Something that I keep harping on in my editorials is that everything that a writer does eventually becomes part of a story, somehow. Everyone you meet, everywhere you go, anything that happens around you, all of everything that you experience winds up as inspiration for something that you will eventually write. This is a good thing. It adds realism and character development and depth to your stories. This just something we do. We can't help it. It is simply part of being a writer. Accept it, embrace it, and above all, use it! It's just one of the gifts we are given that are included in the package of things that make us into writers.
Our trip to New Mexico is no exception. Everything is going to wind up in a story, eventually. Doesn't have to all be in the same story. I found things for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian, Historical, and many other genres of stories. There are so many things I saw. But there is a trick to using them.
The trick is to take what you have seen and look at those mental images in new and different ways. To find ways to apply these images and impressions and memories to the stories you write. Some of these mental images will spark entire new stories. Some will become setting or set dressing in an existing story. Some details of these mental images will serve to add much needed touches of realism to some story or other. How you apply these experiences is up to each individual. They will be different for everyone. For instance, my experiences of having been in three different airports in a single day might give me insights into what passengers waiting to board a starship might think and feel. The public address announcements, the smells of the food courts, the feel of the chair fabric against my skin, the different airport workers going about their daily tasks, boarding different airplanes and how each airline does it a little bit differently – Each memory could provide me with intricate details of what some imaginary situation might be like were I to actually live within it. Were Nate or Jeff or Rob or McCamy or Bob be right there beside me, seeing the same sights, smelling the same scents, hearing the same sounds, eating the same foods they could come away with memories quite different from my own.
Where I might notice a pilot and flight crew tiredly towing their suitcases across the airport floor towards a well deserved respite between flights, Bill Wolfe might concentrate on a man with an empty baby carriage waiting for his wife and child to disembark from a flight due soon to land. McCamy might notice a limo driver in full uniform holding a small sign with his client's name written across it who is drinking coffee and hoping the flight he is supposed to meet will be on time. Nate might concentrate on a group of people passing photos around, while Rob might see the same group and speculate on the different interpersonal relationships involved. Bob might focus on the baggage handling machinery, while Jeff concentrated on the fire trucks and docking airplanes that could be seen through the concourse windows. We all see the same world through different points of view.
I can see that this is going to be one of my longer editorials.
So, just what wondrous sights did I see in New Mexico? What did Lyn and I do? Where did we go?
First off, the trip had a three-fold purpose. We went in order to see Lyn's son Anthony graduate from college, we visited with Lyn's youngest daughter and met her husband for the first time, and we visited with other friends and family members. We based ourselves at a nice hotel in Albuquerque, drove Northeast to Clayton, South to Socorro, and from there West to Magdalena, Datil, and Pie Town. We had originally planned to also go East to Roswell, but finally decided that was too far to go just to visit the UFO Museum and other tourist attractions there. Some other time, we will go there, but this trip had already put more than a thousand miles on the rental car we got at the Albuquerque airport.
In Clayton, while Lyn was visiting with a friend, I backtracked slightly to go to a tiny little charity store that I'd seen as we entered town. There I found yet another cowboy hat for my hat collection, several books, and a brightly colored bandanna, or scarf, that I bought for Lyn. I also went to a friendly little coffee shop downtown, and refilled the car's gas tank at a local convenience store that happened to sell home-cooked meals. On the drive back to Albuquerque, we pulled into a roadside rest stop where we got out to stretch our legs and I took a pair of photos with my cell phone. I'd left the cameras in the hotel room, oddly enough.
The wind was steady, cold, and belied the bright sunlight. Dust and sand stung my eyes as I stood there gazing at the panoramic view. The starkness of the dried, brown vegetation gave way in the distance to lusher greens on the mountain slopes. The mountains in the distance are the Colorado Rockies. I wish I'd thought to get a pic of the Historic Site marker. That was a mistake that I did not make again on our future drives.
Back in Albuquerque the next morning, we awoke to the sight of hot air balloons rising against the clear blue sky for a race and festival. I tried to snap some photos, but our cameras couldn't zoom in close enough. In the few pics I got, the balloons are so small as to be hardly noticeable. Sad but true.
Next we drove a few scant miles to see Anthony graduate from UNM. That was a wonder to behold! During the evening he told us of his future plans. He's going to Denver to work for Boeing for a year on an internship, then he's enrolling at UC in Boulder to go for his Master's Degree. I re-met Anthony's father and paternal grandfather, his step-mother Apryl, and Grandma Judy along the way. This was also the first chance I had to meet Lyn's daughter Judith's husband Sam. I can now relax knowing that my littlest Princess is safe with a man who loves her to the absolute limits of human ability. Sam is so cool! I dearly love my son-in-law even more now than I did before I met him in person. His family is cool, too, but more on that later...
So, the very next day we headed South, then veered West once we reached Socorro. Our ultimate destination on this trip was Pie Town to see Thelma and get Lyn to her church on time for services. Unfortunately, I overslept and only got her there in time for the church Pot Luck dinner after services. But it turned out to be all for the good. I was accepted without question by the congregation, and made welcome. I also got to meet Lyn's adopted Mother Thelma, and her adopted Brother Mark. I took a very few photos outside the house and the church, but none of Thelma and Mark, or the church congregation. It didn't feel right, so I didn't do it. Later that day we went to the local cemetery to visit the grave site of Lyn's adopted Pop McKee. Lyn didn't get the chance to go to Pop's funeral, so this was the best we could do. The view was lovely there, but once again I didn't feel right about taking photos, out of respect for the deceased.
On the way back, we stopped for a slice of Pie Town's world famous desserts at the Pie-O-Neer restaurant. Bloody good pie! Later that evening we drove back East a bit to Datil to meet with Judith and Sam, to follow them home. Oh! What a splendid little place they have! Sam's Mom lives next door, and we got to meet her and the rest of Sam's family the next day. We had a lovely tea party at Sam's Mother's house. There was a batch of home-made cookies, several different kinds of teas, and a houseful of company. And what a delightful house it was! The exterior looked to have been built in the 1920 or 1910s, while the interior looked like os featured home from the magazine Mother Earth News. I spent hours admiring the design and workmanship. After that, we went back to Sam and Judith's for more visiting. Sam played his guitar while Judith cooked. Lyn and Judith went through boxes of old photos in a trip down Memory Lane. Sam and I talked a bit about his plans for home improvements. Just normal family stuff. Sam and Judith's home is huge, comfortable, and yet still a work in progress. They are having to rough it a little bit, but not unbearably so. They have big plans to add more touches as they go, until they finally have their dream house completed. First on their list is having a well dug and a septic tank put in. I haven't had to use an outhouse for several decades now, but I was so reminded of my shildhood and visiting my paternal Grandmother's house. I caught myself several times looking to see my Great Uncle was going to come in for coffee. Or if my cousin Ray was about to surprize us with a brace of pheasant or rabbits to add to the family dinner. Lyn and I had a wonderful time while we were there. Finally, and altogether too soon, we had to head back to our hotel room in Albuquerque.
We stopped to take a few photos on a lonely little stretch of Highway 60 in between the towns of Datil and Magdalena, about fifty miles before we got to Socorro. I could see this site from many, many miles off. The sheer distance we drove from the point where I got my first glimpse of the place was staggering. That fact helped me comprehend the scale of the thing. This is an enormous piece of engineering. I'd seen it as we'd been on our way West to Pie Town, but didn't have time to stop. Now that we were on our way back however, I had to stop and take a closer look. I'm glad I took the time to check it out. This thing is big! It is amazing. It is deceptively simple to look at, but once you know what it is, it is made of pure awesome. This, is the VLA radio telescope.
Imagine three sections of railroad track, each of them thirteen miles long, meeting at a center point close to the highway. One arm of this huge Y-shape actually crosses the road itself. There are 27 of these huge dish antennas, each on its own set of wheels, parked at variable distances along one or another of the tracks. The actual scale of the thing is mind-boggling. A radio telescope with an effective diameter of 26 miles! For a Sci-Fi writer or reader, there are few other places that have such an impact on the imagination. Yet the actual thing is so simple, so seemingly ordinary. It was so familiar to Lyn, since she lived in the area for such a long time. She even got to go sunbathe in one of the dishes once. All very ho-hum for her, but to me it was like standing inside a cathedral. After I'd gotten my photos and we were just about to leave, another car pulled up into the roadside parking lot. An older couple, on a trip, wanted to know what it was. They had seen the dishes and stopped to take a closer look. Once I enlightened them, they decided to go on up to the main building and ask for a tour. We left as they drove through the gate. Feel free to click on the photo to the left to see a somewhat wider view of roughly a third of the facility.
We took another short break from the drive when we reached Socorro. There was something in the little park downtown that I wanted to photograph. Something I remembered from my last visit there. Take a look at this:
That piece of metal is roughly three square feet, and about six to eight inches thick. The inner surface looks as if it had been melted, then allowed to cool.
And that's exactly what happened.
As the historic marker says, that is a piece of a metal container which was nicknamed Jumbo. It was originally intended to house the first ever atomic bomb. It ended up not being used in that very first test explosion, but instead it sat nearby ground zero. It was far enough away to survive intact. It did wind up being used in a later test, however. Jumbo was made fourteen inches thick, but the nuclear explosion inside it melted away over half of that mass. This is the largest fragment of the container that was recovered. If you can imagine the energy necessary to convert that much metal into vapor, instantly, then you have a handle on just how powerful those little, early nuclear weapons were. Seeing recordings of the actual explosion is one thing. But being able to reach out and touch a thing that was at the very heart of one of those Earth-shattering moments is downright spooky. And no, it does not still glow in the dark.
We stopped by the old hotel where Lyn was living when we first started our romance. The Val Verde was built in 1919 and has changed very little since then. As you can see, it was built in a revival of the Spanish Mission style that was quite popular in the area. In fact, during this trip I saw hundreds of houses and stores built in a traditional adobe style. At times I felt as if I'd walked onto a set for a revival of some Zorro movie or TV show. Lyn tells me that the fountain is a new addition, and that furthermore she thinks it is a hideous blight on the beauty of the hotel itself. The exterior walls to the sides and back are carpeted thickly with ivy. In some places even the apartment windows are almost covered with vines. Although I imagine the cool, green shade is a welcome relief from the Summer heat.
We also did a little shopping in a couple of the local stores, then headed over to a restaurant where Lyn insisted that I have a chile cheeseburger. She was right, of course. It was the best cheeseburger I've ever had! So, stuffed to the gills with very fine food, we continued on our way back to Albuquerque. I had originally wanted to drive Southeast from Socorro to visit the tourist traps in Roswell, but that would have added several extra hours of driving time. I decided to save that for the next time we visit New Mexico. It was going to take us long enough to get back to the hotel in any case.
I think the strangest sight of the entire trip happened about halfway between Socorro and Albuquerque. I had grown used to the sight of antelope running across the fields next to the road. And since we live out in the countryside ourselves, the sight of cattle is nothing new. But this was a touch unusual. In the corner of a field, right up next to the road, was an antelope, a very large cow, and either an Emu or Cassowary. I know it wasn't an ostrich because I'd seen ostriches before. This one had a different shape and stance than an ostrich. In any case, this was one huge bird! I believe it was a Cassowary, from the photos I've seen online since then. I've never heard of those being farmed in the US, however. I do know that Emus have been farmed here. But whatever it was, it looked mighty strange as we drove past!
Finally, we got back to our hotel. We spent one more night there, then turned in our rental car, were bussed back to the airport, politely ushered through Security, and began the first leg of our flight home. Once again, our connecting flight at the Denver airport was beginning to board even as our incoming flight was landing. So that makes twice now that we've seen the Denver airport only at a dead run from one end to the other! Eventually, we reached the Atlanta airport around midnight, met Rob Wynne there, and were driven back to Rob and Larissa's place to pick up our car. The drive back to our own house was uneventful. The next day we went over to my Mom and Dad's to pick up our two dogs. We had a couple of days of downtime after that, before I had to go back to work and resume my normal routine.
But how does all that tie into being able to write more creatively? Quite nicely, in fact. Everywhere we went, everything we saw, everything we did gave me fresh material to use in a story or ten. Wide open spaces, exotic locations, beautiful scenery, the food, the people, the wildlife... Everything can be used to enhance my eventual storytelling. Every trip through an airport gives me insight into what a space port might be like for a traveler. The flight of the balloon race made me think of what a fleet of space ships hovering in mid-air would look like. The roadside rest areas looked for all the world as if they were a movie set of some tiny frontier town. The footprints of a coyote on the arid ground, the languid flight of a huge hawk almost hovering as it banked and curved into the constant wind from the distant mountains, the herds of antelope running across the flatland fields, all that and more gave me a better sense of something different from my everyday life. Every little detail adds something more to my writer's toolbox. As a writer, everything I see or hear or taste or feel can become something different to add to my work. Look around yourself, see everything you can, experience as much as possible, then knuckle down and translate those things into a picture painted with words. Words are powerful, even more so when they come from your heart by way of a well-stocked mind. Everything is grist for the writer's mill. It is those little details that can add so much to whatever you write.