Mountain Passes: Chilkoot Pass

A long line struggles up a jagged ice-covered pass — men, women, horses, oxen, dogs, carts, and sleds. The year is 1898 and the people are called stampeders because that’s what they’re doing — stampeding into Canada’s Yukon Territory to join the Klondike Gold Rush. (The Klondike, spread out alongside the Klondike River, is a section of the Yukon.) 

After a prospector discovered gold along the Klondike in 1896, thousands of others determined to try their luck at prospecting. From California they sailed to the town of Skagway, Alaska, on the Pacific Ocean. From there they hauled their worldly goods — food, clothes, pots, pans, bedding, picks, axes, and shovels — 32 miles along the Chilkoot Trail. From sea level the trail climbed 3,500 feet through jagged, ice-covered Chilkoot Pass into British Columbia and then the Yukon Territory. The trail and pass are named after the Chilkoot Indians, who used it for hundreds of years.

Hauling provisions along the Chilkoot Trail was no easy feat for a Klondike gold rusher. In fact, it took weeks to carry one person’s goods through the pass. A stampeder could haul maybe 50 or 60 pounds in a backpack. He carried this five miles, then tucked it away alongside the trail and walked back five miles to carry more of his goods. Over and over and over. It was estimated that a stampeder walked eighty miles to move his goods one single mile along the Chilkoot Trail. And then — he faced Chilkoot Pass itself.

Mountain Range: Coast Mountains
Elevation: 3,500 feet (1070 meters)
Location: On the border line between British Columbia and Alaska. Chilkoot Pass and the Chilkoot Trail are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.

There was no good time of year to climb Chilkooot Pass. Slick ice covered the rocks in spring, fall, and winter. A slippery mixture of mud and ice coated every surface in summer. The higher the stampeders climbed, the more dangerous the pass became: sleds and wagons slipped away and smashed to pieces. Worse, dogs, oxen, horses, and people slid off the trail and fell to their deaths. No wonder the Chilkoot Trail was called “The Meanest 32 Miles in the World.”

And still another hardship awaited at the very top of the the formidable pass, for there stood the North West Mounted Police, who collected duty on the incoming goods. Not only did the police collect duty on the goods, they also made certain that each stampeder had one ton (2,000 pounds!) of goods. The one ton of food and equipment was considered necessary for one person to survive one year in the Klondike.

During the summer of 1898 an upper-class Chicago woman named Martha Munger Purdy decided to go to the Yukon with her husband, Will Purdy. At the last minute Will opted to go to Hawaii instead. Martha, however, headed north with her brother George. Trekking the Chilkoot Trail, Martha (pregnant with her third child) wore the clothes of a well-dressed lady of her time: a corset, many petticoats, long ruffled bloomer pants, and a heavy floor-length corduroy skirt. Grasping at rocks and tree roots when she fell, she half-walked and half-pulled herself up the pass. In January 1899, in a log cabin in Dawson City, she gave birth to her third son, Lyman.

Martha decided to live in the Yukon, prospect for gold, and raise a family. In 1904 she married Canadian politician George Black, and in 1935, when he was too ill to run for office, she ran in his place, becoming the second woman ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons.

Of her gold-rush experience she wrote: “I had actually walked over the Chilkoot Pass! I would never do it again . . . . Not for all the gold in the Klondike. And yet, knowing now what it meant, would I miss it? No, never! Not even for all the gold in the world!”

For those who entered them, mountain passes were doorways into a new world, sometimes better than the old, sometimes worse — but always an adventure.

Chilkoot Pass

Blue water behind,
brown mud below,
white snow ahead —

these riches unfold.

Stampeders are blind
to all colors
but gold.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Mosquito Pass.   

Rewriting with Production Schedules

As a writer I sometimes have a writing schedule and I sometimes don’t. When I was writing She’s on First, my first novel, I had a part-time job as a postal letter carrier. My work schedule was erratic. On some days I started work at 4:30 a.m., some days at 11:30 a.m., and occasionally I started at 3:00 p.m. Under these circumstances all I wanted to do was write some portion of my novel every day: say 15-30  minutes of writing time. On most days I managed that.

However, I had interruptions. For  one,  I got  a full-time job which cut into my novel-writing time! And then I ran into plot problems in the novel and stopped writing for a week or so. And then I killed off a character I liked, which made me very sad and kept  me from writing for five months. And so on and so forth.

I finished the novel, rewrote it and rewrote it, and it was published in 1977. Basically, She’s on First was written without my having a production schedule. So was my second novel, Dirty Proof. All I aimed to do was write every day until the novel was finished, seven days a week. I did that, and in eleven months I completed the novel. 

Since then I’ve written many other books, all without any particular schedule applied to them — other than that I wrote every day, even if it was for only fifteen minutes. All of these books were my own ideas and my own vision. I was writing them because I wanted to tell a particular story in each book.

But I also wrote for others, and on these jobs I had deadlines, and when I have a deadline, I create a production schedule of how many pages or chapters I want to write each day. I remember one workbook in particular in which I had such a large book to write and such a short time to write it in, that when I drew up a schedule that would allow me to complete the book in time — I realized that I had to create eleven activity pages a day. Eleven! If you’ve never had to create student activity pages, you might not grasp how difficult that is. At the grade level I was working at, creating a page would take between 45 minutes and  two hours. That meant that on a bad day . . . I would have to work for 22 hours!

Well, I had no 22-hour days, but I did have several 17 hour days and many, many, many 12-hour days. In fact, I don’t think I had any work day that  was shorter than nine hours during the whole long ordeal. 

And, to make matters worse, this project took up most of July, all of August, and the first two weeks of September. Was there a summer that year? I have no idea — I was indoors writing work sheets.

Whenever I think of that writing assignment I realize that, had I not drawn up a production schedule and stuck to it, I would never have completed the job on time. 

It was during that ordeal that I did something to amuse myself. I started to color my work chart. After I completed each worksheet, I would color one square on my production chart. Filling in the squares was both a satisfaction and a relief. I then went on to the next worksheet. 

The habit of making these goal-oriented charts stayed with me for any job with a deadline. I’d analyze the time, the number of chapters/pages, and then make a chart and follow it, thus pacing myself and assuring that I would finish in time. Not all of the schedules were grueling. (Some were only semi-grueling.)

In this particular chart, each wedge represented six chapters. Each time I finished rewriting six chapters, I connected that wedge to the center of the circle. You can see that at the time I took a screen shot, I had completed 30 chapters and still had 18 to go.

The habit of making production charts then slowly crept into the writing that I did because I wanted to do it — my novels and my nonfiction books and my poetry. The habit hasn’t crept into my first-draft at all, and probably never will. When I start writing a book, I have no idea how long it will take me. Nor do I worry about it. Each book is different. Some I’ve written in three or four months, some in three or four years.

But each book has to be rewritten at least a couple of times, maybe even four or five times. And it is with the rewrites that I began to use production charts. I understand why I did this. Once the first draft is finished, a writer can look at it and see its beginning, middle, and end . . . and know where it’s strong and where it’s weak. So after letting the first draft rest for a while, then reading and analyzing it, a writer is ready to go on the second draft.

What I try to do with my second draft is add needed exposition, work on character and motivation, clarify plot, strengthen cause and effect, work on rising action, make sure I have foreshadowing, and so on. (I don’t achieve all these things in the second draft, but I try, because that means less work on the third draft.)

In order for me to do this I need to keep my head in the book at all  times. To keep my passion for the story at a peak. So . . . in order to keep myself in the rewrite at all times, in order to intensify the story, I intensify the rewriting by creating a production chart.


Barbara Gregorich wrote Women at Play in 92 days with a production schedule that called for a completed (written, edited, and rewritten) chapter every three days.

Rising Action

In fiction rising action need not be action itself, and that’s because the term “rising action” includes not only character actions, but also character decisions, as well as events within the setting or plot (an economic depression, for example, or an earthquake). Taken together, all these incidents help build interest, suspense, and tension — and lead to the novel’s climax.

The individual events that constitute the rising action are important because they help lead the story to its climax. To put it another way, the climax is the ultimate, logical outcome of the rising action. If a writer doesn’t plan the rising action so that it’s believable and so that the cause-and-effect is very strong, the climax may not satisfy the reader.

Rising action is created when a writer throws obstacles in his hero’s path. These obstacles stand between the hero and her goal. The obstacles can be other people . . . or the character’s own doubts or hesitations . . . or society . . . or the natural world.

All action is, in a way, change. Rising action, then, is escalating change — to a character, to a relationship, to a plan, to a mission, to a town, country, or world. Again, this change need not be action: it could be something as simple as a character making a discovery, or being told a secret. Much of the rising action in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca consists of the protagonist (the second wife) learning things that change her perception of and understanding of Rebecca.

In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen encourages writers to think about the arc of their story: the plot events that curve upward from the first incident to the climax. Kernen believes that as you outline or list these story elements, you should “naturally feel the level of tension, anticipation, and your characters’ stakes rising.” I agree. Rising action is something you can feel as you think about your story’s plot. And you can especially feel it as you’re writing the escalating events.

Many months ago I wrote about Rewriting: Macro. If the story in manuscript form doesn’t contain rising action, the writer must rewrite the entire story so that it does contain rising action. That’s a major  (macro) rewrite. So it pays for the writer to pay attention to rising action from the first page onward.

Rising action is often depicted as a set of stairs, with each step an escalation (increase in intensity or seriousness) of the protagonist’s situation and choices. I prefer to think of rising action as a series of bridges that get burned behind the protagonist due to each choice she makes. Or as a tunnel of increasing narrowness, with no retreat possible: the only way out is through bold action.

Recently I wrote my first YA novel (publication date not yet set)and in plotting it I tried hard to make certain there was one bridge crossed and burned toward the end of the first 20% of the manuscript, maybe two additional bridges crossed and burned in the next 60%, and the final bridge crossed in the last 20%. I knew that if I plotted the novel with rising action embedded in the story, I wouldn’t have to worry that my first rewrite would require the insertion of rising action. What I chose as my steps of rising action were there from the beginning, pulling the story forward.


Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, contains a chapter titled “Rising Action and Pace.”               

Mountain Passes: Mosquito Pass

In 1860, just a few years after gold was discovered in California, a miner named Abe Lee sank his pick deep into a pile of rock, looked at what he’d unearthed, and cried out: “I’ve got all of California right here in my pan!” Lee’s discovery started a gold rush to what became the town of Leadville, Colorado. After the gold mined out, even richer deposits of silver and lead were found, which is how the town got its name.

In order to haul supplies in and gold out, the miners of  Leadville hacked a pass through the mountains, so they could reach the town of Fairplay. Like Beale’s Cut, then, Mosquito is a “doctored” pass: humans made changes to it in order to ease their passage through it. The pass was named after the town of Mosquito, which no longer exists.

Mosquito Pass is very, very high —  higher than many mountains. At this height snowstorms are possible any month of the year. But snow and ice never stopped the miners from crossing back and forth. Some died doing so — Mosquito Pass was nicknamed “the highway of the frozen death.”

Mountain Range: Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 13,187 feet 
Location: In central Colorado, part of the White River National Forest.

One man, though, conquered the pass almost daily. That was Father John L. Dyer, a Methodist minister who carried mail as well as gold between the mining camps. To walk Mosquito Pass in winter, when twenty feet of snow covered the ground, Dyer built himself a pair of “snowshoes” ten-feet long (they were more like skis). Strapping on his skis, Dyer crossed the dangerous pass at night, when the ice was hardest. Father Dyer was so much a part of the mining camps that after his death a monument was erected at the summit in his honor.

In 1949, decades after Leadville’s richest days, the merchants of the town were looking for ways to attract tourists. They thought up an annual burro pack race between Leadville and Fairplay, with a $500 prize going to the winner. The route would start in one town and end in the other — getting there through Mosquito Pass, of course. Each burro was required to carry a 33-pound pack of mining supplies: picks, shovels, pans, and so on. Each man (later women entered the race) had to walk or run with his burro, holding a 15-foot long lead. No riding was allowed. The pack was weighed both before and after the race, just in case some contestants tried to lighten the load by tossing equipment.

Back in 1949, a few of the contestants didn’t know a burro from a mule — two of them showed up with mules and were disqualified.

After several successful years, the merchants of Leadville and Fairplay split the race into two different races, held about a week apart. One race leaves from FairPlay, the other from Leadville: both go to the top of Mosquito Pass and back. Today the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race is twenty-one miles long. (The Fairplay race is 29 miles long.) Winning teams usually finish in under four hours. 

Despite the fact that humans, burros, and even stagecoaches all made it over Mosquito Pass, an ordinary car cannot do so. The pass is very rocky unpaved road with tight switchbacks, narrow in some spots, and very difficult on a vehicle’s tires and undersides. 

Four-wheel drive off-terrain vehicles, however, can make it up Mosquito Pass and back, and drivers of these vehicles love to do Mosquito Pass because the views from the top are stunning in all four directions. Still, it takes considerable skill and determination to get a four-wheel drive vehicle over the 22-mile route. In many places top speed is only four or five miles per hour, because the vehicle must “climb” up and down large rocks or boulders. 

Today many four-wheel driving clubs post photos of their Mosquito Pass trip on the Internet. Climbing the highest pass in the US gives people bragging rights.

Mosquito Pass

Traffic tonight
two miles up —
lone skier
plummets down
ice-slick trail,
intent to deliver
miners’ mail.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Donner Pass.


As so well defined by The Fiction Dictionary, foreshadowing is a literary technique in which the writer gives the reader a subtle hint of some important event that will occur later in the story — it helps the reader develop expectations about what’s going to happen. The important event is often surprising or shocking. 

The example The Fiction Dictionary gives of foreshadowing is from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story seems like the depiction of an ordinary, even uninteresting, family trip. But the foreshadowing helps prepare the reader for the tragic ending. The foreshadowing is such that I, as a reader, felt uneasy. I knew something bad was going to happen.

In Of Mice and Men George’s killing of the dog foreshadows his killing of Lennie. The first killing sets a tone and direction and thus prepares the reader for what comes later.

Here’s how I introduced foreshadowing in Chapter 19 of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies:

Think of foreshadowing as hinting. To foreshadow an event in a novel is to give earlier hints that it might happen. Great writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner all use foreshadowing, whose purpose is twofold: to involve the reader more in the story by creating anticipation and suspense, and to make the events to come seem more plausible.

Foreshadowing adds richness, tension, and depth to a story. When the foreshadowed events happen, they feel more profound or important because it appears that some cosmic force had underlined their importance by “warning” us they are to come. It’s as if Zeus, looking down from Mount Olympus, takes a giant red pencil and “underlines” certain life events, be they words, actions, or even the weather. This makes it seem that what happens was meant to happen.

Books which lack foreshadowing seem so much more “on the surface” than books in which events are intricately bound to future results through foreshadowing. 

Here’s another piece of advice I give writers in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel:

But if you’re thinking that you’re required to foresee and insert foreshadowing from the beginning of your story — at a time when you’re worrying about character, plot, setting, and dozens of other things — rest assured that foreshadowing is often added during a rewrite. Once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, you know where your story started, where it ended up, and how it got there. Now’s the time to ponder which events you want to foreshadow (to make them more anticipated, and to make them more plausible) and how you want to accomplish that.

Narrative, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness thought can all be used to foreshadow. I most often use the narrative to foreshadow, but I’ve also used dialogue and character thoughts.

As I wrote Sound Proof, my second mystery novel (the one featured in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel) I had a lot of fun with the foreshadowing, employing it from the first chapter onward. I used it not only to hint at what would happen at the book’s climax, but also to make the minor character villain more plausible.

Although foreshadowing is usually thought of as a technique in fiction, it’s also used in literary nonfiction. Any story that has a strong plot can make use of foreshadowing, the anticipation of future events — if not their exact nature, at least their general outline.

In Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog, I used the fact that baseballs can take “good hops” or “bad hops” to foreshadow the sad events that occurred before the eventual triumph. By the repetition of “bad hops,” I wanted readers to know something bad would happen in the story, sooner or later.

One of the wonderful things about foreshadowing — wonderful for both writer and reader — is that it makes readers anticipate: makes them want to know more. And what writer in the world wouldn’t be thrilled with readers wanting to know more about his/her story?


Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies provides information and how-to advice on many different aspects of writing fiction— mystery fiction as well as other fiction.

Keeping Cool in Outdoor Kitchens

Every summer my aunt, who lived on a farm, cooked in the outdoor kitchen rather than in the indoor kitchen. The more generic name for such a kitchen is a “summer kitchen,” but my aunt always called it the outdoor kitchen. The farmhouse, built around 1850, wasn’t air conditioned, and on a very hot day cooking in the kitchen was not only intolerable, it also made the rest of the house even hotter.

The old-fashioned farmhouse outdoor kitchen was not like today’s outdoor kitchens, which are literally outdoors, on a patio or other open area around the house. The farmhouse summer kitchen was usually a one-room roofed and enclosed structure (containing a kitchen and nothing else). You had to go outdoors to enter it. That is, you had to walk out of the main house to get to the other little house that was the outdoor kitchen — which is probably why my aunt called it an outdoor kitchen. 

Luckily the people who built the original farmhouse on my aunt and uncle’s farm also built an outdoor kitchen very nearby. This kitchen consisted of a stone floor, stone walls, and wide eaves that kept out the sun. I don’t remember what the roof was made of, but I do remember that the outdoor kitchen always felt cool. Even on a hot day.

I wrote this poem in memory of that kitchen.

A summer [outdoor] kitchen

Outdoor Kitchens

Before the cool hum of air conditioners
Before the glut of quarter-acre plots
When blazing days heightened kitchen heat
When everyone craved a cooling rainstorm
Women found relief in outdoor kitchens

When sizzling bacon and crackling cornbread
Roasting chicken and baking biscuits
Boiling potatoes, wilting greens, and steaming corn
Would have produced indoor saunas
Women cooked in outdoor kitchens

Thick stone walls defied noonday heat
Wide eaves foiled each invading ray
Stone floors remained divinely cool
Air breezed through uncramped space
Distress simmered down in outdoor kitchens

Though abandoned they have not disappeared
Like faithful friends who will not leave
Many linger close to the main house
Look for one when you pass a farm
Symbol of different ways, the outdoor kitchen

After the techno-hum of a long hot day
After a multitude of hydra-headed tasks
When pressures magnify indoor heat
When everyone hungers for relief
Consider the solace of the outdoor kitchen


Barbara Gregorich’s poems are available in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.          

Mountain Passes: Donner Pass

In 1844 a group of emigrants bound for California, the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which consisted of ten families from Iowa, became the first overland settlers to cross the Sierra Nevadas. They followed the route of the Truckee River and crossed through a pass which had a very steep ascent from the east, but a more gradual ascent from the west. 

For perhaps two or three years, this pass may have been referred to as Stephens Pass. But after the winter of 1846-47, it was always called Donner Pass.

In spring of 1846, approximately 7,000 covered wagons, traveling in small groups of 10-20, left Independence, Missouri, to cross 2,500 miles of plains, deserts, and mountain ranges. The emigrants were heading to California or Oregon. Some of these wagon parties were large, with thirty or forty wagons to the train. Others were smaller, with ten wagons to the train. The group led by George and Jacob Donner was small.

Donner Pass

It was also ill-fated. Nothing seemed to go right for the Donner travelers. Heavy rains stopped them in their muddy tracks. Flooded rivers delayed them further. Heavy rocks and boulders slowed them to a mile a day in some places. But worst of all, they were following bad advice — advice from ex-Confederate major, nouveau-Californian lawyer Lansford W. Hastings, who wrote The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which suggested to the westward bound that they could shorten their journey significantly by taking a shortcut.

Following the regular wagon train route through South Pass in Wyoming, the Donners reached Fort Bridger by the end of July. There the men, women, and children spent four days resting their oxen and repairing their wagons.

But after the Donner party left Fort Bridger, it took a shortcut route. Tragically, this route was not only more difficult than the regular one, but also 125 miles longer. Rough ground, tangled undergrowth, and deep sands delayed the wagon train a whole four weeks. All the delays, both nature-made and human-made, contributed to the disaster that took place at Donner Pass.

Wagon trains tried to make it through the Sierra Nevadas before the end of September. Due to delays, the Donner Party didn’t reach the pass until October 31, 1846. They built a camp 1,000 feet below the summit of the long and difficult mountain pass. On the other side was the downhill route, safety, and Fort Sutter, California.

Donner Pass
Mountain Range: Sierra Nevada Mountains
Elevation: 7,239 feet (2,206 meters)
Location: On the Nevada-California border, in the El Dorado National Forest of California.

But that night a storm dropped five feet of snow into the pass, blocking it completely. The wind blew the snow into twenty-foot drifts. Men, women, children, and animals sank into the snow and could not move forward. Wagons slid backwards. The next day it snowed more . . . and more . . . and more. The Donner group was blocked in the mountain pass. They built small cabins to live in.

Their food ran out. They ate leather, bones, twigs, and dirt. And then they ate the bodies of those who died. By the time rescue came, in February and April of 1847, only 46 of the 87 emigrants remained alive. When they reached California, the survivors told the tale of how they were trapped and what they did to stay alive. Ever since, the pass has been called Donner Pass.

In 1863, less than twenty years after the Donner Party, another group entered Donner Pass. This was a larger group — thousands of Chinese men. They had been hired by the Central Pacific Railroad to build bridges, dig tunnels, build retaining walls, and lay railroad track from California eastward. The Central Pacific would build eastward and the Union Pacific would build westward. When they reached one another, the United States would have its first transcontinental railroad. This would allow people, livestock, and goods to travel across the land more easily than ever before.

Theodore Judah was the engineer who laid out the route of the Central Pacific, which included 105 miles of track through Donner Pass. So accurate was his planning that today, more than 150 years later, nobody has found a better route across the Sierra Nevadas.

In order to get the tracks through Donner Pass, the Chinese workers blasted tunnels. Fifteen tunnels in all. Tunnels allowed the trains to travel at a lower grade — instead of following the pass to its top, the tracks followed a less steep route by going through a tunnel.

Work on the tunnels through Donner Pass continued year round. In the winter of 1866-67, forty-four snowstorms raged. One of the storms blew for two full weeks and dropped ten feet of snow. But the railroad crew, thousands strong, supplied with food by the railroad, dug huge tunnels through the snow. Back and forth the workers moved through the snow tunnels, in order to work on the real tunnels — those they were blasting through the mountain sides.

On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met in Provo, Utah. At long last, the United States had a transcontinental railroad. Today trains going to and from California still use  Donner Pass and the railroads still use the tracks built by Chinese workers more than 150 years ago. Interstate-80 also goes through Donner Pass.

Donner Pass
Fierce winds pack
sudden snow,
fill crevice
and crack,
block route
front to back —
wagon train
under attack.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Bridger Pass.

Character Names: Associations

One of the things beginning writers are warned against is starting multiple character names with the same letter of the alphabet. That’s because readers will inevitably get confused as to who the character is. In other words, don’t have a David and a Derrick in the same book. I failed to heed this warning when writing Dirty Proof, my first mystery. In fact, I failed badly. Frank Dragovic’s sister is named Stephanie; his fellow detective is named Sarah; and his love interest is named Suzanne. Aarrgghhhhh! I wish I could do this over, but, alas, I can’t. 

Another warning to all writers (not just beginning ones) is that in naming characters, it’s important to make the name fit with the era. I cringe when I read book reviews of romance historical fiction in which female characters have names such as Sienna or Courtney. For fiction to be believable to the reader, character names must ring true. 

One great way to get first names right is to use the Census Bureau information on-line and look at the listings of the most popular girls’ and boys’ names for each decade. I have used this source countless times, especially when writing workbooks, activity pages, and short historical pieces for classroom activity. Another name resource is old high school yearbooks. Or alumni magazines. I’m particularly fond of  using the obituaries in Harvard Magazine as a possible source for character names.

Before I wrote my first novel (She’s on First) I read many, many how-to books on writing the novel. Several of those books recommended naming characters after streets. This, if I recall, was so that a writer could always claim she didn’t name her characters after anybody in particular: she named them after a street — “This character isn’t named after a real person, Judge! She’s named after a street!”

During the time I was writing She’s on First we were traveling to Texas almost once a year to visit Phil’s parents. So as we drove I jotted down possible names, using towns, rivers, streets, and advertising signs in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. And of course I tried to match names to a character’s “character.” Among the character names that I particularly enjoyed naming in She’s on First are Harland Abilene, catcher; Bobby Knuff, first baseman; and Frank Laughing, second baseman.

I confess that I made up the last name “Mowerinski” when I was trying to combine outfield grass with a Polish last name. Once I made it up, I loved it, and within seconds I immediately created a lawn-mower business for Big Al to build up after his retirement from baseball. 

It always kind of bothered me a bit that I had made up this name entirely, rather than taking an existing Polish name that seemed to fit the character. However, it rather pleases me that if you type the word “mowerinski” into Google, even now, 33 years after the publication of the novel, all hits go directly to She’s on First. 

The star of my early reader books is Waltur, a bear who misunderstands figures of speech: he takes them literally. Waltur is featured in two books, each book containing three stories. The first book is Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, and the second book is Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner.

The most frequent question audiences ask about the Waltur books is: “Why did you spell Waltur with a U, and not an E.” I reply that I spelled it that way because it just seemed right to me. For one thing, the UR goes with URsine. For another, bears growl, and to me a growl sounds more URRRR than ERRR

There’s a negative result of my having spelled the name Waltur. The effect is that about 10=15% of people who write to me about the book say, “I love your bear Wilbur. He is so funny.”

Aarrgghhhhh! (Or should that be Uurrgghhhhh!?) My bear is not Wilbur, he is Waltur! 

But I realize that some people cannot keep names straight. They constantly mix up Phil and Paul, for example, or Joe and Joel, or Sheila and Sara. For that part of the population which mixes up names, be the names written or oral, it’s possible that there is no help. I suspect, though, that my using the “u” instead of “e” leads such people to immediately shunt the name Waltur to the brain cell that houses the name Wilbur.

So, when you’re thinking of naming a character in fiction, give careful consideration to whether the name is one that sits on the cusp of confusion. If it does, consider whether you can live with reader name mix-ups, or whether you can’t. If you can’t, consider changing the name of your character.


Barbara Gregorich URges you to read Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories.

Two-Way Street

I wrote this poem many years ago, way before I became a Roadie (see The Endless Highway: My Life as a Roadie). It seems, though, that being a Roadie may have been my destiny.

Two-Way Street

People in my early life mistook me for a messenger,
a carrier, courier, bearer, delivery person.
Cousins saddled me with items for Grandma,
who ladened me with numerous inessentials
to transport elsewhere down the road.

Sisyphus with a twist: no rock, no hill, 
just package after endless package. 
They had cars, they had trucks:
why was I their Mercury?

Moving away, I inserted several states 
between me and them. In my new, 
improved state people do not consider me
a runner. If a package is important,
they know all about United Parcel. 

Today I realize the roads travel 
in two directions, 
askers bound  to house and yard, 
while I — I know streets,
I deliver.


Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. She hopes to put “Two-Way Street” into a second collection.

Mountain Passes: Bridger Pass

In 1849 Major Howard Stansbury of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was assigned the job of exploring and surveying Great Salt Lake and its surroundings. In 1850 the Stansbury Expedition employed mountain man Jim Bridger to guide them through areas of the Rocky Mountains. It was during that time that Bridger found a pass south of South Pass and led the expedition through it. The significance of this pass (named Bridger Pass) was that it cut 61 miles off the distance of the Oregon Trail. In the mountains a wagon train may have averaged ten miles a day, so Bridger Pass could have saved immigrants a full week of travel as they headed to Oregon. 

James Bridger was born in Virginia in 1804. At a very young age he went west to St. Louis, where he worked as a blacksmith. In 1822, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Missouri River Expedition to further explore much of the territory that Lewis and Clark had traveled. Bridger was the youngest man on the trip.(Jedediah Smith was on this expedition, as were Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick — all three of them mountain men (trappers and explorers). Many members of the expedition, among them Jim Bridger, stayed in the mountains to trap furs after the expedition had ended. Mountain men traveled thousands and thousands of miles, zigzagging across the west, blazing trails, finding rivers, lakes, and mountain passes.

In order to survive in the wild Bridger learned to speak with anybody he met. He spoke not only English but also Spanish and French and six different Indian languages. In addition, he was fluent in sign language.

In 1843 Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez opened a trading post in Utah Territory. Their outpost came to be called Fort Bridger — a very important stop on the route west. Wagon trains stopping at Fort Bridger were able to buy food; re-shoe their horses, mules, and oxen; repair their wagons or buy other wagons; and receive further directions on where to travel and how to do it. The Donner Party stopped at Fort Bridger on its way to California in 1847.

Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850, statehood did not make communication with the far western state any easier. Business and personal mail still took months to reach California via wagon train or ship. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company was a stagecoach line that carried passengers and mail to the west, too. At first the stage took the southern route through Sitgreaves Pass to Los Angeles, then north to San Francisco. Later it switched to a northern route going through South Pass. And then it abandoned the South Pass route for the Bridger Pass one. Still, a letter sent by stagecoach took weeks and weeks to arrive in California.

In 1860 the founders of the Overland Mail did something very bold: they started a mail service of relay riders whose sole job was to carry saddlebags of mail from the end of the telegraph line in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express, as it was called, employed young men who weighed approximately 120 pounds, so that their body weight would not slow down the horses too much. The men were young, with an average age of 20, and one rider was 11 years old.

Each rider was paid $100 for a month of work. He rode from 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at one of the 185 Pony Express stations along the route. At the end of 75 or 100 miles, the rider passed his mail on to another rider. One rider left from the east and one from the west once a week. Via the Pony Express the mail reached California in just eight days in summer, twelve days in winter. These riders galloped east and west through Bridger Pass.

Started in April of 1860, the Pony Express ended in October of 1861 — a mere eighteen months. It ended when the telegraph line across the continent was completed and messages could be communicated in a matter of minutes. By connecting California to the Union via speedier mail, the Pony Express helped keep that state on the Union side during the Civil War. In addition the Pony Express proved that the central route across the United States — through Bridger Pass — could be traveled all year long and was the best route connecting the different sides of the country.

Bridger Pass was significant in another transportation-and-mail way, and that had to do with the Union Pacific Railroad. Before the Civil War the federal government had plans to build a transcontinental railroad. Although the bill providing for this railroad was passed in 1862, and work on the railroad began then, it wasn’t until after the Civil War ended that the government went full speed ahead with the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento, California.  (The tracks met in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.)

The chief engineer of the Union Pacific was General Grenville Dodge, who had served in military intelligence during the Civil War. According to some accounts Dodge, wanting to shorten the route of the Union Pacific in any way he could, asked Jim Bridger if there was an alternative to South Pass. According to these accounts Bridger encouraged Dodge to do what the Overland Mail and Pony Express had done — use the mountain pass that Jim Bridger had discovered in 1850. Dodge and the railroad engineers investigated Bridger Pass and decided that building the railroad through it would indeed save time and money. And so the tracks of the Union Pacific were laid through that pass.

Mountain Range:  Sierra Madre
Elevation: 7,532 feet 
Location: On the Continental Divide in southeastern Wyoming, near Medicine Bow National Forest.

In order to speed up the laying of railroad track across 1,776 miles, the government urged the two railroads to “race” each other. For every mile of track laid, each railroad was granted $48,000 in government bonds plus 12,800 acres of land. In order to lay more miles of track the Union Pacific offered male passengers reduced fare if they would help lay the railroad beds and tracks.

The Union Pacific (which had to dig a mere four tunnels compared to the Central Pacific’s fifteen tunnels) won the race, and General Dodge credited Jim Bridger for this. Bridger died in 1881, one of the last of the mountain men. In 1904 General Dodge had a monument erected over Bridger’s grave, crediting him for discovering Bridger Pass and helping lay the route of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Not only was Bridger Pass a great route for the railroad, it turned out to be the best route for Interstate 80, which runs from Teaneck, New Jersey to San Francisco, California. Exploration, immigration, communication, transportation — Bridger Pass played a prominent role in each.

Bridger Pass

hoof beats, dust cloud,
skinny rider, bursting
saddlebags: why not stay a while? — 
so long!


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Crowsnest Pass.