Wednesday, June 19, 2013


(Find the original post on Adrienne Monson's blog.)

CC Stan Shebs /Wikimedia
Kingston Range Excelsior Mine Road 1
          Summer vacation was here at last. Jay Bell along with my brother Hugh and I were ready for an adventure. Jay borrowed his dad’s old pickup truck, and we told our parents we were going camping for a week. When we said camping, we meant exploring. We could drive hundreds of miles in just about any direction from Trona, California, and not meet another human being or even cross a paved road.
           From Searles Valley to Panamint Valley to Death Valley, the terrain was rugged with mountain trails climbing thousands of feet above sea level into regions of permanent snow and valley trails dropping hundreds of feet below sea level into arid country that rarely saw rain or moisture of any kind. Many trails were washed out, overgrown with sage brush and barely usable, but they were the only way to get to old mining sites and ghost towns. Some sites didn’t show up on any maps, and we were always excited to stumble across a new find.
           That morning, packing was easy–we threw everything in the back of the truck. We were careful to bring lots of extra batteries for our flashlights. Sometimes we spent days exploring old, abandoned mines that we found along the way. In addition to topping off the gas tank, we also brought along a backup can of gasoline. We would need to make our gas last all week. Of course, this was B.C. (before cellular phones), so it wasn’t unusual for us to be out of touch for days at a time. It didn’t dawn on us to tell our parents where we were going, or even which direction we might be going in–and they didn’t ask. We were always going camping.
           The first day out, we drove into the mountains, getting as far away from civilization as possible. Though the desert seems desolate on the surface, we saw lots of wildlife. Vultures, hawks and eagles filled the sky. Besides the ever present scorpions, tarantulas and snakes, jackrabbits bolted from the scrub as we passed and, in the distance, a scraggly coyote appeared at times, watching us warily. We knew mountain lions prowled the high country, but they were usually too smart to show themselves. The sky was clear, life was good, and we didn’t have a care in the world. This was our kingdom, and we were the unchallenged rulers.
           Finally realizing the sun had long disappeared over the mountain tops, we knew that darkness was imminent. It was time to pick a campsite safe from wildlife and weather while we still had daylight. We were driving up a deep mountain ravine, just coming out onto an embankment along the wash, when suddenly loud popping noises rang out from behind the dashboard. All the dashboard lights blinked out and the engine died. I turned the key off, put the truck in park, and tried to restart the engine, but nothing happened–nothing at all. The truck’s electrical systems were totally dead.
          We sat silently in the deepening gloom, surrounded by smoke and the smell of an electrical fire, before the acrid smoke forced us to wind down the windows to air out the cab.
          After a long silence, Hugh leaned out the window and said, “I don’t think this is a very good place to park.” The truck was perched perilously on the edge of the ravine and straddled what seemed to be a well used wildlife trail.
           After another long silence, Jay asked, “Did anyone think to tell our parents where we were going?”
          When no one answered, I said, “No, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because we told them we were going camping for a week. No one is going to think to worry about us until the week has passed.”
          Hugh leaned back and closed his eyes. “It will take a week to hike back to that last paved road we crossed.” He let out a long, weary sigh.
           Jay nodded. “And another week, if we’re lucky, before anyone drives by.”
           “And,” I added, “Unless we can figure out how to carry one of those heavy jugs of water, all our water will be back here with the truck.”
          Daylight was fading fast, so we decided to get out and look around while we could still see. Things didn’t look good. Numerous smaller gullies fed from above into the large ravine, on the edge of which our truck was precariously stalled. If it rained higher up in the mountains, we could lose our truck in a flash flood. Also, all the wildlife trails coming down the mountain merged together in a wide path going under our truck and down the deep ravine.
           Our truck was now a road block for any local critters passing through the area in the night. The mountain grade was too steep for us to push the truck up the hill away from the ravine and the trail, and there was no way we were going to roll the truck back down the hill where it would be deeper in the ravine and in even greater danger from flashflood. Like it or not, our truck was stuck right where it was.
           Once the deep blackness of a moonless night was upon us, we hauled out the flashlights. While we continued scouting the surrounding area, we gathered sticks and brush into a pile on the trail up the slope from the truck. As Hugh got a fire burning, we heard the yelping and howling of a coyote pack not far away in one of the higher gullies. Our bon-fire wouldn’t last long–there wasn’t much wood in the area, and we hadn’t brought any fire wood with us. Without a fire, the coyotes would soon be down to see who was trespassing in their territory.
           Suddenly, we heard the sound of rocks cascading down the side of the ravine not far downhill from us. Something big was coming up the wildlife trail toward the truck. Without a word, we all quickly climbed back into the cab, rolling up windows, locking doors, turning out flashlights, and slumping down in our seats–as if it couldn’t see us, if we couldn’t see it.
           Outside, everything had gone quiet–even the coyotes had stopped howling. After holding my breath for an eternity, I slowly lifted my head to peek out the driver’s side window, just in time to see a dark shadow glide around to the front of the truck, out of sight. Lifting my head slightly higher to look through the windshield, I saw our little bon-fire had died down to a few glowing embers, blowing in the gentle wind.
lawren / 123RF Stock Photo
           As I watched, the dark shadow raised up slowly in front of the truck, blocking my view of the embers, but still not revealing any detail of what it was. If only I could turn on the headlights and see what was out there! But all the truck’s electrical systems were dead, and I knew if I turned on my flashlight, the window would reflect back as much light as it let through. Whatever was out there would see us in the cab.
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          Suspense is the result of proper plot development, and a writer has many tools to use in developing a storyline that will capture the reader’s imagination and carry her/him along towards an anticipated destruction or salvation. Tools like point of view can put the reader in a character’s mind, building an empathetic bond. Repetition of seemingly innocent facts can build tension. Foreshadowing creates curiosity, and the list goes on. Make the reader hungry and then slowly, carefully feed and starve the reader as the tale unfolds.
          Suffice it to say, in my story above, after a very long night, the truck’s headlights become the eventual means of our salvation, but that’s for another day.
          Of course, the story doesn’t end here, but the scene has been set and hopefully your expectations have been prepared for a journey through the unknown. The best part of the story is yet to come and the reader should now be voluntarily on board and excited for the ride–hungry for the rest of the story. Suspense is like an unsatisfied hunger that keeps the reader reading until the end of the story, where the hunger will be satisfied. In the best stories, the reader relishes both the hunger, while it lasts, as well as the eventual satisfaction of that hunger.
           What about the story?  Want to know more?

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