Friday, September 21, 2012

Beep-Beep! Story Houses

L. G. C. Smith

A few weeks ago I drove from California to the Black Hills in South Dakota with my sister, her six-year-old daughter, two big dogs, and our parents following along behind with their erratic bladders and a broken hearing aide. Fourteen hundred miles each way. In spite of sounding like many people’s (literal) hell on wheels, it was awesome. 

 Family Vacation at Historical Family Homestead Site. Lovely dead trees.

My sister’s Pilot became a personal time travel machine that carried us through landscapes that laid bare geological stories I hadn’t heard for a decade. We swept through old mining and cattle towns and a couple of cities. We crossed rivers and creeks lined with the same cottonwoods that were there forty years ago when I was a kid. We paralleled old pioneer trails and had to explain the Donner Party to a first-grader. I’m pleased to report that the Boner Ranch sign is intact north of Lusk, WY. And most of the run-down abandoned houses, barns and outbuildings that didn’t succeed in taming the West are still hanging on to enough boards and nails to withstand blizzards and scouring winds. I know this because every time my niece, the Leezlet, saw one, and this kid misses nothing, she hollered “Beep-beep!”

Why? “You explain, Mom,” she demurred. It turns out that “beep-beep” is my niece’s code for a haunted house. It’s faster than saying “haunted house,” and has the advantage of not alerting any ghosts that she’s looking—because those spectral prospectors and pioneer women driven crazy by the wind are apparently lurking along the Interstates hoping for someone to haunt. Anyone who mentions the words “haunt,” “ghost,” or “Ghost Hunters” is fair game.

I remember looking at those brown and grey weathered houses with their windows long-gone and their doors gaping open and wondering about the people who had lived there. There was one house in particular, along Highway 79 between Hot Springs and Rapid City, a square and solid Craftsman bungalow with clean, elegant lines. I always wondered why anyone would leave such a nice little house to ruin. It’s still there. I’ve been wondering about that house since I was seven. My niece noticed it. Now she’s wondering, too.

One of the first things we did when we arrived in the Black Hills was to visit the ranch my mother grew up on. The house is still there. My great-great grandfather and his sons bought the two-story part from somewhere else and moved it in. The one-story part was the original house on the property, homesteaded in 1878 and first located south of the creek. It was later moved a quarter mile north to be closer to the road, and joined up with the two-story part to house a growing family. My grandfather grew up there, and my mother. It was the one place in my life that stayed the same from the time I was born (not too far away) until my grandparents moved into town when I was out of college. 

The house my mother grew up in. Built in 1880 and looking a little 'beep-beep.'
The oldest one-story part of the house. 
The back room held more stories than the whole rest of the place.

We didn’t go in the house. We know the people who own it, but they rent it to someone else. We didn’t want to impose. We stood in the yard and looked at the Black Hills spruce trees my Grandpa planted for each of his daughters, at the few scraggly apple trees his father planted in what used to be a small orchard, and at the cottonwood and elm trees my parents dug up from along the creek and planted in the front yard when I was in high school. My mom was with us. We told those stories to the Leezlet, and many more. We told about the time my sisters and brother were nearly hit by lightning when it struck the corner of the house in 1973. We told about the card parties around the dining room table with all my cousins and the neighboring family’s kids. She had just met one of those kids, now a tanned and fit middle-aged rancher with a granddaughter close to the Leezlet’s age.

 No barn left at my grandparents' ranch, but this was the view.

I remembered that when I wrote my first historical romance, “The Outlaw’s Secret Bride,” I used that house as the model for the house the heroine lived in. Imagining her and her family there made it so immediate. I realized that every novel I write has a house at its core, and I always draw floorplans (sometimes to scale, depending if I can find my graph paper or not), and furnish them meticulously in my mind’s eye. I still feel a twinge of regret that my husband accidentally threw out my drawings of the floorplans and estate plan for the house in my romantic thriller, “Warlord” (to be published in the summer of 2013 by Belle Bridge Books).

The road trip brought back a lot of memories and the memory of a lot of stories, fictional and historical. My niece demanded story after story of road trips past, as well as new stories about her favorites: werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. My hope is that she’ll remember some of those, and when she sees “beep-beep” houses, she’ll think of not only the lost stories of those who lived in them, but the tales of houses and places that ground her family in time. I hope she will carry some of those stories into the future with her. When she’s old enough to read my books, I hope she’ll see those old houses and find inspiration for the new stories that will shape her life.

  Bear Butte from the ranch. Good stories there, too.

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