How mapping Utah came to be — and what writing it taught me

In November 1989, I asked a remarkable woman to marry me.

That didn’t go well.

So I drank myself into a stupor deepened by self-pity and hacked away all night long at a Macintosh SE (Remember those? Two floppy drives?). In the morning, I had an evil headache, more questions about women than I could ever answer, and a 30-page short story.

Such was the sulking, ignoble, drunken genesis of mapping Utah.

That story lay dormant for half a decade, buried in a chaotic array of papers accumulated during study for my master’s degree. It emerged from hiding in 1994 during research for my doctorate. I’d just finished my course work and was supposed to be working on my dissertation.
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How we find our way: Denny Wilkins’ Mapping Utah – a Review

Jim Booth, while a fellow Scrogue, is also a novelist and book reviewer of note. Here’s his take on “mapping Utah.”

Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

Knowing where you’re going takes all the fun out of getting there…

Mapping Utah by Denny Wilkins (image courtesy deadlines amuse me)

Kara McAllister is lost and she knows it. That’s why she is drawn to a strange Rand- McNally map of the Inter-mountain West that she finds in a Powell’s Bookstore in Portland as she is running away from a failed relationship, a successful career – and herself. How she comes to find a new relationship, a new career, and, ultimately, herself, is the central narrative of Denny Wilkins’ first novel, Mapping Utah.

It’s Kara who is the protagonist of this work. That must be understood before the novel’s achievement reveals itself. There are plenty of antagonists: bad guys who would ruin delicate wilderness areas for their petty amusements, corrupt police and politicians who sell the public trust, bad lovers who see their relationships as conveniences.

But there’s only one…

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Who is Kara?

Kara shivered in not quite sleep. The fatigue of many miles driven had conspired against her. The rain drummed incessantly in her ears while the cool air of the lakebed country nagged at her body. Her muscles were cramped from too little room in the back of the brown Subaru. Why the hell am I doing this? If time had passed since she had driven off Route 97 south of Lava Butte to rest, she could not tell. She opened her eyes. Water undulated darkly down the windshield, disfiguring the world outside her all-wheel-drive hatchback. Sitting up, she pressed her forehead against the back of the driver’s seat. She shivered. The day had been warm when she’d left Portland.

Hunched in the cramped space, she pulled on a faded white sweater she’d been using as a pillow. She fumbled through a cargo bag for her black cotton tights and put them on. He had given the tights to her, back when she’d been so attracted to him. Am I now? Still? She sighed. Feelings fade. Love lives, then dies. Has it? Her hands rested on her thighs, drinking in the softness of the tights against the hardness of her quadriceps. She had worn the tights around their apartment because he had told her once that they were sexy. His hands would caress them before he’d ease them down around her knees and kiss her tummy, his tongue licking over her groin. Kara shook her head. Not now. She reached for the odd, mesmerizing, frustrating, maddening map. The damn map. She clutched it against her chest, lay back, and closed her eyes.

She longed to stretch. My legs are too long. Why aren’t they retractable? Comfort eluded her. Kara was tall and, depending on whose truth prevailed, either skinny or slender. He’d called her “scrawny” and “too thin” once. No. I’m lean. I’m slender. I’m not “scrawny.” I’m … I’m … god damn it, I’m supple and graceful and slender. I’m fucking hot, damn it. She sat up, pissed. At him. At the map. At the rain. At the cold. At everything.
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Who is Noah?

Noah no longer lifted weights to become stronger. Although he did not lift as a religion, he lifted religiously. As he neared forty years old, maintaining rather than gaining strength and increasing endurance had become his mantra. His friends called him obsessive. He’d reply, “I simply like to argue with gravity.” That’s how he defended his daily hour of squats, presses, pulls, crunches — and his daily run, which he hated. But he ran. If he couldn’t become stronger, he could always endure.

Noah was five feet, nine inches tall. A modest height, but Noah impressed people by being as wide as most doorways. He had stopped growing upward in the tenth grade. Like so many gangling, awkward teens, he turned to the levitation of iron to produce, through sweat and the discipline of thousands of repetitions, what nature would not. He left high school for Colorado State as a squat, 240-pound fullback who had no need for outside speed in setting WAC rushing records. Now he weighed 210. He had let go the thirty pounds that had made the difference between being tackled by a cornerback and scoring a touchdown. While doing his master’s at Colorado School of Mines, he chose to carry thirty pounds of field gear rather than those same thirty around his midsection.

He yawned. He put down the two dumbbells he’d been using for curls. He was tired. He hadn’t slept well. He had dreamed, and he rarely dreamed. He thought about it, sitting on a cottonwood stump next to his outdoor gym. It sat outside a decade-old, thirty-two-foot travel trailer that had only traveled from a used car lot to his land west of state Route 24. The gym sat behind a post-and-beam hangar covered with corrugated aluminum. He built it for his stable of ultralight aircraft and the parts of several more. He made a modest living, though he didn’t need to, as the owner-operator of a charter air service housed at Green River Municipal Airport. He preferred his ultralights to his Cessnas, a Skylane and a twin-engine Skymaster, when flying in the backcountry. Low and slow. That’s how he liked it. The big birds just ferried people and things from Point A to Point B. Where’s the fun in that?

This morning, he’d flown back from Moab in his Skymaster after ferrying two lawyers from Price to a court date there. He’d followed Route 191 north. He had plenty of altitude. The rare calm air made the flight uneventful. He’d banked west where 191 ended at I-70 at Thompson Springs. On a whim — he’d thought it was a whim until he began having that damned dream — he had flown west past Green River. At 5,000 feet above ground level, he’d seen a line of thunderstorms looming well beyond the Swell but headed for the Fishlake National Forest. Lightning stitched the earth in the distance as if targeting its strikes. He’d turned, landed, and trundled home in his decades-old Land Cruiser, an FJ55, the long-bodied wagon. He had a premonition that something was wrong somewhere for someone. He’d gone to his gym. There he could think.
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The bad guy

The tall, gaunt man with an austere, unshaven face marred by a nose broken in some dim barroom past stood impatiently beside a hellishly expensive high-definition Sony videocam. It stood ready, mounted on a robust carbon-fiber tripod planted near the edge of a steep-walled arroyo. Next to the man stood a camera operator, looking through the viewfinder toward a dark blue Chevy Blazer parked atop the opposite wall edge of the arroyo a hundred yards away. Its supercharged, 572-cubic-inch crate engine rumbled impatiently at idle, 750 horses waiting to stampede. This was no normal Blazer; its 24 forward gears made highway travel cumbersome. It had been trailered over a rough access road to this once-quiet place and now sat mounted on adjustable shocks with 17 inches of travel. The 46-inch Mickey Thompson Baja Claw tires cost nearly three thousand dollars a set. The tires sat squat, inflated to only five pounds of air pressure. This Blazer could crawl over virtually any obstacle.

Dressed in black despite the growing heat of emerging spring, the thin man pulled a radio from his belt. Sunlight reflected from the large, oval, silver buckle stamped with the letters “XOX.” He nodded to the cameraman, then spoke into the radio. “Now.”
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The bad guy’s henchmen

Noah and Kara walked into Ray’s Tavern. Her arm rested easily in the crook of his elbow. “Table or booth?” he asked.

“Booth,” she said, walking to a corner under pictures and posters on the wall near the back pool room. She waited so he could choose where to sit. He appreciated that. Like Wyatt Earp did once too often, he sat with his back to the door. Kara, a semi-committed vegetarian in a cheeseburger bar, ordered a cheese omelet with bean sprouts. The waitress, a woman in her 40s with leathery skin and a slight stoop, stared at Kara blankly. No bean sprouts, Kara was told.

“Really?” she said.

“Kara,” whispered Noah, “this isn’t Seattle.”

“Whoa. I’ll say,” she muttered.

Noah asked for a cheeseburger. Kara complained her plain cheese omelet was too well done; Noah just ate without comment. Apple pie followed for both.

“Do you bitch about everything?” Noah asked.

“I only bitch when things aren’t right.”
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Kara, dancing with lightning

The car, a wedge of dark brown metal dissecting the landscape, cast a long, slender shadow as it sped east along Route 140. It ran on autopilot, because Kara had a headache. She rifled the glove compartment for ibuprofen. She felt cool, so she rolled up the window. Her legs, though, were hot and tingly. Too much sun. She glanced down. Her thighs seemed redder. Funny, I usually tan easily. She remembered the anti-depressants. The doctor said the drug would leave her photo-sensitive. Stay out of the sun, she’d told Kara. They’d both laughed. Who worries about too much sun in a Seattle winter? She’d hated the pills and chucked them.

The low sun bronzed the underside of the thickening dark clouds that hung over the Oregon plateau. Earlier the car had climbed a steep grade (7 percent, the sign said) to Blizzard Gap (elevation 6,100 feet). No more trees. No more soft, calming green. Just a featureless, undulating plain dotted with tufts of stuff that looked like sagebrush — Isn’t that what it always is in the cowboy movies? Unkempt fences isolated dense slabs of dirty snow from the highway — bad-ass snow reluctant to step aside for spring. It’d been hours since she’d seen a house or even another car. Near Hawk Valley a rusted, burnt-out frame of a trailer lay broken-hearted next to the highway. Just west of Guano Valley, she passed a half-eaten roadside carcass of a deer or an antelope. Wolves? Buzzards? Monsters? Maybe one of the coyotes she’d seen loping in the brush near the road had eaten it. They’re scavengers, aren’t they? She thought of Sheepskin Hat. If he’d asked, would I have gone through with it?
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Noah, airborne and dodging bullets

The ultralight, despite Noah’s many attempts at muffling the big Rotax engine’s whine, usually announced itself a few seconds before it would rise from its furtive, belly-to-the-ground approach. It was his favorite tactic. The rock crawlers liked plateaus and ridges for thematic scenery. They thought the high ground would allow them to see him first. But he found arroyos and gullies and fins to hide in as he approached.

The yellow Drifter, his favorite, sped through a narrow canyon in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, west of Capitol Reef. Noah knew this old river channel intimately, so, despite the apparent danger of wingtips striking sedimentary walls, it seemed just another routine, quick in-and-out. He knew that on the plateau above the western wall, six powerful off-road vehicles were racing, one at a time, up a slickrock slope. Where the slope broke, cameras were set up — one to catch the undercarriage as it rose into view, huge wheels off the ground, and two on either side. The thin man’s clients favored this place. The middle camera would catch the snow-capped Henry Mountains to the east; then, suddenly, their big rock crawlers would rise up from seemingly nowhere, blotting out the Henrys. Rich men conquering nature, captured on DVD, sold well here, he thought.
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