When the Sun Shines

The wind whips through the newly sprouted leaves on the trees, their shadows a fluttering dappled pattern on the deck.  Beyond, the sky is that classic deep blue with small cottony puffs floating here and there.  The sun is warm on my face as I type, drinking it all in.  When the sun shines, I have to be out in it.  I’ll endure the dim laptop screen in preference to my superior computer setup inside.  The sunshine is too precious to waste.

One of the greatest benefits of retirement is the loss of distinction between the days.  No longer do we have to confine our activities to weekends.  Nor do we have to take our holidays when the calendar schedules them.  So we took our own Memorial Day Weekend early, based on the weather forecast.  We chose the days when the sun would be shining.

Our first priority was to do some cycling.  Between Rich’s back injury this winter and alternate travels by car and plane this spring, we had yet to cover any significant miles.  Finding that lodging was difficult, even midweek, we chose two 55 mile out-and-back day trips using the cabin as our base.

Mississippi RiverThe first followed the Great River Road from Jacobson to Palisade.  The Mississippi River meandered back and forth in that stretch, greeting us roadside every now and then.  We had the route to ourselves, and reveled in some wildlife sightings.   A deer crossed in front of us, followed by a wolf.  He paused to give Rich at Palisade Cafeus a glance but resumed his original pursuit.  A skunk stopped me abruptly, blocking my path down the shoulder.  I felt it was not worth risking his wrath to pass.  Rich followed a porcupine into the woods, as the critter spread his back quills in a showy display as he fled.

We found lunch at the Palisade Cafe.  Your typical small town cafe with ceramic roosters and memorabilia  adorning the shelves, the waitress knew the locals’ orders before they uttered a word.  Sampling the local offerings, we recharged our batteries for the return trip.

The next day took us far north.  Driving to Littlefork we cycled from there to Lake  Kabetogama on the border.  The sun shone gloriously all day and like the day before we benefited from good pavement and lack of traffic.  We made our way to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center.  Although it was not yet open for the season, it did give us access to the lake and a view of its blue expanse.   This time it was breakfast that we ate at the Rocky Ledge. The area was heavily populated with resorts, and the staff was bracing for the onslaught of the holiday weekend.  That morning, however, we were the sole customers.Molly overlooking Lake KabetogamaVisitor Center on Lake KabetogamaIt felt good to be back in the saddle and doing multi-day rides  Naturally I became anxious to get out touring again. It also told us we were not quite ready.  We were grateful for a tailwind to push us home that day as we began to tire, and our sore bottoms were evidence that we needed more time in the saddle.  But it was a start.

Molly feet in boatNestled back in the cabin, we stayed on for two more days, while the sun shone.  The lake was still quiet, with few cabins occupied yet in advance of the weekend.  We had the place to ourselves.  It reminded me why I love being there so much, particularly when the weather is nice.  By the time it began to cloud up on Saturday, we were packing up to go home.

We missed spending Memorial Day at the cabin.  But we also avoided the rainy days.  We made our own holiday weekend, when the sun was shining.

A Student of Writing

Help!  Writing my way through chapters of my book, I just know there’s a lot more to this than I’m prepared to handle.  I find myself drawn to courses on improving my craft. I drool over every email offering classes with literary talent and fine institutions.  I yearn to learn.  But many come with a high price tag, and dates far in the future.  I’m anxious for more immediate tutoring.

Thanks to a posting on the Lake Superior Writers Facebook page, I found Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s class called “Making a Scene.”  It sounded wonderful – “how to set it up, how to bring out the line of action, and how to intensify the conflict along with the characters for a satisfying chapter end––all of which will keep your readers turning page after page.”  And the kicker?  Only $7 which included lunch.  Sponsored by the Crosby Library Friends Foundation it meant a 100-mile drive each way for the 3-hour workshop, but I was game.  Best of all, it was only a few weeks away.Kate teaching class

With a long history of teaching at the Loft Literary Center, Kate proved to be the seasoned professional I hoped to find.  Her knowledge was extensive, with the ability to call up examples and authors at will for illustrations and further study.  She conveyed her deep knowledge with ease and gracefully invited participation and comments from the 20 students in the library classroom.

It was all I could do to keep up with the rapid information coming my way, scribbling as fast as I could yet trying to absorb the wisdom at the same time.  Tying in a few writing exercises helped us all put it to use immediately, to reinforce her points.

Here are some nuggets from the class:

Think of CATS to remember the four basic components of a scene:

  • Characters – need multiple people interacting
    • Show how the characters are different through their actions, how they argue, things they treasure, family background
    • What attitudes do the characters bring?
  • Acting on a desire – establish what the main character wants
    • Don’t mistake motion for action.  What characters do must have consequences
    • Actions complicate the problem and must make the reader uneasy
  • Tension – a conflict or a problem
    • Set it up early, develop it, have a turning point
    • The problem must matter to the main character
  • Specific place and time
    • Where are they and why?
    • What things are in the room?  How does the lighting affect the mood?  What characters are present?

Other tidbits:

  • Think about how to make your story as tight as you can for the reader.  Don’t give them anything they will skip.
  • Be as specific as possible.  Get descriptions into your nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs.  “She slammed down her coffee.”
  • Using flashback or description – does it break up the flow?  You may need to get it in through dialog or imply what happened.
  • When ending a scene, you need to leave a character frustrated, his or her needs not met.  There needs to be something more that will pull the reader along.
  • Worry is your friend in writing.  Give readers a reason to read further.
  • Let yourself write badly.  It takes many drafts to get ready to submit to an agent or publisher.  In your first draft you are writing the story for yourself.  In the next draft, you can shape it and use the ideas you generated.  Refine it in subsequent drafts.
  • Read aloud to get the feel of your story.  It’s best to read to an audience; you can tell immediately where it needs tightening.

Making a Scene writing classKate made sure to connect with each of us personally.  She was happy to talk to me about my book, gave me some thoughts to consider before class started, and answered my more specific questions at the end.  The three hours went by quickly, and I left with new tools in my writing skills repertoire as well as renewed inspiration.

There is much to be gained from these short learning opportunities.  Each time I connect with a writer, I learn something.  I aim to take advantage of as many of these local offerings as I can.  And I can’t help but continue to dream about the in-depth classes.  I’m still very much the student.

Note: Kate St. Vincent Vogl is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Grant recipients are asked to use their talent to benefit the community. In this case, local writers were the lucky beneficiaries!

Costa Rica’s Local Color

It was only two weeks. But in that time we witnessed a transformation. Arriving in the west coast town of Las Catalinas, the weather patterns still clung to the winter norm. Clear blue skies, hot baking sun, a calm bay and dry brown earth prevailed. We were in the “dry forest” and the midst of the winter-long absence of rain.

The climate was most apparent on the mountain bike trails. Even just looking up into the hills surrounding town, everything was brown. Following the dirt paths up into those hills, the ground was rock hard and vegetation was dormant. But all that soon changed, almost overnight.

Clouds moved in, and so did the rain. Evenings invariably brought flashing skies as lightning pulsed through the darkness. We had front row seats sitting out on out deck watching the sky. Most evenings thunderstorms followed. Rain was often intense and short. But it had the courtesy to come only at night, which we appreciated. The increased humidity, however, clogged the air. Stepping outside any time of day, we were immediately cloaked in hot heavy air. It was hot before, now it was cloyingly sticky. The wind picked up too. The timid waves lapping the shore turned into veritable crashing breakers.

On the trails, just a few days of rain worked magic. Buds popped out everywhere. Tiny clover-like plants poked up through the soil and began to carpet the trail. The brown landscape was instantaneously green. I was glad I had taken some early pictures as I might otherwise have thought I imagined the stark change.

Before and after rain

Flowering plants also flourished. Those already blooming increased one hundred fold. New colors and blossoms appeared. It was a feast for the eyes.  Some mornings, we would find the trails littered with brilliant flowers, brought down by the hard rain.

Costa Rica flowers

The gathering storms did scuttle a number of sunsets. By late in the day, clouds often hovered over the horizon, preventing the sun’s late rays from reaching the sky overhead with its red glow. That didn’t stop us from watching, however, ever hopeful for a display. Yes, glass of Chardonnay in hand. And on our final night, we were rewarded one last time. It was a fitting parting gift, this local color in Costa Rica.

Final Costa Rica sunset

Tropical Writing Retreat

This is true vacation. Two weeks away from the trappings of home life, immersed in a different culture, and transported to a Costa Rican tropical climate is enough to slow down and let life just happen. Or is it?

Molly on SUP

The realities of the intense sun and heat relegate any rigorous exercise to the early hours of the morning. We're talking 5:30am, to get the maximum amount of pre-sun time. It plays perfectly into my preferred workout routine, so I happily hit the trails for a run at first light. The ocean is at its quietest in the mornings, so I plunge in for my open water swim. I may follow that with a kayaking adventure, boogie boarding or my first attempt at stand up paddleboarding. But even after all that, the clock barely registers 10:00am.

Molly with latte

I linger over breakfast then stretch out my daily latte at Pura Vida Ride with some solid reading time in one of the shaded wooden rockers overlooking the beach, basking in the rising ocean breezes. I'm doing pretty well at this relaxation thing, I think.

And then it kicks in. The need to do something. That irrepressible drive and desire to accomplish. Afternoons are best spent out of the sun, engaging in less strenuous pursuits. What could be more fitting than doing a bit of writing?

Being practical, I have carefully arranged story deadlines around this juncture. Yet here I am with time on my hands that needs filling. I soon find ways to incorporate my vacation surroundings with writing. New venues for pursuing my craft materialize. Inspiration springs forth. And the occasional iguana saunters by.

Writing on the beach
Beach view while writing
Writing with iguana

One contest entry and two magazine story submissions later I'm feeling pretty good about this writing interlude. I'm right on target with my goals to get my writing in front of new editors and contest panels each month. And I've done some tinkering on my book as well.

Who says vacation has to be all play and no work? I'm quite pleased with my tropical writing retreat.

 

El Viejo Wetlands Day Trip

After a week of taking in all the outdoor activities, beauty, beach and ocean that Las Catalinas has to offer, it was time for a field trip. Rich took off his birding hat long enough to put on his travel planner persona, and came up with a destination that appealed to both of us – El Viejo Wetlands.

The preserve is owned by a successful sugar cane family that has set aside 5,000 acres of land as a wetlands refuge. Their boat trips offer views of not only birds but wildlife as well. Arriving plenty early for our 9:00am boat trip, we met Kevin our guide. As luck would have it, we had a boat and Kevin all to ourselves! The river was a fair distance from the main entrance and other facilities, and we had ample opportunity to learn how Kevin became a licensed guide and honed his English reading birding books available only in English. His expertise soon became very apparent to us.

Molly and Rich river boat

We boarded one of the smaller boats and Caesar piloted us up and down the river. With thunderstorms the last two evenings as well as more rain in the mountains, the river was swollen and the current swift. Kevin pointed out the high water point much higher on the bank. That's where the river will be when the rainy season kicks in soon.

It didn't take long to begin sighting birds and animals. Both Kevin and Caesar were good at spotting them, and Caesar would maneuver the boat over for a close look. They had an eager customer in Rich, and indulged his enthusiasm for photography and finding new species. I left the little birds and far away specimens to Rich, but tried my hand at capturing the larger birds and animals.

Bird
Black necked stick
Tricolor Heron

I sensed a bit of friendly competition between Rich and Kevin, vying to be the first to name each bird! Rich was a formidable opponent, but ultimately Kevin had the advantage, being more familiar with the local birds. As we drifted close to shore, Kevin challenged us to find the next specimen. He pointed out the tree, and it took a while before we could see them. I am proud to say I got it right – bats! Long nosed bats like the underside of trees he said, because they are so well camouflaged there. That's for sure!

Long nose bats

Crocodiles were abundant along the shores. Most of the time all we could see were the tops of their floating bodies and an eye peering out over the water. But one in particular gave us a great show. He'd found a cache of fish and opened his mouth to strain them in, showing us his gruesome teeth. Suddenly, he was thrashing and splashing, having caught a good size fish. It was clear that the river was not a safe place to swim!

Crocodile on shore
Crocodile teeth

The day was cloudy and humid, which kept the sun at bay. With a good breeze on the river and the movement of the canopied boat, it was very pleasant out there plying the water. We were sorry to see the boat tour come to and end, but still had a treat in store.

Molly and Rich in boat

Lunch awaited us in the beautifully restored Casona Hacienda El Viejo, a large wooden open air building. We enjoyed a typical Costa Rican meal, then spent time walking through the grounds. There were ample iguana present, including one that looked like a dinosaur and two fighting iguanas. They also liked to perch on the roof and supports for the building. We had to be careful where we walked!

Casona Hacienda
Iguana

My travel guide did well. It was well worth the journey, and we both enjoyed our day trip to the El Viejo Wetlands.

 

Adapting to Paradise

It's a rough life. But I'm managing. I sit in a wooden rocker in the mottled shade of the trees, studded with sleeping monkeys. Draped over high branches, their limbs hang limp. They are carefully balanced yet secured by the end of their tails as they slumber through the heat of the day. I see seven in one tree alone.

Monkeys in tree

An iguana saunters by and scurries up a tree. Rich has seen a much larger one. A local named Dino. I'm sure I'll catch a glimpse eventually.

Iguana

Out front, beyond the colorful racks of kayaks and paddle boards, the ocean glitters in the sun. The water is an impossible hue of blue, only rippled by the wind then heaving and cresting into foamy white breakers against the shore. Paradise indeed.

View from rocking chair

Las Catalinas is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. I count myself under that label, but here I am compelled to reconfigure my exercise fanaticism. I arrive open to trying new sports, to make the most of the local offerings. But I'm off to a rocky start. Mountain biking and I don't get along so well. Even on my second attempt I feel my psyche getting more of a workout than my body. But trading wheels for running shoes, I suddenly find relative safety on those same trails. Funny, I never liked trail running before. Now I relish my new activity and still get the amazing views.

View from bike trails

The bay calls out to me, and I find it calm enough for distance swimming. It sure beats lap swimming in a pool. When the wind picks up, Rich and I try out boogie boards. We manage a few good rides on the waves and do a lot of floating on the swells. I see a kayak and a stand up paddle board in my future.

Evening comes quickly here. Sunset is around 6:00pm, and the lingering colors may last 20 minutes longer. Then darkness descends. The temperature moderates and a nice breeze comes off the ocean, perfect for outdoor dining on the beach.

Las Catalinas sunset
Dinner on the beach

Welcome to paradise. I think I'm getting the hang of it here.

 

The Cowardly Cyclist

If fear burns calories, then I've just had a great workout. My heart was certainly racing. It was my first time mountain biking. I've logged plenty of road miles, but never turned a pedal on a dirt trail before. But here we are in Costa Rica, with trails right outside our door and amazing views out over the Pacifist Ocean. Despite a sliver of trepidation, I was up for the challenge.

Molly starting the mountain bike trail

At first the rocks and uneven terrain were unnerving. And the rapid shift between sudden ups and downs took getting used to. But I finally got the hang of grinding uphill in my granny gear and rounding sharp turns – carefully. I even managed to hold my fear of heights at bay while traversing narrow trails carved into the hillside. As long as it was gently rolling or uphill, I was able to hang in there. I took a couple of spills and drew blood, but it wasn't even doing anything difficult. I just slipped in soft dirt. I really thought I was conquering this thing.

Then we reached the ridge line and headed downhill. Even when I'm road biking, I dislike gathering speed and tend to ride my brakes on the way down. I should have foreseen the consequences. All the challenges of the dirt trail suddenly intensified as the pitch grew steeper. Braking wasn't such a great idea, and I knew I should just let the bike roll. But I was terrified. Not knowing what was around the next corner only intensified my fear. That bit didn't go so well.

Rich mountain biking
Molly mountain biking

Don't let the smile fool you. I was just glad to stand still for a spell. I also took the opportunity to enjoy the view, as I certainly couldn't take my eyes off the trail for long enough to take in the vista.

Actually, the final piece of the trail leveled out and I could honestly say I enjoyed that bit. I'm just not cut out for risky, speed induced drama. All the elements that attract thrill seeking mountain bikers are the same things that put me off. I like the milder terrain that is more like, well, road biking.

I admit it. I'm a conservative kind of gal. Even a bit cowardly.