Surveying the West and Writing

The White Mountains.

I grew up wandering around the west. My parents enjoyed local history and often tossed us kids in the car and headed out to explore. Since childhood I’ve walked ghost towns, rediscovered lost cemeteries, meandered historic ruins, peered into nineteenth-century mines, panned for gold, and left footprints in places people seldom visit. 

Our early years imprint. Remote places and empty landscapes are comforting to me, crowds and social settings are not. I like solitude. Which makes being an introvert and a writer less of a challenge since I don’t pine for social interaction in the way some extroverts do. On the other hand I utilize personal experiences in my writing and share those attributes with characters. I don’t think this is uncommon…but I’ve discovered those early imprinted behaviors matter.

Abandoned mine entrance.

The main character in one of my novels is an archaeologist. The public is sadly misinformed about the field of archaeology, the discipline of anthropology, the process of reconstructing the past, and what professionals actively working in the field actually do on a day-to-day basis.

Site excavation with trowels, dental picks and paint brushes seldom figures into research design. In fact, excavation is usually a last-ditch part of the fieldwork process…not that archaeologists wouldn’t like to dig in and investigate. Most of the time it would prove irresponsible. The reality is that historic and prehistoric sites are a limited resource and once they are destroyed (which excavation does), they are irretrievably lost.

The Pony Express ran here…

Too much has already gone under the spade. Future generations will benefit from our patience in preserving sites and leaving them intact. New technologies will be developed that allow for greater acquisition of knowledge, and improved techniques for extracting data will develop. There’s enough inadvertent disturbance as a result of construction and human turbation, to keep most professionals busy salvaging data throughout their careers. That doesn’t account for lab analysis, which can go on for years, even decades.

My character does survey. For most people this is a bit of a let-down. The public likes to think of treasure associated with archaeological endeavors. Indiana Jones leaps to mind, his exciting adventures involving villains, gold and gems. In truth, I suspect a great many professionals succumbed to that image but by the time they realized it was false they’d been sucked into the real allure of the past. Survey does not involve excavation. Skilled excavators are few and far between – they are the rock stars of archaeology.

Wagon ruts amid the sagebrush.

I’ve transferred some of my experience in surveying the west to my character. For me it’s important to present a realistic view of this part of research without bogging down the narrative, disrupting the story, or disappointing the reader; however, the field is what it is and it’s not what you see on television. I refuse to cater to the ignorance of the public – learn something dammit.

The practice of surface survey presents its own series of challenges but mostly you spend a lot of time researching, studying the landscape, talking to locals, researching again, and surveying. Photography is critical. Sampling is commonplace. Mostly you walk. You cover a lot of ground. Miles and miles of perambulating over rough terrain, in lonely landscapes, isolated under the sun and scoured by wind. You love it or you abandon the field.

The passage of time is marked by the remnants left behind by those who died long ago. Artifacts litter the environment and if you learn the language of interpretation, they speak and tell stories. Connecting a moment from today with the past, opening a glimpse into the lives of previous generations, and bridging the distance between the living and the dead results from fieldwork. The process finds intersections others cannot see.

Mines played out and people left.

The old west offers its own treasures. Mountains edge down into the plains, arroyos and canyons spill out into valleys once littered with hand-hewn log cabins, mine tailings scar hillsides and wagon wheels rut the desert floor. Ghosts abound. The sky is broad. The world is old and you feel insignificant because you are.

There’s magic and tragedy in the ruins of boom towns, mining enterprises long defunct, the tumbled cairns of stones marking the graves of pioneers and Pony Express Stations alike. Like most writers, my work features topics that are important to me, but I’ve learned what makes me tick does not necessarily matter to other people. That’s a good thing, else we’d all be imitating one another. There are different flavors of readers and writers. Regardless of the shape of the cookie they can all taste the same – likewise they can look the same and taste completely different.

I think the recent influx of self-published books offer edgier content than is coming out of the traditional market. This makes the reading landscape a far more exciting place to visit. Which kind of cookie are you? Do you differ in taste or shape? Do you write about what matters to you on a personal level or keep to the safer edge of the path?

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