Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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The late journalist, World War II veteran and acclaimed Western novelist Tony Hillerman saved my holiday fishing outing on Sunday.
Hillerman was famous for crafting murder mysteries that rang with the authenticity of the landscape that dominates the American Indian reservations of the Four Corners region.
He also was a decorated veteran of World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster as well as the Purple Heart after being wounded in 1945.
Hillerman spoke at the Literary Sojourn in Steamboat Springs in 1996. If I’m not mistaken, it was the promise of fishing some private water on the Elk River that helped lure him here.
The wind was blowing so hard in North Park on Sunday that all of the black angus cows tails were standing straight in the air. I swear it. And the unpredictable gusts made the fishing at Delaney Buttes Lake darned difficult. I had a better chance of hooking a barn swallow out of the air than of hooking a fat trout.
I’d like to tell you that Hillerman reached down from that New Mexico mesa in the sky and handed me the perfect trout fly for spring in the Rockies. But it was actually a paperback copy of Hillerman’s novel “Dance Hall of the Dead” that saved my day.
Yes, this has been a roundabout way of confessing that I got skunked at the Buttes on Sunday. But at least I had the foresight to grab a good read off the honor system shelves at Bud Werner Memorial Library and put it in my fishing pack.
In case you’re unaware of the honor system paperbacks at the library, they are located at the northwest corner of the first floor. You can browse the books that are sorted by genre (science fiction, Western, military thrillers, etc.), choose one, wave it at the front desk on your way out and enjoy it at your leisure without worrying about a due date or a fine. The presumption is that you will return it in good condition.
I had not read Hillerman for many years, and with the knowledge that “Dance Hall of the Dead” was first published in 1973, I felt like I was taking a chance. I was far from disappointed. After retreating to the pickup to escape the punishing winds at Delaney Buttes, I was reminded of what a keen eye Hillerman had for the landscape of the Four Corners region where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah come together in a cross. The author had a way of describing rocky canyons, piñon pines and sudden sunsets that takes me back to my travels in the region.
I’d like to think it was his long history as a reporter and editor in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico that allowed him to instill his prose with authentic descriptions of such diverse topics as mule deer behavior, archaeology and criminal investigations. He also exhibits strong empathy with, and knowledge of, Zuni and Navajo culture and religion.
Perhaps that last quality can be attributed to the fact that he was enrolled for nine years at a boarding school for American Indian girls (I know it sounds strange, but there’s an explanation).
Hillerman worked his way up to editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican in the 1950s and early 1960s, then taught journalism at the University of New Mexico, a gig that allowed him time to write novels. In all, he wrote more than 30 books, including 18 in his Navajo series. Many of them centered on Navajo Tribal Police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn as likable protagonists.
He infused those books with the friction between American Indian and Caucasian cultures using the Navajo belief in the interconnectedness of the natural world as a touchstone.
If you’re no better an angler than I am, you might consider keeping a Hillerman paperback in your fishing vest — just in case the wind blows.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com