Voices of the Middle West Lit Fest

It’s almost here!

This weekend Midwestern Gothic will be co-hosting an incredible free event with University of Michigan’s Residential College, the 3rd annual Voices of the Middle West Literary Festival.

There’s plenty to see and do all day, between panels featuring a diverse selection of acclaimed writers, poets, editors, and publishers talking about everything from publishing unheard voices, exploring Midwestern character, storytelling and community, and blurring the lines between memoir and fiction.

Pick your favorite panels and spend the rest of the day wandering around the bookfair. Unlike other conferences, Voices Lit Fest is a place to spend one-on-one time talking directly with some of the Midwest’s finest publications. It’s much more intimate and conducive to building the lasting relationships that matter to those who make things.

The whole day ends with a keynote by National Book Award Finalist Ross Gay, who is a force to experience live. If you’re free, come out to Literati bookstore for our Friday kick-off reading and hear him read his work – it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Hope to see you there!

Hiking Mt. Sopris: Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Look north down the canyon in Glenwood Springs and one thing dominates the horizon.

Mt. Sopris.

Spend any amount of time hiking in the Western United States and you’ll quickly realize mountains are not a single summit. They are layers of elevation, undulating up and down. Masking each other with their peaks and angles. What sets Mt. Sopris apart is how alone it is. The nearly 5,000 feet of slope exposure isn’t a common sight, making for a dramatic centerpiece of the area.

The Last Hike

It was one of our last days in Colorado, and I was looking for a trail I could knock out some mileage on. The kids and Sandi were looking forward to relaxing back in the treehouse. So I set out to find Mt. Sopris.

This mountain is not easy to get to. The directions took me down winding roads, onto gravel, and then finally onto something that vaguely resembled a road. My car was bounced and jostled every which way until I finally came to a full parking lot just off the trailhead.

Shifting Landscapes

Right off the bat I knew this hike would be special. Looking back toward Glenwood Springs, a pop-up afternoon thunderstorm hung like an angry giant over the valley. It was big and gray and moody. Everywhere else, sunshine and mountain meadows.

Glenwood Springs, Colorado - Glenwood Springs

The hike up to the shoulders of the mountain was no less dynamic. The trail begins in covered forests with lots of small wildlife rustling under leaves. After a mile or so, there’s a cattle gate to pass through that gives way to open mountain meadows filled with flowers. Bees and insects hum around the foliage, giving it life.

I didn’t make it to the summit, but I tasted the edge of the final approach. Thomas Lakes, surrounded by rocks. Past where I stopped, all vegetation ceased, and barren rock and snow began.

Thomas Lakes - Mt. Sopris, Glenwood Springs, Colorado

I made the trek in the afternoon, so I had the trail to myself. Most summiteers start in the morning to make it all the way up and down before dark. I didn’t reach the top, but I was able to lounge by the lakeside. Sunlight glinting off the rippling water.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to end our time in Glenwood Springs.

Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters

Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters4 out of 5 stars

I’m usually not a horror guy.

However, when a Dark House Press title showed up on my doorstep, I decided it was as good of a time as any to try something unusual.

“In this haunting and hypnotizing novel, a young woman loses everything–half of her body, her fiancé, and possibly her unborn child–to a terrible apartment fire. While recovering from the trauma, she discovers a photo album inhabited by a predatory ghost who promises to make her whole again, all while slowly consuming her from the inside out.”

Paper Tigers echoed The Others for me. DECADE OLD SPOILER ALERT: A protagonist caught in what they perceive is a haunted house. In reality, they are the intruders, the ones disturbing the undead. Walters doesn’t use the shocking twist, though. She gives her broken main character agency and uses the house as a metaphor for Alison’s struggle to heal herself.

The standout in this book was the authenticity, as much as you can have authenticity in a story about a predatory ghost trying to trap someone in a photo album. Alison’s introversion as a result of her horrifying scars felt incredibly crippling. The need to recharge alone after something so simple as taking a few steps outside. The desire to avoid human contact, even with someone you love dearly.

I particularly enjoyed the nuanced relationship with her mother, who had her own struggle between wanting to help Allison return to some version of the person she was before and failing to respect her daughters need for space and time to process.

While I appreciate a good surprise as much as anyone, Paper Tigers felt like it could have ended earlier. Without spoiling the end of the book, the main storyline that had already come to a close felt like a false ending. In the case of Paper Tigers, I think Walters didn’t go surprising enough, instead trying to rekindle story out of an otherwise satisfying ending.

Walters prose sucks you in with vivid descriptions that build setting around all the senses. The smell of tobacco, the tautness of scar tissue: many times I found myself simply enjoying the picture she was painting. In a critical scene near the end of the book, Walters delivers masterfully on what I expect horror to be – unsettling, uncomfortable, and placing a character on that delicate knife edge of escape and completely losing themselves.

As a casual horror fan, I found a lot to enjoy in this novel.
Buy Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters

Hiking Hanging Lake: Glenwood Springs, Colorado

In nature, beautiful things are easy to see, but hard to get to. The hike to Hanging Lake is no exception.

This spot isn’t off the beaten path. Quite the opposite, with its own exit off the iconic I-70 interstate through Glenwood Canyon.

This isn’t a long hike. From the parking lot to Hanging Lake, the total walking distance is just over a mile.

Hanging Lake Family Hike

This hike is steep. The elevation change got us, especially the kids. The trail rises over a thousand feet in under a mile.

However, at the top you’re rewarded with a Technicolor lake circled with waterfalls. Something that only could emerge from a fairy tale.

Arrive to Hanging Lake Early

Even though the short trek to the top is intense, the proximity to civilization and the jaw dropping beauty attracts crowds. I-70 cuts through the bottom of a canyon, so there is very little room for anything, much less a parking lot that can handle all the tourists.

We arrived at 9 a.m. and had to wait for a parking spot. The one in, one out system took us about forty-five minutes. There are two rangers controlling traffic, one holding cars outside Hanging Lake, and another who holds you inside the parking lot until a spot opens up.

Waiting that long provides ample time to chat with the rangers. It sounds like the park will move to a shuttle system with a fee soon. This will significantly cut down on traffic and the number of visitors. Which is a good thing, because the amount of foot traffic this fragile lake sees needs to be reduced.

Hanging Lake

After a brutal final approach that is essentially several flights of narrow, rocky steps, we arrived on the ledge holding Hanging Lake. A simple boardwalk encircles the lake to keep tourists off its shores. A boardwalk packed with people.

Hanging Lake, Glenwood Springs

Seclusion and tranquility is not something you’ll find here. But the sight of waterfall curtains pouring over a densely vegetated rock ledge into turquoise water is worth it. And who could blame everyone for wanting to come here?

A fallen log bisects the lake, adding another layer of interest. Unfortunately, some, like this guy, walk out on this balancing beam, which damages the ecosystem and speeds up the process of Hanging Lake fading from what it is today.

Don’t be that guy.

Hanging Lake Waterfall

Whitewater Rafting on the Colorado River: Glenwood Springs

On the last day of all our trips, we ask the kids to pick one activity to repeat.

White water rafting on the Shoeshone Rapids was awesome enough to earn their vote.

Rafting the Rapids

After a 15 minute bus ride from Whitewater Rafting, LLC headquarters in Glenwood Springs, the Colorado River whisks you away. Depending on the season and height of the river – you’re thrust into Class III rapids the moment you hit the water.

“Man Eater”, “The Wall”, and “Tombstone” demand to be conquered immediately. Be ready to follow instructions, listen to your guide, and get wet. If you’ve got a little anxiety, don’t worry. Our five-year-old daughter loved every second of Shoeshone. The entire experience is no rougher than taking a spin on some bumper boats. The rafts are massive, rugged things that seem impossible to tip over.

A Leisurely Float

The first two miles rush by quickly, and you’ll wish you could go back and do it again. The rest of the trip is more like a lazy river. The Colorado calms down and you don’t even have to paddle.

Whitewater Rafting on the Colorado River

The guides treat you to tongue in cheek histories of countless local points of interest – Bear Claw Caves, a giant mansion built into a cliff, the history of Glen Canyon, and many, many others. Most of their jokes are of the “so good they’re bad” variety, but the guides on both our trips were super-friendly, great with our kids, and the type of people you’d want to sit down and have a beer with.

Where the river widens there are several opportunities to hop in for a dip. With all the rafts are close together, splashing wars break out often.

The guides encouraged (peer pressured) some of us into standing on the front of the raft while everyone else paddled to spin, trying to knock us off. A few of us stood on the edges, linked paddles, and then leaned back in a twisted trust fall exercise, only to get rammed by another raft. At some point, everyone who played ended up in the water.

As we floated back into town, my daughter helmed the raft for awhile. She was in heaven. My son got to “ride the bull” for most of the trip, which meant he sat on the nose of the raft with his legs dangling in the water.

It’s easy to see why they had a blast and wanted to do it again. Even though we knew what was coming on our second trip down the river, we were able to enjoy the little moments even more. Sort of like seeing a great movie again.

Whitewater Rafting, LLC - Glenwood Springs

Kickstart Gamut Magazine

Gamut Magazine

Past Midwestern Gothic contributor, consummate horror writer, editor extraordinaire and all-around good guy Richard Thomas is starting a new magazine I’m stoked about: Gamut.

Gamut is an online magazine of neo-noir, speculative and literary fiction, with writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Laird Barron, Brian Evenson, Usman T. Malik, Matt Bell, Damien Angelica Walters, and Letitia Trent already on board.

Before he can do that though, it needs to be Kickstarted. Why? Because he’s planning on publishing an absolute boatload of content (400K words) plus artwork, and wants to pay artists for all their work.

I can’t think of any better reason to justify raising money, especially if folks get four hefty novels worth of work that Richard has hand-selected as a bonus.

Rewards start as low as you want, but a measly thirty bucks gets you a subscription for the whole year, which is pretty awesome.

Why are you still here? Go do it!

Kickstart Gamut Magazine

Hiking in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

Just outside Aspen, Colorado, is a fantastic bit of hiking that’s also one of the most photographed places in Colorado.

We came to the Maroon Bells Snowmass-Wilderness on the recommendation of our tree house hosts. We probably would have ended up here anyway, since it’s so close to Aspen and Dumb and Dumber was one of the formative movies of my youth. If we didn’t visit the place where the beer flows like wine, and the women flock like the salmon of Capestrano, it probably would have been a wasted trip.

After a quick lunch that was promptly spilled all over our rental car by our daughter, we headed up to the park. Getting there is a little confusing, you actually have to buy shuttle tickets to access the wilderness between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. It takes about a half hour to get up there, and busses stop promptly at 5 p.m. We arrived in the afternoon, so we were on a little bit of a schedule to make sure we didn’t get stranded.

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

Maroon Lake Scenic Trail

We opted for a short loop trail that was just enough to give us a taste and get us back in time for our bus. Even this little jaunt was phenomenal – the mountain lakes were teal and blue and every shade in between. The texture of the Apsen trees giving way to winter’s avalanches gave the mountainside a dimension I haven’t seen anywhere else.

The trail is easy and flat. It hugs a stream gurgling from the snowmelt on top of the mountain and was only two miles long. If you want to go longer, you can continue on to Crater Lake. For us, it was plenty of time to stop and enjoy a view or folly if we wanted to.

As we made our way back, we emerged from the woods into a small clearing and discovered we’d stumbled onto a pair of moose. Well, as much as you can stumble on an 800 pound animal. I’ve heard plenty of stories about their aggression, so we quickly moved past them.

Moose in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

Once it became clear they had zero interest in us, we paused on the edge of the clearing to watch them feed in tranquility. Several other people stopped with us to take in the incredible animals – I was just happy no one got charged or trampled.

Spending Two Weeks in a Treehouse in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

We never planned on staying in Glenwood Springs for two weeks. We planned on spending a month in southwestern Utah exploring national parks.

But when my wife found a tree house just outside of town in Glenwood Springs, we knew we had to make it part of the plan.

Glenwood Springs Treehouse

We even changed when we were traveling and booked two solid weeks without knowing whether or not there was anything to do. You could argue that we planned our entire trip around this tree house.

So, of course, we went in with high expectations.

The Tree House Itself

From the outside, this place was just as good as the photos. The back of it is built into the mountain and the front supported by three trees. That meant we were able to enjoy a full kitchen and bathroom plus a view overlooking the property from a rustic porch.

It also meant when the wind picked up, the whole house creaked and swayed. The first time it happened, the kids kind of freaked out.

The space felt like a small cabin out in the woods. Plenty of knick knacks, a fireplace, and an upstairs filled with nooks to tuck yourself into and read a book. This would be an amazing place to hole up in the winter. Just get all cozy in front of a roaring fire and cut yourself off from the world.

As we read through the guest book, we found lots of people who had the same experience. One in particular stuck out. A young couple had visited the house over Christmas and gotten engaged during their stay. I’m assuming (from the handwriting) that the writer was female. You could almost feel the excitement and hope on what was probably one of the most memorable weekends of their lives.

As we flipped through the rest of the stories, we came the most recent entry. It was a friend of the engaged couple, who’d come here because of the special time her friends had shared. It must have been a bittersweet visit, because they wrote that the woman who’d gotten engaged had passed away between the two entries. It was one of those eerie moments that you can’t help but be touched by. To be getting a short glimpse into the unknowing words of someone who’s passed. Then imagining what it must have felt like to be her close friend. To come back to this place and read the words of someone you love who is gone. To wish that you could re-write the story, but at the same time be thankful that she experienced that amazing memory from the treehouse before she passed away.

Around the Tree House

The property the tree house sits on is probably its best feature. It’s built on a wooded lot and backed up against a mountain. A creek meanders through the middle of the tall grass. There’s a geodome house close by, but aside from that you feel as if you are truly on your own.

Our kids spent every moment they could outside climbing trees, playing pretend games with troops and soldiers and princesses and animals.

Glenwood Springs Treehouse

We found two cherry trees and an apple tree bearing fruit when we arrived in August. So when I had to head back down to St. George to pick up our car from the mechanic, my family made the most of being stranded. They made pies that we gave to the owners of the tree house and as gifts to our family and friends back home.

If our kids remember one thing from this summer vacation, I bet, and hope, it’s the hours they spent with nothing but the outdoors to entertain them.

Glenwood Springs Treehouse

Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Like I said before – we planned our stay here not knowing anything about what there was to do in town.

Luckily there was loads!

We went whitewater rafting down the Colorado River, which we loved so much we went back to do a second time. The Shoshone Rapids are perfect for young kids and families, especially around the time of year we went. The first twenty to thirty minutes are a blast – all the class III and II rapids are packed into the beginning. The rest of the trip is a leisurely float filled with so-bad-they’re-good guide jokes, interesting facts about Glenwood Canyon, and even stop to take a quick dip in the river.

Glenwood Springs Whitewater Rafting LLC

Glenwood Springs was built around an area of hot springs activity, and there is a massive pool fed by these springs with slides and old school diving boards.

Atop the canyon after a tram ride is Glenwood Caverns, an adventure park with cave tours, an award winning Alpine coaster that even I couldn’t get enough of and rides that sping or swing you out over the edge of a 1450 foot cliff.

Glenwood Caverns Alpine Coaster

With Aspen a short drive away, and Hanging Lake, Mt. Sopris, and Rocky Mountain National Park all short drives away, we found Glenwood Springs to be a relaxing, but fun two weeks that was completely different from all the driving and hiking we did in Utah.

Visiting St. George, Utah: Home Base for Parkaholics

Anyone who wants to see Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase, Las Vegas, Glen Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, etc. etc. and be within a few hours drive of all of it should stay in St. George, Utah.

While we stayed in Pine Valley, St. George was our connection to civilization. It’s big enough to have lots of restaurants, grocery stores, heck, even a Walmart. Anytime we needed anything (which was a often) we headed to St. George.

The city itself has a few highlights worth noting, and good options if you’re staying outside town like us, or looking for a “down” day.

St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm

Our kids are nuts for dinosaurs, so Johnson Farm was a must stop. Even without kids, if you have anything above a passing interest in paleontology, swing in. They have ultra-rare fossils. Stuff that doesn’t exist anywhere else, like dinosaur swim tracks.

Everything in this place was discovered on a farm when the owner was plowing up some sandstone, flipped it over, and found the tracks underneath. It harkens back to a time when St. George sat on the edge of a giant inland ocean and dinos roamed the shores.

There’s a separate room with more fossils, skulls, and coloring activities for kids, plus an outdoor fossil dig area. All in all, a great way to kill a couple hours.

Johnson Farm St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site

Washington City Community Center

When it gets hot out (and it gets blistering), the Washington City Community Center is a phenomenal place to go cool down. The pool area is gi-normous with two of those aqua structures with the giant buckets on top and all those squirting hoses and guns.

Basically, heaven for kids.

There’s also a couple slides that actually fun to zip down. There’s zero lines since you’re at a community center, which is great. The entire place is open air too – one whole wall opens up and looks out over the rest of the town and the red rock desert.

Washington City Community Center

Tuacahn Center for the Arts

We didn’t go here, but felt like it was worth mentioning because it looks freaking awesome. They put on broadway quality plays in an auditorium that backs up against Snow Canyon State Park, with its gorgeous red rock formations.

We’d definitely put Tuacahn in “must-see” territory, even though we didn’t plan far enough ahead to be able to snag tickets.

Midwestern Gothic Issue 20 – Editor’s Commentary

This issue marks the 5th year of Midwestern Gothic – it’s kind of unbelievable that we’re around 20 issues after Rob and I first announced a literary magazine focused on celebrating Midwestern writers.

When we started, we had little knowledge of what we were doing (what we did know had been gleaned from a failed comic book publishing company). We had no idea whether or not people would even like the concept of fiction and poetry inspired by the Midwest.

Luckily, we were wrong about the latter, and learned about the former. We started out with an issue every three months. Now we’ve published four books, with four more on the way. We’ve put out three themed issues, one on nostalgia, and two on non-fiction. We partnered with the Residential College at University of Michigan to put on a literary festival keynoted by writers of Stuart Dybek, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Ross Gay’s ilk. And the latest issue features the 2nd annual finalists of the the Lake Prize, a our own literary contest.

It’s absolutely crazy, when you list it out like that.

I couldn’t feel more grateful that I’ve got such an incredible partner in Robert James Russell to bring all these things to life with. And when I think of all the new friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise at readings, conferences, and digitally…I couldn’t be more thankful for all our contributors.

Thank you for allowing us to share your work with the world.

Check out Midwestern Gothic Issue 20 (Winter 2016)

Midwestern Gothic Issue 20 Winter 2016