On the Beautiful Trail We Go: The Story Behind The Big Wander
With each of my novels, I've begun from a single image. Long before I start scratching around for a story, there's that image so full of promise and so laden with emotion. With The Big Wander, the image was of a boy, a burro, and a dog adventuring into Utah's matchless redrock country. It came from reading the letters of the young artist Everett Ruess, that "vagabond for beauty," who disappeared in the canyons of the Escalante in 1934 after four years of wandering.
The emotion I brought to the image was stirred by those evocative lines from Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac: "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"
I wanted to write a novel worthy of those words. I posted them on my bulletin board at the outset of my search for this story.
In Gary Snyder's Axe Handles, there's a marvelous poem entitled "On Top" that seems to be about composting. The "new stuff" goes on top; then there's turning, waiting, watering, sifting . . . . His last line, "A mind like compost," makes us realize he's been describing the creative process. The writing of my novels, too, I realize, has been a whole lot like composting.
With a novel, there's a compost pile building long before you recognize it as such. Everett Ruess and Aldo Leopold were part of the "old stuff" for The Big Wander; so too was Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy, Frank Waters' Masked Gods, and countless other titles, along with my own life experience in the Southwest. My teenage summers working as a guide at Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico sparked my sense of place here, and since 1973 Jean and I have been living in southwestern Colorado, hiking in the San Juan Mountains and exploring the nearby Utah canyon country every chance we get.
I'd written a novel set in the San Juans (Bearstone), and one in the Grand Canyon (Downriver); now it was time for what I'd come to regard as the most beautiful "blank spot" on the map of North America, the canyon country surrounding the confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado Rivers. Intrigued by the canyons in which Everett Ruess had disappeared, Jean and I hiked down Coyote Gulch to the Escalante River and were stunned by the beauty. Even before I had a story, I knew I wanted it to end here.
On our way home, we swung by one of our favorite places, Monument Valley. I began thinking about a character traveling between Monument Valley and Escalante in Everett's mode: on foot, accompanied by a burro and a tiny dog. Hiking through the northern edge of the reservation, my character would inevitably meet Navajo people, as Everett had, and he would meet the Mormon people of the Escalante country, again as Everett had. In his last letter, Everett Ruess had written, "I stopped a few days in a little Mormon town and indulged myself in family life, church-going, and dances. If I had stayed any longer I would have fallen in love with a Mormon girl . . . ." Maybe my protagonist would fall in love with a girl of the Escalante country . . . These were my first inklings of plot as I plunged into my reading.
Before I start writing, I always go on a reading binge. Partly it's procrastination, but it's pleasure too, and I always learn a little here and a little there, sparks of ideas for the novel. I reread Everett's letters in W. L. Rusho's A Vagabond for Beauty, and I read Land of Living Rock and Standing Up Country by C. Gregory Crampton, as well as his Ghosts of Glen Canyon, with its photographs of historic sites in Glen Canyon before it and its hundred side-canyons were flooded by Lake Powell in 1963. I realized that 1962 was the last summer that the Colorado was free-flowing through Glen Canyon, "The Place No One Knew." I began to think about setting the novel in that summer; it seemed especially right since that was the summer I was the age of the character I'd be writing about. On this trek of my hero's, he could discover Glen Canyon in its last summer.
I read John Wesley Powell's descriptions of Glen Canyon and Dellenbaugh's descriptions in his account of the second Powell expedition, and I read Russell Martin's The Story That Stands Like a Dam, about the building of Glen Canyon Dam and the nascent environmental movement's efforts to preserve Glen Canyon. At that time I thought my novel would be about the building of the dam and the flooding of Glen Canyon, but of course The Big Wander didn't turn out to be about that at all. In fact, there's only a brief scene in the novel set in Glen Canyon.
There are always going to be tangents, especially in a first draft as you pick one horse and not another. In my reading I had learned that John Wayne was in Page, Arizona, in the summer of 1962, filming The Greatest Story Ever Told. In my first draft, I had Clay meeting John Wayne at the Empire House Café in Page. Clay had long been drawn to the Southwest by the John Wayne/John Ford westerns filmed in Monument Valley, and so of course assumed that his hero was filming a western there. Searching for his burro the morning after he'd met John Wayne, Clay encountered several camels grazing in Wahweap Wash, then a throng of people in togas on the banks of the Colorado, who were intently watching one long-haired man douse another in the river. As Clay wandered into the scene, the director was yelling "Cut! Cut!" which is exactly what readers of this first-draft episode advised me to do.
You never know, though. Some of my favorite images in the final form of The Big Wander did come from the research. For example, my reading included two books on burros. It had been twenty-five years since I'd worked with burros, and I wanted to brush up. I read an American book entitled The Burro and a British one entitled Donkey Care. In The Burro, there was a photograph of an oldtimer in a 4th of July parade in Flagstaff in 1967. He was marching down the street with a backpack on his back, and sticking out of that backpack, just above his shoulder, were the improbably large head and ears of a baby burro. I knew right then I had to get a baby burro into my story, and somehow I had to get him into a backpack as well.
In the British book I learned a lot about burro psychology, in chapters entitled "The Obstinate Donkey" and "The Mind of the Donkey." Among the photographs was one of a burro inside a house. I thought of my baby burro and what fun it would be to have him rampaging around inside a house. I didn't know he'd be all dressed up for the county fair.
I scanned the Life magazines from 1962 and found a photo-essay on an old man who lived along the highway in the Mojave Desert and made his living recycling junk he picked up along the road. He called himself "Hubcap Willie." I began to think of a character based on him and decided to keep the name as a tribute. My Hubcap Willie would be leading a burro rather than pushing a cart, and that burro would somehow become Clay's companion ....
While I was doing all the reading, I was scratching down plot outlines; I must have ten altogether in my compost-file on The Big Wander. For a few days I'd get all excited about the new plot, but then my balloon would burst as I perceived some major flaw. A novel has to have a worthy problem to solve, and it took me some time to decide that Clay would come out to the Southwest searching for someone, namely his Uncle Clay, who would have disappeared several years before the story starts. His uncle would be a former rodeo star; in Clay's mind that would qualify him as a hero akin to his big-screen heroes from the westerns.
In the evenings Jean and I would watch old westerns ourselves, especially the ones filmed around Monument Valley. But it was a 1962 contemporary anti-western that I happened to bring home, The Misfits, that got me started thinking about how wild horses might figure into the novel. The Misfits had a lot to do with wild horses being rounded up for slaughter. I went to the library and found Hope Ryden's Mustangs: A Return to the Wild. In 1962 the mustangs were indeed on the verge of being wiped out, for chicken and dog food and for fertilizer. I began to imagine that Clay's missing uncle had gotten involved trying to save wild horses in the Escalante country and had gotten into some hot water . . . .
I realized that Sarah, the girl Clay would meet in the Escalante country, would also know and love the local wild horses. She would be eager to try to save them and would enlist Clay's help. Having grown up on a ranch, Sarah would be even more capable than Clay in this world he was discovering. What a team they would make.
I didn't know during the research phase that the novel would turn out to be a song of innocence, with such a whimsical tone and so many comic incidents. The tone was set by the conversation on the first page, as Clay and his big brother Mike are backfiring their way in an old pickup truck from Seattle into the desert Southwest along Route 66. Now that I think about it, that tone of the novel, from the first page, flowed from my choice of audience for this story. I had two reluctant readers in mind from my days as a reading teacher; I had "hooked" them with books that were high adventure and also made you laugh. I wanted to snag them as well as all my other readers, right up through the most advanced.
When Clay sets out from Monument Valley, with only the burro and then a tiny dog for companions, he heads into the canyons east of Navajo Mountain, where his uncle was last seen. This may well be the most rugged section of the Navajo Reservation, so remote that even today people don't winter there. Clay will meet a Navajo family at their sheep camp; they know of his uncle and will help him on his way. I wanted Clay to acquire something of their sense of place, their ethic of "walking in beauty," of living in harmony with their surroundings. I walked that stretch only in my imagination, but I felt I could faithfully write about it. I had Everett's descriptions in his letters and Gregory Crampton's photo of the mouth of Paiute Creek. I also had taken photographs of the big three-dimensional relief map at the museum at Glen Canyon Dam, showing the route that Clay would take -- every mesa and canyon he would cross.
It's the Yazzie family who make Clay a gift of a former mustang his uncle had brought out of the Escalante country. When I think of The Big Wander, I think of Clay newly-mounted on that spotted pony. He wears that string of red coral around his neck, the big silver-and-turquoise bracelet on his wrist, and the black Stetson, ringed by those hammered buffalo nickels. "Bik'e Hozhoni," he says to himself. He's on the Trail of Beauty. It's just where I hope my readers will be as they read this story, feeling this sense of place, of connectedness.
The Navajo Office of Historic Preservation in Window Rock was a great help. I had a lot of reading as well as my years visiting on the reservation behind me, but I wanted to make sure I got things right. For example, I wanted to verify that I was using Navajo terms correctly. "Old Age River" was the translation of a Navajo term I'd run into in two different books, in one referring to the San Juan and in the other to the Colorado. I figured one of the writers had made a mistake. When I asked the man in the office in Window Rock, he chuckled and said, "Oh, the people who live up by the San Juan, they call it `Old Age River,' and the people over by the Colorado, they call it `Old Age River.'" The Yazzie family in my story lived close to the San Juan River, so I had my answer.
The Yazzies accompany Clay as far as the fording of the Colorado at the mouth of the Escalante in Glen Canyon. Their parting, at that place, was one of my peak moments in the writing of the story. Here the story line converged with my earliest aspiration of the story, as readers and I got a glimpse of one of the lost wonders of the world. Clay learns that these "hundred tall canyons" will be going underwater the following spring. I left it to the reader to ponder the enormity of the loss. A novel dies when it preaches.
Clay rides on into Escalante and discovers that his uncle is in jail. Although Clay doesn't realize it, the writer has destined him to become the hero of his own western. Painfully shy, he's not only going to meet a girl but he's going to end up living with her family, and together Sarah and he are going to carry on the rescue of the wild horses his uncle has begun. A few traces of my reading on local Mormon history wound up in the novel. There are several references to the "Hole in the Rock Expedition," which traversed some of the most rugged country on earth -- Escalante to Bluff, Utah -- in the winter of 1879-80, without losing a man, woman, or child.
Like each of the novels I've written, The Big Wander was a journey of discovery, a Big Wander of its own. At first it was all egg shells and coffee grounds and a hundred other bits and pieces. But at some point, in the dark of my subconscious I suppose, it all started to cook. I'd be dreaming about the story as I slept and I'd wake up reaching for a scratch-pad. I'd find myself writing intuitively, racing, just trying to keep up with my fingers, and grateful that the compost had somehow reached the point of spontaneous combustion. When I wrote that last chapter, I was Clay Lancaster, and I was galloping down the Escalante on that spotted pony. At my neck, the red coral; on my wrist, the silver-and-turquoise bracelet; on my head, the black Stetson ringed with hammered buffalo nickels. At my side, my Uncle Clay, almost safe. Past the mouth of Davis Canyon we rode, and I remembered a cloudburst and a burro being born. All the while, I was scanning the rims a thousand feet above, looking for a girl waving where I guessed she'd be.
Between the sheer red walls we rode, between the waving willows at the Escalante's edge. No cloudburst coming today. The sky was as blue as the walls were red and the willows were green. "Bik'e Hozhoni," I said aloud.
"Yes sir," my uncle agreed. "On the beautiful trail we go."
Editors' Note: Teachers can send for a free teaching guide, "Teaching the Novels of Will Hobbs," to which the author contributed suggestions such as maps, videos, articles, etc. which would be assets in teaching each novel. The guide is available from Educational Marketing, Simon & Schuster Children's Books, 866 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10022.
A longtime reading and English teacher in southwestern Colorado, Will Hobbs is the author of five novels and is now writing full-time. The Big Wander (Atheneum, 1992; Avon paperback, summer 1994) was honored by the ALA as a Best Book for Young Adults, as were Bearstone, Beardance, and Downriver. Changes in Latitudes was voted the Blue Spruce Award by young readers in Colorado. Recently, Downriver appeared on ALA's "Best of the Best" YA books of the past 25 years.