Helen’s Dawning

I’m enjoying the rediscovery of posts from a former blog. As with almost all of my posts, they start from writing prompts. Maybe they’ll inspire you as well?

The OLWG prompts were: Neither have I; An impeccably dressed transvestite; The birds at dawn

The morning dawned clear and cold the day Helen left. Smoke from the wildfires the next county over turned the sunrise into a lurid magenta and orange. Somewhere a tractor started up, sending a swarm of Starlings high into the sky. They swirled this way and that, circling the farmhouse as if to herd her along her way.

Helen sat in her car, staring at the home built by her great-grandparents. The home where her grandfather and father were born and raised; where she and her sisters were born and raised, and where she gave birth to and raised her three children. Helen and William’s wedding was held in the living room. Leaving was audacious and terrifying.

The morning sun revealed the place for what it had become. The window trim she painted blue the year her youngest left for college was already peeling. The sign William placed on the stairs to the front porch, warning of rotted wood, had sunk down into the gap between the boards. The cracks in the living room window were not as visible from the outside, but Helen could see them. From the inside, the cracks looked as though someone took harsh, angry strokes of black spray paint to the picture-perfect view of the river valley.

The bedroom light came on, jarring Helen out of her melancholy. She started her car’s engine, rammed the stick into reverse, and sped backward down the drive. As she whipped around and pulled out onto the road, she compulsively glanced in the rear-view mirror. William was jogging down the porch stairs. He kept running down the drive, stopping just before Helen cleared the crest of the hill, and raised a hand.

###        ###

An impeccably dressed transvestite greeted Helen at the hotel reception counter. “Have you been to Denver before?”

Helen shook her head.

“Neither have I. HA!” Helen was not sure what to make of the man’s joke.

As he tapped away at the computer, Helen stared at the man’s attire. He had manicured hands and translucent pink polished nails. A tuft of chest hair peeked out from the neck of his pristine white linen blouse. Small solitaire pearl stud earrings dotted his ear lobes. He had bushy eyebrows and did not wear a wig, but what most fascinated her was the man’s waxed, jet-black mustache with tiny pin curls on each tip. She smoothed her sweater and slacks and ran her fingers through her uncombed hair.

“It’s none of my business, of course,” the man said as he handed her the key to her room, “but, I work here, right? I take note of these things.”

Helen did not understand what he was getting at. She waited for him to continue.

“I noticed you booked an extended stay,” he said. Helen nodded.

 “I can give you a list of relatively inexpensive apartments in town, if you like. That is, I mean, I assume. You moving here?”

Helen nodded again. “For school. I’m going back to school.”

“That’s great! Good for you.”

“Yeah. Hard decision to make, but…” she finished with a shrug.

“What school?”

“The Art Institute of Colorado.”

“No shit!? Oh, excuse my language, HA!” the man rolled his eyes and folded his hands neatly in front, then smiled. “No kidding? Really? I teach there. Great place. You’ll love it.”

Helen set her bags back down. “What do you teach? I’m getting my degree in music. I want to teach. I mean, of course, naturally, I want to play, but teaching…that’s the goal. Maybe write music.”

“What’s your instrument?”

“Piano. Some guitar. But I really want to learn to play the saxophone and the harp.”

“Wow. Ambitious.”

“Yes, well. It’s now or never.”

The man held up a finger and walked away. He returned holding out a business card.

“Here’s how to reach me. When you’re settled, we’ll go to lunch. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.  I’ve been teaching at A.I.C. for twenty years. Love it. Really, it’s a great place. I wish it paid the bills, but, well, anyway, HA!” the man waved his hands in the air, “Here I am.”

“What do you teach? You didn’t say,” Helen glanced at the card, “….Jeff.”

“Oh, right! HA! How’dya do!  I’m Jeff, the Executive of Everything! HA! No, no…seriously…I’m in the visual arts program. I teach most of the 101 classes. Hey, so, it’s actually a requisite for most of the programs at the university to take the 101 courses I teach, regardless your major, so you’ll probably end up in one of my classes!”

###        ###

In failing health and wheelchair bound because of a botched hip replacement, getting ready for a day out and about was an ordeal for Helen. She had to keep her mind focused on a can-do attitude in order to make it through the laborious task of bathing and dressing, something she did not always get around to these days. But on this day, she had to rally her strength.  The transport assistance van would be by in two hours to pick her up. She did not want to miss Jeff’s memorial service.

When asked if anyone wanted to share a story about Jeff, Helen raised her hand. A nice-looking young woman Helen did not recognize handed her a microphone.

“There I was,” she began, a little thrown by the sound of her quavering elderly voice coming out of the speakers. “There I was, every bit the frightened kid away from home for the first time, regardless the fact I was a grown woman my fifties.” She paused, taking a moment to see Jeff in her mind’s eye. “And here was Jeff, in his quintessential pearl earrings, Kate Spade print skirt and Ralph Lauren linen blouse… and his weird sense of humor… and his perfectly coiffed mustache.” Helen mimed twirling the end of a mustache. The room let out a soft, knowing chuckle.

“He saved my life. Jeff saved my life. I don’t know where I would have been if it weren’t for his unabashed kindness and hospitality.  The luckiest day of my life was the day I met Jeff.”

Helen paused again, this time to halt the tears. “The past thirty years of my life are all the sweeter for having Jeff to call my nearest and dearest friend.” Helen blew a kiss to Jeff’s family in the front pew.

In her apartment afterward, Helen sat gazing at the painting Jeff made for her years before. It hung in a prominent place over her mantle.

The subject was the farmhouse on the day Helen left for Denver. Jeff perpetually asked Helen to tell the story of that morning, pressing her to describe what she saw. At the time, Helen did not understand why Jeff asked her to recall the most bitter-sweet moment of her life, again and again. She remembered growing perturbed at his repeated requests, begging him to stop pestering her. The memory made her smile.

Each time she looked at Jeff’s painting, it was as if she was there again, too terrified to turn the ignition of her car and put behind her all she had ever known. When that old fear arose, as it almost always did, Helen would quickly turn away, just as she did that morning backing out of the drive.

This time, she let herself become lost in the paintings magnificent purples, oranges, pinks and blues; the way Jeff made the hillsides behind the farmhouse seem as soft as giant pillows, and the warmth he imbued in the glow of the light from the bedroom. The usual memory of fear and trepidation did not arise. This time, the scene was peaceful, almost welcoming. This time, as she visualized William stepping out of the front door and onto the porch, she didn’t turn away.

She kept looking. At the house, the sky, the hills, the peeling blue trim, broken stairs, and the cracked window. She kept looking, even as her memory of William jogging down the stairs and onto the drive came back. This time, Helen saw what she refused to see all those years ago. William, with a resigned, and deeply sad smile, raising his hand to wave good-bye and mouthing the words, “Good luck. I love you.” 

PNW Coronavirus Chronicle #5: Meditative Rose

Salvador Dali “Meditative Rose”

Sure, this year has been miserable. I am prone to the philosophical in such circumstances, and this year, I find a few things to ponder, others to celebrate and a couple to embrace.

One: “May you live in interesting times,” will no longer be a clever thing people say if we become accustomed to unprecidence and absurdity from here on out. What will define surreality, or an alternate universe if we do? Fun to speculate in fantasy fiction, but not so much to actually have to live.

Two: Being forced to stay away from others in turn forced me to get close to myself. I am no longer put off by taking a look inward. But, I do wonder at the long-term effect of actively avoiding others, considering that we are moving ever closer to the 1-year mark with only the smallest of hope of relief in the near future. So, I’m establishing a Zoom Gather Night for friends and family. It feels more engaging than just a phone call, and certainly more immediate and connective than email or texts. And, I hope to broaden that circle with new acquaintances. How? Good question!

Three: Masks. At first, I hated the thing. It was the closest I ever want to know what it is like to be claustrophobic. Now? The other day I had to laugh when I realized I still had my mask on well after I’d returned home. I look forward to not having to wear one, but I am glad I finally adapted.

Four: I am tired of the phrase, “the new normal.” I have no issue with its helpful intent: Accept that change is sometimes permanent. But, in regards to this year? I hope human history will prove out once again, and that this is more like a shift in direction rather than a new set of standards.

Five: What do I like about this past year? Oh, boy. A lot! That shift in direction I just mentioned has nevertheless brought about several things I find useful and positive. One is the irrefutable proof that working from home is productive. Hopefully my employer will keep it an option. The other is creativity. Bottom line, it’s my favorite thing about this year. Being forced to think creatively coupled with the challenge of problem solving on the fly has done more for my sense of well being than anything I’ve ever tried to chase away the blues. Well, except maybe music, singing and dancing. That works pretty good, too. 🙂

The (2? 3?) UnOLWG prompts this week are: couldn’t hardly breathe; Oh Boy; I got tired.

The Blog Propellant Redux #8

I used to maintain a writing prompt blog called The Blog Propellent. It was a lot of fun and these days, fun is what we need. Every so often, I will repost former TBP or WP prompts, or maybe a new one.

Write a post! Fiction, poetry, even a true story. When you are done, include the URL address of this post in your post. Simple! All those who read this post will have a link to your post. And, all that read your post will have a link this one. More readers = more followers (so they say).

This week’s prompt:

This is one of the very first prompts I posted. I changed it up just a little bit. Create a story, or tell a true story, about work/job/career. The following are some ideas for a story:

  • What was the impact of the first job held?
  • What was it about the best job held that makes it stand out from the others?
  • What about a job that fell short of hopes, dreams or expectations?
  • The job lost: What was going on that lead to a dismissal, or what happened as a result?
  • The boss, colleagues, co-workers, business partners, customers, clients, guests…What about them?
A TBP follower took this picture of a skeleton on a tricycle to share with me. So I made it one of my TBP “mascots”.

Just Who is Ariel Jamison and What Does She Want?

Created from TBP Redux #7 and OLWG #181 prompts

You asked about Ariel?  Here, I’ve got a picture. That’s her, there. In the middle. That’s her husband, Dan, with my husband. That’s me, can you believe? And that’s Aaron and Jan. Hm. Betsy and Sam aren’t in this photo. Don’t remember why. Lots of happy times, back then. We were quite the group!

These days, Ariel keeps pretty much to herself. You have to understand why that seems so strange. Ariel and Dan used to be regular fixtures in town. The pair of them; a couple of go-getters, day in and out.  They were at every town meeting, every event, every party, every special occasion. Volunteered on just about every committee.  It exhausts me just to think about it!

When Dan unexpectedly died, Ariel disappeared into her own world. None of us saw much of her for a while there. Her neighbors said, right after Dan’s death, at night, regardless the weather, she would slowly walk in circles in her backyard, sometimes well into the middle of the night. They said she wore a path into the grass that looked something like those labyrinths you see in some church yards.

Then, that next year, she went away for a long time. If you’re wondering, that’s when the rumors started that she went to India to become a Buddhist monk, or some such nonsense. She didn’t go to India to become a Buddhist! I mean, yes, for a while, just after she came back, she took to wearing kaftans and a large scarf around her head, which was, I admit, odd. But I think all that was just Ariel finding out who she was outside of her marriage to Dan. I mean, that movie, “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, was so popular at that time, and that was just after “Eat, Pray, Love,” had been on all our must-read lists.

No, Ariel didn’t become a monk. She went to stay with her son Alec, who had just moved to Kentucky. She wanted to help him and his new wife and their brand-new baby boy get settled, and they were more than happy to have her. See, she had a dream as a little girl of becoming a racehorse jockey, and ever since then, wanted to visit the Bluegrass state. I mean, Dan was dead and gone, so why not pull up stakes for a while? Cross something off your bucket list, as they say. At least she wasn’t walking in circles in her backyard.

But, my guess is you really want to hear about the fire. Of course, that was the other rumor about poor Ariel; that someone in the family started it, or that, of all things, she deliberately set it. I tried to deflect as much of that b-s as I could, but you know people. I mean, losing your home is bad enough that people have to go around outright lying about how it happened.

It makes me sad, because, for one, Ariel was never one for gossip. And after all she and Dan did for the town, you think people would be grateful and leave it at that. At least have some sympathy for the poor woman! But my friend is a strong lady. She just puts on that Cheshire Cat smile of hers and rises above it. Yes, it was arson, and no, they still don’t know who did it or why. But, I can attest to this: Ariel knows exactly who started the fire.

A genuine challenge to figure out a story that goes with an ending! From Redux #7, I selected, “Though she wasn’t one for gossip, Mrs. Jamison knew exactly who had started the fire.” The UnOLWG prompts are bluegrass; the center of my world; seeking Amrapali.

The Blog Propellant Redux #7

I used to maintain a writing prompt blog called The Blog Propellent. It was a lot of fun and these days, fun is what we need. Every so often, I will repost former TBP or WP prompts, or maybe a new one, like this week’s prompt.

Write a post! Fiction, poetry, even a true story. When you are done, include the URL address of this post in your post. Simple! All those who read this post will have a link to your post. And, all that read your post will have a link this one. More readers = more followers (so they say).

This week’s prompt:

Maybe some of you read the magazine, The Writer. If so, you saw the following. I figure, since they allow sharing, I’d do just that! Use one or more of the following prompts to START or END a story or poem:

  • Though she wasn’t one for gossip, Mrs. Jamison knew exactly who had started the fire.
  • One thing was certain: The mission was doomed from the beginning.
  • Keisha hesitated for only a moment before slipping the note in the locker.
  • He’d been wildly, savagely hungry for as long as I’d known him. 

Ursula’s Den

The UnOLWG prompts from the past 2 weeks stewed together with TN’s preamble story. The prompts are: playing a poor hand well; not a sound for miles around; like a poem without words; call him out; a matter of magic; the carousel only makes you dizzy.

Jasmine wandered aimlessly around the large, empty family room and kitchen while her children darted from room to room upstairs staking their claims. That was the deal: She would stay out of it and let them decide who would get which room. She knew it was only a matter of time before the wrangling would come to an impasse and she would, as always, have to step in as decider-in-chief. So, she listened and waited.

Evan impatiently negotiated with twins Sonja and Clara about who got the large room. The girls pushed back with their best argument that they were willing to share a room. Evan being the eldest held no sway. Marissa whimpered about the unfairness of it all and Michael, the youngest, was silent. Jasmine guessed he had slip-streamed his way through the tangle of his siblings’ bickering to zero in on the room no one seemed to want. As she predicted, he was the first downstairs.

“Why aren’t you taking the big parents’ bedroom?” he asked her.

“Because, like I said, I’m getting us a live-in and the master bedroom is going to be their room.”

“Why?” Michael was still at the age at which children cannot fathom an adult’s logic.

“I can only pay a nanny what I can. So, giving them the largest room, with their own bathroom and a separate entrance will make the deal sweeter. Anyway, that’s the idea.”

Evan was next down the stairs. Like the hormonal automaton he was these days, he went directly for the refrigerator.

“It’s empty, stupid,” Michael grumbled.

“Since when, with the ‘s’ word, huh!?” Jasmine scolded Michael with a gentle smack upside the back of his head.

“I’m going to check out the yard.”

Evan brushed past Michael, giving him a quick, soft warning shove against the wall. Jasmine watched Evan as he walked down the long dirt drive that lead away from the house. She sent him a text, if only to make sure he had his phone on him. He pulled his phone from his pocket, read the message, and put it back without replying.

Marissa called for Jasmine from the top of the stairs. “Evan and Michael took the rooms I want, and I don’t have a room!”

Jasmine took her daughter’s complaint as her cue to finally intervene. As she headed up the stairs, Michael rushed past her, down the hall, and disappeared into the room at the end. The twins were in the larger room mapping out a floor plan. Marissa stood in the middle of the hall wearing her ever-present look of despair.

“OK, so, it’s this one or that one,” Jasmine pointed to the two rooms on either side of the hall. “Which one do you want?”

Marissa pointed to the room to her left. It had a stunning view of the hillsides and the orange and red leaves blanketing the emerald ground beneath the trees in the yard. The morning’s cloud cover was giving way to blue sky and the mid-day sun streamed all the way into the room.

Jasmine took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She knew moving to the country may prove she had succumbed to some sort of utopian idealism. After all, a spinning carousel, with all its bright colors, gilded adornments and twinkling lights, only looks like some sort of magic joy ride, when it really is just a dull, dizzying, and never-ending trek to nowhere. A move to a farmhouse situated in an idyllic country valley might be no better than just another muddy rut in which to get stuck.

Nevertheless, given the hand dealt her, Jasmine was reasonably confident she had played it to the best possible advantage. The change in her children’s lives would be hard on all of them, regardless the setting. She had nothing else to offer any one of her children other than her faith in the hopes and dreams for their future, and for each of them, a bright, sunlit bedroom all to themselves.


“Yeah, sorry, kiddo. Fine with me! You like it?”

Marissa nodded.

“Then, this one’s yours.”

“When’s our stuff getting here?”

“They said today. My guess is it will be late.”

The sound of two-steps-at-a-time up the stairs announced Evan’s return from his tour of the outside. He looked at his mother and sister in the room in which they stood, then looked at the room across the hall. An equally stunning view of the valley made that room’s window seem all the larger. A good place for a seventeen year-old, Jasmine thought, to stare out to the horizon while listening to the siren song of the big, wide world calling him away.

“OK, that’s done!” She paused, waiting for a reaction. No one put up a fuss. “Let’s get the stuff out of the car and then we’ll drive into the town to look for a place to eat.”

“Does Dad know where we are?” Sonja asked. Jasmine turned back to see all five of her children staring at her with the exact same look; a combination of sorrow and fear.

“He does. Text him, let him know we’ve arrived. But guys,” Jasmine put up a hand of caution, “I need you to understand, OK? Your dad probably won’t come here. I’m not saying ‘never,’ but, you have to accept, he probably won’t…want to. He may say he will because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, but he won’t. Again, it’s not that he doesn’t love you, or that any of us did anything to make him…whatever. OK?”

“It’s because he’s with that lady and them,” Sonja replied.

“He’s not with anyone at the moment, honey. Look, when he said you can visit him, he meant it. He is your father and he’ll always be around for you. OK? Anyway, we’ll figure all that out later, you going for visits. All I ask is that you give this place, your new home, a fair shake. You aren’t that far behind in school and you’ll make friends soon. And don’t forget, Grammy, Gramps, Nona and Grandpop…and Uncle Mack, Aunt Jeanne, Geoff and Allie… they all  live really close, just, like, only ten miles away. We’ll get to see them way more often now.”

Her children gave her consolatory smiles. Jasmine knew what she offered was only a cold comfort. She kissed each one on the forehead and headed downstairs. She called back over her shoulder, “Evan, you want to drive?”

“Sweet,” Evan said as he vaulted past his siblings, snatching the keys from Jasmine’s hand.

“Wallet?” she asked. Evan patted his back pocket.

“Do we get to learn to drive this year?” Clara asked.

“I suppose. Sure.”

The twins jumped up and down, applauding. Marissa and Michael looked at each other wondering if they got a special offer, too.

Jasmine said, “And, when we get the TV set up, Marissa and Michael get to choose the first two family movie nights.”

The result was as hoped. The two youngest siblings high-fived and then chased after the others.

As the family made their way to the van, Jasmine suddenly felt like she was in a scene from the Planet Earth documentary series; the ones where bear cubs stumble and play alongside their mother as she leads them across the open fields to some yet unknown source of food. The image made Jasmine smile. If wildlife’s single mothers can hack it, she thought, so can I.

The Blog Propellant Redux #6

I used to maintain a writing prompt blog called The Blog Propellent. It was a lot of fun and these days, fun is what we need.

Write a post based on the following prompt. Fiction, poetry, or even a true story! When you are done, include the URL address of this post in your post. Simple! The point is this: Share creativity.

This week’s prompt (based on an actual event):

A driver, driving through a familiar neighborhood of houses and condominiums, comes upon the completely out-of-place site of a two-tiered semi for car transport parked in the left-turn median. The truck is full of newer models of various cars. Nothing cheap, but nothing special. A generic, new-ish model sedan with its hazards flashing is stopped behind the tractor/trailer. What catches the driver’s attention is the young man standing on the sidewalk, taking pictures with his phone of the sedan. Another young man walks over to give the man a pat on the shoulder. The truck driver, who is also standing on the sidewalk, flicks his cigarette into the street and walks back to the truck’s cab.

HAVE A HAPPY, and without saying, SAFE HALLOWEEN!

The Blog Propellant Redux #5

I used to maintain a writing prompt blog called The Blog Propellent. It was a lot of fun and these days, fun is what we need. Once a week (or maybe once every other week) on this blog, I will repost former TBP or WP prompts, or maybe a new one.

Write a post! Fiction, poetry, even a true story. When you are done, include the URL address of this post in your post. Simple! Then all those who read this post will have a link to your post. And, all that read your post will have a link this one. More readers = more followers.

This week’s prompt:

I’ve been looking back over all my old prompts and I forgot how many Picture Prompts I posted. So, this week is a throwback to those prompts. Three images from which to select. Bonus points if you can identify the one used before!

In a French Villa

Abigail and Bailey hailed an airport cab and handed the cabby the note written in French with directions and the address of their paternal grandparents’ villa in Beaumont-sur-Oise.

“I hope Aunt Rachel wrote down the right sur-Oise town,” Bailey whispered to her sister. “I looked on a map and there’s a bunch of them.”

The cabby locked eyes with both women in his rear-view mirror. Not certain if Baily’s comment offended the cabby, the sisters remained silent for the remainder of the trip.

The drive through the Parisian suburbs eventually gave way to open fields, contained villages and homes dotted along the way in between. Finally, the cab slowed and took a right turn.

“Mesdames, c’est l’adresse. C’est beau, oui?” the cabby said.

The villa was just as described. A large multi-storied structure built by their great grandparents a hundred years ago, it looked like something out of a gothic novel. It had been vacant a while but was otherwise in good shape.

“This is where daddy grew up? Wow.”

“Far cry from our home, huh?”


“What’s all this stuff?”

Bailey stood in a corner room on the top floor, lit by a single floor lamp and small a porthole window under the eave. She stared at a wall of cardboard boxes covered in dust and cobwebs. She could not make out the writing.

“What stuff?” Abigail called back from somewhere down the hall.

“All these boxes. I can’t read the writing.”

Abigail came into the room and tried reading the writing, too.  “Well, it’s not French. Dad said his grandparents were from Belgium…so, Flemish maybe? Must be things of theirs.”

“Should we, what…open them? See what’s in them first?”

Abigail grabbed a box and pulled. Dust showered down, filling the room in a fog and subjecting Bailey to a fit of sneezing.

“This one’s got clothes, looks like,” Abigail said as she pulled garments out and dropped them on the floor.  

Bailey held up the garments, one by one. “They look vintage, for sure. Hey!” She held a military jacket up to her chest. “It looks like a woman’s uniform.”

 “Are those medals?” Abigail asked, pointing. Bailey flipped the coat around to look.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Abigail turned her attention back to the open box. She held up a small brass object. It was scalloped shaped with a hinged lid and a handle. The top was decorated with beading and filigree. Something rattled loosely around inside. She opened the lid and took out a pearl and gold beaded bracelet.

“Pretty,” Bailey said. “Anything else in it?”

“No, that’s it. Is this a box, or a, what?”  Abigail held the object this way and that. She put the bracelet back into its curious container.

Bailey reached into the cardboard box and took out a book and a pair of pink ballet toe shoes. “Ever hear of a dancer in the family?”

“Yeah, remember? Grandpa used to tell stories about his sister, the ballerina. She was with some famous company in Paris. Hobnobbed with famous people. What’s the book?”

“It’s in French.”

“Give it here,” Abigail gestured. Baily handed over the book.

“It says, Letters from the Earth. Oh! It’s by Mark Twain. Huh.”

“I know that book. Had to read it in college. I thought all this stuff was generations old. What’s it doing in the box?”

Abigail opened the cover. “It has an inscription…” she silently mouthed the French words. “It says, To Adrian, uh, que ce livre vous aide à comprendre la nature du deuil. Something about grief. Nature of grief. Doesn’t say who wrote the note.”

“We have a cousin named Adrian. Somewhere here in France.”

“Yeah. Huh.”

The last two items in the box were a broken teacup and a framed photo. “Oh, my god, Abigail, look!”

Bailey held out the photo to her sister. A woman in the same military jacket they found in the box posed with a rifle. “Those are the same four medals, look!”

“She looks like Aunt Rachel, doesn’t she?”

“Wow. You think that’s our great grandmother? Was she a soldier? What army? I thought women weren’t allowed in the army.”

Abigail pried open the frame, pulled out the photo and flipped it over. “A message to a Lucas.  It’s in Flemish, I bet. I can’t read it.”

“Who’s Lucas?”

In response to Objects in a Box writing prompt

Stage Stop, California

It’s autumn now. The overnight temperatures have dropped to just above freezing and the mountain sides seen from the small town of Stage Stop, California, are dotted in bright yellow, red and orange.

Located in the Klamath National Forest, Stage Stop recorded 102 year-round residents in the last census, which included Roddy Zahn, his wife Zelda (Zany Zelda Zahn, as she is called by the locals) and their eldest daughter May (short for Mayflower, because Zelda swears both she and Roddy have family they can trace back to the pilgrims). The three are the current owners of The Black Horse Inn and Tavern, a hotel and eatery built in 1834 by Irish immigrant Ephraim Jonas McComber.

Stage Stop is the only civilized base in the region for outdoor enthusiasts who partake in all the hiking, camping, river rafting and mountaineering the Klamath National Forest has to offer. It’s a great place from which to launch an adventure into the wilderness, or a sort of resort town to recoup afterward. Roddy and Zelda bought The Black Horse in 1983, right before the publication of the memoir by a well-known mountain guide, titled “Meet Me at The Black Horse.” It became a bestseller and put The Black Horse and the town of Stage Stop on the proverbial map. For the next three decades, the whole region flourished as a result.

Then, about 10 or so years ago, the droughts took hold. Popular hiking trails and campgrounds were routinely closed due to fire hazards. Winter and spring remained okay. The visitors still came around. But the rest of the year, the busiest time, business dropped way off. Even those who built vacation homes in the area all but abandoned their places, opting to go to the coast instead.

Roddy, Zelda and May made the most of the changing circumstances by turning a section of the building in The Black Horse into a sort of hostile for wildfire crews and park volunteers. Then came 2020, with its double-whammy of COVID-19 and constant wildfires, one after the other. The Zahns cancelled what few reservations they had and turned The Black Horse into an evacuee, park ranger, first responder and volunteer’s boarding house. The rangers set up a make-shift office in the back corner of the dining room next to Cal Fire’s relay desk. The evacuees created a similar set up in one of the rooms on the top floor where folks could sit at a desk to use a computer, make a call or fill out paperwork.

No one is a guest, at least not in the typical sense. They help the Zahns prepare and serve meals, as well as help with the laundry and housekeeping. A group of park volunteers cleared out the parking lot on either side to make more room for all the cars, trucks, and trailers people arrived in, as well as for the responders’ large vehicles and equipment. One of the Bridal Suites was turned over to make a quiet room and nursery for the very little kids. A couple of families helped a local rancher build a makeshift kennel and corral for the various pets and farm animals that came along with folks, or somehow found their way to Stage Stop on their own. The Cal Fire folks even worked a deal with the state and the Red Cross to get better satellite service and supplies like, pens and paper, diapers, food, bottled water and clothing.

The Black Horse may look more like a refugee camp these days than a quaint nineteenth century inn in the middle of national forest country, but as Roddy, Zelda and May see it, a rising tide will lift all boats. If they can share their good fortune with those in need, then those in need will maybe not need anymore.

Prompts this week from Unofficial Online Writer’s Guild are: What I write; rising tides lift all boats; I’ll be at the Black Horse Tavern

I cut the following out because it wasn’t necessary to the story above. “Murder your darlings,” as the writerly saying goes. But I enjoyed writing it, so decided to post it separately:

Stage Stop was settled on a stagecoach line that once fed into the famous Butterfield Overland trail from San Francisco to St. Louis. Life in Stage Stop in those days was dictated by the hour: The stage to Yreka left The Black Horse Inn and Tavern precisely at 1:30pm. At 9:00pm, a returning coach arrived across town at The White Horse Saloon. In between those times, folks went about their business getting ready for the next departure or arrival.

Times changed and trains took over as the preferred mode of transportation. For forty or so years, a single track lead a twice-weekly train in and out of Stage Stop. The White Horse, located nearby, changed its name to The Iron Horse during those years, and though it was closest to the terminus, The Black Horse remained the preferred lodging. The owner of The Black Horse at the time, a former Canadian fur trader named August DuBois, used one of the former stagecoaches to taxi patrons to and from the train platform, which, as the story goes, was a bone of contention for the owner of The Iron Horse. The many ways the competing owners tried to poach each other’s patrons are well documented in the town’s history files.

Then came the automobile. Gravel from a nearby quarry still in operation was used to pave over the deep wagon wheel ruts left from the stagecoach days, though it didn’t make it all that easier to drive a vehicle over. A couple of locals took to laying out two long sheets of wood planks in front of the tires of a vehicle, then drive the vehicles over the planks, stopping when it rolled off the wood, and repeat the whole process again, until, hours later, they reach the main road. It gave the townsfolk the idea to build a sort-of promenade over the road, which worked for a while, but proved to be expensive and labor intensive to maintain. Fortunately, the train still came up the mountain, but only once a week now, and only a couple of times in winter, weather permitting.

Suffice it to say, everyone welcomed the first asphalt paving crew when the State finally deemed the region worthy of such a luxury. Everyone turned out to welcome the crew, as if was a Founder’s Day parade. And the advent of a paved road marked the final run of the train. Somewhere, someone has an 8mm home movie of the last train to pull out of Stage Stop, rolling off into the distance like the end of some old Western. They used to run it on a video loop at the Ranger’s Visitor’s Center for years.

Getting to and from Stage Stop was an ordeal in automobiles, prone to overheating as they once were. Couple that with the end of mining, logging, and hunting for material gain, and by the 1950s, Stage Stop transformed from tiny, busy nineteenth century regional hub to a mostly isolated mountain community. Regardless the improvement in car engines in recent decades, if you aren’t located near the Interstate, then you are nowhere. And the people of Stage Stop have been just fine with that for the past seventy some-odd years.

What has kept the town alive has been the generations of visitors looking to escape the city. Not only is that old stagecoach route passable now, they can hike or mountain bike in to town from Yreka along the old rail line, the tracks now removed, leaving a solid, clear trail they named The Iron Horse Trail. A little cottage industry centered around summer and winter vacationers grew into a decent economy, and Stage Stop was ordained a “gateway,” as the state touted it, to the “wild and wonderful wilderness of Klamath National Forest.”