QUAIL MUTTERINGS #47. Writing: Navigating the Obstacles (September 2017)

I must admit that I’ve been negligent about writing Quail Mutterings lately. My excuse is the same as everyone else’s: no time. But the fact of the matter is we all have the same amount of time available to us in a day and, for the most part, we simply decide, either consciously or unconsciously, how to spend it. For me, besides following my usual “to-do” lists, I’ve chosen to work on my other writing for the time being.

After retiring from The Dance Centre over a year ago, I’ve begun writing a fictional series about a dance studio. Each novel will focus on a different story ballet and include the adventures of some of the dancers. There doesn’t seem to be much available, in this vein, for eight to fourteen-year-old ballet-obsessed girls. There are plenty of books for horse-crazy kids so why not for dancers? They’re just as rabid for stories about their passion and so, I figured, who better to tackle this project than me? Thirty-seven years of fodder ought to keep me going for quite a while, I should think.

Last spring, when I had the rough draft of the first few chapters done, I met with a group of young dancers at a local elementary school. Each followed along on their pages as I, or a former student of mine, read aloud. We had the best time. Some of them contributed ideas about things they would like to see included in the story or ways to make it more interesting. It was a win/win. I got tips from my target audience and they got “extra credit” for participating.

Since finishing the full rough draft of the manuscript I, once again, am attending writer’s groups and classes. Having my work read and critiqued is essential in this process. The endless details to address in the re-writing and editing phases, such as believability, character point of view and arc of plotting, are next to impossible to get right without other’s feedback.

So now, back to the quail for a moment. I can only afford brief visits to mental wanderings while entrenched in my chosen endeavor. There are literally hundreds of quail in the canyon these days. Yesterday morning, during my run, I accidentally flushed out dozens of them from the sumac bushes lining the trail. I panted my apologies and carried on. After cooling down I took a cold shower. Not by choice, just no hot water. I suppose I’ll have to turn away from the writing project again and attend to the demands of a no-longer-functioning water heater. Things were going so well! Why now?

This morning, after a short writing session, it was time for a break. I headed down to the kitchen for a drink of water. Before taking a sip I noticed a fairly large bird lying in the dirt outside. It reminded me of a Porwil, but it was late morning, so that wasn’t right. I guess it startled when I went outside and it took off. Through the leaves of the Red Berry bush I noticed movement on the other side. I held still and watched. It was a big, beautiful doe. While watching her walk toward the trail I looked around for the two fawns who usually come around with their mother. Perhaps this was a different doe. Anyway, she made my day.

Since I’ve committed to this writing project for now, I’m not going to lead any of the docent-led hikes out at Ramona Grasslands Old Survey Road this fall. I will, instead, take walks on my own when I feel the need to break up the writing concentration sessions. Power hikes, walking meditations, trail running… whatever it takes. Plus working, of course. That goes without saying. And then, after looking up the mountain at the wet boulder beneath our water tank, I hiked up there to play detective. Great. It’s just what I thought it was. Our water storage vessel has sprung a leak! The fun never stops. The writing goes on hold once again.


Chi Varnado’s memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.

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QUAIL MUTTERINGS #17. The Buzzards are Back (August 1, 2012)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #17.  The Buzzards are Back (August 1, 2012)


            During the hot summer months my usual hikes up the mountain turn more into walks down the road. The trails are now covered by weeds and brush obscuring the resident rattlesnakes. This year hasn’t seemed too bad yet, I’ve only seen three so far, but I’d rather be safe than sorry and opt for the path a little more traveled – at least for now.

As I write this though, my nineteen-year-old son, Chance, is walking back down the dirt road. He’s been trimming the trail leading to the Saddle with long-handled pruning sheers and a folding saw. He tells me that he saw three deer this morning. The first he came across earlier during his run and then later there were two fawns up at the Saddle. He’d heard a noise and jumped up onto a boulder to observe them. They just looked at him, since he was holding still, before heading up toward the 2,200 foot peak. He said that their ears looked overly large compared to their small heads.

The image reminded me of our visit to the town ofNarainJapanwhere the deer seemed to outnumber the people in the streets surrounding the large, central park. We had gone to visit our oldest daughter, Jessie, while she was an exchange student studying Japanese.

These days I prefer to start out walking in the early mornings before the sun peeks over the ridge. Dawn has always been my favorite time of day. When I let myself sleep in and don’t go outside until the sun is already shining I miss the exciting awakenings in the canyon. The song birds begin their joyful melodies pre-dawn, about the time the Poorwill ceases its nighttime call. The Red-tail Hawks have already flown from their sleeping perches and are circling high above. The rabbits are hopping about finding tasty morsels under the bushes and young squirrels are cavorting over the boulders.

Mussey Grade Roaddead ends into a gate overlooking San Vicente Lake. To me, walking or riding a bike down the old winding cement road feels like being on vacation. It strikes me sometimes how this paradise lays practically in my own backyard. The only downside is that the more difficult part of the walk, or ride, is on the way home – huffing and puffing at the end of the exercise instead of near the beginning when I’m fresher and have more energy. But as they say, “It’s all good.”

The Mussey Grade creek is still running – a little more than a trickle. That’s pretty good considering how late in the year it is and how little rainfall we’ve gotten. I chuckled happily to myself when I peered down through the grass and noticed the sparkling water below on last Sunday’s walk. A neighbor had joined me that morning, forgoing her usual late slumber, grateful for the incentive to exercise.

This area known as Fernbrook had also been called Buzzard Gulch in the past. During all my years growing up here, and on into my thirties, dozens of big, beautiful vultures nested in the eucalyptus grove down our dirt road. My dad used to “Caw… Caw…” at them when he was outside working in the yard. He seemed to have a real affinity with them. I’d forgotten about that, but was later reminded when I noticed our eucalyptus tree full of them one morning shortly after Dad returned home from open-heart surgery.

Does this mean he’s gonna die? I thought. Or are they his protectors? Well, I guess they were the latter.

By then most of the vultures had vanished. Now, decades later, they’ve come back. In the mornings they can be seen atop telephone poles sunning their outstretched wings and surveying their domain below. In the evenings these shrouded sentinels can be spotted dominating entire eucalyptus trees. They are back! And I love them! When driving by I roll down my window to talk to them. “Hello, beautiful! You guys are gorgeous!” I don’t even care what the neighbors think.

These Turkey Vultures have lots of wrinkly, red skin all over their heads and necks. Sometimes they can be so ugly that they’re beautiful. I find them to be tremendously awesome beings. They live off of everybody else’s discarded waste and make do.

Recently my daughter, Kali, convinced me to go get a pedicure with her. I reluctantly agreed deciding that having someone else massage and decorate my toes once every couple of years or so might not be too bad. I selected a color that could blend in with the shade of dirt that I tended to walk around in. But she informed me that it was “Not my color.” She stated matter-of-factly that I should “Do red.” At last, a burgundy nail polish was agreed upon.

For the next week, every time I happened to glance downward I was taken aback. My sympathetic nervous system informed me that my toes were bleeding! Each time my brain had to re-adjust to the “painted toenails.” And then I would think of the buzzards with their floppy, red skin hanging off their heads encrusted with all the disgusting trash and dead things that they eat. Somehow, I’ll bet that this is not an image that most women see when they look down at their recently pedicured feet.

Anyway, we seem to be having a fairly mild summer, although it hasn’t been very consistent. We run the gamut through dry, humid, hot, warm, cooler, nice breeze, no breeze… But I really do appreciate these long days of summer. So many more activities and fun can be packed in and enjoyed. When I was a kid summer was my favorite time of year. Probably because there was no school. And I could swim in the pond. Perhaps things haven’t changed all that much. I still enjoy many of the same things I did half a century ago.



Chi Varnado is a contributing writer for The San Diego Reader. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Chi directs the Ramona Dance Centre. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com 

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #16. There’s No Place Like Home (June 1, 2012)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #16.  There’s No Place Like Home

(June 1, 2012)


            “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home…” These are the words Dorothy concentrated on trying to get back to her family inKansas. Even though she was standing in the middle of a wondrous, magical kingdom she still couldn’t wait to get home. Such is the case for me when I venture out to new places.

Just last week I took a road trip, by myself, up to Bishop, California. The occasion was Mule Days. Every Memorial Day weekend the place floods with donkey and mule enthusiasts excited about the wild-ass adventures that take place there. The parade on Saturday morning is the largest, longest running, non-motorized parade in the country. They’ve been doing it since 1969. The mule and donkey show includes packing, jumping, western pleasure, coon jumping, dressage, roping, races, gaited classes, chariot roping and races, gymkhana classes… You name it. Words can’t come close to describing it.

Anyway, it had been several years since I’d been so I was looking forward to going. My husband and I couldn’t get away at the same time because of our old dogs that need so much care and it was decided that I was the one needing a get-a-way. Unfortunately, I was unable to convince any of my friends to go with me. So instead of canceling my plans I went alone.

A friend from Bishop was showing her new mule in a few of the classes. During the summers she is a wrangler for a pack station up in the Eastern Sierra. She was busy with her own activities so we didn’t get much time to visit, but I did get to meet her mule and watch her perform. In spite of her mule being green and inexperienced I thought she did quite well.

The whole area was abuzz with activity. The restaurants were packed, the streets were crowded and the loudspeaker from the fairgrounds was audible all over town – especially during the evening shows when everywhere else was quieting down. I poked inside Spellbinder’s Bookstore to collect on my recent book sales and meandered through the aisles perusing the colorful displays. I spent most of my time petting the mules in corrals and walking around the fairgrounds, park and downtown. Walking, walking and walking.

All this time on foot gave me ample opportunities to ponder – more than usual. What came up for me mostly was home: the beautiful canyon, my comfy house, our family… What? I thought I came up here to get away from all that, but evidently not. I missed home. It’s funny how being away can trigger fondness in such a strong manner. You stop seeing the negatives and see, instead, only the good things. Normally, while immersed in a situation, it’s almost impossible to see only through rose-colored glasses. Our wiring seems to change depending on the setting of our environment. At least it does for me.

On Friday afternoon a chilly wind picked up and forced me to head back to my motel room for long underwear, wool socks, boots and down jacket. I just happened to pack these things at the last minute – just in case. That night, snow dumped all over the White Mountains to the east of Bishop which made the weekend much colder than the average temperature for this time of year. Great – cold and windy. My favorite… Not.

When Sunday finally rolled around I packed my bags and said goodbye to the Eastern Sierra. Starting out on the drive I purposely did not listen to any music or books on CDs. This way I could enjoy the grandeur of the scene without the influence from outside, auditory distractions. I do love those jagged, snow-capped peaks. So, for the two hours descending into the desert I became one with my surroundings and relished every minute of it.

Of course, upon arriving home I immediately got right into the tasks at hand: unpacking, watering, eating fresh greens from the garden… But then I escaped for a short walk up the canyon to reconnect with the familiar. The first pink hollyhock was flowering on the bank by the house. Penstemons were blooming again and a few lilacs still had the faded blue remains of the Spring’s blossoms. A hawk called from overhead and my dog took off through the bushes after a squirrel.

I’ve lived here all my life, over half a century, much longer than most people stay in one place. I’ve heard that one can become rooted to an area. But the natives before us recognized that the land can take hold and pull you in an even stronger way than your own roots can take hold of the land. I feel that. It’s a powerful sensation. Images of certain places in the canyon come to me, complete with smells and the feel of the air. Even just a log laying next to an old fence post under an oak tree – the damp mustiness floods my senses as if I am in that spot right now, even though it had been forty years ago. It’s a difficult thing to describe. Linear time disappears momentarily and I’m taken aback. Sometimes the feelings can be too strong, and I fight back tears of nostalgia. I’ve hiked all over this canyon and surrounding mountains and know it like it’s a part of me. Not separate at all. I’m connected to this place in ways I’ll probably never really understand.

Someone once told me of a Spanish term which describes this. La querencia – the place where my life is. It seems to fit perfectly. And so, for me, there’s no place like home. There’s absolutely no place like home.

Chi Varnado is a contributing writer for The San Diego Reader. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Chi directs the Ramona Dance Centre. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.