Doña Luz

In the fall of 1962, I went with my father on a trip to Mexico. He was meeting a woman he had corresponded with. We arrived in Chihuahua on November 1, just in time to go with the woman’s family to the cemetery for El Día de los Muertos on November 2. In the next six weeks, we would go on a tour to Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Mexico City, Morelia, Guadalajara, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Durango, and back to Chihuahua. We saw a canyon full of Monarch butterflies, peasants carrying huge loads of firewood on donkeys, farmers plowing with oxen, boys bathing naked in a small waterfall and waving to the travelers, indigenous people in native dress, rural buses with goats tied on top, barbecued cow heads, paintings of President Kennedy on black velvet, the Basílica de Guadalupe, and a million other sights. On our return to Chihuahua, we visited the small museum maintained by Luz Corral, the widow of Pancho Villa.

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Doing the Right Thing

Time and again I remember an innocent moment, over thirty years ago, when I was sitting in the college cafeteria at lunchtime. As was the custom at the time at our small college, the instructors sat with classified staff and students, all of us like a family. On this day, one of the students came out of the kitchen, stopped, and dropped his tray of food. Utensils crashed, glass broke, food scattered, and people laughed.

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How Our Paths Cross

When I enrolled in classes at Orland High School in October of 1962, shortly after the beginning of my freshman year, I met Miss Gurrola, the Spanish teacher. She was very polite, and she welcomed me into her class. I had great interest in learning Spanish, and before long I felt comfortable in her class. The other students were already used to her, although she had just come to Orland at the beginning of that school year.

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Fifth Wheels

Sometimes I recall an incident in which my father and another man were talking about a fifth wheel. This was many years ago, when I was in my late teens and when fifth wheels were not common features of recreational vehicles. They were used almost exclusively with large equipment such as trucks and farm tractors. I asked what a fifth wheel was, and instead of just explaining, my father took the occasion to criticize me for not knowing. “It’s a fifth wheel.  That’s what it is. Don’t you know what a fifth wheel is?”

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What the Western Has to Offer

During the summer between my fifth- and sixth-grade years, I had to go to the hospital to have my appendix taken out. While I was there, I read my first traditional western. I was ten going on eleven, and as I recall, the pediatric ward was full, so I was put in another ward to share a room with an old man (old to me, probably no older than I am now) who had stomach ulcers. Not having much in common with my roommate, and being a proficient reader, I turned my attention to the reading fare on hand. It was a novel called West of Abilene. For years after that, I had lingering memories of a few of its salient features.

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Crossing Over

One of the best pieces of advice I received when I was trying to find a home for my first novel came from an agent. She suggested that I not be afraid to try writing a genre western. As I had been writing short stories, articles, reviews, and poems for several years and was taking a big step toward book-length fiction, I was hesitant to try a second novel if my first one wasn’t going anywhere. But with her encouragement, I went to work on an idea for a traditional western. It took me a couple of years, in and around the shorter things I was writing, in addition to my full-time teaching position, but I ended up with a western novel.

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May I Continue to Remember

It is a truth, perhaps not universally acknowledged, that a large percentage of college instructors come from middle-and lower-middle-class families of industrial workers, construction workers, hard-scrabble farmers, farm workers, and other blue-collar employees. I am one of them. Like a great many people I have met in my line of work, I chose a profession that offered a moderate but secure income and a modicum of status—two things that I did not grow up with; like many of my colleagues, I followed the ideal of humanistic education rather than the lure of material success.

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Small Expectations

I remember my eighth birthday with some clarity. It was in December of 1956, a short while after I learned that my mother had died. It was during the cold, clammy part of the year, and the two events overlap somewhat in my memory. I know that on one morning shortly after Thanksgiving, my father called me and my two brothers into the kitchen and told us that our mother (who had been living far away) had died. He told us we should tell our teachers, who needed to know that sort of thing.

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“Rangeland Lament”

Rangeland Lament” is a song recorded by Carol Markstrom and included on her award-winning Desert Rose album. I wrote the original lyrics to it, and it has been a great honor to see my work end up in such a distinguished place.

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Return to Laurel Commentary

“Return to Laurel” is a somewhat long short story that appears in the anthology Hobnail and Other Frontier Stories, released by Five Star Publishing in December 2019. In this story, a private investigator named Henry Tresh agrees to look for an older couple’s son who disappeared some twenty years earlier. The parents insist that their son, Arthur, fell under the bad influence or a girl named Bella. They also tell the investigator that they did not know until very recently that the son was last known to be in the town of Laurel, Wyoming.

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