Against all odds...


David writing. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Liz Responding

The first thing a reader might ask is: Isn’t trying to write a novel kind of … cheeky? Well, yes. And kind of daffy … hopeful … and misguided. Maybe not so much for Liz, because she already has two novels to her credit: one published by Avalon and another packed away in her dresser drawer. She has a master’s degree in journalism, and was staff writer for a local newspaper and book editor for a regional publishing company. Plus her nonfiction work has won numerous awards.

It’s a bit more of a stretch for David, but he was a newsletter editor once and he did well in 9th-grade English. Oh, and he wrote audiovisual scripts that won some obscure awards. Now he’s a professional photographer. And we both can type pretty fast, which is important.

Despite the keen odds--or as Liz says, because of them--we have been resolved to have fun in the process. We’ve had a ball traveling around, learning interesting things about national parks, reading articles in the paper about slimy characters, and trying not to strangle each other.

Where can I see a polygamist?

The twin towns of Colorado City & Hilldale

You’ll find polygamist communities in Texas, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Canada, and Mexico (where Mitt Romney's ancestors practiced polygamy). The most accessible spots are the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hilldale, Utah. Visiting them is a sobering experience. I visited Moscow just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. These places have the same feel: shabbiness, disorder, oppression.
High fences surround houses as big as hotels.

Characters--Jesse Cage

Once we had settled on the subject of polygamy and the location of Zion, an early challenge was to begin to flesh out our villain and his digs.

It seemed obvious that our villian, Jesse Cage, needed to have some kind of isolated ranch, similar to one we had read about in a news story about an abused young woman with the Klingman Clan. The job fell to David, who seemed to have more affinity for evil.

The first problem was that, with the exception of a summer at dude ranch in Montana as a teenager, I didn't have experience with isolated ranches.

I had seen some large ranches in the back country, but I couldn't imagine myself driving up to the front gate of some opulent ranch and saying into the intercom: "Hi--I'm a writer researching the lairs of an evil villain. Would you mind showing me around your ranch? "

Still, I wanted to base our novel on something real, with substantial detail. For a while I was stumped. But as I drove around the west on several trips--one to Yellowstone in the winter--I began to find and photograph some isolated desert mansions. I didn't have to hop over any fences of razor wire, or run from attack dogs--I just photographed them from the road with my telephoto lens. Here's a slide show of the more interesting finds.

Magnificent isolation--mansion dominating a dusty town near Reno.

It seems there's some serious money sloshing around this country, and it's not all being spent on campaigns to eradicate malaria from the third world. Indeed, some of it's going to support impossible luxury in the most barren of places.

In the Zion area, I found a modern style for rural mansions that seems insired by ski lodges--log construction with colored metal roofs. Indeed, there are whole developments in this style not far beyond Zion.
But there are also some mansions in the style of the old Mormon houses one sees in the town of Escalante. This was what I wanted. I finally selected this house, located SE of Zion, as the model for Jesse Cage's house.

Mansion in the old Mormon style. The image is wavy in the heat.

Next, I needed a location for Jesse's mansion. It needed to be relatively close to Zion, and in an impregnable location. As I hiked and drove around Zion, the perfect spot gradually suggested itself.

When you hike onto the mesa tops overlooking Zion--such as Observation Point--you can see higher mesas off in the distance. When I checked a map, the closest one turned out to be Clear Creek Mountain. I drove out that way on the North Fork Road, a dirt road that traverses the western edge of the Zion basin. Since I hadn't selected Clear Creek Mt. for sure, I didn't take the time to explore it in detail--and besides, it looked like the road up to the top would require four wheel drive.

Clear Creek Mountain--location of the Cage's Condor Ranch.

So, back at home in Wisconsin, I explored the location in using Google Maps. What a pleasure this turned out to be! The Google aerial photos for this area are in exquisite detail! I was able to actually sit (vitrually, of course) on the top of the mesa and look out over Zion, just as Jesse Cage would, surverying his domain. I was able to fly over Zion like one of Jesse's Predator drones. I could even fly down into the canyons, hunting for victims.

What as tool this turned out to be! I spent hours and hours, getting totally familiar with the countryside. In the end, I discovered that Jesse's lair, the polygamist communities of Colorado City, and the campgrounds at Zion, are all quite close. It's just the tortuous canyons and buttes that make them all seem so isolated from one another.

But I was still bothered by the ranch idea. I didn't know much about modern ranching, and I wanted our details to be realistic. I was talking to a friend about one of my former jobs, when the idea hit. I had worked at the International Crane Foundation, a place in a rural setting that raised endangered cranes (the birds) for reintroduction back into the wild. Most of the bird handlers at the Crane Foundation were women.

Rasing engangered cranes at the International Crane Foundation. Photo by Jim Harris

It turns out that there is a rural location in Idaho that is raising condor chicks for reintroduction into the Grand Canyon area. So--that would be what Jesse's gig--raising condor chicks. And what a great cover, for a guy with sinister activities he wants to hide. The condor chicks can't see people, or they will become tame. People have to stay out. From that point on, it was only a question of describing what I knew in intimate detail--an endangered species recovery program.

It turns out there are mesatop mansions in Utah, with lots of security. Humm...

As we fleshed out the details of Jesse's personality, we turned to Mitt Romney for inspiration.  We noted Romney's rise toward nomination as the presidential candidate.  Romney's bland personality--with so much unsaid about his Mormon background--seemed a perfect model for Jesse Cage. Like Cage, Romney's squeaky clean, rich and powerful, plus influential in the Mormon Church.  Romney has polygamists in his background.  It's interesting to speculate-- What would Romney do, if he had a few extra wives to hide?  Find out by reading Prey for Zion.

Click here for a slide show of desert mansions. You can see the show full-screen by moving your cursor off the screen.
Click here to see how the bankers live in the desert.

Liz describes the writing experience--interview by author Gail Baugniet

This is the same story that appeared--as an interview--on Gail M Baugniet's blog. If you've already read that, click here to return to the beginning of the MacDavey blog.

Our protagonists are a retired couple who have just bought a small fiberglass trailer with the intention of visiting the country’s most spectacular national parks.

The dark side of Zion


The desert was a hard place, and the settlers were hard people.  The Mormons had a communal ethic that helped them work together and survive locusts, Indian attack, and isolation.

There was a time of fear when the Mormons of Utah nearly went to war with the rest of the US to keep their plural wives.  Later, when polygamy was abandoned, pockets of polygamist holdouts hunkered down in the desert, where they remain.

Zion National Park is an upbeat place where retired admirals in crisp white baseball hats climb on the shuttlebus to see the Hanging Gardens.  Mainstream Mormons in Springdale present a cheery facade, while their dark cousins scratch out a living in the outback.   Back in the slot canyons where the sun seldom shines, secrets from the past--best forgotten--lie hidden.

Thirteen ways to die in Zion
  1. Automobile mishap--off the switchbacks on the way to the tunnel
  2. Struck by lightning on Angels Landing
  3. Fall from trail on your way to Angels Landing
  4. Heart attack on the trail to Angels Landing
  5. Lost without water
  6. Flash flood, trapped in the narrows
  7. Wildfire traps you on mesatop at Observation Point--it's jump or burn

  1. Domestic violence in a trailer too small
  2. Depression and suicide after reading this blog
  3. Snakebite or bee sting, scorpion or tarantula--your choice
  4. E. coli in your burger
  5. Cougar chews on your leg while a California condor eats your liver
  6. A motorcycle mishap...
      ...after a quick smoke--then a fast ride through Zion.

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