Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Community of booksellers, writers, and readers

Last week while promoting Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road, I spent an afternoon at the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association's trade show in Colorado Springs. I didn't just sit in Portfolio Publications' booth and greet passers by, I grabbed a handful of brochures and walked the trade show floor, inviting booksellers to visit the booth and check out the actual books, as well as to take home the good swag Portfolio was giving out.

I'm not a sociable type. I do best with long stretches of solitary time--or at least time in the company of the only person I love to be alone with, my husband Richard. So walking a trade show floor and buttonholing strangers in order to sell them on my new book is something akin to the seventh level of Hell for me.

Except at Mountains and Plains. Booksellers are a community in the best sense of the word: they share common attitudes ("Eat. Sleep. Read." says the new promotional material from the national booksellers association), common interests (see the previous parenthetical remark), and common goals (well, yes, you could add "Sell books." to the litany above). And they're welcoming to anyone who shares their passion for words and stories.

I've been to Mountains and Plains' annual meeting in other years, usually to schmooze booksellers about whatever is my latest book. So as I wandered among the booths being set up, I not only saw familiar faces, I felt at home, among people who understand and love what I do. That's heady stuff for a loner practicing writing, a quintessentially solitary art that involves a heck of a lot of time spent in your head talking to yourself.

I had only been at the show a few minutes when Meg Sherman, regional book rep for W.W. Norton, spotted me and launched into the story of how she had been at The Book Train in Glenwood Springs the day after Jim Steinberg and I had our signing there for Colorado Scenic Byways. The store staff she said, had pulled out a copy of our two-volume set to show off the books. She recalled turning the pages and admiring the photographs, and then she said she looked at the cover and saw my name:

"Susan Tweit!" she recalled exclaiming. "Oh, I love her work!"

"It's such a brilliant idea," she said to me and to her companion, who I learned later was Susan Bhat, of Books West, Denver's indie book distributor, whose own booth prominently featured--you guessed it!--Colorado Scenic Byways. "The photos are gorgeous of course, but the atlas and road guide you can put in your car--it's just a brilliant idea."

What a great affirmation of our hard work and Jim's great ideas from someone who knows books, and sells a quality line--and doesn't make her living from praising or selling my books!

Later, zipping past the registration table, I spotted a tall blonde who looked familiar, except that I hadn't seen her in years. In fact, we only just reconnected via email a few weeks ago.

"Lisa?" I said, and when the woman turned around, her face lit up.


We hugged. It was indeed Lisa Dale Norton, author of Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Memoir, just out from St. Martins/Griffin. Lisa and I took a few minutes to catch up and appreciate the serendipity that had brought us together at Mountains and Plains, which could be described as a professional book love-fest.

After that, the show definitely felt like old home week. As I prowled for booksellers (easy to spot, as they wore green ID tags) and chatted them up about Colorado Scenic Byways, I felt less like a sales person and more like I was greeting old friends--or new ones in the making. Many remembered me from previous years, and even those I'd never met were generous in their responses to my pitch. And it was great to see Haven Stillwater, proprietor of my hometown indie bookseller, The Book Haven, in the context of this wider community.

I also got to see publishers I know, like fellow members of Women Writing the West, Nancy Curtis and Gaydell Collier of Wyoming's High Plains Press (check out their new book on women homesteaders, Staking Her Claim), and met other publishers, like Sam Wainer of Canyonlands Natural History Association, who was displaying The Illuminated Desert, a mouthwateringly gorgeous new desert alphabet book by Terry Tempest Williams and illustrator Chloe Hedden. If you love illustrated books and love the desert, get this one! It's a picture book for kids of all ages. And I ran into Andy Nettles of Arches Book Company and Back of Beyond Books in Moab, and he not only remembered my visit to his stores last spring, he thanked me for mentioning them on my blog. (You're very welcome, Andy. Thanks for selling my books.)

By the end of the afternoon, I was worn out. Schmoozing is hard work, no matter how you cut it. But I remembered what I love about this community of writers, booksellers, and publishers. At our best, we act like we really are all in this together. We join in support of stories and words, in the belief that when we write with thoughtfulness, love, and care, our words can indeed change the world.

What a great community to belong to! Thank you all--booksellers, distributors, publishers, fellow authors, and especially readers--for welcoming me and my words into your minds and hearts. I am honored to belong.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Finding beauty along the way

On the two-and-a-half hour trip home from a book signing Denver's Tattered Cover LoDo Bookstore, my fifth signing for Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road in the previous ten days, I was exhausted and eager to just get home--the sooner the better. But by the time we topped 10,000-foot elevation Kenosha Pass, the first of the three mountain passes we cross on our way home from Denver, I had relaxed. And I remembered something worth pausing for.

"Let's stop to see if the fringed gentians are still there," I said.

"Okay," said Richard.

I sat up straight as we sped down the pass into the wide expanse of South Park, a bowl-shaped basin surrounded by peaks, scanning the short-grass prairie intently. The low turf was turning straw-gold with autumn already, shot through with wide bands of sedges in bronze over copper wherever creeks cut through. But I was searching for another color, a shade of blue so deep it was almost purple, a hue so intense it is rare and not easily forgotten.

Past the tiny town of Jefferson, I spotted what I was looking for.

"There!" I pointed into the grassland east of the highway.

Richard braked and turned off on a gravel county road to park. I grabbed my camera as I got out of the car, shrugging into my pile vest as I dashed across the two-lane highway, scrambled down the steep road verge, and trotted through the rough grasses next to the three-strand barbed-wire fence.

When I drew about even with the patches of blue in the grassland, I looked for a gap under the bottom wire and tucked myself up small the way I've often watched pronghorn do and scooted under the fence.

I straightened up on the other side and picked my way over to the nearest clump of flowers. Then I squatted for a closer look. Each plant was no more than a foot tall, but bursting with blossoms shaped like narrow bottles, that is if a bottle could open into five silky and fringed petals, each the size of my thumbnail, at its neck.

What had me breathless though was their color, a shade so intense that it seemed to vibrate in the gray light misted with passing rain showers. Richard came up behind me and I leaned back against him, just breathing in the smell of the damp soil, the feel of rain hinting at snow, the grasses gone gold--and the miracle of these impossibly blue fringed gentians opening their blossoms just as all other life was shutting down in anticipation of another harsh high-country winter.

We stood there for a few minutes, and then turned and picked our way across the grassland, through the fence, and back up the road verge to the car. As we drove on home, the rare blue of those fringed gentians lingered in my mind's eye, reminding me of the blessings to be found when we take the time to stop along the way. Life really is about the journey, not just the destination!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Four book-signings, four towns, four days

"So much for the glory life of a writer!" said artist Sherrie York when I described my book event schedule for last week.

Here's the sum of it: Richard and I left home last Wednesday and drove to Grand Junction, where Jim Steinberg and I spent three hours charming strangers at the Barnes & Noble and selling our new book, Colorado Scenic Byways: Taking the Other Road. We started at five and finished up at eight-thirty (and Jim was on the five o'clock news that night in a two-minute, eleven-second segment that involved three hours of being filmed!). The next day Richard and I drove to Glenwood Springs, where Jim and I did our gig again at The Book Train in the heart of old downtown near the river and the railroad station. On Friday it was Steamboat Springs, Jim's hometown, at Ron and Sue Krall's wonderful Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, where we had the luxury of a glass of wine while we chatted with Jim's many fans. That event was part of Steamboat's First Friday Art Openings, so the crowds were lively and we got to listen to cellist John Sant' Ambrogio while we schmoozed and signed. Saturday it was the Denver Art Museum during Free Saturday, with a pow wow and fancy-dancing going on outside. That one was a long three hours of hailing passing strangers and being charming in hopes of selling our book.

So four days, four towns, four book signings, and 915 road-miles. By the time Richard and I got home Saturday night I was exhausted. My smile is still recovering along with my spirits (and both had better recover quickly, as tomorrow night we're back in Denver for a signing at Tattered Cover LoDo, as part of the wonderful Rocky Mountain Land Series). So much for the glory life of a writer, indeed.

But there were beautiful moments along the way. After the Grand Junction signing (and after Subaru of Grand Junction quickly found and fixed the reason "Young Forester," our trusty 2008 Subaru wagon was overheating), Richard and I drove west to Colorado National Monument in the night with a silver crescent of new moon setting over the dark bulk of the Uncompahgre Plateau. We wound our way up onto the red sandstone mesa and found a campsite at Saddlehorn Campground. After Richard set up our tent in the light of the car headlights (apologies to neighboring campers!) we crawled into our sleeping bags and a meteor streaked by overhead, right by the diaphanous silver ribbon of the Milky Way.

In the morning, we saw the sun rise in a Sunkist orange glow over Grand Mesa off to the east and watched blue-gray plain titmice skitter among the sagebrush and rabbitbrush, searching for seeds to eat.

Instead of taking I-70 to Glenwood Springs, we decided to go the scenic route - literally, following the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway (and is it ever scenic!) up Plateau Creek on Colorado 65 and winding over Grand Mesa, then down to the North Fork of the Gunnison River where we picked up the West Elk Scenic Byway, which we followed up the North Fork and Muddy Creek to McClure Pass, and down to the Crystal River through Redstone and Carbondale to the Roaring Fork River, and thence downstream to Glenwood Springs.

Highlights that wonderfully meandering, outrageously scenic drive that took us on two official scenic byways? The hour we spent at Lands' End, out the dead-end road to the very point of Grand Mesa, overlooking the Grand Valley 5,000 feet below, with a view of almost all of western Colorado, from the peaks of the San Juans 80 miles to the south, to the long roll of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west (with the clustered peaks of the La Sal Mountains sticking above Moab), to the high forested mesas beyond the Book Cliffs rising above the desert to the northwest. We sat in the sun on a sandstone ledge at the Lands' End Observatory, a 1930s building constructed of local mesa-edge basalt by Civilian Conservation Corps crews. The place was peaceful, with just a handful of people stopping by while we sat there, the sun was warm, and the view flat-out inspiring.

Another highlight? A stop at Surface Creek Winery and Gallery to visit co-proprietor Jeanne Durr, who with her husband Jim has transformed a neglected Odd-Fellows Hall into a charming and welcoming art gallery offering a delicious selection of the wines they produce.

Friday we decided (no surprise there!) to take the back road from Glenwood Springs to Steamboat - even though it is not a designated scenic byway. We headed up through Glenwood Canyon with its chestnut-brown-stained layers of dolomite and limestone on I-70. At Dotsero, we turned away from the rush of that highway onto the Colorado River Road and followed the Colorado upstream through massive layers of gray and ochre shales and rust-red sandstones. The river ran clear and gently with only hints of rapids here and there - not yet the mighty desert river, nor yet colorado, or "colored" by the orange and red sediments it picks up later in its journey.

At Burns, a "town" comprised of an old church and a post office by the railroad tracks, we turned uphill on the Pump Creek Road, a gravel county road that climbs up and up and up and up until it crosses the divide between the Colorado and the Yampa River south of Steamboat. The highlight of that day's run, which included some two-track that might have been challenging if it had been wet was the large black bear that we saw bounding over the sagebrush about a quarter of a mile away. We had stopped the car to admire the view back over the Colorado River Valley and the distant peaks of the Gore Range to the southeast and the West Elks to the southwest, when I spotted what I thought at first was a huge and shaggy black dog.

"Is that a dog?" I asked Richard.

He looked in the direction I was pointing, suggested it was probably and quickly raised his binoculars.

"It's a bear!" he said, watching in amazed delight. I watched too as the bear loped smoothly over the tops of two-foot-tall sagebrush, making tracks for the shelter of the stunted piƱon pine woodland downslope.

By the time we set out from Steamboat Springs to Denver on Saturday morning, we were too worn out for adventuring. But how could we not appreciate the procession of landscapes on our route, from the snow-streaked alpine mesas of the Flat Tops rising over the still-green Yampa Valley to the Middle Park's brooding volcanic buttes above the Colorado River and the spiky peaks of the Eagles Nest Wilderness beyond?

Driving home from Denver later after the final book-signing in this grueling four-day, 915-mile swing through Colorado, we found one more gift: a sward of deepest purple fringed gentians blooming in an autumn-amber wet meadow along a tributary of Tarryall Creek in South Park. The color of hundreds - or perhaps thousands - of massed gentian blossoms was so intense that the meadow almost seemed to pulse.

The best gift of all though: getting to share the exploring with Richard, who holds my hand as we drive, who knows the value of silence, and whose company brings me joy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Eating from the garden

That's part of the harvest from our kitchen garden from yesterday, the first of September. Beginning from the top left, there's a handful of sugar snap peas (peas in September?), some Fort Laramie strawberries, and then two 'green fingers' baby cucumbers. Then the tomatoes, again from left to right, Chianti rose with that yummy pink blush, yellow pear in the center, and persimmon, the two orange globes in front. (Except for the strawberries, all of my garden seeds come from Renee's Garden Seeds, to my mind the best purveyor of seeds for home gardeners who love flavorful varieties that aren't finicky to grow.)

It's a strange year in our garden at 7,000 feet elevation in the southern Rockies when sugar snap peas overlap with cucumbers. But this has truly been a year of unusual weather oscillations: last winter was colder and snowier than any winter in the past few decades, followed by a spring that was windier and drier than any in perhaps a century, and a summer that alternated cold and hot and was constant only in delivering very little rain.

So little rain, in fact, that we're approaching the end of the gardening season having received a total of just 3.82 inches of precipitation since January 1 (snow included). That's less than half of what is "normal" for this time of year, at least according to the last century of record-keeping. Nor is it enough precipitation to grow a bounteous kitchen garden, even with our raised beds, great soil with plenty of organic manure added each year, and varieties that perform well in this chronically arid and high-altitude climate. I've watered the garden almost every day since early June.

And thanks to that watering, in spite of the various vicissitudes of the weather, from wind and the occasional hailstones to days and days without rain, the garden has produced bountifully. It's a treat to go out the kitchen door in the evening, pick whatever is ripe, and come inside to invent dinner from the plants I raised with my own hands.

Tonight it was Tortellini with Garden Vegetables:

1 pkg cheese tortellini
5 medium-sized beets (golden or chiogga are best for their milder flavor)
3 medium-sized summer squash (I used two yellow crookneck and one romanesca)
1 cup sugar-snap peas
3 T olive oil (I used Stonehouse Olive Oil's tangerine-infused olive oil)
1 1/2 T balsamic vinegar
2 oz Manchego or other hard Spanish cheese, grated
fresh-ground black pepper

Quarter the beets (leaving ends and roots on) and steam them in a microwave-safe container for ten minutes. Cool and then cut off ends and roots, and slip off skins. Set aside. (The beets can be cooked in advance and refrigerated.) Cook the tortellini according to package directions. Steam the summer squash until nearly done, then add the peas (whole, with the ends snapped off) and finish steaming. Toss the warm tortellini with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then add the vegetables and toss. Cover with the grated Manchego and grate fresh black pepper to taste on top. Serve warm. (Serves four and makes yummy leftovers!)

Two smidgens of rain last week were enough to send the native plants in our restored bunch grass-wildflower front yard into blooming ecstasy, especially the scarlet gilia. Those tubular red blossoms are designed to reward the long, brush-tipped tongues of hummingbirds with sugary nectar if they hover and reach way down into the base of the flower. Our explosion of scarlet gilia came at just the right time to feed the southward migrating hummingbirds.

So as summer winds down here in the southern Rockies, we're still feasting on the garden's bounty, and even in this extraordinarily dry year, the hummingbirds are still getting their sugar rush to fuel them on their long flight south.