Prairie Fire!

by Heidi M. Thomas

Prairie firePhoto courtesy

Lightning strikes, a glow forms on the horizon, the smell of smoke wafts on the wind. Prairie Fire!

This scenario strikes fear in the hearts of ranchers everywhere, and this fear was realized recently in eastern Montana near where I grew up. The Lodgepole Complex Fire near Sand Springs eventually encompassed 270,000 acres, burned miles of grazing land, haystacks, outbuildings, and killed some livestock.

Here in north-central Arizona, where I now live, the Goodwin Fire in June also devastated 28,000 acres, closed a main highway, and evacuated residents for several days.

In my new novel, Seeking the American Dream, I have a fictionalized composite scene of this feared wrath of Mother Nature, when Neil and the neighbors battle a prairie fire on their ranch and Anna fears they will lose their home.

praire fireline

Photo courtesy

Excerpt From: Seeking the American Dream

As they approached within ten miles of the ranch, yet another huge bolt of lightning crashed into the earth along the horizon. Anna thought she saw flames flicker in the distance.

“Prairie fire.” Neil punched the accelerator to the floor. Then, nothing, just the blackness of the night sky.

Anna breathed a small sigh of relief. Maybe it had been a reflection of the lightning strike against the clouds.

A sudden gust of wind stirred the stillness in the air, and dust swirled in the headlights. Then flames leaped again from the same spot. Anna gasped. In minutes the hillside glowed and smoke rose as the dried grass caught and the fire spread.

“Is it…it isn’t our place, is it?” Anna couldn’t breathe with the fear that gripped her.

“It won’t come our way.” Neil’s voice was firm with conviction, but his knuckles turned white around the wheel…


It was only a half-mile from their house. Anna heard the flames crackle. Her nose closed and her eyes watered from the astringent smoke.

“I’m going to get the tractor and plow a firebreak.” Neil jumped out of the car. “You’ll have to carry buckets of water and wet down the roof, in case it heads this way.”

Anna ran to the house, carrying Monica who now screamed in fright. “Honey, it’s okay.” Anna tried to control her quavering voice. “Here, you can lie down in Mama’s bed and look at these books. I have to go to the well and get some water. You stay right here.”

“No, Mommy. You stay.” Monica sobbed and clutched at Anna’s neck.

“Honey, you’re all right. Mommy will be right back. Look at the book. It’s your favorite, see? Three Little Pigs.” She tucked the blanket around her daughter’s shoulders. Oh, please stay put. Dear Lord, watch over her.

SeekingAmericanDream_1.5x2Anna grabbed the drinking bucket from the kitchen cupboard and ran out into the wind. Her skirts whipped around her legs and her hair lashed her face. She pumped a bucketful of water. Now, where was the ladder? She scuttled toward the house, crablike, grasping the heavy bucket in both hands, water sloshing down her dress. It would take forever to wet down the roof. She had to find a faster way. What do I do? Anna looked wildly around and focused on the galvanized bathtub. She pulled it around the side of the house and ran to the granary, where she found the ladder and an armload of gunnysacks. She dragged the ladder to the house, then went back for the sacks. Throwing them into the tub, she dumped the bucket of water on top and ran for another.

The fire thrust intense orange, hungry fingers high against the inky sky and rode the crest of the hill on the other side of the county road. Anna’s eyes stung from the smoke haze. Her throat ached. Vehicles with their tanks of water in the back sprayed the flames. Someone had joined Neil with another tractor, plowing a firebreak. The men looked like black stick figures silhouetted in the wavering glow that lit the sky like a sunrise. The heat flushed Anna’s face.

She grasped several soaked gunnysacks, climbed the ladder, and spread them over the roof. Between trips, she ran into the house to make sure Monica stayed put, terrified she would wander outside to find her mommy. The little girl whimpered, but lay in the big bed, wide-eyed, holding a book to her chest. It was as if she sensed the danger and knew this was a safe place.

“Good girl. Just stay there, Mama is right outside.”

One eye on the fire, Anna climbed up and down the ladder, her pink dancing dress now stained and wet. Then she felt the wind on her face and watched in horror as it switched direction. As if sprouting glowing wings, the fire jumped the road. Now it was headed their way.

She watched the men struggle to turn the fire. Just as they started another fire line, the wind gave a violent push and the fire jumped over. Men beat at the burning brush and grass with wet gunnysacks, trying to contain the spread. The wildfire twisted and turned, a living entity, consuming the dry prairie grasses.

Anna twisted her ruined skirt in one fist. This couldn’t be happening. Would they lose their pastureland and their house, too?

Seeking the American Dream is the first in the “American Dream” series, the next generation of the Moser family we met in the “Cowgirl Dreams” series. This book is based on my mother who emigrated from Germany after WWII. The book is available autographed from my website or through Amazon.


Meet Amy Hale Auker, Author and Ranch Hand

book coverAmy Hale Auker’s book, Rightful Place, won the Women Writing the West’s WILLA Literary Award for creative nonfiction and Book of the Year for essays by Foreword Book Reviews in 2012.

This is a beautiful book. It is a love story—love and sense of place are portrayed in vivid imagery. I can see the cowboys in their rigs, the old men in the coffee shop, talking about the weather. I can feel the prairie, the heat, the cold, the wind, the life that teems beneath the surface. It is poetry—Amy finds jewels in insects, spider webs and drops of dew in the dawn’s silver light. And it is a poignant memoir that will leave you wanting more.

Amy, why did you write this book?

Heidi, I was at a gathering of writers in 2011 and the question around the table was, “Why do you write?”  Before it got to me, a brilliantly talented man on my right said simply, “I can’t NOT write!”  And of course, that is true for many of us.  We can’t not write.  Rightful Place came about because I was in a creatively charged time in my life, writing long complicated “blog posts” about my current living situation and the natural world around me.  Fortunately, a kind man put a stop to my flinging those posts out into the world and showed me that they were, or at least most of them were, essays.  Andy Wilkinson made me read Verlyn Klinkenborg, Jeanette Winterston, Merrill Gilfillan, E. B. White, and other great essayists until I embraced the format as well as writing from a strong sense of place.  I was off and running.

Share with us your journey in compiling these essays and getting published.

Writing Rightful Place did not take very long.  I wrote essays for about a year and a half.  When I had a good-sized collection, I sent the manuscript to Wilkinson who was, by then, working with Texas Tech University on their series Voice in the American West.  Andy and I continued to work on the manuscript for about a year, mainly tightening up the loose strings, polishing on the language.  I probably printed and re-read it thirty times. Andy never micro-manages my writing.  He is, instead, a big-picture editor, saying things like, “Well, this is a good start!” or “You can do better than this.”  When the manuscript finally got to the head of the line and went before the advisory committee at the press, they decided to implement a peer review process since I don’t have any “credentials.”  I’ve never taken a writing class or a workshop, never been in a writing program.  The peer review process took several years and a re-structure of the order of the essays.  Andy actually split the opening essay into two… and put the first half at the beginning of the book and the second half at the end.  In the meantime, I was going through a huge upheaval in my personal life.  In the winter of 2007/2008, Andy asked me to write an introduction to the book.  I did write an introduction, but in the process, I also accidentally wrote another essay, “Legacy of Snakes and Stones.”  I believe that the period of time from 2006 to publication date 2011 was quite beneficial for this collection.

You’ve spent most of your life as a cowgirl on working ranches. How has that shaped your writing life?

Actually I have not spent most of my life as a cowgirl.  I don’t even like the word cowgirl.  I was born into a livestock family and have spent all of my adult life on large ranches, living in houses owned by those ranches.  Most of that time I was cooking for cowboy crews, doing laundry for cowboys, giving birth to a cowboy, homeschooling that little cowboy and his sister, cleaning up after cowboys, and moving from ranch to ranch with my ex-husband. Only in the last five years have I cowboyed for a paycheck.  The time living on working ranches shaped my writing drastically.  It is, basically, the only life I know intimately. At this point though, every time I step out of doors, I see the metaphors in the natural world.  The top of this ranch is 6700 ft with ponderosa pines.  The bottom is prickly pear and mesquite and gila monsters.  All this diversity and change in about twelve miles. I ride for hours and hours, miles and miles, trailing up or following slow moving mama cows.  By the time I get to my office, my head and heart are full to overflowing.  So, I show up at the page.

What did you do the first time you saw one of your books on a shelf in a bookstore?

Asked if they needed more!

 You have a novel coming out soon. What is this story about?

Winter of Beauty is set on a large Southwest commercial cattle operation.  It is a work of literary fiction about the working ranch cowboy living far off the pavement, in a somewhat antiquated way of life, and yet, also thriving in contemporary society.  This novel is a tribute not only to those men and women raising beef and families while working for paychecks on these ranches, but to the owners and managers who are trying to hold it all together and be good stewards of the land.  The title character, an infant named Beauty, is born in the last fourth of the book.  More than anything, this is a novel about belonging and beauty. 

 What books or authors have influenced your writing?

I mentioned some essayist above, and those authors will always be on my shelves. In the past several years, I have taken Stephen King’s advice to heart.  He says to read one thousand books for every one you write.  I haven’t quite met that goal, but I have not had television in my home since my father threw ours out when I was in the fourth grade.  I read.  Many times I read a lyrical genius and want to curl up and quit.  But reading great literature is necessary.  I rarely read genre fiction anymore.  Sometimes I read a book and think that I am learning what not to do… and then sometimes I read a great writer and wonder how in the hell they got me to go along on such a journey with them, specifically Junot Diaz and George Saunders recently. I am a huge David James Duncan fan.  Colum McCann inspires me toward excellence with each sentence. One of my favorite things is to read a strong female voice:  Louise Erdrich, Teresa Jordan, Jennifer Eagan, Ann Patchett, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Lucia Perillo.   Lately I am reading poetry by Linda Hussa and Patricia Frolander (WILLA winner). 

 What project are you working on next?

You are going to be sorry you asked that question. Winter of Beauty is not, actually, my first novel.  It is my second novel.  The first one is The Story is the Thing.  Written in an old man’s voice, this novel is very dear to my heart.  I dream of Uncle Bill’s voice at night because I so loved hearing it as I was writing Story.  That novel is unconventionally structured and so has yet to find a publisher.  I am considering publishing it myself.  I am also working on a new novel for a character I had to cut from Winter of Beauty.  But my current hot project is another work of creative non-fiction for Texas Tech University Press.  It had a working title, but my editor doesn’t like it, so I am calling it “That Shadowy Something” that is taking up my days and nights as we prepare to move cows for a few weeks… and when I come back to my desk, I hope to see it more clearly.  On one wall of my office I have taped symbols of past and current and future projects… one of those projects is a chapbook of writing about writing, another is a book of short stories, another is a novel called Bobcat and the Lady about going all the way crazy and then coming all the way back.  This wall keeps me motivated and inspired and helps to jerk me past that evil thing called “writer’s block.”

 The truth is, I would always much rather talk about the process than the product.  The creative process rather than the nuts-and-bolts of writing and promotion.  The product is directly reflective of the process.  It is very important for me to show up at the page, every day, even if the page on some days is a little notebook tucked into my pack where I scribble ideas and phrases.  I still feel very connected to the page.  One thing I guard against when I am in my office is spending more time on promotion and publicity and the strange world of publication than I do on actually writing, actually swimming in the big sea of words and creativity. 

Amy’s bio: I write about the real world where things grow up out of the ground, where the miracle of life happens over andAmy photo over and over again, where people can and do survive without malls or Arby’s.

I want to produce something of value from a place where the bats fly, the lizards do pushups on the rocks, the bears leave barefoot prints in the dirt, the hummingbirds do rain dances in August, spiders weave for their food, and poetry is in the chrysalis and the cocoon.

I believe that what you put out there is what you get back, and that if we do the good work, stay true to the creative process, we will be rewarded.

  • I write and ride on a ranch in Arizona where I am having a love affair with rock, mountains, the pinon and juniper forest, and the weather.
  • As Rightful Place indicates, I truly believe that art and sense of place go hand in hand.
  • I believe that life is a miracle and it is demonstrated all around us in the natural world where things grow up out of the ground, birds build nests, bats fly at night, cows turn our national forests into healthy beef, beavers build dams, and flowers bloom in deep canyons where no one sees.
  • I married a working ranch cowboy when I was nineteen years old, and every ranch road I have walked has led me here to where I am today. Every moment on Texas ranches was a gift. Now that I am with my new love here in Arizona, I continue to be grateful for each day and each bend in the road.
  • I am the proud mother of two children who are now 21 and 17.  I am married to documentary film make, singer, and songwriter Gail Steiger.
  • For years I cooked for cowboys, cleaned up after cowboys, listened to cowboys tell stories, but for the past two years I have done my own time in the saddle. And I have even learned to rope in the branding pen.
  • And I write. Always I write. Essays, poetry, fiction, and sometimes a big mixture of all three.

Like me on facebook: Amy Hale Auker Author

I am on twitter as well, though only occasionally.

Books available on my website (always signed),, Texas Tech University Press website, Barnes&Noble, Hastings, etc. Wholesale from Chicago Distribution Center.

Pre-order Winter of Beauty here.


A ‘Real’ Amercian Cowgirl–Gail Jenner

Gail and Sandy, one of her 40 horses

Yesterday, we learned about the fascinating “State of Jefferson” and Gail Jenner’s books about that subject. Gail and her family have a working ranch in the California Siskiyous and portray the work ethic and love of land that many of us remember from our ranching/farming ancestors. Today, we talk about her life as a “real” cowhand and ranch wife.

You’re married to a fourth-generation cattle rancher. Were you raised on a ranch?

No, I wasn’t. I was raised as a suburban kid in the San Francisco Bay Area, the daughter of a second-generation Italian-American (from New Jersey) who met and married a CA girl, often called “the American girl” by my Italian-American relatives back East. We have a host of relatives still in Italy and we remain fairly close.

How did you adjust?

Actually, I look back and realize that events seemed to propel me in this direction! Growing up, we knew a couple of families that had rural “roots” or small acreage with horses, etc., and I found myself slipping over there to groom horses/ride horses.. I even  learned to can applesauce and fruit when I was about 10 or 11. I loved it. Then, when I was 13, my dad took us (my twin sister and I) to Montana on a 2-week business trip and one day, as we made our way through a herd of cows being driven down the highway, I announced, “I’m going to marry a rancher.” I also attended a smaller, more rural college where there were lots of agricultural students (that’s where I met my cowboy/farmer husband).

But, no, I never felt I even had to “adjust” to ranching or country life – although that is not typical. A lot of my girlfriends who also married farmers struggled the first couple years, esp. with small town living and the remoteness and isolation that often comes with it. Ranching can be pretty intense with very little time off and very little money available for extras (hence, most farm wives work outside the home). Even taking time for “IMPORTANT” events sometimes doesn’t happen….and that is hard. Not to say we haven’t had issues! My husband is a recovered alcoholic, so we had our “years in hell” (as we fondly call them <G>), but the tension was about the drinking, not the lifestyle. What WAS difficult was adjusting to a FAMILY business. We are part of a small dynasty and my father-in-law is not an easy man – although a fascinating and wonderful man when he wants to be! There was not a lot of autonomy or independence, esp. in our early years of marriage, and because my soft-spoken, gentle husband could not speak up easily, he often found his release through drinking. But we survived that, by the grace of God, and I can say the last 20 years (we’ve been married 37+ years) have been truly wonderful.

Do you ride and help with cattle roundup, branding, etc.?

Absolutely. I love working cows and it’s something we all do, even the little ones. We have a pretty large herd of cows and it takes us about 10 days or more to “get through” all the cows, calves, etc.

Describe a typical day on your ranch.

Depends on the season! In summer, we get up fairly early. My husband irrigates early, then either cuts hay, bales hay, harvests, or mechanics, while the “boys” (including the women/wives) haul hay. We put up “one ton” bales now so it’s all done mechanically, and we “girls” drive the trucks (large flatbed trucks or even a semi-truck flatbed) in and out of the fields, to the barns. If I’m not helping with that, I’m usually gardening and preparing food for whoever is coming in at lunch. After lunch, or before, I try to squeeze in some writing or research. I also watch our 3-year old grandson on one or two days or afternoons. When I shop, sometimes I have to go “over the hill” to Yreka (our “big” town, pop. about 7,500). I’m always doing laundry and cleaning, esp. since our house (an old ranch house) gets pretty dusty. My husband ends the day with more irrigating and that can take an hour or more. We usually eat dinner around 8:00 or later, if necessary.

In winter, because it gets very cold here (and snows – we are at almost 3,000 feet and surrounded by the Marble Mountains, Salmon-Trinity Alps, and Klamath National Forest), we “feed cows” at least 6-7 months of the year. That can take a couple hours or longer, depending on conditions. We “calve” in the fall, so wintertime we have cows and calves, steers and heifers, plus bulls to feed. BTW, we, like most ranchers around the nation, keep cattle in pastures and fields. This notion of “factory cattle” or feedlot cattle is quite erroneous. Anyway, when cows are calving, we have to check them morning and evening, and sometimes late at night. My husband often has to “pull calves” if the cow is in trouble. Like babies, that can mean anytime day or night – and we’ve missed all kinds of events over the years when this happens! My husband does a lot of mechanicing in the winter months, trying to catch up on projects or bringing machinery up to date. We don’t buy new equipment, for the most part – way too expensive. But my husband is an engineer and can design or re-build most anything (including tractors, D-8s, scrapers, backhoes, feed trucks, wagons, whatever). He is actually a genius and is often sought for his advice on any mechanical problem.

In spring and fall, there is also more work with cows and planting/sowing/plowing projects. Farming is often squeezed in between everything else, so again, it can mean 12-13 hour days. At least now we have enclosed cabs and tractors (when we were first married they farmed in open cabs – VERY cold!!).

Gail's husband and brother-in-law preparing peppered hams

Gail’s husband and brother-in-law processing hams

You’ve talked about butchering and making your own sausage, the old-fashioned way. Do you raise most of your own food?

In the summer, our table almost always features all/most of our own food! I do can and dry a lot of food, although not as much as I used to, especially since the kids are out of the house and I DO want to WRITE! But we raise natural beef and we raise our own hogs. We also have some fruit trees and MILES of blackberries that I love to take advantage of in the late summer. We used to cure our own lard and make our own apple cider, but it’s been a few years since we’ve done that (haven’t had any “good” apple years for awhile). We do butcher all our own meat and we make our own hams, bacon, sausage, etc., even with the same tools that the family used 120 years ago. It’s incredible and absolutely fantastic. We used to raise chickens and turkeys, too, and we had a milk cow for years – but not now. It is WORK and when the wives also work outside the home, plus with kids busy with activities, it’s a huge responsibility.

Farm women who do all the traditional stuff are not women who work outside the home, unless they have a lot of help from someone. In our operation, the men do little if any of the “house/yard/kid” stuff – except occasionally. The last vacation my husband has even taken (aside from 24-hour trips to our daughter’s or my sister’s for Christmas or holidays) was YEARS ago. I can’t even tell you when my husband took me out to a show or to a “nice” dinner or evening. Women who expect their husbands to participate in more than that will never make it as a farm wife!

What do you like best about the ranching life?

Although ranching/farming is a lot of work, the tradeoffs have been more than worth it! First of all, we live in a kind of Shangri La (that’s what my mom always called our valley — green and quaint and beautiful). Only three stop lights (over the hill, in Yreka), but none here. Only Dotty’s for hamburgers and ice cream.

Littlest Wranglers. Grandson and great nephews

Littlest Wranglers. Grandson and great nephews

The kids can “go with Dad to work” much of the time, and they learn early what it means to work together as a family; they learn the meaning of hard work, too, which does pay off when they’re older and get jobs. In summer, we often stop at the slough and throw a hook and line in. We might catch a bass or two for dinner! We ride together when we’re working cows or are in the mountains, and it makes for a close family circle.

Of course, the kids complain later on (especially in their teens) that they don’t get to do what their friends do, but the flip side of that is that their friends WANT to come out onto the ranch and do what THEY do!?I mean, who doesn’t want to ride horses or fish in the ponds/slough?

We eat family meals together and we have the extended family over a lot during the year (the kids and now the grandkids are all pretty much the same ages). There is never NOT enough food <G> and it’s natural and healthy and good. We don’t seem to have a problem with child obesity in this family <G> and time in front of the TV or with video games is pretty minimal; winter time sees more of that and certainly in the evenings after everyone has showered and eaten, but it’s a pleasant kind of activity.

We do take a few Sundays off (not enough, though) and take rides or visit friends, etc., and the kids did all the regular things growing up — lots of sports, 4-H and FFA and clubs, skiing and dating, etc., but they did more, too: rodeo, camping/fishing & hunting in the mountains — and being in small schools, they had close friends who have remained close through the years.

I think it truly is a great place for families and raising kids. It’s sad that more and more farm kids cannot return home because it’s hard to make a decent living in farming/ranching unless you have the opportunity to join in on a family enterprise (we are lucky in that regard!), but the blessings and fun that we do have is great. I can’t imagine living or doing anything else!

You’ve written three historical novels, two non-fiction books and numerous articles, plus raised three children. What accomplishment are you the proudest of?

I’ve written three novels, only one is officially published (ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, which won a 2002 WILLA Award), and three non-fiction books with Arcadia Publishing (which I connected with via Women Writing the West authors!). I co-authored a teacher’s curriculum guidebook with Simon & Schuster and have contributed to seven anthologies  (historical/textbook/ and Christian). I’ve sold several “women’s stories” and children’s stories, articles, columns, some poetry and some recipes, and have written two scripts.

Yes, we have 3 children and now we have 5 grandchildren. Our daughter is a CPA and married to a contractor, and they have 3 children; our eldest son graduated from college, then came home to ranch with us; he’s married and his wife is a teacher, and they have 2 little boys. Our 3rd child is in his 3rd year in college.

Without a doubt, my kids (and now grandkids) are my greatest joy. I love being a mom and a “nonna.” I love giving to my family and friends and community. I love being a part of something, like this ranch, or family or community, where what I do “makes a difference.” I look at writing that way, too; I want it to “make a difference” or at least, enlighten others, if nothing else. And I don’t want us to lose that connection to our roots/our history/our past.

What would you do, if you were not where you are today?

I don’t know. Hard question. Probably I would still be writing (I’ve been writing since I was  9 years old), but perhaps I’d have done more traveling and I’d have pursued my art or music (both have been sacrificed or set aside over the years!). I have always said I’d like to be a museum curator or librarian.

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 1:47 am  Comments (4)  
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