Categories
Mid-Mitten Cycling

Lansing Brewpub Bike Tour

bike beer glassHmm, whether to see The World’s End this weekend, or do an actual microbrew pub crawl? (Pub roll? Pub weave?)

Six brewpubs in sixty miles. I’d say this ride has an excellent beer gradient.

>Start: Harper’s, East Lansing
>Finish: HopCat, East Lansing
>Distance: 60 miles
>Elevation gain: 560 feet
>MapMyRide Route

Caution: this ride hasn’t been checked for dangerous spots. Lansing area riders: any suggestions for alternate routes between these points?

The stops are:

I hope to see some riders at the pubs! (Thanks to LSJ for providing the list.)

Categories
Hilly Rides Mid-Mitten Cycling

An Easy Cruise to a Gut-Busting Hill – Plus Beer!

Park at Rockford Dam
Park at Rockford Dam

Hills! I need more hills! I’ve decided to do the Big Mac Shoreline Tour 100-miler in Mackinaw City in September. It has 1600 feet of climbing, so I’d better get in shape! In pursuit of hill training I traveled back to the Grand Rapids area, and the White Pine Trail. This paved bike path passes through lovely forests above the Rogue River, using an old railroad bed. The path is well surfaced, wide, straight, and has very few hazardous crossings, all of which are marked with stop signs.

Of course, railroads never go up steep hills. To find those, this route takes side trips to hilly streets on either side of the Rogue. You’ll cross that scenic river twice and climb a couple of gut-busting hills. When you’re done tearing your legs off, you can cool down with a level three-mile cruise on the White Pine Trail to Rockford, which offers cafes, a brewpub, a bike shop, and a pretty riverfront park at the Rockford Dam. Put all of this together with the great weather we’ve been having this summer, and it makes for a perfect Michigan biking day.

A word of warning: this route involves many turns, and also many discontinuous streets with the same or similar names, so follow the directions carefully and print out a cue sheet.

White Pine Trail at Herrington Crossing
White Pine Trail at Herrington Crossing

To find the start, travel to Rogue River Park, on Belmont Ave. just north of Lynhurst St. in Belmont, which is just north of Grand Rapids. The park offers ample parking, bathrooms, and a drinking fountain. A paved ramp from the parking lot access road climbs up to the White Pine Trail. Turn right, northeast, onto the trail to begin your journey.

The 92-mile White Pine Trail, traveling from near Grand Rapids to Cadillac, is the main feature of White Pine Trail State Park. We can thank the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources, Friends of the White Pine Trail, and Fred Meijer for its existence. The trail uses the roadbed of the abandoned Michigan Northern/Penn Central Railroad, making for straight sight-lines and gentle grades. Much of the trail has yet to be paved, so enjoy the smooth asphalt your tires will be gliding over.

The relaxing, gently rising bike path, coupled with steep hills on either side, makes this a good outing for a family or other group with differing abilities. Those who just want an easy cruise can stay on the path. But if you want to test your legs on steeper roads, you’ll turn off the path after a little over one mile. Anarchists can turn left at the first stop sign, using the unsigned, private Wildwood Creek Dr. (What’s with all these private roads in West Michigan, anyway? Worse, these aren’t marked as private on Google Maps.)

Law-abiding cyclists should wait for the second stop sign and turn left. (Like most intersections on the White Pine Trail, this one doesn’t tell you which street you’re crossing. The map marks it as Herrington Ave., and you can easily recognize it as the only gravel road crossing the bike path. There are also no annoying “Private Drive/No Trespassing” signs here. You may want to walk or carry your bike across the twenty yards or so of sandy surface.)

Whichever way you exit the bike path, you’ll soon arrive at public Van Dam Dr., where you’ll turn right, climbing gently to Packer Dr. NE. Turn right on Packer, which soon passes high above the bike path on a bridge, then begins a gentle-to-steep descent to your first crossing of the Rogue River. The street is quiet and the bridge is wide, so take the opportunity to snap a photo here.

Beyond the river crossing, turn left on Las Vegas Dr., entering a residential area. Go two blocks, turn left on Blythefield, then immediately right on Riverwoods. After a gently rising third of a mile, turn left on Kuttshill. This is where the real climbing begins. Use caution on Kuttshill, as the pavement is rough and the shoulder narrow. Make a left onto Childsdale Ave.

Rogue River at Childsdale
Rogue River at Childsdale

The steep climbing continues on Childsdale, giving you 130 feet of ascent in a little over half a mile. From the summit, Childsdale rolls along for half a mile then descends steeply for another half-mile to the second Rogue River crossing. A river access point across the bridge offers an opportunity to enjoy the stream and maybe cool your feet on a hot day.

Confusingly, Childsdale both heads straight and turns right after crossing the river. But there’s no confusion for you: you’ll head for the steep wall facing you straight ahead. CAUTION: You may be tempted to blast through the yield sign to use momentum to carry you up the hill straight ahead, but watch for cars coming from your right on the main branch of Childsdale Ave.

Childsdale Ave.
Childsdale Ave.

This hill on Childsdale shows how misleading the elevation profiles on MapMyRide can be. My route map shows it as a smooth 2% grade. Mapping just this portion gives more detail, showing it as a 7% grade followed by a 2% grade. In reality, the road climbs at what I call a gut-busting grade for about a tenth of a mile. I could just barely keep spinning my easiest gear without standing up. I’m going to guess it’s 10 or 12 percent.

The road levels off to a more gentle climb as it bends left, crosses the White Pine Trail (a good opportunity to meet up with group members who chose the easier option), and becomes House St. The respite of gentler climbing continues a short distance, before the road kicks up nastily around a right-hand bend.

House St.
Where you’ll want to yell, “Shut Up Legs!”: House St.

As you grit your teeth to make it up this short, steep pitch, just remember: no pain, no beer (or large mochachino with double whipped topping, if that’s your preference) at the end. Another tenth of a mile returns you to gentler climbing up to the circle where House St. dead-ends. From the Rogue River crossing, you’ve climbed 165 feet in a little under half a mile.

Turn around at the circle for a fast descent back to the White Pine Trail. Gluttons for punishment can continue down Childsdale, reversing the route as far as Riverwoods, then U-turn and do these climbs again. But our route turns right, southwest, onto the White Pine Trail for a gentle, 1.5-mile descent back to Herrington.

Turn right at Herrington, being careful of the sandy surface. This time you’ll turn left on Van Dam, heading west toward Belmont Ave. Get ready for the steadiest, longest climb yet, as you turn right, north, onto Belmont. Use caution on this ascent, as the shoulders are narrow and the traffic is moderate (at least mid-morning on a Tuesday). You’ll climb 150 feet in three quarters of a mile, with grades ranging from 2 to 5 percent, averaging about 4 percent.

Cresting the hill, descend  and then climb a short distance to a right turn on House St. (yes, House St. again, separated from that other House St. by a tributary drainage of the Rogue River). Now you have a choice to make. Anarchists can continue on House, turning right where it dead-ends into House Court, then quickly left onto the private Roguewood Dr., marked with “No Trespassing” signs. This brings you in half a mile back to the bike path.

(UPDATE: On my second visit to the area, a resident warned us that there has been vandalism in the neighborhood, and residents are prone to call the police when they see cyclists riding through. So consider yourself warned.)

Belmont Ave.
Belmont Ave.

Law-abiding cyclists should use House St. to turn around and head back south on Belmont. Use extreme caution turning left onto Belmont, then look for the left onto Packer Dr. in about three quarters of a mile. Again, use extreme caution making the left from Belmont onto Packer.

Packer heads east, then south. You’ll want to pedal rapidly as the road descends steeply past a house on the left with a dog that likes to bark and race cyclists. At the bottom of the steep hill, you will have completed one seven-mile, figure-eight loop (not including the warm-up on the White Pine Trail). If you’ve been keeping track of the numbers I’ve been giving for the climbs, you’ll see that you’ve climbed about 450 feet. But MapMyRide’s tally for the loop is only about 350. Remember, all of these figures are just estimates. My advice: do two loops, call it 1000 feet, and go have a beer.

Rockford Brewing Co.
Rockford Brewing Co.

To repeat the figure-eight loop, with its hills on Childsdale and Belmont, follow Packer as it turns left and crosses above the White Pine Trail, then repeat the route directions above. Or, if you’ve had enough climbing, continue straight ahead onto Van Dam, reversing your route from the beginning of the day. A scant quarter-mile descent brings you to Herrington, the gravel connector to the White Pine Trail, on the left.

From this junction with the White Pine Trail, the parking lot at Rogue River Park is one mile to the right; Rockford, with its shops, cafes, and the Rockford Brewing Co. Pub right on the bike path, is three easy miles to the left, offering a good cool-down. Since it was only 11 a.m. when I arrived in Rockford, I opted for an excellent coffee and lemon-raspberry oat bar at the Twisted Vine Deli.

If this figure-eight route seems too complicated, or if you’d like to pack your hill-climbing into a shorter distance, here are a couple of suggestions:

Belmont Only: Park on Van Dam (or use the White Pine Trail as a warmup), then do semi-loops of Van Dam to Belmont to House, then Belmont back to Packer and Van Dam. That will give you about 150 feet of climbing in a 2.5-mile loop.

Rockford Dam
Rockford Dam

Childsdale Only: Park in the residential area at Riverwoods Dr. From the corner of Riverwoods and Blythefield, follow Riverwoods to Kuttshill to Childsdale to the dead-end on House, then return. That will give you about 400 feet of climbing in just 4.5 miles.


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Categories
Hilly Rides Mid-Mitten Cycling

The Four Faces of Egypt Valley

Knapp St.
The gentle hill on Knapp St. NE, west of the Grand River.

You have to figure, any place that’s called Grand Rapids has to have some hills, right? A search of routes on MapMyRide revealed that Roselle Park in Ada Township is a good place to start. From there, you can go up the hills east and west of the Grand River on Knapp St. and connect to even steeper hills on Egypt Valley Rd.

Since this route goes four directions from the summit of Egypt Valley Rd. at Knapp St., I’ve named it the Four Faces of Egypt Valley, in honor of my hometown’s Five Faces of Mt. Soledad. (I never did that route, having the legs for only the easiest face!)

The route starts from Roselle Park on Grand River Dr. NE in Grand Rapids (just east of Meijer Gardens). The park has porta-potties and two old concrete silos. One has been converted to a rock climbing wall, and the other has stairs leading to a viewpoint at the top. Just what you’ll need after completing several loops of this course!

From the park, we begin with an easy warmup of a couple of miles on Grand River Dr. heading north. You’ll notice a paved sidewalk on the east side of the road. That’s the Ada Township Non-Motorized Trail. When I rode here on a Saturday, the trail was clogged with joggers, while cyclists were rightly sticking to the road. Later, I saw some casual cyclists on the trail.*

Catamount Trail
Where you’re not wanted:
Catamount Trail at Grand River Dr.

After one mile on Grand River, you’ll see Catamount Trail on the left. This is a private road, so not recommended unless you’re a resident or guest of folks living in the Ridges community. I’m a bit of an anarchist, so I rode in anyway. The gate was open, so I figured why not? I was eager to try those hills! They were satisfyingly steep, but I found the gate closed on Knapp Court at the top and had to walk around through the landscaping (being careful not to step on any of the flowers). The official route continues another mile up Grand River Dr. to Knapp St NE.

Turning left on Knapp St., you’ll begin a climb of 140 feet in 1.3 miles. It’s gentle – around a 2% grade. The climb flattens out when you reach the Knapp Reformed Church on the right. Just beyond the church, turn left on Knapp Ct. for even more, and steeper, hills. This road curves back eastward and gives you a couple of good dips (some of which aren’t shown on the MapMyRide elevation profile) before you reach the upper entrance to the Ridges at Catamount Trail. Turn around in the circle here; this is also a good spot for a break.

Return to Knapp St. NE and head back down the hill eastward, the way you came. You’ll cross Grand River Dr. and then go across the Grand River itself. (There were construction delays when I rode here in early July 2013.) Crossing Pettis Ave., the route begins climbing again. This hill offers 240 feet of climbing in 1.75 miles. If you’re looking for consistent climbing, you might be disappointed by the dip where Knapp crosses Egypt Valley Rd. Turn around when you reach Woodrick Hill NE – beyond this point, Knapp St. rolls more gently.

Returning to Egypt Valley Rd., you have a number of options: add more out-and-backs on Knapp St. and Knapp Ct. (as I did when I rode this route), turn one way or the other on Egypt Valley, or grab some refreshment at Grams General Store.

To follow our route, turn right, north, on Egypt Valley Rd., descending steeply into bucolic Egypt Valley. Across the valley, you’ll start the steepest climb on the route, up to 4-Mile Road. MapMyRide says it’s only 3% but I’d swear it’s steeper, more like 6 or 7 percent in spots. You’ll climb 180 feet in a little under a mile. Turn around at 4-Mile Rd. and return the way you came, climbing steeply back up to Knapp St. (Now maybe you should take that break at Grams General Store!)

Egypt Valley Road near Grand Rapids
Egypt Valley Rd. offers some nice scenery
to go with the suffering.

Continue across Knapp on Egypt Valley, carrying your speed for the sharp roller ahead of you. After this dip, a long descent puts you in another beautiful but unnamed valley, part natural wetland, part estate homes. After one more short hill, it’s all easy pedalling on Egypt Valley to Pettis Avenue. If you’re feeling like you’ve had enough hills at this point, turn right on Pettis, which will curve around on level terrain back to the bottom of the hill on Knapp St.  But to complete the Four Faces of Egypt Valley, you’ll need to turn around here and head back up Egypt Valley Rd. to Knapp.

Whichever way you choose to return, turn left on Knapp St. and re-cross the Grand River. Turn left immediately on Grand River Dr. for an easy cool-down back to Roselle Park and a bit of bouldering (siloing?).

Climbing wall in Roselle Park
Climbing wall in Roselle Park

This route gives you 650 feet of climbing. If you add another out and back on Knapp St. and Knapp Ct. that should put you at nearly 1,000. Gluttons for suffering can add more laps as they please.

Grand Rapids cyclists, what are some of your favorite hilly routes. Leave your suggestion in the comments below!

*Tangential Comment #1: Riding around Lansing and environs, I’ve noticed that drivers will almost always go way over in the other lane to give you lots of room, and will slow down behind you if there’s a blind curve or hill. In contrast, more of the drivers on Grand River and Knapp St. in Grand Rapids either passed close or moved dangerously into the other lane, even when they couldn’t see on-coming traffic. I don’t think this is because Lansing drivers are better or more friendly. I think it’s because drivers in Grand Rapids see the non-motorized trail and think, “Why the hell isn’t the cyclist over on the bike path?” But given the dangers of joggers, blind corners, and blind intersections with driveways, I’d say any cyclist who’s riding faster than 10 mph should be in the road. Ada Township should consider completing its streets with car lanes, bike lanes, and sidewalks, accommodating all three types of road users. Or, at the least, put up some “share the road” signs.


Stay up-to-date with Mid-Mitten Cycling by filling out the form below. Want all my bike-related posts? Check only “Mid-Mitten Cycling.” Want posts on a particular type of ride? Check the type(s) of ride you’re interested in (but not “Mid-Mitten Cycling”). Want all my posts on a wide variety of topics? Check “All categories,” but none of the others.

 

Categories
Reviews On Writing

Why I Love – and Hate – Game of Thrones*

Game-of-Thrones-Episode-3.01-Valar-Dohaeris-Promotional-Photos-1_595_slogo

  • Because it’s about the real world, despite the dragons and the magic.
  • Because it’s a meditation on the uses and abuses of power.
  • Because it reminds that there is little hope, and terrible things always about to happen.
  • Because, like the real world, we’re never sure who the good guys are (no, not even the Starks, not even Daenerys) and who the bad guys are (well, maybe the Bastard of Bolton).
  • Because George Martin can somehow get me involved in a character’s life (even Jaime Lannister’s!) in just a couple of paragraphs. And just as in real life, the people I care about may be snatched away at any time.
  • Because I like strong female characters.
  • Because, like the real world, there is a looming threat (summer is coming!) that most people write off as a fairy-tale or hoax.
  • Because it doesn’t attempt to console me with a fantasy of good always prevailing over evil. If there is good in the world, it’s always provisional, individual, and mixed in with the evil.
  • Because, while I really just wanted an escape into fantasy, it won’t let me escape.

Storm of Swords cover*And by “Game of Thrones,” I really mean the Song of Ice and Fire book series.

Categories
On Writing

Wisdom from Ryan Brooks

I thought publishing a book would change my life. And it did, in some ways. It opened a few doors for me. But it’s as Ryan Brooks says: there is always only the work you have in front of you, today, in this moment. Or as Ryan puts it:

And I say this next part for the writers out there – don’t think that you’ll finish writing a book and your life will change. You will wake up the day after it’s finished just the same as any other day. You will find just as much joy in your milky, apple-laden porridge as you did the day before, and will the day after. Writing a book is a long game, but life is a longer one still.

Take the time to enjoy the journey, less than the destination.

Google fails me, but I think Hemingway said something like: The only way to know you’re a writer is to have written yesterday, to write today, and to know that you will write again tomorrow. Or as the musical theatre poet Jonathan Larson wrote: “There is no future/there is no past.”

Read more of Ryan’s post here. He’s pretty smart for a guy who just turned thirty.

 

Categories
News

Welcome

Saugatuck dunesWelcome to my website! I plan to use it mainly as a place to post both old works that never found a home and excerpts of new works that are looking for one. I’ll also have some book reviews and thoughts on nature and writing.

About me: I began as a writer of nonfiction with travel and environmental articles in various magazines and weekly newspapers. My book about the Anza-Borrego Desert, All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape was published by Island Press in 2000. I have taught creative writing and composition at the University of San Diego and National University. I worked for two years with the Desert Protective Council. Since moving to Michigan, I’ve turned my attention to fiction. I’ve got three stories at various stages of completion, and am writing a fan-fiction novel. Who knows, maybe it will be the next Fifty Shades of Grey?

Categories
On Writing Nature

Bleak Language

Anza-BorregoI was watching the Amgen Tour of California on TV the other day as the bike racers descended the Palms to Pines Highway into Palm Desert, passing through one of my favorite landscapes. After a year and a half here in inexorably green Michigan, it was refreshing to see the desert again, if only on HDTV.

Then announcer Phil Liggett called the desert “bleak.” Not just once, but at least three times. I bristled, as one might expect from a one-time desert writer. Just as I had bristled the day before, when he called the slopes of Mt. Palomar a desert. “No, Phil,” I yelled at the TV, “that’s chaparral. You should recognize it from the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia!”

But calling the desert bleak? He had gone too far. I took to Facebook, and posted my outrage: “Phil Liggett annoyed me during yesterday’s Tour of California stage into Palm Desert and Palm Springs with his constant bleating about the desert being ‘bleak.’ It’s not bleak, Phil. It’s stark, maybe. Arid. Clean. Pleasantly uncluttered with trees. A bracing reminder that the earth doesn’t exist exclusively for human needs. But not bleak.”

Quite a few of my friends enjoyed the comment, and the photo I posted with it, but one decided that Phil’s word-choice was apt. He posted the first definition from the Oxford dictionary: “Lacking vegetation and exposed to the elements.” He said I owed Phil an apology.

Let’s leave aside connotation vs denotation. And the fact that all the other definitions present negative states or outlooks: dreary, not hopeful, miserable, forbidding. And that the word has its origins in the Old English blāc, which means shining or white, and that its roots go back even further to the Germanic, in which white was the color of death (thank you, Thomas Pynchon).

Instead I want to look at that first, literal definition, because it shows how the idea that the earth is created for human use is so deeply embedded in our language that we’re not even aware of it.

Does the desert really “lack vegetation”? The answer is: No!

But Larry, how can you say that? There’s a lot less vegetation in the desert than in a forest, isn’t there?

True, but the word “lack” doesn’t just mean “less,” it implies something about what should be. (And now, having been prompted to use the dictionary, I feel I have to return to it again: Lack means “the state of being without or not having enough of something.”) To claim that the desert doesn’t have enough vegetation is absurd. Enough for what or whom? For humans, of course! But the desert has exactly the right amount of vegetation for a desert. All of the plants and animals that live there are uniquely adapted to extremes of temperature and infrequent rain.

To say that the desert needs more rain or more vegetation is to say that the desert shouldn’t exist. That the plants and animals that do make their homes there shouldn’t exist. And it’s only one step from that kind of thinking to the idea that vast fields of solar mirrors won’t hurt the desert, but will benefit it by providing all those poor animals some much-needed shade. (These statements come not just from ignorant internet commenters, but even from California’s governor. Take your shade and shove it where the sun don’t shine, Jerry.)

Heather MoorlandAnd it’s not just deserts that are described as lacking in vegetation, when in fact they have plenty. The example Oxford gives for that first definition is “a bleak and barren moor.” Google the term “bleak moor” and you’ll find a bunch of images like this one from Wikimedia, often in black and white, to underscore the, um, bleakness.

Obviously, this landscape is neither lacking in vegetation nor barren. It’s a functioning ecosystem, with lots of grasses and heather. Compared to many deserts, it has plenty of vegetation. (Although, if you said the Yorkshire moors “lack trees,” that could be technically true, because it seems they were tree-covered up until Mesolithic times. But there are moors that have existed for longer, and apparently weren’t created by human influence, in North Scotland and the Hebrides.)

So, if a land as lush with grass and heather as the moors can be described as bleak, maybe the word doesn’t mean “lacking vegetation” in a strict sense, just “lacking particular types of vegetation English-speakers like to see, such as trees.”

My desert nature writer’s license (for which the testing was onerous) requires me to quote Edward Abbey now:

‘This would be good country,’ a tourist says to me, ‘if only you had some water.’

He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.[!]

‘If we had water here,’ I reply, ‘this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey.’

The desert is a bleak wasteland only to those who believe every inch of the earth’s surface should be put to human use. And there are more and more who seem to believe this; some of them even consider themselves environmentalists (or at least “green”). It is truly dismaying that, after a hundred years of eloquent writing about desert landscapes from John Van Dyke and Mary Austin through Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey to Terry Tempest Williams and a slew of others, much of the public still has this view of deserts as lacking something, as needing human intervention. One guy even has plans to “restore” the desert to grazing land, an idea that Chris Clarke eloquently rips to shreds.

So that’s the context in which Phil Liggett’s use of the term “bleak” landed. It’s just a reminder how careful we need to be with words, how archaic are the notions about the world embedded within them, and how changing our anthropocentric worldview is a whole uphill battle against the English language.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Cover of Snow

coverofsnowwebCover of Snow: A Novel
Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, 2013
336 pp; $26.00
 

When I heard Jenny Milchman at her book talk at Schuler Books, she nearly put me off reading her first novel, Cover of Snow. She said the story opened with “the worst thing a husband can do to his wife.” My mind immediately jumped to something from either Fargo or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I really didn’t want to go there. Fortunately, neither woodchippers nor torture chambers make an appearance in this suspense novel, just lots and lots of snow, perfect for hiding bodies.

The story revolves around Nora Hamilton, a (reasonably) happily married woman who wakes up one morning to find her husband missing. It doesn’t take her long to discover that Brendan has hanged himself in his study. Nora is not only devastated but perplexed: why would Brendan do such a thing when he seemed content and untroubled?

As Nora begins to explore that question, she meets resistance from surprising quarters, including her mother-in-law and much of the police force for which Brendan worked. Spending too much time asking why will drive you crazy, the police chief warns her, suggesting she leave their small town in the Adirondacks to visit her family. She’s from down-state, after all. And that only pushes her to ask more questions. She soon learns that her adopted hometown not only has a dark past, but also an even darker present.

As Nora begins her journey into the mystery surrounding her husband’s death, she also begins an exploration of her own way of being, one that has kept her emotionally shut off from her husband and family. She seems uniquely uninquisitive about the interior lives of others, making her a good match for a husband with secrets. Now, if she’s going to uncover what happened to Brendan, she must overcome this central failing. Milchman’s skillful depiction of Nora split open by her own grief makes the story not only suspenseful but emotionally compelling.

Milchman is a fine writer, with deft prose and a sharp eye for detail. I’d be happy to follow her around any New England town, suspenseful situation or not. In fact, my one quibble with the novel comes from those moments when it too obviously cranks up the suspense. Nora seems to move awfully quickly from devastation to detective-on-the-case, with possible suspects lining up for the reader’s inspection at her husband’s funeral.

While most of the novel is told in Nora’s first-person point of view, several chapters in third person show chilling events from a variety of perspectives. James Lee Burke adopted a similar technique at some point in his series of Dave Robicheaux novels. I think there used to be some law of narrative unity against this approach, but if Burke can get away with it, maybe such rules no longer apply. Still, I’d prefer to have the villains looming in the background, making their appearance only when the first-person narrator comes across them. To me, that can be even more suspenseful, and a writer of Milchman’s talent should be able to pull it off.

Overall, Cover of Snow is an outstanding debut novel, highly recommended for fans of both suspense and sharp depictions of small-town life.

Tangential Postscript: While it’s true this is Milchman’s first published novel, it’s also the eighth one she’s written. She began her first novel thirteen years ago and has had an agent since she began shopping that first novel. She kept coming this close to getting published, but never quite making it. Heads of publishing houses would say they loved one of her novels, but it wasn’t quite right.

It shows how broken publishing is that a writer of Jenny Milchman’s caliber couldn’t get published for thirteen years. It’s hard to believe that her fifth, sixth, or seventh novels were that much worse, or unsaleable, than Cover of Snow. Clearly, the publishing industry needed a good kick in the pants. On the other hand, it’s now possible for anyone with some computer skills and an internet connection (or a few hundred bucks lying around) to publish their own work (I hope to be one of them soon). So we’re caught between two poles: a traditional publishing system that can’t connect a good writer like Milchman with readers, and a (largely electronic) self-publishing system that threatens to drown readers and good writers in a sea of dreck writing from all levels of ability.

It will be interesting to see how the book world shakes out over the next decade or so. How will discerning readers discover good writers? Will the discerning reader still exist? Will publishing houses still have a role in setting a standard for quality? (And I take with a large clump of sea salt the idea of publishers as gatekeepers — after all, Vintage published Fifty Shades of Bad Jane Austen-ish Dialogue Combined with Cliches from a Dictionary of American Slang and, Oh Yeah, Some Whipping and Handcuffing). Or will it be something like an online book club? Find your favorite writers on Twitter, and read what they read. And if you’re a writer, try to get them to retweet you. Who knows, but it promises to be one thrilling and bumpy ride.

Categories
Reviews

Book Review: Gold and Silver in the Mojave

Gold and SilverGold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier
Nicholas Clapp
Sunbelt Publications, 2012
200 pp; $24.95
 (Note: This review first appeared in the Winter/Spring issue El Paisano, the quarterly newsletter of the Desert Protective Council.)

The history of the western U.S. is a history of booms and busts. A lode is discovered or a policy is enacted (the Homestead Act, the wind energy tax credit). Where once was “pristine” (lightly populated, subtly changed) nature, civilization rushes in, with all its attendant virtues and vices. Then the ore plays out, or the policy changes, or the rain fails to follow the plow. The people move on, leaving the rusting tin cans, the broken dreams, the windmills creaking idly in the wind.

And they leave photographs. Stashed away in shoe boxes or on display in county historical societies, these old photos can seem quaintly picturesque. Trapped in their black-and-white world, the subjects seem more actors on a stage than real people who lived, worked, loved and died.

In his excellent Gold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier, Nicholas Clapp scrapes away that quaint layer to reveal the lives behind the photos. Through vivid story-telling, insightful commentary, and carefully selected photographs, the book gets at the actual experience of the people who were part of this later, lesser-known mining boom, spanning the years 1895 to 1920. Clapp calls it a rowdy Last Act for the Old West.

From Randsburg to Ballarat to Tonopah, the book presents photos both expected and unexpected: the gold-panners and the miners, the bankers and the saloon-keepers, the gamblers and the red-light districts; but also the families, the ladies’ clubs, the children, and the Mojave Desert’s first tourists. Some of the most striking are portraits of the people of Tonopah, Nevada, taken by E.W. Smith in his studio, featuring classical backdrops and a laughing gnome for a prop. Himself an award-winning filmmaker, Clapp expertly dissects the images he presents, whether commenting on habits of dress, the expressions of men in a saloon, or the changes in photographic technology that made the images possible.

Gold and Silver in the Mojave explores all the ways wealth was made and squandered here. There was the mining of ore, but also the mining of investors’ pocketbooks; “high-grading” (mine workers lining their clothing with stolen ore); the trick of selling out while a shallow claim still “showed;” and “bucking the tiger” – trying to beat the house in the often-rigged game of faro.

And of course there is the desert. This being the Mojave, the landscapes are dramatic. Even in their heyday, these boomtowns were dwarfed by the desert that surrounded them, the humans, tiny figures amidst nature on a grand scale. This contrast is even more striking in the book’s examples of “rephotography.” A shot of Rhyolite taken a hundred years ago shows the town of 5,000 that sprang up in less than five years; today, a photo taken from the same vantage shows the blackbrush holding sway once more.

Residents of currently booming North Dakota, take heed: this is your future.

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