Wednesday, August 21, 2019


This month I’m pleased to have fellow Women Writing the West colleague, Julie Weston, here to tell you a bit about the setting for her latest book, Moonscape. Julie grew up in Idaho and practiced law for many years in Seattle. Her first book was a memoir of place: The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). It received honorable mention in the 2009 Idaho Book of the Year Award. Basque Moon was Winner of the WILLA Literary Award for Historical Fiction, and Moonshadows was a finalist for the May Sarton Literary Award. 
            Julie's mysteries are available on Indiebound, at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble in hardback and ebooks.
                                                                        --Andrea Downing

            “Strange and mysterious.” “Like walking on broken dishware.” “a giant’s frying pan of thick gravy frozen instantaneously.” These are some of the phrases used by Two-Gun Bob, Robert Limbert, when he explored Craters of the Moon in Idaho in 1920 and wrote an article about it in 1924, published in National Geographic. Cold lava covers over 700,000 acres of Craters of the Moon in central Idaho, a rare natural phenomenon and now a National Monument and Preserve, originally named by Calvin Coolidge, thanks in part to Limbert’s article. The earliest lava flows, not volcanic explosions, occurred around 15,000 years ago. Since then, lava belched up from the ground an average of every 2,000 years. Craters is overdue for another layer of lava.

            Limbert spent 17 days traveling 50 miles from south to north in the lava fields, accompanied by an Airedale dog and a friend with a horse. He visited more than once, exploring caves, spatter cones, deep pits, and craters along a Great Rift of flows. Two kinds of lava—pahoehoe and a’a—named after volcanic flows in Hawaii greeted him. The a’a flows hampered travel and cut the dog’s paws. Pahoehoe, ropy flows, made for easier exploration. Based on his journal, “strange and mysterious” was almost the least of his discoveries. He jumped into a crater to explore bones and found he could not get out without stacking piles of rocks to make an exit. Lava “bombs” littered the ground near the spatter cones he described as miniature volcanoes. A large lava flow was a brilliant blue, which he called Blue Dragon Flow, partly to reflect the many cracks resembling reptile scales. The party found bear tracks aplenty, but Limbert hoped to find albino grizzlies, rumored to roam the valleys and swales, chasms and buttes, in the area. He did not.  He thought the lava had flowed up until 400 years previously because it looked so shiny and fresh. Traces of the Shoshone-Bannock Indian tribes remained in cairns, rock circles, and dusty trails, but by and large, no others had explored the area to any extent. “Unexplored” and “unknown” marked maps of the area until he drew his own map.

            Because I write mysteries set in the 1920s, Craters of the Moon presented itself as a perfect setting for murderous doings. My husband Gerry and I have explored the area numerous times, including in all seasons. In spring, flowers flourish in abundance—bitterroot, buckwheat, larkspur, tiny monkflowers, and others. The caves in particular drew my attention for mysterious goings-on.  Limbert describes a number of caves, naming some of them, and other physical aspects of Craters. Only five caves remain open, but I felt free to use what he discovered in my mystery, MOONSCAPE.
            My heroine in this third novel of a series is Nellie Burns, photographer, along with her black Labrador dog, Moonshine. They accompany the Basque sheriff, who also plays a leading role, into Craters in search of missing visitors who came to do self-described “God’s work” in the lava fields. Nell, the sheriff, and Moonshine clamber over the ups and downs and explore the caves. They find local cowboys and disturbing scenes among the craters and lava flows. When they camp out under the stars, they talk of their backgrounds, this Idaho sheriff and Chicago photographer. They view the stars and the Milky Way as well as the magic and silence of night in central Idaho. During the day, they search for water and people who have lost their way.

(All photos courtesy of Gerry Morrison.)

The drive to the lava fields didn’t take long—about two hours. Along the way, the landscape changed from sagebrush and rabbitbrush, some of which was still in yellow bloom, to harvested fields with golden stubble and a few farm buildings. They left the mountains around Hailey and motored along flatter and flatter country. Lower hills bare of trees and wrinkled like army blankets served as a backdrop to the sage. Buttes dotted the landscape as they neared the lava, which indeed was black rock that lay twisted and humped like an imagined moonscape. Black stacks stood out like chimneys from an underground world. Foot travel looked to be strenuous and time-consuming, but, worse, painful.
            Just as the sheriff said, a man in an auto waited. “Two women and a man left Arco, saying they’d be back in two days,” the man told them as he stepped out. “That was five days ago. We don’t know if they went away in another direction, but I thought I should report them gone to the marshal. This area is about to become a national monument, so I figgered that was the right place to call.”
            “And who are you?” Nellie asked.
            “I’m the mayor, I guess you’d say. Mayor Tom. Someone had to take the job. Soon as I find another fool, I’ll quit.”
            “What are we here to see?” The sheriff gestured toward the inky landscape.
            “First off, you should see their auto. It’s down the wagon trail a ways. Then, thought I’d show you some caves. That’s what the folks said they wanted to see. I showed ’em a map. It’s a bit of a walk and darned easy to get lost.” He scratched his head full of ginger hair, grabbed a hat, and closed the auto door. He eyed the dog. “On an expedition through here a couple years ago, the dog we took hurt its feet real bad.”
            Nellie looked at Moonie, glanced at the sheriff and back at the dog, who sat waiting on the ground. Wrong decision.  The sheriff opened the boot.             Nellie pulled out her pack and donned the straps so the pack was carried on her back. The sheriff went to take it, but she shook her head. Her camera, her pack. “Ready.”
            They walked first along a rough wagon road where the parties’ auto sat tilted in a rut. The men looked it over, and then the three of them and Moonshine trudged up and down lava flows, picking their way. It was like walking over broken dishware half the time, slipping and sliding on rock or cinders, as if they were hiking along a coal bin, and the other half on an easier surface, but one with hills and slopes and treacherous footing. The sheriff and Mayor Tom conversed as the sheriff asked questions about the missing trio. The mayor didn’t know much, only that one woman’s name was Effie and they were religious, but he didn’t know what religion. “Could be a regular one or an irregular one,” he said. “We got lots of both around.”
            Nellie spent most of her time being careful where she placed her boots. She regretted not permitting the sheriff to take her pack and regretted bringing Moonshine. So far, though, he seemed to move across the lava better than the three humans. After almost two hours from where they left the autos, the mayor stopped. He stepped off the narrow trail they had been following and led them to what appeared to be a cave entrance in the lava. A rock fall led to the opening, and climbing down across the chunks looked difficult but not impossible. Moonshine circled the opening and tentatively stepped down a few of the rocks. He sniffed and then barked.
            “That’s it?” she asked. “That’s a cave?”
            “Don’t look like much, do it? Still, once you get in there, it opens up.”  Mayor Tom stepped carefully around rocks and brush. He ducked to go in but turned his head back. “Kinda smelly down here.”
            “Tie Moonshine to the boulder over there,” the sheriff said. “We do not know what we will find here.”
            Nellie did as instructed. The sheriff followed the mayor readily, but Nellie wasn’t so sure. The rocks leading to the dark hole suggested heavy going to her, even with boots on.
            The air was dry, and a moldy, dank basement smell hung around the entrance. Mayor Tom had a flashlight, as did the sheriff. Their lights helped to dispel Nellie’s nervousness. The mayor crouched low under a rocky overhang and waddled forward and then disappeared. Sheriff Azgo took Nellie’s hand and said, “Hang on to my belt.” He crouched, as did Nellie, and both squat-walked past the overhang. Around a sharp corner, they stepped into a large space lit close around them by Mayor Tom’s flashlight, but midnight dark around the edges. They cast huge shadows and could stand upright. The smell worsened and hung like fog in the cave.
            It was then Nellie saw a bundle of clothes at the rocky, dark edge. It moved as she watched. She screamed—not loud and long, but still a scream. The sheriff looked to where she pointed. He and Mayor Tom strode to the bundle. The sheriff turned it over, and a small creature dashed away. There lay a body, its shadowed face eaten half away, and dried, black blood clamped its neck.


Andrea Downing said...

This has so much atmosphere, Julie, you can just feel it. Certainly has made me want to go to Craters of the Moon. Thanks for taking my spot this month--and good luck with sales!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

I enjoyed learning about your research for your book, MOONSCAPE, Julie. And I loved the book! Thanks, Andrea and Julie, for this post!

Julie said...

Thanks, Andi, for hosting my piece. And thanks, Irene, for your comment. I'm so pleased you enjoyed MOONSCAPE!