Stuck Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere

Quincy California Sierra Nevada Mountains Small TownWhen I was 16 years old, I decided to move to the Middle of Nowhere. With high school graduation behind me, I packed up my sparse wardrobe, shabby bicycle, and cardboard boxes filled with books and thrift-store kitchenware, and moved into my first apartment in Quincy, California.

“Why on earth would you want to live there?” asked pretty much everyone. Quincy, after all, is a tiny town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When I moved there, it had no traffic lights, far more trees than people, and zero chain stores, unless you count the 24-hr. Safeway supermarket in the center of town. It was nothing like my Bay Area home, nothing like the dull suburb where I’d lived during high school. Quincy had no shopping mall, no Target stores, no roller skating rinks. The only movie theater had one small screen and played the latest blockbusters about two months after they’d been released.

Plus, Quincy was in the middle of nowhere.

Middle of Nowhere Sign

But I loved that little town. It was quiet, but filled with character. It was isolated from the rest of the world, but only because the outside world couldn’t be bothered with traversing the long, winding highway leading up to our Main Street. It was different from typical California suburbs, with its seeming lack of sophistication and modernization, but how is that such a bad thing? Quincy was an awful lot like me.

When I woke up in the mornings in my tiny apartment, the first thing I liked to do was throw open my bedroom curtain. The view outside was stunning — picturesque, snow-capped mountains, tall, elegant pines, and a huge meadow, where deer and other wildlife scampered around in the sunshine. Everything was green and gold, and lovely. As I hiked through the trees to my college campus, all of the darkness and stress of my high school years melted away. In the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the woods, I was in the middle of transforming into a confident and joyful young woman.

Of course, Quincy wasn’t really in the middle of Nowhere. It was literally in the middle of Somewhere. For people with cars (unlike me), you could drive for exactly one hour in one direction to get to the city of Chico, and an hour in the other direction to get to the city of Reno. At times, my college buddies and I would pile into someone’s vehicle and head out on the highway, in order to escape the calm and serenity of our little town and seek out a shopping mall, or a real movie theater, or a Target store. No matter how isolated we sometimes felt living in Quincy, we knew that we could always choose one direction or another and find ourselves somewhere, eventually.

Isn’t life kind of like that?

Sometimes, we just find ourselves in the Middle of Nowhere, like when that ex-con dropped off Pee-Wee Herman and drove away. We don’t know how we got there, and are pretty much stuck until Large Marge shows up with her big rig to cart us away.

PeeWee Herman in the middle of nowhere

Okay, bad analogy.

But sometimes, we place ourselves in the Middle of Nowhere. Unable to deal with something in our lives, we pack up our cardboard boxes and head off to live in the woods, where we can forget about the noise and crud that plagued us back in Somewhere. Sometimes, we need the Middle of Nowhere in order to heal ourselves. Or to recenter, as we transform into a better person. Kind of like a caterpillar in a chrysalis.

And for some of us, the Middle of Nowhere is where we choose to hang up our tattered wings and retire.

Just know this. The Middle of Nowhere really is a misnomer. No matter your reasons for finding yourself where you are, no matter how long you choose to stay, you are never really stuck there. When you’re ready for a change, just open up a map, get in your car, and drive. Or hitch a ride in Large Marge’s big rig. Whatever. Just pick a direction and go. You are always in the Middle of Somewhere, and you can get there, eventually.

Beaches and Banana Slugs (aka: Camping is Boring)

“Camping is boring.”

I stared in shock at my 16yo, whom I had taken camping nearly every summer since he was a baby. “Boring?” I repeated. “How do you figure?”

Apparently, there was nothing to do while camping. No computer games, no WiiU, no skate park or Pokémon Go-ing. Nothing to do but swing in a hammock and stare at trees.

“Can’t we take a trip to a city and stay in a hotel instead?” he asked.

I laughed. Then I set the kids to work planning camping menus, writing packing lists, and stuffing the family minivan with sleeping bags, tents, and other well-worn gear for living in the wilderness. Okay, sort of wilderness. The truth is, we are not backpack-in-the-wild, cache-your-food-in-a-tree, filter-water-from-a-pond campers (much to my disappointment). We are more like state park campers with Coleman gear and a screen house to hide from mosquitoes and yellowjackets. But hey — we’re still getting “Out There.”

 

Our family has camped pretty much all throughout Northern California — Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen, and all throughout the Sierra Nevada. We’ve seen gorgeous waterfalls, amazing rock structures, and endless night skies smeared with clusters of brilliant stars. This time, we chose to camp at Big Basin, a huge state park nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We’d been there once before, but decided to return, drawn by the impressive beauty of the giant sequoia trees, not to mention the lack of bears. I love everything about camping except for bears. Especially at night. We pitched our tents, then did the usual camping stuff. We sat around in camping chairs, reading books and laughing over Mad Libs stories. We marveled over chipmunks and the horrid caws of Stellar’s Blue Jays. We spotted a slimy, adorable banana slug and dared each other to touch it. We grilled pizzas and toasted marshmallows and sang silly camp songs. So boring, I know.

 

On day two, we went for a long hike through the forest. We climbed on huge fallen logs and stood inside the hollowed-out trunks of some of the tallest, grandest trees on earth. Afterward, we had soft-serve ice cream at the camp store, then relaxed at camp with Uno cards and other travel games. “But Mom, there’s no Wi-Fi or cell phone service,” said the 16yo, his expression grumpy. “This is so bo-ring!”

 

The next day, we drove down the mountain toward the ocean. Then my three kids rode roller coasters and built sandcastles at the shore while I lay on the beach, devouring a good book under our huge sport umbrella. (The 16yo barely glanced at his phone, although he had service once again).  Later that evening, we returned to camp to enjoy one last evening around the campfire, where I entertained the kids by telling a super-scary story about a scarecrow who came to life.

At last, our camping trip drew to a close. We stuffed away the sleeping bags and tents and loaded up the family minivan. We cleaned up every last trace of our visit, so that the next campers could enjoy a clean campsite as we had. Then we drove away, waving goodbye to the sequoia trees and chipmunks and banana slugs — the only witnesses to our days of music and laughter, our nights of board games and reading books side-by-side under the glow of a propane lantern. No cell phones. No television. No computer screens to keep our family from truly connecting, if only for a few summer days.

Camping is so boring. Thank goodness.

 

Facing the Mountain (aka: Writing vs. Editing)

Goooaaalll!  

Okay, well, I am not exactly talking about scoring a soccer goal here. But the sentiment is the same. I feel like throwing my hands up in victory, throwing back my head, and cheering. I have accomplished a gooooaaaaallll!

closeup of an typewriter with the words "CHAPTER 1"  in blue lightingYesterday, I completed a novel. To be fair, it is not the first novel I’ve completed. But it is the first young adult novel I have ever completed, and by far the longest. Possibly the best, too. I don’t know. It’s not always easy to judge your own work.

It is not an easy accomplishment to write a novel. In fact, I would rank it right behind weight loss in terms of how much daily effort and discipline it takes. Better yet, maybe it is like mountain climbing. You dig in and pull and scrabble your way up the face of the mountain. But when you at last reach the top and celebrate, wiping the sweat from your brow, the realization hits you.

climbing-a-mountain

You have not reached the summit. Just beyond your little peak looms a higher, more challenging part of the mountain. It is very daunting – filled with obstacles, like icy crevasses and loose rock. Climbing that section will likely take three times longer and require far more effort and focus.

And that, dear reader is editing.

writing rewriting

Every writer is passionate about creating a story. But few writers enjoy the editing process. Improve the spelling and grammar? No problem. But, what? Change the point-of-view of the entire story? Improve believability? Kill my beloved characters and storylines? Make the voice more active and consistent? Make the character arc more clear? Plant clues and foreshadowing earlier in the story? Make the plot less predictable?

Aaack! It’s like torture. I would rather discuss politics with my mother than edit a novel. I would rather be forced to listen to Nickelback or Bruno Mars all day than edit my novel. I would rather engage in hours of small talk with people I barely know than edit my novel.

But editing must be done. It is the thing that takes a crappy first draft that should never see the light of day and transforms it into a worthwhile novel that readers will actually want to read. Anyone can write stories. Anyone can climb the easy, first part of the mountain, pat themselves on the back, and then call it a day. But true writers know that the real victory awaits at the peak. And so, I will slip on my best climbing shoes, gather up my rope and carabiners, and face the mountain once again. I’ll bet the view will be incredible. Summit success

Famous Writer Quotes on Editing

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  ~ Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” ~ Mark Twain

“The first draft of anything is shit.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” ~ Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~  Arthur Plotnik

OCD Editing

Bloom Where You’re Planted (Even When You’re Stuck Living in the Suburbs)

ugly suburbsThe ugliest place I’ve ever lived was in a suburb in Suisun, California. In the 1980’s, suburbs like mine sprang up from nowhere, filling the once-lovely rolling grasslands with boxy, cookie-cutter new homes. As a teenager, I lived in one of those homes, and hated every moment. I hated the buzzing of lawn mowers on Sunday mornings, hated the smells of fresh-cut grass and swimming pool chemicals, and hated the view from my bedroom window, of look-alike rooftops and trees no taller than me. I missed my childhood home in the Bay Area—the heavy blanket of morning fog, the fragrance of eucalyptus and bay laurel trees, and the view of the San Francisco Bay from our living room balcony. Bay Area Bay Laurels

While most high school girls were busy dreaming of college party towns full of pizza restaurants and hot guys, I spent my last years of adolescence dreaming of escaping the suburbs and fleeing to the mountains. And, at the age of sixteen, that is exactly what I did. My first college was a tiny community college in the mountains, with rustic wooden buildings that looked more like summer camp cabins. Most of the students lived in apartments just off campus, and we literally had to hike through the woods just to go to class. It was totally cool, except when I had night classes, and had to hike through the forest with a flashlight, keeping an eye out for bears and skunks, which roamed the same woods in abundance. Still, that year of living completely surrounded by trees, and snow-capped peaks, and fields full of wildflowers had a kind of healing effect on my spirit.

I miss that home in the mountains for its nature, just as I miss my home in the hills of the Bay Area for its nature. And where do I live now? Well, for the past two decades, I have been back in the suburbs. Different town, different suburbs, but same feeling of longing and homesickness whenever I look out of the windows at views of look-alike houses and square green lawns. No, I never pictured ending up here – I always imagined living near the seashore, or a redwood forest, or beneath the glittering stars in some vast rural plain. But instead, college and marriage and jobs led me here, where I have often felt like a rose trying to bloom in a concrete desert. rose growing in concrete desert

And you know what? It is not impossible to bloom here. There are ways – so many small ways to grow, even in less-than-ideal circumstances. It just takes some work, chipping away at the concrete barriers to expose the earth the sun and rain. And while in my heart, I will never feel at home here, the way I did amongst the bay laurels and eucalyptus of my first home, I can keep trying to build a sort of oasis here in the concrete desert, and feeding my spirit small bits of nature that it may grow.

Ways to Embrace Nature (Even When You Live in the Suburbs)

  • Grow flowers 
  • Plant a vegetable garden
  • Create an outdoor living room, then eat meals and read books there
  • Find local nature trails to hike
  • Go walking, running, and bicycle riding
  • Learn the names of your local birds, then go birdwatching
  • Participate in local park and creek cleanup days
  • Fly kites
  • Hang bird feeders or squirrel feeders in your yard (or create some other wildlife habitat)
  • Cook outdoors
  • Drive away from the suburbs and go camping or hiking or stargazing
  • Bring nature indoors (plants, flowers, stones)

enjoy an outdoor room

Feel free to contribute. I am always searching for new ideas!