Posted in PostaDay

Blogging Tips: Growing a Readership

Pearls Before Swine blog
©Stephen Pastis, image from gocomics.com

Blogging isn’t intended to be a numbers-game, but most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t note our own numbers. (See “Confessions of a Statistics Slut” for proof of my own profligacy in this regard…)  A blogging-friend asked the other day about growing a readership on WordPress, so here’s what I have on the topic… (As I learned in my teaching career, if one person asks a question, a few other people are usually quietly wondering the same…)

The followers of this blog haven’t accumulated as a steady gain; the “growth spurts” in readership are measurably correlated to my own online activities–which means you can deliberately grow a readership, if numbers are what you’re after. Or even if numbers are part of what you’re after. The blog-numbers are undeniably fun–but at the end of the day, it’s the blog-relationships that are rewarding.

1. Be a blog-READER

©Dave Whamond, Image from cartoonstock.com

If you don’t do anything else on this list, do THIS.  Because it’s not just about the numbers–it’s about your own experience of the blogging world!  There are so many terrific and interesting people to meet here–you can travel around the world over your morning cup of coffee.

On the main page of the WordPress site (where you “land” when you first log in) there’s a “Topics” tab which allows you to browse blog posts by subject. I’ve met some of my favorite people (and favorite story-tellers, and favorite writers) by browsing tags like Family, Writing, Travel, and Humor. When you follow another person’s blog, “like” a post, or leave a comment, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll follow your trail back to your own blog and check it out.

It’s also the most effective, organic, and generous way to increase your own readership. At its best, Readership is a two-way street.

2. Participate in the Blogging Community

This one really goes hand-in-hand with the first. The blogging world is full of interactions–surveys, quizzes, contests, give-aways, awards, book clubs, projects, posting challenges, and various memes (pass-along activities like question-tag, or even blogging awards). Get to know your blogging community by jumping in! You can re-blog (with that nifty little button at the top of WordPress) when someone else’s post really grabs you, or link to favorite posts, ask someone to “guest blog” in your space, or even start a blogging-award yourself… As with any type of social networking, you can remain nearly invisible in the blogosphere if you don’t participate.

3. Make Sure Your Blog Design is Reader-Friendly

If the navigation of your blog is confusing or the font difficult to see, you may lose readers before they even get to your content. Are there formats or design elements that bother YOU when you read? Think about those, and make sure your own blog isn’t making those mistakes that can be off-putting for potential readers. Here’s my own list of irksome design elements that impede my reading…

  • ©Denise Dorrance, image from dorranceweeklycartoon.wordpress.com

    A landing-page that’s not the blog. Whether the landing-page is a “sticky” post or an “about the author” page or other static content, I have to go looking for the blog I want to read. And some WordPress themes make that search more difficult than others…

  • WordPress themes that are super-busy or confusing. This is a tricky one, because it’s really a matter of personal choice, isn’t it? The theme that makes me feel as though my eyes are crossing is a theme someone else loves. So I’ll just say this: if you’re looking seriously at attracting readers, at least consider a theme that’s crisp and readable, and finds that balance between “visually interesting” and “crazy busy.”
  • White text on a dark background–I don’t know why it’s so much harder to read, but I can’t get through a lengthy post with this kind of color scheme.
  • Confusing navigation, or page-names that don’t tell me what’s ON the pages–make sure your basic navigation links describe the things they link to.
  • No way to view older posts, aside from clicking endlessly on the “previous post” link. If I enjoy the post I read, I want to be able to browse through MORE of your writing! WordPress offers widgets that put some of your posts in the sidebar (either your most recent or your most popular), or you can even offer an “archive” page with the whole line-up. (That’s the “Kanacles–er, Chronicles” tab at the top of my own blog… And because that designation might be too “cutesy” to be meaningful–see bullet-point above–I added “The Archives” as a descriptor.)
  • No “Like” Button. It may sound silly, but I really like liking a great post, and it bums me out when the option  is missing. I also like to let someone know I’ve stopped by to read, even when I don’t have comments to add to the conversation. From the blogger’s point of view, it’s a useful measure of who’s visiting and reading.  Not everyone has time to comment (or has something to add) but when readers “like” your post, those readers’ blogs are a good place to start your own reading for the day–part of the community-building!
  • The “Onswipe” Mobile Theme is enabled. Speaking as an iPad reader-of-blogs, the mobile presentation of blogs is terrible–it removes all the theme and formatting, and makes navigation more cumbersome.  Happily, it can be disabled!  If you aren’t aware of the mobile theme setting, it only takes a minute to change it (easy instructions here)–and all-but-one of the iPad blog-readers I’ve ever encountered will thank you!

4. Make your blog easy to follow

WordPress users have the easy +Follow button at the top of the screen when they’re logged in, but you want to make it easy for everyone else to follow too.  Add the “Follow Blog” widget–which allows readers to enter their email and get your new posts in their email Inboxes–and put it near the top of the page where it’s easy to find. The “RSS Links” widget lets people add your blog to their RSS feeds. (If you need widget instructions, see “Blogging Tech Tips: Getting Started.”)

When someone follows your blog, you’ve just transformed a one-time visitor into a regular returning reader.

5. Make your blog easy to share

networking not gossipingThe “sharing” buttons you can add at the bottom of your posts let your readers pass along the smile or the thoughts your post inspired…  by posting your link with a simple button-click on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Digg, Google+, Reddit, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, Pinterest… or even plain old email.

Whether or not you use these social networking tools, some of your readers do.  When someone enjoys your post enough to share it, you don’t want to stand in their way–make the tools available, and people will use them.

6. Share your blog yourself with social networking

early Facebook cartoon
My (OLD) husband says he remembers these days… ©Marty Bucella, image from cartoonstock.com

This isn’t an area I’ve developed well myself, although I keep meaning to do some “exploring” with some of the networking/interest tools like Pinterest and StumbleUpon, to see if they might integrate usefully into the things I want to be doing online…

If you do use any of the social networking tools listed above, you can set your blog to automatically post a link whenever you post a new installment.  My own limited use includes auto-posting to Twitter and Facebook, and both of those do bring readers here to the blog.  If you’re already using social networking, don’t waste the opportunity to share your posts with potential new readers.

7. Post regularly

I don’t mean that you should keep a rigid schedule, but maintaining and growing a readership involves regularly adding fresh content.  When I went silent for a few weeks after getting my new Mac, my daily numbers when I returned were significantly lower.  I didn’t expect to be getting traffic while I wasn’t posting, but I suppose I’d imagined my numbers would pick up at the same level where I’d left off when I did start posting again.  So there we have it–we risk losing our readers if we check out, even for a while.

8. Use pictures!

playing Sorry
Elena Grace playing “Sorry” with my dad. BECAUSE of my blogging, we’ve gotten better about snapping candid photos of daily life…

I’m betting your cell phone has a camera on it, so there’s no reason not to share some visuals along with your story-telling. (At least half of the pictures on this blog have been snapped with our phones.) In fact, my blogging has actually led us both to be readier to grab the phone or camera and snap away during the day–and we’re tickled by the lovely collection of candid family photos we’re accumulating as a result.

Many of my favorite blogs are those where people share their own photos along with their stories. There’s also a wealth of fun visual resources online for us to use (giving credit, of course). Pictures can enhance your story-telling, as well as catching readers’ eyes and interest when they land on your blog.

9. Add Alt-tags to pictures for search engines

This is one I just figured out.  I’ve noticed for months that the Stats-page list of search-terms which have brought people to this site includes (on a near-daily basis) searches for “old suitcase” and related terms.  In one of my very first posts (“Packing Pro“), I included a photo of a bestickered old suitcase, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why THAT single photo was bringing in so much search traffic.  A couple weeks ago, trying to puzzle it out, I looked at the HTML coding for that blog post, and realized I’d added “old suitcase” as an alt tag.  Soon after that post, realizing that the alt tag didn’t “show up” anywhere on my post, I stopped bothering to add any text in that field when I added photos. Now I get it–the alt tag is visible to search engines!  I started adding alt tags to the pictures, and sure enough, I’m suddenly seeing search-engine traffic brought in by those tags.

Twitter Comics
image from twittonary.com/blog/

If you want to take it a step further, you can use a keyword tool like the Google Adwords keyword tool, where you can type in a topic and get a list of the most-frequently searched keywords or phrases related to that topic.  Including those keyword phrases in your text (and your alt tags) can increase your blog’s “visibility” to searches.  Just as an experiment, I used the Adwords tool to collect some top keywords for my “Girls with Guns” post, and sure enough, those are showing up daily among the list of search-terms that brought people to the blog.

What I don’t know is whether these searchers become regular readers, or whether they’re one-time hits.  I’d love a statistics tool that tracks that bit of information! (Okay, I just love statistics tools!)  So this may or may not be a useful tactic in building a strong or lasting readership–but it’s interesting to play with, at the very least.

10. Don’t get hung up worrying about what people want to read. Write what YOU want!

waiting for a blog topic
©Dave Walker, image from weblogcartoons.com

I’ve seen plenty of blogging-advice that boils down to “writing for an audience”–but that idea rubs me the wrong way. Whatever it is that YOU want to write about, there are people who will enjoy reading it.  And THOSE are the readers you deserve!

Some people will say that “nobody wants to read about your kids or your pets”… To which I say baloney!  (Well, that’s not actually what I say, but I’ll save my swear-words for when they’re really needed.) It’s true that not everybody will read our blogs when we talk about kids and pets, but blog-readers are a wonderfully diverse demographic, and there are readers interested in every subject imaginable.

Those same advice-givers might say that you should establish a particular type of content and stick to it so readers “know what to expect”… Baloney again! Real life is far more interesting than a single-topic rule could be, and I’d hate to think people were passing up the story-telling opportunities that Life hands them.

***

Look! I have Readers!

All of the above could probably be distilled into a single principle. The more you invest in the blogging community (beginning with your contributions in the posts themselves), the more readers will invest their time in you.  A little self-reflection to go along with this…  I’m considering how much I’ve enjoyed my time spent browsing and commenting and interacting and discovering new blogs–and how little time I’ve allowed myself for doing those things lately. Or even for getting my own posts up. Time to recharge the blogging-batteries!

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Posted in PostaDay

One of the most amazing things about blogging is the network of FRIENDS I’ve found here–people I know and love even though I haven’t “technically” met them. One of those dear friends is Kathryn McCullough, whose post on a “Very Bloggy Wedding” (where blogging-friends PLANNED the wedding, and then attended, meeting the blogging-bride in person for the first time) is a perfect example of how blogging truly changes our lives and friendships… Click the link here to see her post–it’s a MUST-read. :)

Kathryn M. McCullough

God knows where she got the idea.

It could have been a case of matrimonial dementia.  Maybe a madness triggered by long hours of high-stakes toddler-tending and potty training.

Whatever its origin, it proved to be an episode of insanity whose symptoms included both bloggerly excess and bridal distress.

It took the form of something my friend Tori termed the “Very Bloggy Wedding,” destined to revolutionize the worlds of wedding planning and WordPress applications alike.

(Both blogger and bride-to-be, beware.)

So, it was that Tori asked readers of “The Ramblings” to plan her upcoming nuptials, selecting via weekly vote everything from bridemaids’ dresses to bouquets and launching both the traditions of reception ribbon walls and cowboy boot center-pieces.

And so it was, as well, that I, a virtual stranger, was designated the unlikely Very Bloggy Wedding correspondent and asked to report to Tori’s readers the Very Bloggy events I witnessed– to assure them their selections had mattered when it came…

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Posted in PostaDay

Author Interview: J.A. Squires

cover photo courtesy of Echelon Press

Last week I reviewed the book Assignment: Nepal by J.A. Squires, and mentioned that I hoped sometime to read an interview about the combined writing process of these two authors, collaborating under the Squires pen name.  And then it occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn’t wait around for someone else to ask those questions, so I pinged Echelon Press and asked if the ladies might be open to an interview.  To my delight, they said yes!  Without further ado, I’m pleased to introduce you to J.A. Squires, otherwise known as Susan and Jeanette…

*****

Kana: Thank you so much, Ladies, for agreeing to an interview!  I’ll jump right in… Let’s start with your “collective” pen name–I’m intrigued by the fact that the pair of you work under a single name.  (It’s fitting, given how seamlessly you present a single writing voice–I’m just curious about the choice.)  You don’t conceal the fact that the book is a collaborative effort, so what led you to decide on a single author name for the book?  And how did you settle on that particular name?

J.A. Squires: Jeannette already writes novels under a couple of different pen names for different genres; she discovered early on that readers like to follow a certain author who consistently gives them what they expect. So we knew right off that we wanted to have a unique name that readers would identify solely with Irene’s adventures. (We considered using two names, but felt at the end of the day that two names might be tough for readers to remember — and we wanted to make this as easy as possible for them!)

The name itself felt very natural: the J is obviously for Jeannette, with the S in Squires for Susan … and Squires seemed like an easy name for people to remember. It’s really that simple.

Kana: In a similar vein, can you talk about your decision to remain relatively anonymous?  Your biographies on the publisher’s website indicate that both of you are well-known in your respective fields, but nowhere are your surnames mentioned, and you’ve clearly made a deliberate choice in that regard.  Perhaps you don’t want to overshadow the author J.A. Squires, whom you’ve brought to life with your joint effort–is Squires a “character” in your world as well?

J.A. Squires: We really didn’t want this series associated with anything else — we wanted it to stand on its own, so that’s why we deliberately didn’t give readers any other information that would dilute the connection between J.A. Squires and Irene Adler.

Is J.A. Squires a character? It’s an interesting question, and we’re still working on the answer! Susan sees it very sensibly as a means to an end, but Jeannette’s intrigued by the question. Probably as time goes by the author will become more and more real as an entity to both of us.

Kana: Clearly the two of you bring different backgrounds and experiences to the writing; I understand that one of you is an anthropologist and the other a published author. Can you describe the ways in which your own experiences and backgrounds inform your brainstorming-and-writing process?

J.A. Squires: Well, anthropologists are scientists, and Susan’s mind is precise and clear—and she tends to want people to behave that way as well. Jeannette, on the other hand, knows that people frequently do irrational things and that it’s that very irrationality that often creates drama. So you can imagine what some of the conversations sound like!

Perhaps the major difference is that once the novel has been plotted, the anthropologist thinks that the work is done, while the author knows that the characters may well bring her way off-plot as the writing process progresses.

In addition, when the idea was first discussed, we were living near each other, which made collaboration far more informal; one of us now lives in Massachusetts and the other in Texas, so our style has changed.

Kana: Collaborating on a book must certainly have its challenges. You have double the intellectual resources of a single author, but merging your individual contributions so seamlessly must take some work.  Can you describe your process? I’m curious about all its aspects, from brainstorming and solidifying the elements of the story’s plot and characters to the actual composition.  How do you do it?

J.A. Squires: Irene Adler’s very existence is due entirely to Susan. She had the idea for the first book in the series, “Assignment: Nepal,” when visiting a friend in Kathmandu; and early on she enlisted Jeannette’s help in bringing the story to life. The way we’ve worked it out, on that and subsequent books, is for Susan to do most of the plotting and Jeannette to do most of the writing, though those lines are occasionally blurred. But there would be no series without Susan.

To be honest, we generally start with a place we want to explore. Kathmandu, Nepal. Oxford, England. Oslo, Norway. Then Susan starts thinking about what an anthropologist might find interesting there; and from that we think about what nefarious things might lie in wait for her.

A lot of it is serendipity … or luck. We started out with Irene as a university professor, and then realized that, even taking sabbaticals into account, she couldn’t do the kind of traveling we wanted her to with that restrictive a job. Certainly she couldn’t afford to! About that time, Jeannette saw the movie “Rounders,” which is about professional poker players, and so it was out of pure chance that Irene’s primary money-earning profession took shape. (Of course, that led to months and months of poker research, so just because it was luck didn’t mean that it didn’t also take work!)

So we figure out the plot (lots and lots of back-and-forth here), and then Jeannette goes to work writing it. She sends the first draft to Susan, who picks it apart, pointing out where it needs more work, a character requiring more development, problems in the plot, etc., etc. Then back to Jeannette to incorporate all those suggestions and to do a rewrite. Then we enlist a few outside readers for comments, and Jeannette incorporates *those*. Then it goes to the editorial team at Echelon, and more changes are made. By the end of the process, we’re very happy indeed to say good-bye to the book!

Kana: Let’s talk about Irene Adler.  I have to tell you, I’d become a dedicated fan of this character before I’d finished the first twenty pages of the book; I ‘m pretty sure she could entertain me with a rendition of her grocery list!  This question may overlap with the previous query about writing process, but can you talk specifically about how you brought Adler to life?

J.A. Squires: We’re very glad you like her; we’ve heard a lot of positive things about Irene. She’s grown up a lot since we first created her. Susan originally wanted her to be super-smart (and therefore bring a touch of intellectualism everywhere she went; though she thought that making her clumsy as well would endear her to readers), and we played with that for a while … but it just wasn’t working. About the time that we brought poker into the equation, Jeannette started thinking about what *she* likes in a protagonist, and the obvious answer was, “someone who makes me smile.” So we added in the missing component to her character–humor–and voila!

Kana: I’m encouraged by the subtitle (“An Irene Adler Mystery”) to suppose I can look forward to more reading experiences in Adler’s company…  Is there another book in the works?

J.A. Squires: Yes. The second book, “Assignment: Robin Hood” is through its first draft and being discussed /edited for the rewrite; we plan to have it to Echelon in late winter/early spring if all goes well. The third book, as of yet untitled, is still in the vague-woolly-thoughts stage; Jeannette’s going to Norway next September to research it. We’re hoping for many more such adventures!

Kana: Again, thank you so much for indulging my curiosity–and thank you for the read I so enjoyed!

J.A. Squires: It’s truly our pleasure.

Check Out the Book at Amazon!

Posted in PostaDay, Reading Reviews

Never Mind Resolutions–I’m Going for Reading Challenges!

Rather than reflecting on my bad habits and pledging change as the year turns over, I’m indulging a habit by getting excited by the various reading challenges that are being posted for the upcoming year…  The other day I posted about a Mystery Reading Challenge, and here’s another (not limited in theme or genre) which comes with giveaways just to add to the fun.

The Challenge is being co-hosted by ten ladies who will be taking it in turns throughout the year to post mini-challenges and give-aways for participants.  You can check out the guidelines for the challenge–and sign yourself up!–at Bookish.

One of the appealing prospects with these challenges–sort of along the lines of the “old fashioned” book clubs we used to enjoy before the internet broadened our literary landscapes–is the element of interaction with other readers, checking out what hidden gems are on the shelves of other bibliophiles, finding and sharing reading suggestions…  If it sounds like fun to you, jump on in! Speaking for myself, a reading challenge is something I have a much better shot at completing than any of the “New Year’s Resolutions” I’ve ever made!

Posted in Idaho, PostaDay, travel

Another Hawai’ian Ventures into the Owyhees

[This was the magazine sidebar accompanying the story of our jaunt to Silver City, Idaho…]

©Kana & Keoni Tyler

The Owyhee Mountains were named for a trio of native Hawai’ian trappers, working for the Hudson Bay Company, who disappeared in these mountains around 1820.  For my husband Keoni, a native Hawai’ian himself, this bit of history put an intriguing spin on our trip.  Islanders use two words for giving directions: makai (toward the ocean) and mauka (toward the mountain)–anything on an island can be described within that frame of reference.  When I asked him if that’s why his “uncles” might have lost their way, he replied in Pidgin, “Bruddahs wen’ mauka, wen’ mauka… Stay los’!”

Joking that our trip might double as a search-and-rescue, we armed ourselves with an offeratory can of Spam, which these days is a favorite food in Hawai’i (you can order Spam & eggs at McDonald’s there).  He had another mission, looking for rounded rocks of pahoehoe lava (what we “here in America” would call vesicular basalt), which he’ll use to line an imu, the traditional pit for roasting a whole pig.

Our overnight bag and camera bag rode in the back seat, the car-trunk kept free for his boulder collection. On his native turf, however, he would never remove volcanic rock without making a return offering to the volcano goddess Pele–often a cairn of rocks with fresh fruit or flowers or a bottle of liquor.  It’s a custom he takes seriously, though with his own touch of humor: if you hike in the Owyhees now, you might come across a stone cairn topped with a Spam can.

Posted in Idaho, PostaDay, travel

Silver City, Idaho: a “Ghost Town” that Never Gave Up the Ghost

[Published in the Sep 2011 issue of Western Byways magazine… I thought I’d trot it out here as well.]

Perched in the Owyhee Mountains at the center of 250 once-active gold mines, Silver City is often referred to as a ghost town–but that’s not a description I recommend using within hearing of its residents. A determined handful, many of them descendants of original owners, still call the place home–though only a few of them year-round.  In fact, the town, though dwindled from its boom population of 2500, has never died–which is perhaps why it escapes the touristy feel of abandoned ghost towns, filled with husks of buildings and apparent set-piece props left over from history.  This town is still a live place–a place holding to a different way of living than most of us are accustomed to–and that in itself makes it worth a visit.

The road to Silver City remains impassable from November to June (those who dig in there during the winter make supply-runs by snow-machine), but for a summer trip by car it’s a mere 65 miles from Boise, roughly two hours’ drive-time with the rougher roads in the mountains.

Let me take a moment here to differentiate between drive-time and travel-time…  If you get into your vehicle in Boise and diligently follow the directions to Silver City, you’ll be there in a little under two hours.  That’s drive-time.  My husband and I, however, both suffered from previous experiences as road-trip hostages (get-in-the-car-we’re-not-stopping-till-you-have-to-pee-and-maybe-not-then)–so we prefer to Stop along the way.  We stop a LOT.  We turn the car around to investigate whatever eye-catcher we just passed, we pick up rocks, we hike up hillsides, sit on tractors, chat with people, take pictures, nose our way down side roads, find things to eat…  All in all, from the time we fuel up at our local Maverick (“Adventure’s first stop!”) until we pull into Silver City’s main road, we’ll probably spend seven or eight hours on inquisitive adventuring.  That’s travel-time.  We enjoy experiencing the places we travel. Best done, perhaps, on a motorcycle, with nothing between us and the road–but since we’re between bikes (my optimistic way of saying we don’t have one), a clunker car with windows rolled down serves perfectly well.

We’ve tossed our overnight bag in the back seat and we’re heading south from Nampa on Idaho 45–an open stretch of road bordered by farm-fields, some of them labeled (much to our amusement) with the names of their crops.  I’m an Idaho-girl, born and bred, but my husband Keoni hails from Hawai’i, so I tease him that this is an educational trip–he knows sugar cane, but here we have sugar beets.  As the highway slowly drops toward the plateaus lining the Snake River, we pass decorated ranch-gates, one of them topped by a metal silhouette of a cougar (he suggests that older, single women must work here), and a machinery workshop with a reader-board suggesting, “Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to see him soon.”  We also spot several of the yellow-diamond caution signs featuring tractors, which put me in mind of the “Travel Bingo” game my sister and I played as kids.  It was  a scavenger hunt of sorts, setting us to look for items in an ascending hierarchy of difficulty.  But the game must have been manufactured on the East Coast, because the easy level included things like a traffic clover-leaf (which we’d never laid eyes on), while the most difficult level included “covered wagon” and “outhouse”…  Not a game designed for Idaho, where a “tractor crossing” sign is commonplace.

Hawks soar over the Snake River crossing at Walter’s Ferry, and we get out of the car to admire the geological stories evidenced in the volcanic mesas bounding the river, and in the smaller stones underfoot. Keoni enthuses over a rock that shows “at least five different events,” and turns up the blade of an old hay knife in the process.  (We have a basket in the backseat which will gradually fill with his findings–he’s a delighted scavenger who sees treasure everywhere.)  In the meantime, I borrow his hunting knife to dislodge a few dozen goatheads from the bottom of my shoes; I like my sandals without added traction, thank you.

Just past the river, we turn left onto Idaho 78, past Hemingway Butte (literary tribute, now a trailhead for desert dirt bikes), and call another halt at Melba’s Blue Canoe, a steakhouse-and-seafood house open Friday through Sunday.  Painted boulders outline the gravel parking area with “petroglyphs” (hunters, animals, and of course paddlers) surrounding the blocky building with more merry petroglyph figures dancing against a cobalt-colored wall. The outside eating area–complete with family-style trestle tables, thatched shade, an outdoor grill and bar–puts me strangely in mind of the Florida Keys (I imagine Hemingway Butte moseying over for a taste of Key West), an impression compounded by a banner advertising the upcoming annual Crawdad Feed.  I only need one glance at the menu: I’ll be having “Crawdads in a Canoe” (cheese-filled potato skins topped with seasoned tails).

The desert can seem deceptively empty–the Blue Canoe seems to stand all alone overlooking the river, but just a few minutes down the highway we’re pulling into Murphy, where we find the Owyhee County historical museum.  It’s not a grandiose affair, but I’m a sucker for any bookstore with locally-authored histories, and there’s a certain romantic kitsch (if you discount the chicken-wire enclosure) to the yard full of rusted old-time farm implements. (The whetstones catch Keoni’s eye; I think he’d like to use one after I used his knife to dig around in my rubber sandal-soles.)

Once we leave Murphy behind, we won’t see another town until Silver City, so the Murphy General Store is a good stop to restock our drink cooler.  Across the road, a single strip of asphalt comprises the Murphy Airport, where a large sign cautions against driving cars on the runway (an admonishment which brings to mind a similar sign at the airstrip in St. Andrews, Scotland–that one forbids driving golf balls on the runway)…

South of Murphy we turn off the state highway onto Ridge Road, which leads to a wonderfully-named network of rutted dirt roads (Ruby Junction, New York Summit, Old Stage Road, and of course Silver City Road).  Gaining elevation, the landscape begins to jut out in stacked rock formations (some of which I can’t resist climbing up–and one of which challenges me to climb down its sheer backside on a retrieval operation after I discover my hiking-hat needs a chin-strap).  Looking back across the Snake River plain, water-carved crevices wend downward; today’s backdrop to the river is a spread of distant smoke plumes, probably grass fires from last night’s lightning storm.

We haven’t gone too far up the mountain when we encounter another cautionary road sign, this one informing us that if we travel beyond this point, we are responsible for the cost of any search-and-rescue operation we might incur.  They mean business; the sign cites the applicable section of Idaho code.  A word here about vehicles–some guides insist that this road should only be attempted by four-wheel-drive, and indeed, a 4WD would do handily.  Speaking for myself, though, I know Idaho roads and I know the limitations of my own vehicle, held together as it is in places with duct tape (classier than it sounds, I assure you–I found leopard-print duct tape at Target).  I don’t mess around with the things that could get a person killed on a remote road (we have water, and granola bars, and a full tank of gas, and the array of tools we use regularly to coax the clunker back to action when it sulks), but from my perspective this isn’t a road that poses a threat–at least in summer.

We quickly learn to roll up the windows when a vehicle approaches from the other direction, in order to avoid choking on clouds of dust, and we validate our long-standing joke that our car’s color should be called “Idaho Dirt;” now completely caked with dry dust, it hasn’t changed color by a shade.  The driver of a pilot car coming downhill rolls down her window to let us know how many trucks we can expect behind her (from the Silver Falcon Mine–the only remaining mine in operation), and goes on her way with a cheery wave.  Game trails weave through the sagebrush on either side, as well as fun-and-games-trails posted for ATVers.  We stop at a bridge to watch some modern-day gold-panners at work (using Tupperware!) where the streambed literally glitters with flakes of micah and reflected sunlight.

I called yesterday to see about a room at the Idaho Hotel, but we don’t actually know where we’re headed when we pass the sign welcoming us to Silver City and instructing us to report in with the watchman.  Happily, it’s not difficult to find anything in Silver City, so a moment later we’re parking in front of the flag-bedecked white porch of the old hotel.  The hotel opened in 1863, with additional sections added over the next few decades.  Its tidy three-story clapboard front contrasts starkly with its backside view–dark weathered wood teetering five stories (built on a hill, the street-level front entrance opens onto a middle floor) with a crazed roofline of cobbled-together converging ridges.  Pushing open the front door, we wander through a large wood-paneled foyer crowded with relics of earlier days and into an even larger dining-room-and-bar. There, framed by the heavy saloon mirror behind him, we find Roger, who owns and operates the hotel and “lives under the stairs” (not quite like Harry Potter).

Roger finds our reservation jotted in a notebook and steps over his dog Kodiak to show us upstairs to our room.  The hotel is unapologetically old–not “decorated in period decor,” but furnished with pieces that have served here for a century and a half.  It has boasted indoor plumbing (pumped-in spring water) since 1868; the shared bathroom down the hall now features the pump-flush toilet I’m accustomed to using on sailboats, and there’s a separate shower-room with guest towels folded on the shelves.  No room key–unlike the enclosed and self-contained units we expect in modern motels, this hotel retains the feel of a European inn, where we are simply guests of the house.

We probably have half an hour left before the sun drops behind the mountain (the “first sunset,” Roger calls it, followed by several hours of ambient pre-dusk without direct sunlight), so we decide to stroll the streets around the hotel.  Our Lady of Tears Catholic Church, a striking white in the low-angle light, perches on a rocky outcrop above us, closed until Father Gerald returns for its next monthly Mass.  Just below it stands the schoolhouse, complete with bell, a notice on its door for the next meeting of the town’s planning & zoning committee.  Orange-framed “no trespassing” signs on cabins and cottages serve as a reminder to daytrippers that these are not movie-set pieces, but people’s homes.  Despite the neon notes and scattered ATVs (preferred in-town transport for residents navigating near-vertical streets), we note and appreciate the utter absence of power lines and phone lines.

When we return to the dining room, it has gained a few patrons–a couple from Oregon (staying in the room next to ours), a fellow stopping in for a drink after building a shed across the street, and a local EMT, who also drives the town’s brush-fire truck when campfires get out of hand at the campground up the hill.  He enjoys wines but says he doesn’t know how to pick them, so he entrusts that job to Roger’s wife when she visits wineries for the hotel, and he stops here in the evenings to enjoy a glass of whatever she’s picked for him.  Roger reappears with our hamburgers (plain fare, but tasty enough) and joins the conversation, which centers on the upcoming meeting of the town planning committee.  He’s having trouble getting approval for his proposed paint job, and bemoans the difficulties of matching paint that’s 120 years old.

An hour later we excuse ourselves and climb the steep stairs to plunk ourselves down on the cushioned bench of the second-floor balcony, overlooking the main street and the steep mountainside opposite.  Roger told us to watch for the deer that come down the mountain after dusk (particularly a cocky rascal of a four-point buck who doesn’t seem afraid of anyone), but unfortunately for us, wildlife don’t do “command performances,” and we don’t catch a glimpse of them.

The full moon, on the other hand, holds to its schedule and appears in all its solemn brilliance above the mountain several hours later.  Silver City under the moon is more of a ghost town–not in the sense of seeming eerie or abandoned, but because its character of 150 years ago seems now to spring to the forefront.  The mountain by moonlight is not a negligible bit of scenery, but a very solid presence, the stars undimmed by street lamps or any hint of electric light.  The year 2011 and even the shadow-lumps which (before sunset) were cars and ATVs now take on the role of “ghost,” while Silver City itself, old and largely unchanged, stands revealed.  Each cabin, rising from its clump of woods up the mountainside, endures serenely, having held its ground here for a century and a half.  It’s the people and their trappings (motorized or otherwise) who are the transient ghosts here.  People have built this, and maintained it, lived in it, loved it, restored it–but the place itself has a strength of its own.

We wake early, to the chill of a mountain morning where nothing in the world sounds better than a hot cup of coffee, so we bundle into our sweatshirts and venture into the dining room to see if anyone is stirring.  Sure enough, the Oregon guest is building a fire in the wood stove, and Roger has just started the coffee perking.

Although Silver City was among the earliest towns in Idaho to benefit from electricity (via Swan Falls Dam), its only power sources since the 1940s have been generators or kerosene or (in the case of the hotel) solar power, so the guest rooms here are outfitted with a single-bulb electric light each.  Last night when we settled down to read in bed, I teased Keoni that he (with his paperback book) was at a disadvantage with regard to lighting.  I travel with iPad (all-in-one maps, navigator, notebook, recorder, backup camera, and of course a few novels), conveniently backlit for reading in dim light–but he retorted (noting the absence of electrical outlets) that at least his book wouldn’t need to be recharged in the morning.  Touche!

This morning our biscuits & gravy take a while to appear, but placated by the hot mugs of coffee in hand, we take the time to browse the walls–a veritable library of historical photos, news clippings, and Silver City trivia.  One loaded bookshelf hosts a collection of books (also for sale)–first-hand accounts of Silver City in its heyday–and reprinted copies of the Avalanche, a high-profile newsrag in its day, with offices just down the street.

We take a table by the window to eat breakfast, fascinated by the battalion of hummingbirds feeding a few inches away on the other side of the warped glass pane.  And then the sun makes its appearance, infusing the room with a whole new character.  The lace curtains glow cheerfully, the scarred wood gleams, the bottles behind the bar glint in a subdued rainbow–and we lean back to enjoy a third cup of coffee.

When I poke my head into the kitchen to ask Roger about settling our bill, I get sidetracked exclaiming over his magnificent cast-iron cook-stove (which probably weighs more than our car, and which I can’t imagine hauling up the mountain by wagon).  He proudly clears it of home-made pies so I can photograph it, then (like a small boy with a secret) tells me mysteriously to meet him at the bottom of the stairs, and promptly disappears around a corner.  I’m intrigued–he has been pleasant and accommodating, but not talkative, perhaps a little shy behind his tidy white beard–so we dutifully circle around to the staircase, brimming with curiosity.  Roger pops out of a closed doorway like the White Rabbit, swings it wide, and ushers us into his parlor.

Any museum curator would be jealous, truly.  And so would any storyteller–Roger is a regular raconteur now that he’s got the bit in his teeth.  When people left Silver City, it was often because they didn’t have the funds to stay–and consequently didn’t have the resources to ship things back down the mountain–so most of the furnishings that have arrived in Silver City over the last 150 years have stayed here.  This is the story of his elegant piano, and the intricately carved poker table (complete with a cash-slot in its green felt top, and a safe built-in underneath).  He tells stories about the town’s characters, pulling out old photos from a pile on the sideboard, and shows us some treasures he’s added to the collection himself.  “I’m an eBay addict,” he confesses, handing me a tiny silver spoon bearing an etched engraving of his hotel.

And the oddly-shaped horseshoes leaning against the hallway wall?  “Snow cleats for the horses.”

Walking around town, we try to match the existing buildings with the period photos we saw in the hotel.  Some still bear the signage of their last use (the meat market, the barber shop, the brewing vat, the Silver Slipper Saloon, the stone wall of the jail with its iron-barred window), but we haven’t figured out which might be the assay office, the Chinese laundry, the bath house…  Many of these buildings still have original furnishings inside, and the drug store, it turns out, also belongs to Roger–he wonders if we’d like him to unlock it for us.  With all respect to Father Gerald–is the Pope Catholic?

He bought the drug store contents-and-all, and it’s another museum-in-the-making.  (“I’m a sucker for old things,” he grins.  Pointing my thumb at Keoni, who has 20 years on me, I say “Me too.”)  I’m astounded by what has been left behind here–a well-worn dentist’s chair, a prototype asthma inhaler, x-ray machine, a full array of medical instruments, a glass-front cabinet full of unopened medicines (“The newest one in there is 1903,” he tells me) wooden crates from Anheiser Busch and a Pacific Coast Tea Garden, glass bottles and kerosene lamps and advertising posters for McDonald Chocolate and Bromo-Seltzer (a sedative tonic removed from American markets in the 1900s due to its toxicity)…

We make one last stop at the cemetery, a poignant snapshot of Silver City’s life cycle.  The number of marble headstones bear testament to the success of the mountain’s mines–and the number of denizens whose lives are measured in days or months bear witness to the hard realities of trying to survive here.

Always interested in a new road, we head out of town toward Jordan Valley rather than retracing our route to Murphy.  Along the rutted road we spy occasional campers–not REI gearheads, but archers and gold-panners and ATVers with leather rifle-cases strapped behind.  Slag heaps mar the mountain at intervals–avalanches of white rock against the dark volcanic reds and browns, as if the mountain had bled profusely down its side.  Eventually the landscape opens up into wider panoramas–cattle and fields and farms with stone outbuildings.  The town of Jordan Valley (named for Mike Jordan, the “trail-finder of the Owyhees”) dealt for decades in sheep, and its population of Basque sheepherders has left its mark on the community.  The graceful stone Catholic Church was largely Basque-built, and you can still eat family-style at the Old Basque Inn.

The last leg of our drive could rival a day at the Farmer’s Market.  Idaho 55 takes us by the Ste. Chapelle and Fujishin wineries, and farmers are selling sweet corn out of their front yards along the road.  One hand-written sign advertises “Fresh Corn and Elotes,” so of course we stop to find out what elotes are.  Corn-on-the-cob, as it turns out–boiled in the husk and served with salt, chili, butter, and seasoned sour cream.  Fresh fruit stands abound along the roadside, and as the fragrance of mint fields wafts us toward town, we realize our picnic basket is fuller than when we left home.  Which leaves us with just one question–where shall we go next?  We have a lot of Idaho highway left to explore…

Posted in PostaDay, writing

Freelance Job Opportunity!

day at the office
The Freelancer's Office... Perks of the work--snuggling services provided by my "office staff" while I write ...

Here’s an appropriate follow-up to last week’s post on freelancing tips–the company for which I do my most regular freelancing is in need of some more writers!

I’ve been cranking out up to 10K per day for Quality Communication Solutions, but (happily) business is booming, and Steve Brown needs some more writers for his team.  QCS takes orders for written work from all kinds of different clients, and Steve distributes the assignments among the writers on his team.  If you’d like to apply, you can email him at srbrownqcs@gmail.com, or you can use the website’s contact form to let Steve know you’re interested.

Steve has been great to work with–he nurtures his team members with encouragement and (when it’s needed) education.  He’s great about communicating and checking in with his writers about the workload, the details of the assignments, and timelines and deadlines. His pay structure for writing assignments is tiered according to the number of words in each piece, and he offers additional bonuses for timely submissions and for writers who complete large word-counts in a week.  He pays every Monday for the previous week’s work, using PayPal for the payments.

I’ve been enjoying the work–so if you’re looking for an opportunity, I recommend this one!  If you do contact Steve, just one favor…  Could you please let him know it was Kana who sent you his way?  Happy writing, all!