Uncategorized, history, research, US history

The Old West’s Most Interesting Woman

People are sometimes surprised to find out that I never studied writing formally. Instead, I majored in history – both for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Why? Because history is nothing but stories. And you know the saying: truth is stranger than fiction.

So it is that while researching mountain men for one of my freelance projects I came upon the story of an amazing woman in the Old West: Stagecoach Mary. This 6 foot tall, 200-lb woman picked up and moved into Montana at the age of 52 years. There, she first worked for the Jesuits and next for a convent, where she chopped wood, dug holes, tended as many as 400 chickens, and grew vegetables for the nuns. Though she was devoted to the nuns and their Indian students at the mission, she was well known to have “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” She smoked, swore, and engaged in rounds of fisticuffs with her fellow hired hands. These behaviors got her banned from the mission in 1884 despite the protestations of the nuns.

mary_fields

Yes, indeed, Stagecoach Mary could kick ass and take names with the best of them. She smoked homemade cigars and was once attacked by wolves while alone on the prairie. I guess you know who got the bad end of that deal. After the nun debacle she tried to run a couple of restaurants, but because she kept giving meals to the down and out, she couldn’t make a go of it. In 1895, at the age of 63, she got a job delivering mail for the post office. As a job interview she and a dozen young cowboys had to hitch a team of six horses to a stagecoach as quickly as possible. She won to become the second woman – and the first black person – to manage a mail route. For eight years she carried mail back and forth to Montana pioneers. With the help of her mule, Moses, she braved icy blizzards and heat waves in the remote land.

Stagecoach Mary, also known as Black Mary, was christened Mary Fields when she was born into slavery in 1832, in Hickman County, Tennessee. After the Civil War guaranteed her freedom, she worked for a time as a chambermaid on a steamboat named the Robert E. Lee.  She witnessed the steamer’s race against Steamboat Bill’s Natchez in 1870. During the race, the men tossed anything they could get their hands on into the boiler – from barrels of resin to slabs of ham and bacon. Other men sat on the relief valves in order to increase the steam pressure.

At 71, she gave up her postal route to run a laundry – and famously punched out a customer who hadn’t paid up the $2 he owed her. Reportedly, she spent more time drinking whiskey and smoking cigars than washing clothes. So she took up babysitting the local kids. One of those local kids was actor Gary Cooper, who visited her hometown of Cascade, Montana from nearby Dearborn. He wrote a story about her for Ebony magazine in 1959.

baseball1

The only black resident of Cascade, she had plenty of friends in the townfolk. One was Kirk Huntley, who, when he sold his hotel in 1910, stipulated that she was to be offered all the meals she wanted free of charge. Her house burned down in 1912 and the town pitched in to build her a new one. She was also a baseball fan who sponsored the Cascade baseball team and made sure that each player had buttonhole bouquets of flowers from her garden.

At the age of 82 she grew ill, and stole away to die in the tall grass near her home. But children who she had babysat found her and she was spirited off to the hospital in Great Falls, where she died a few days later, in 1914.

dogs, history, research, Uncategorized, US history, writing

Animals in History, Oh My!

If I had unlimited time, I would probably spend several hours a day, every day, learning Latin and perusing old newspaper articles. Alas, I do not have unlimited time, but in my research for various fiction and nonfiction projects I do come across some interesting bits now and again. You may recall my rampaging monkey post. This is another post in the same vein.

First we will start with the wild. Bears! I do believe this has the makings of an American nursery tale.

bears history
Thursday, November 2, 1894. Sturgeon Bay, WI, Vol XXII, The Democrat.

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Hyenas can be pretty dangerous, too.

Chicago cemeteries hyena

Dogs in danger always pulls at the heartstrings! It seems that Jack London’s Call of the Wild may have inspired some unsavory people:

Dog slavers
June 18, 1910, v. 26 n.25, Sausalito News.

And last, but not least, apparently dogs have been accompanying folks on car rides for quite some time.

dog automobile
March 19, 1905, Omaha Daily Bee.

You will notice that these articles are from around the turn of the 20th century. That’s the setting of my latest project, a quirky romance between a dog musher/postman and a bicycle-riding pastor in 1911 Alaska. Check out my newsletter to keep apprised of its progress and to read free flash fiction while you are at it.

history, research, travel, Uncategorized, US history

1920’s Postcard America

My mom passed away last February, old and full of years, as the Bible says. With her passed a bygone era, at least for me: farm life in rural Pennsylvania. From a family of Mennonites, frugality, simplicity, and family were the paramount values. She carried these with her whole life, as well as other things.

Mainly, junk.

Yes, I said it. I love my mother dearly (I can’t use the past tense because I still love her even though she’s gone) but she did tend to keep things way too long. Going through her stuff is a lengthy process that involves much head-shaking. Why did you keep this 1980’s era badge from when you worked in a convenience store, mom? Why did you keep every piece of crappy jewelry I had as a teenager – even when it was broken or missing pieces (one earring)? Just … why?

I think the answer lies in the “frugality” I mentioned above. Born in the late ’30s, she came into an America still in the grips of the Great Depression, when jobs were as scarce as consumer goods. Her frugality would be considered poverty today. And as anyone who has struggled with it knows, it leaves scars. And also thrifty habits. Believe me, I am grateful for learning how to get a dollar’s worth at the store. I’m also grateful for the memories of button boxes, homemade clothes, and the do-it-yourself ethos. Reusing the old green toilet cover as landscaping did seem to be taking it a bit too far, though.

Anyhow, along with the junk she also kept lots and lots of pictures, slides, and cards. I came across these lovely 1920s postcards during my search, some which were sent by my grandfather, who passed away in the ’70s. We live in a much different world today when it comes to travel. I’ve crisscrossed the country several times and flown all over the world. But up until the interstate system came into being in 1956 (and not completed for 35 years) it was a royal pain to go any distance. And of course the vehicles were not so comfortable and quick-moving. You can get a good sense of the difficulties and challenges involved in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s cross-country travel memoir.

It was a real thrill to go somewhere different. Like Virginia:

virginia

Where you could see all manner of things, which fold out accordion-style, like this image of Monticello:

monticello

Or the Hudson River:

hudson-river

Photos within this package (look close for the old-timey cars):

hudsonriver2

And, a world away from small-town Pennsylvania, Chicago:

chicago

So many sights to see, there! Why, sailboats, even:

chicago2There’s more, but these are the most fascinating to me, history-lover that I am. My latest fiction project takes place in 1911 America, so finding these was particularly relevant.

Thanks, mom.

freelance, history, nonfiction, research, travel, Uncategorized, writing

The Worst Trip Ever: Francisco Vázquez de Coronado

Like most fiction writers, I have a day job. Mine happens to be as a writer. Of nonfiction for kids. What can be better than to research, write, and edit nonfiction for kids? Especially when my writing projects are historical. Let me tell you, it beats my past jobs with a stick: project manager, administrative analyst, administrative coordinator, accounts payable clerk, and some others that have faded into the past like a rancid odor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the ability to support myself and my family at past jobs, but they’ve all been stepping stones to where I am today. Which is in my home office with my dogs all around me, my hair in disarray, dressed in yoga pants and sweatshirts, and wearing away at the paint on my computer keyboard.

It’s glamorous, all right.

I’m a freelancer and happy with the independence it brings me. Sure, there are downsides, too, but I can’t see myself headed back into an office environment any time soon. Or any time at all.

Last year I wrote a fun historical book on Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (2017 publication date). He’s that failure of a 16th century explorer who set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold. That didn’t exist. But at least he had fun along the way, leading a motley crew of soldiers and missionaries across the broiling hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona. They stumped across rocky defiles and cactus-choked deer paths in their heavy plate metal armor (which they evidently scattered here and there, to the delight of archaeologists), and abused American Indians at every opportunity. You see, if Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro could overtake gold-rich Central and South American civilizations, then certainly Coronado could too. When he heard the “credible” tales of the Seven Cities of Gold that lay north of Mexico from a wily and perhaps demented friar, Marcos de Niza, he seized upon them.

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado conquistador explorer 16the century

Perhaps Coronado should have fact-checked de Niza’s reports a little closer. Because he and his men traveled hundreds of miles north, then east, then north again, following rumors and pipe dreams. They crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, into Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and finally central Kansas. Poor Indian villages were all they found, no wealth other than the clear air and endless grasslands.

The revelation that de Niza lied about these gold and jewel-bedecked cities deterred the group only temporarily. The hints and lies of another man, an Indian slave nicknamed The Turk, kept them traveling on into Kansas. The Turk hoped that a local tribe would slaughter them. Alas, The Turk ended up being the one slaughtered when his deception was uncovered. At last, Coronado determined to turn back, but he would have gone on if his men and the Spanish government would have given him more support. He and his men slunk back to Mexico in disgrace. He did not receive the riches and fame he sought, but he did penetrate a previously unknown land and pave the way for later explorers and settlers.

Coronado Expedition Conquistador Explorer
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=146759

The Spanish left behind horses, which the Indians bred and used to legendary utility. Before the coming of the Spanish, Indians only had dogs as pack animals. They also left behind diseases that the biologically separate Americans had no natural immunity to. Such began the Indian’s long decline and eventual near-extinction.

You can still hear echoes of long-ago drumbeats and see the crumbled remains of Indian dwelling places on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of narrow, winding highway in eastern Arizona. This section of US Route 191 is said to have 460 curves, which make it “exciting” or “terrifying” depending on your perspective. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself drawn to remote historical adventures, though, and if so you may enjoy the 120-mile drive.

I just hope that my own life’s adventures do not end in infamy like Coronado’s.

history, research, travel, Uncategorized

Peeling Back History’s Layers

Recently, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. A transcendent, awe-inspiring, utterly magnificent experience.

An orgy.

No, not that kind of orgy, you naughty thing. Rather, an orgy of artistic and historic wonder. A plethora of beauty and splendor as can only be seen in Italy. Rome, in particular. My husband and I celebrated a significant anniversary in La Bella Italia. We’d been a number of years ago, but it is Italy – one could spend years discovering its treasures. More than 2,000 years of history leaves lots of remnants behind. During this trip we concentrated on places and experiences we had missed during the last one. So we visited innumerable churches, cathedrals, quaint hilltop villages, and packed-to-the-gills museums.

One church in Rome stands out among the others. It lacks the gold- and jewel-bedecked opulence of others such as St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica, but has something in abundance that the others lack: mystery.

Here it is, the Basilica of San Clemente, a rather non-descript spot, though quintessential what with the cigarette-smoking Italian out front. It sits near the Colosseum.

Front of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, Italy Roma
By Berthold Werner via (Wikimedia Commons)

Inside this 12th century church you will find incredible mosaics well worth a visit. The Official Site provides a virtual tour.This drawing gives you an idea of its insides.

Basilica of St. Clemente 12th century Rome Roma Italy

In 392 AD, St. Jerome spoke of a church in Rome that preserved St. Clemente’s memory, and this was thought to be that church. In 1857, Father Joseph Mullooly decided to see whether that was true. Down he dug, and was rewarded greatly for his efforts. He discovered the original basilica underneath the current church.

stclementsallthree052-4

Statues, marble columns, Roman brickwork, fantastic frescoes, and a bubbling spring were all revealed to him.

But. What if? What if there was something beneath this lovely original basilica? The digging began again. And again, the effort was rewarded. This time with a 1st century sanctuary to Mithras, a mystery cult, about which little is known.

1st century building underneath Basilica of San Clemente Rome Roma Italy

Here you will find a plainer, more ancient structure, with close hallways and small rooms, arches, and concrete. And that spring, bubbling and cascading, refreshing. Before it was a sanctuary, the structure is thought to have been a private home, or perhaps a mint.

Down, down, down. Modern-day Rome bustles on the surface of the city, and rises into the blue Italian sky. But, oh, what lies underneath it all. Much more just waiting to be discovered.

~

This post lacks images, I know, partly due to a lack on my part to find decent ones of the magnificent mosaics, and part of which because the church prohibits photography in the lower reaches. But there is one remedy for that, dear reader.

Visit Rome yourself. The Eternal City beckons. Will you heed the call? I have done so long before actually physically going there, through reading and writing. Such influences saturate my fiction, in some pieces more than others.

challenge, hiking, history, photography, travel, travel memories, Uncategorized, writing

A Walk on the Wild Side … of Spain – 217-229/300 Camino Photos

It was early May, and I continued to walk the Santiago de Compostela, bloodied but unbowed. Well, all right. Not bloodied. And only slightly bowed. My feet, however, hurt. When I would sit for a rest I was all right – until it was time to get up again. That’s when the grunting and groaning began. I wasn’t the only one with such afflictions, and commiserating with fellow pilgrims helped somewhat. So did views like this:

Galicia Spain panorama

Galicia Spain panorama

Galicia Spain panorama

Before I left on the Camino, I daydreamed about how wonderful it would be to have a donkey as a companion on the road. Not only would he keep me company, but he could tote my cumbersome backpack as well. It soon became clear that such an endeavor would take more logistical energy than I had – where would the animal sleep, how would I feet it, where would I get it, what would I do with it when I finished my journey. I decided to let that dream go. Instead, I felt certain that God would bring a donkey into my Camino in some way. Sure enough, he did. I passed this duo on the way:

The donkey, perhaps, had much to eat along the way.

Camino 1613 (Copy)

Camino 1614 (Copy)

It was, doubtlessly, a blessing not to have to tug the poor creature away from such treats hour after hour.

Mileposts like these showed that my journey would soon be at an end.

Camino 1616 (Copy)

Reminders of a simpler life cropped up unexpectedly. I halted on the trail as a married couple herded their cattle past. They were old, and wearing ragged clothing and mud-slick boots. I spied a wound on one of the cattle, and a broken down dog wore a giant goiter around his neck. How awful it would be to eke out an existence in such poverty, with old age slowing your steps. What if I could not afford to take my animals to the vet when they needed it? I thanked God for the goodness I take for granted so often – my easy suburban life in sunny southern California.

Camino 1618 (Copy)

Between the little villages are peaceful places where nature reigns supreme.

Soon enough human habitations arise, made from stone, slick and mossy.

Camino 1623 (Copy)

Camino 1625 (Copy)

Little churches dot the wayside, like this one, Iglesia de Santa Maria de Leboreiro, built in the 14th century. It is simple and humble.

Camino 1632 (Copy)

And the torments of past terrors, such as the ones suffered by Saint Sebastian, are ever near.

Camino 1634 (Copy)

The Renaissance costumes betray a 16th century origin. Old to us. So old. Like the urge to walk onward, an instinct encoded in our genes from our days as nomads, wandering day by day.

My pilgrimage continues on in future pictures. Subscribe to see them, or backtrack, if it suits you, to other images in my 100 Spanish Photos series.

challenge, hiking, history, photography, travel, travel memories, Uncategorized, writing

Over the Misty Mountains – 202-216/300 Camino Photos

 

I was raised in the desert. I know heat, parched earth, scorching sun, and dry, dry air. The rain, when it comes, is either a light pitter patter or torrential floods. There is no in between, it seems. And so when I come to a place like the region of Spanish Galicia, “the country of a thousand rivers,” I find it irresistible. So much green! So much moisture. Misty and rain and moss. Mud and more. Gnarled trees and stone huts. All of them are here, and more.

Galician hills

Flat heavy stones are everywhere. Stacked to form walls, bridges, homes …

Galicia

Even charming old chapels.

Stone church

Grain is stored in these odd looking little huts to keep them safe from rodents. Every house seems to have one.

no 4 grain

Hills everywhere. An endless panorama of them.

no 5 hills

The sign beside it claims that this tree is 800 years old. Called a castaño, it produces chestnuts in the fall.

Camino 1492

I never tired of the overflowing streams, and the constant drip, drip, drop from above. I don’t melt, and my shoes are waterproof. What more did I need but a rain jacket and backpack cover?

no 7

It is in such places that I am constantly surprised about the many hues green takes.

no 8

Camino 1506

I took a longer route on this day’s walk, determined to visit the Benedictine monastery of Samos, founded in the 6th century.

no 10

Along with two Finnish women, we toured the cloisters with a monk who spoke only Spanish. He showed us the lovely frescoed walls with pride. The Botica interested me as well, a long ago pharmacy.

no 11 botica

The monk blushed when I asked to take his picture. What a lovely, humble man he was. A credit to his profession.

no 12

More streams, as I traveled on.

no 13 bridge

More idyllic scenes.

no 14

And another bridge, leading to the unknown.

no 15

Join me, if you like, as my pilgrimage continues on. Or backtrack, if it suits you, to other images in my 100 Spanish Photos series.

Until next time, enjoy the new year. Indeed, we are blessed to experience it, with its many highs and occasional lows.

challenge, hiking, history, photography, travel, travel memories, Uncategorized, writing

Up, Up, and Away! Trekking Across Spain – 179-201/200+ Camino Photos

I am drawing closer to another milestone with my 100 Spanish Photos series (now 200 plus Spanish Photos!), and since it has been a while since I’ve posted, I am making this an extra long entry tonight. Last time I visited the fairy tale castle in Ponferrada. Onward I trekked, 18 kilometers from Ponferrada to Pieros, my feet hurting all the while. I ended my day early when I came to the lovely vegetarian albergue El Serbal y la Luna.

El Serbal y la Luna Albergue Spain

It is a large old home, made of bricks, mortar, and heavy wooden beams. I stayed in the room with four massive bunk beds and a view out the skylight to the starry night sky – truly one of my favorite stays. The communal meal was prepared by a chef who was next on her way to work for the summer on a Greek island. How romantic is that?

Two friends I knew from the trail showed up that afternoon – Antonia from California and Fiz from New Zealand or England, depending on the day. The albergue in the previous town, Cacabelos, was closed. As such, El Serbal y la Luna filled up quickly. However, in the late afternoon an older German couple showed up, huffing and puffing. Sweat running down his bald head, the husband proclaimed: “I am 72 years old. I will die if I cannot stay here!” We crowded in and made room lest he have to keep going.

Antonia and I headed off toward Trabedelo in the morning, taking a detour through cherry orchards and vineyards. The view was beautiful, I’m sure you will agree:

Vineyards near Pieros Spain

Vineyards near Pieros, Spain

Vineyards near Pieros Spain

Antonia and I parted ways, certain that we would see one another again soon – such is the way with companions on the Camino. One does not wait too long before pilgrims come by, although this group of fast-walking French people did not seem inclined to stop and chat:

tall bridge

I passed gushing streams:

gushing river

And little villages that looked a lot like American suburbs, minus the farm animals:

chickens and sheep

A few stops back, Scott from Georgia had told me a tale of his first Camino, when he had snagged a horseback ride up the long ascent to O Cebreiro. What could be better? I thought. When I saw this sign, I knew what to look for up ahead in Herrarias:

O Cebreiro horseback

There was much to hold my attention on the way:

overlook

And soon I arrived at the sleepy village of Herrerias:

pasture

Though it was closing on 11 am, I rousted Victor out of bed, and he kept me waiting until he rounded up four more riders to accompany us up the long hill to O Cebreiro. One young German girl who had never ridden before chain-smoked cigarettes. As she contemplated the ride ahead, she repeated, “Mein Gott! Mein Gott!” Presently, Victor appeared with our mounts:

horse wrangler

And off we went, up the spectacular heather-covered hills:

on the trail

The views were inspiring:

heather

heather2

Although the knotted muscles in my thighs protested loudly. I ignored the pain as we passed the winded pilgrims on foot. At last we came to the top of the world and the village of O Cebreiro, where winds blow cold and hard and the peasants lived in round stone huts:

hut

You may notice that there is no chimney. The hearth inside is always lit, but the smoke seeps out through the woven mat roof. We supped on octopus, a regional specialty which I found to be chewy. And the intact suckers creeped me out a bit. Fiz and Antonia both showed up, and together we visited the simple church with a talented organist:

inside church

candles

The panorama is magnificent, green hills all around:

panorama

 

framed

view

The albergue perches sturdy and tall near an edge. Its boot room sports the most magnificent view of any I encountered:

Phone Pictures 978

The wind howled all night, and continued on in the morning. Fog and rain were my companions as I trudged on like so many before mehat

~

If you’ve missed any of the photos in this series, feel free to backtrack over here.

challenge, hiking, history, photography, travel, travel memories, Uncategorized

Castles in the Air: Ponferrada, Spain – 170-178/200 Camino Photos

Much like a pilgrim stumping up a long, steep hill, I’ve slowed on my posting of 100 Spanish Photos series (now 200 Spanish Photos!), but I have vowed to travel onward! Next stop? Ponferrada. The name means iron (ferrada) bridge (pon). Alas, the bridge was unremarkable. But the castle? Quite the opposite.

long view

It is called the Templar Castle, built in the 13th century atop the remains of a Visogothic fort. Underneath this Visogothic fort lay the Roman one, which overlay a pre-Roman castro.

It was such a perfect day for exploring.

perfect day

sunny blue skies

Looking out from the walls, you see the city below, and the thick bricks.

tower

looking down

keyhole

The road paralleling the wall leads to the church, standing proud and distinguished at the city center.

city view

What treasures do the towers and thick walls hold? The most valuable things of all.

book

Lavishly illustrated, this book is the Cosmography of Claudio Ptolomeo from the 15th century. It is on loan from Paris. What is next? What is always next, on the Camino de Santiago …

yellow shell

Searching for the yellow shell at every intersection, and walking onward.

~

If you’ve missed any of the photos in this series, feel free to backtrack over here.

challenge, hiking, history, photography, travel, travel memories, Uncategorized

Topping the Misty Spanish Mountains – 159-169/200 Camino Photos

It’s been a little while since my last post in my 100 Spanish Photos series (now 200 Spanish Photos!), but I have much more to share. This section of photos has me traveling from Astorga to Rabanal, then beyond to Molinseca, which was the most challenging part of my Camino.

What do you do when you are walking the Camino de Santiago and it is a rainy day? Well, you walk right on through it, trudging up, up, up the hills. At the crest, you find these makeshift crosses. They are a celebration of sorts, declaring for all: “We made it. Our devotion has brought us thus far, and will take us further still.”

Camino 1213 (Copy)

The hillside is beautiful with purple heather, and quiet mountains.

Camino 1271

In the folds of the mountains lie little Spanish towns.

Camino 1275 (Copy)

And as you walk in the footsteps of pilgrims throughout the ages, a saxophone player fills the land with beauty.

The strains of his song carry for hill after hill, accompanied by birdsong. Messages of love and generosity occur all along the Way.

At the top of a challenging hill, soaked by rain and chilled by cold, I reached the famed Cruz de Ferro, an iron monument sacred for many since Celtic times. The tradition is that you carry a stone with you during the whole Camino, symbolizing something you wish to give up. Then, prayerfully, you place it at the foot of the cross. Thus unburdened, you carry on with your Camino.

Camino 1253 (Copy)

If you are lucky you may see a pilgrim that carries a staff and wears a heavy wool cloak.

Camino 1252 (Copy)

Speaking of the past, atop a lonely hill near Manjarin I visited a handmade outpost occupied by Tomas, who claims to be the last of the Knights Templar. He gives pilgrims a dry bench to rest on, and offers a rather precarious outhouse with a stunning view of the valley below.

Camino 1259 (Copy)

Camino 1264 (Copy)

Camino 1260 (Copy)

Camino 1262 (Copy)

Heading onward to Molinseca I encountered the most difficult challenge of the way – wet slippery slate and large rocks underfoot, both of these made worse by sore feet and general exhaustion. Still, the beauty was undeniable, and I appreciated the vivid colors and grand views.

Camino 1281 (Copy)

Camino 1282 (Copy)

The peace and solitude may be glimpsed by this short video, which features a the call of a cuckoo bird.

 

If you’ve missed any of the photos in this series, feel free to backtrack over here.