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.
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.
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.
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
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.