, counterterrorism fighting machine played by Kiefer Sutherland, whose lines are usually shouted with extreme urgency into his ever-present cell phone and go something like this: "THIS IS JACK BAUER! I NEED A BOMB SQUAD, SATELLITE COVERAGE ON MY COORDINATES, AND A HELICOPTER, STAT! AND GET ME THE PRESIDENT..."
I just had an epiphany. How great would it be if Jack was my research assistant?
Ponder that, and I'll come back to it in a few minutes.
Checking out the comments from yesterday's blog: In addition to the kind words (thank you very much) I see that there is someone who is curious to hear more about The Beaver Incident. I'm going to try to find a copy of the story and scan it for tomorrow's blog. Also, I got personal emails from two individuals who were all fired up for me to discuss the whole "East Coast versus West Coast book reviewers" mention. Wow. Struck a cord with that one. More on that tomorrow as well. Need to think that (and the future of my career) through. Other things I'll cover include my most magical day, to date, in the Eastern Sierra. That's a tough one, but likely it was spent with Craig, Kathy, or Alden present ? Kathy, of course, carrying the heaviest pack with the most remote destinations in mind. We all need motivators like Kathy in our lives.
Meanwhile, how about this for cool news:
(A little background firstâ€¦) The Last Season, as you know, tells the true story of backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson's amazing life and mysterious disappearance in the High Sierra Mountains of California. It also provides an in-depth look at exactly how a search-and-rescue operation is conducted in the wilderness, including the emotional strain it puts on the searchers. Part of my goal with the book was to tell the story of National Park Service rangers in general, albeit through the lens of Randy Morgenson's career of more than 30 years as a seasonal.
I found out a lot of sobering information about seasonal Park Service employees ? especially rangers: how they pay for their own law-enforcement training and EMT training and how they don't get medical or health benefits. No pension, either, even after decades of seasonal service. It's a longstanding joke among rangers that they do it for the "great" pay; they consider themselves "paid in sunsets." Seasonals also don't get any sort of gesture of thanks for multiple years of service. Full-time, or permanent, rangers, at least get 10-, 20-, and 30-year pins and a plaque when they retire. They all deserve much, much more.
Within a few months of The Last Season hitting stores, I started to receive emails from individuals who wanted to do something to help the backcountry rangers at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, who had just begun to take it upon themselves to PAY FOR THEIR OWN "length of service" awards.
I put these readers in touch with Ranger George Durkee (some sent me checks to forward along), who is a major character in the book. At the time, George was looking into the feasibility of having ice axes made for rangers, each axe representing 10 years of service in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The company Grivel offered the rangers a good deal to have beautiful old-school-style ice axes made with the rangers' names engraved on the shafts. Well, the cool news is that the generous readers of The Last Season donated enough money to the cause to fund the entire first run of these well-deserved awards. George just sent me a photo of the rangers who received the ice axes:
Getting this photo made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Combined in this photo are literally hundreds of years of ranger experience. It's a start, at least, toward recognizing these unsung heroes who look after our wildlands and the people who pass through. Now, if somebody could start an official program in the NPS, wouldn't that be cool?
Back to Jack Bauer and how great it would be if he was my research assistant, especially since I don't even have a research assistant (unless our cat Jonesy counts).
A big part of writing nonfiction is, in a sense, detective work ? a hunt for the perfect bit of information, anecdote, or quote from a reputable source.
I spent eight years researching Randy Morgenson and during that time, I talked to hundreds ? okay, at least dozens ? of people, most of whom (or is it "who"; that one always gets me) were either close to Randy, had taken part in the search-and-rescue operation for him, or had been rescued by him. He was the wise man of the woods with a big, bushy beard, not unlike the one that Jack Bauer sported after spending two years in a Chinese labor camp, only to be released just in time to fly back to L.A. and save the world...
This may seem a bit inappropriate, considering that The Last Season is a true story about a tragic disappearance, but rangers as a group are pretty macabre when it comes to dealing with such topics, so I sense they will forgive me.
And all of you writers, reporters, and aspiring writers will likely appreciate the following fantasy: Here I am, interviewing for the first time a "source" about, let's say, my next book, and we're going through that "getting to know you a little bit process," which, truth be told, I enjoy very much. I'm a social animal. I like people, and even if I don't like them, I like them for having character flaws that are sometimes as interesting as their more likeable traits. I also like opinions, honesty, and rants off-topic. I always try to respect a person's privacy, as long as doing so doesn't jeopardize the overall accuracy of the story. I believe in karma.
So midway through this "fantasy" interview, I realize that the person isn't being honest ? is maybe keeping something from me that's crucial to telling
by Eric Blehm, January 29, 2007 12:13 PM
"Almost caught a beaver this morning..."
That was the first sentence I wrote in my first-ever assignment as a writer. It was a profile about a snowboarder, and the editor ? a cynical literary rogue named Lee Crane ? looked at me when I handed the sheet of paper to him and said, "You passed." Lee, I learned, used what he called "the first sentence test" on all the pieces he assigned and read: books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, you name it. He told me, "If you don't hook me right then and there, I'm outta here."
I won't go into the "beaver" story, unless some of you request more. Really, the only reason I started my blog like this is because I wanted to catch your attention. Are visions of furry woodland creatures dancing in your head? Mission accomplished. Thanks for sticking around.
Well, first things first. My name is Eric Blehm, and I'm truly excited to be here in the cyberhalls of Powell's to kick off the paperback release of my book The Last Season. See, I'm kind of a rookie (i.e., full-fledged nobody) in the big-league writing game, and Powell's gave me a shot back in April of 2006 to speak on their stage at the Wordstock Book Festival. That event really kicked off a great year.
I'm from the West Coast, so I feel I'm in good company here (later this week, I'll let you know my thoughts on East Coast versus West Coast book reviewers) in Portland for sort of the second time. Back in April, Wordstock was a great excuse to take a road trip from San Diego to the Canadian border with my wife and two-year-old son, who, by the way, got tuckered out tearing around the maze-like aisles of Powell's. He also got to taste his first gelato at the little shop across the street. I don't remember the café's name, but here is a photo of him wolfing down stracciatella. Note the iron grip on my thumb, which is code for, "Don't even try and pull this bowl away from me, Daddy."
The Powell's stage (and enormous screen) at Wordstock would have been ego boost enough without the crowd of people who actually showed up to hear me read from The Last Season. Seeing my name in font this huge on my very first "book tour" was kind of a shocker. In the world of books, Powell's does it right and makes us writers feel like celebrities, even if we're newbies with big dreams for the future.
Anyway, this morning (I'm writing this on Sunday) I was at a three-year-old's birthday party, and my neighbor introduced me to a fellow parent who had heard I was the author of "that book about that ice man they found up in that glacier, right?"
"Ummm, no," I responded. "My book takes place in the same park, Kings Canyon, but I wrote about a backcountry ranger who went missing."
"And they found him frozen in the snow, right?"
I get this a lot, especially after the Ice Man ? aka a World War II pilot who had crashed in the High Sierra ? was found last spring by climbers in the same area where Randy Morgenson, the protagonist in my book, had patrolled. All the major networks covered the Ice Man, not to the extent of the story about the missing climbers on Mount Hood a few weeks back, but it was still major news. And people get confused.
"Gotcha," said the parent. "So what's your book about?"
I began with the one-minute version of the true story about Randy Morgenson, an elite backcountry ranger who was considered the most knowledgeable mountain man in the High Sierra, and how one day in the summer of 1996, he put his backpack on, walked into the wilderness on patrol, and vanished.
I went on to explain how Randy had had an enchanted childhood in Yosemite National Park where his father worked and, how, as a youth, he had befriended Ansel Adams and carried his tripod around for him. The Sherpa of Nepal taught Randy how to climb high mountains while he was in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. I explained how Randy had met Wallace Stegner, just months after the author had won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Angle of Repose ? and about this time, I noticed the parent was watching his kid and kind of listening with one ear, though he was doing a great job of acting like he was completely engaged in my description, nodding and throwing in an "amazing" or "wow" here and there.
So I wrapped it up quickly with something like, "So when Randy disappeared, it kicked off the largest search-and-rescue operation in National Park Service history, and it was really tough on the rangers involved because they were searching for one of their own. Randy was a devout environmentalist and practiced no-trace camping. He even tried not to leave footprints when he walked, so you can imagine how tough it was for the searchers."
He was still nodding.
"That's about it," I said.
At this, he said, "Wow, what a story. THAT would make a great book."
Of course, I had just described to him a book ? my book ? that actually exists, which I try not to push on people. Unless they ask. Like he had. And I can't say I blame him. Besides the fact that I tend to be a bit, er, long-winded, as my wife so kindly puts it, there's this little thing called "parenthood." At this party alone, I too was guilty of listening to at least one or two people with one ear while concentrating on my son, who was repeatedly tempting fate on playground equipment designed to scare the hell out of first-time parents.
On the drive home, luck was with us and my son fell asleep. We transferred him to bed, and I had a couple quiet hours to write this blog...
Except that he woke up after 30 minutes, so we took him down the street to the San Elijo Lagoon to stroll (my wife ? due with our second child in March ? more waddled) on the boardwalks and trails, watch the fish jump, and throw rocks ("into the water, not AT the ducks," I repeatedly told my son). Then I checked the surf, got an afternoon coffee (a triple mini nonfat Baja mocha at Pipes Café, if you're interested), and transcribed some digitally recorded files (I finally retired my old micro-cassette recorder) from an interview I conducted last week at West Point with a retired Army Green Beret. It was freaking cold in New York, and we spent one afternoon at a Mexican restaurant warming up with chips, salsa, and flammable beverages. One word: tequila. Patron shots chased with margaritas. It was the type of interview I imagine Hemingway might have appreciated, both the cocktails and conversation.
Now, everyone (including the cats) are asleep, the house is quiet, and I'm finally finishing this blog. It's been a relaxed, sleepy, overcast day ? and, except for the meager surf, just about perfect.
I hope you come back tomorrow, as I've got LOTS of stuff to talk about all week. Hopefully, I'll be able to transport you into the High Sierra where I did most of my research. Please make