Friday, October 1, 2010

Hiking the nonfiction trail with Lee Gutkind Part 1

It all started with french fries in my chef’s salad. I thought maybe a couple had unintentionally fallen off another plate, unnoticed by the cook or the waitress, and landed at the edge of the contents of my bowl. But as I ate, I realized the french fries throughout were mixed in too flawlessly to be accidental.

Interesting image I found of Lee
I finally mentioned this in the car to my lunch pals, Mike Shay and Lee Gutkind. It was the first day of the Equality State Book Festival, and we were headed back to the Goodstein Library for the Wyoming Arts Council’s Fellowship readings. Non-fiction was the genre this year, and Lee had been the judge. He would also be reading after the fellowship winners had read, staying for the festival and be part of the nonfiction panel discussion, and then he and longtime friend Terry Rasmussen, English instructor at Casper College, were going hiking around Dubois for a day or two before Lee had to get back to Pittsburgh.

Lee had brought with him the first edition of the new magazine format of Creative Nonfiction, of which he was founder and is still editor. The first issue of Creative Nonfiction came out in 1993 as a literary journal--what turned out to be the only place publishing nonfiction exclusively. But subscriptions/circulation had dipped in recent years, and the staff was looking for a way to bring back the readership.

The new design contains features on nonfiction, as well as nonfiction from new sources, such as blogs and science and technology as narrative. As Lee says in his editorial from this revamped first issue, “In fact, creative nonfiction is the fastest growing segment of the academic writing community and is, even in this dismal economic cycle, one bright spot in the publishing world, continually increasing its share of the market.” Subscriptions are now climbing, and their sales are up thirty-five percent.

So back to french fries. “Doesn’t that seem a little counter intuitive, putting french fries in a green salad?” I asked from the back seat.

“I know the name of the restaurant that started that food trend,” Lee says.

“It’s a trend?” I asked skeptically. “So, what’s the name?”

“I will tell you the name of the restaurant if you buy a subscription to Creative Nonfiction.”

It wasn’t quite that quick of a cut-to-the-chase, but you get the idea where this is going. The mystery of the restaurant’s name hung in the air, at least for me.

The next day at lunch, Terry asked me if I wanted to go hiking with her and Lee. I wasn’t sure that I could. I seemed to feel I had things to do. Lee, who overheard the invitation, said, “I will only tell you the name of the restaurant if you go hiking with us.”

“Oh great,” I whined to Terry. “He said he would tell it to me if I bought a subscription, now it’s if I go hiking.” Lee overheard me, and his telling of the name vacillated vaguely back to hinging on me buying a subscription.

At the event’s ending banquet that evening, Terry asked me if I was going. “Yes, I’ve decided to go.” I’d already bought a two-year subscription that afternoon after the nonfiction panel discussion. “Will you tell me now?” I asked him after I handed over my check.

“If you want me to,” he’d said coyly.

“Oh, I can hear it on the trail. I’m patient.”

We left Casper Sunday morning under a clear autumn sky and summer-like temperatures. The region had been (and still is as of this writing) under a high-pressure weather system for the previous month-and-a-half, and the weather was going to hold for at least the next seven days.
Sometime around Powder River, Lee suggested that we should tell a collaborative story, upon which the ending would lead to his revealing the name of the restaurant in question. Terry began the story, and knew enough that it should include french fries, but wasn’t fully aware just yet of why.
We, well they, covered a lot of ground with (some of the names have been changed to protect the unaware) Claudia, Jack and the Sheriff getting to the chopping up of a potato as well as Jack, and both being thrown into a pot on the stove, heated by wood that Claudia had to split (my contribution, as well as something about carrots). The Sheriff became worried about Jack’s whereabouts, knocking on Claudia’s door, where he could finally let loose his hidden attraction for her, and she for him. A stranger named Joe appeared while Claudia was unconscious in the garden while picking vegetables for the salad she was going to serve the Sheriff, and Jack’s skull was offered, or asked for, as some kind of souvenir to take back home, after Joe and Claudia recognized themselves as long-ago-separated mother and son in a fluke of identity. 
Fortunately for the story’s sake, we had gotten to Dubois and it was time for lunch at the Cowboy Café. Lee ordered a chef’s salad and I asked the waitress if they put french fries in their salad. She gave me an odd look and shook her head no. Lee and I laughed, and Terry wanted to know more about the french fry/salad thing.

After lunch, Terry driving, we arrived at the trailhead at Brooks Lake that would lead us to Jade Lake, ranked an “easy” hike by trail standards. All along the mountains, Aspen stands uttered their brilliant yellow color with certainty, no matter that the temperature was still in the upper seventies or low eighties.

Early afternoon. A few hikers and a string of packhorses were making their way down the trail that we were headed up. We were at the north end of Brooks Lake and a few gusts had kicked up. A couple of dogs wandered around, half wet from wading into the lake. We were finally ready. It was a five-mile hike up to the first of the two Jade Lakes.

Soon, we were up the first hill of the trail, and into the coolness of the pine forest, stopping occasionally to catch our breath after a steep climb, or just to take in some stunning vista. A woodpecker had found what sounded like a hollow tree and was beating out a message that echoed around the tops of the trees. We reached upper Jade Lake about 4:30 PM. The lake is so named because the water is just that color, which is not an illusion; nor does the color of the water change depending on how the sun is hitting it. A deep lake, you can see the shore drop away just two feet from the water’s edge.

Upper Jade Lake
We pulled out our cameras and took some pictures. Alas, there is not one with all three of us. I didn’t know how to operate my time delay, and by the time Lee figured his out, Terry was ready to get going, reminding us that bears liked to nap during the hot afternoon, but rouse when it begins to cool off. We’d also heard there’d been a carcass discovered on the south trail, which would be attracting scavengers. She had bear spray, but would only use it if she were about to be attacked. “Well, I guess we’re out of luck, Lee,” I laughed uneasily.

Terry wanted to see where lower Jade Lake was, so we hiked just a short distance and saw it rather far below from our vantage point. It would have been a heck of an uphill hike out, and we just didn’t have the time before it would be dusk.
Read Part 2 herre:
Linda Coatney