Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where Writers Write: Kristy Athens

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a weekly series that will feature a different author every Wednesday as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

Kristy Athens is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (Process Media, 2012). Her nonfiction and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines, newspapers and literary journals. In 2010, she was a writer-in-residence for the Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence program and Soapstone. She is a contributing editor at Bear Deluxe magazine. Kristy lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works at Oregon Humanities. 

Where Kristy Athens Writes

This story is not about my usual writing place, but about two months I spent in Harney County, Oregon, as a writer in residence. In March and April 2010, I visited most of the county’s schools and the library in order to give workshops to children and adults, and worked on the manuscript that became Get Your Pitchfork On!: TheReal Dirt on Country Living.

This residency was ideal for me—not only did I have lots of time to write but I was immersed in rural culture. This was perfect because my book covers everything a city person needs to know if they want to move to the country.

Harney County is seriously rural. It’s 10,000 square miles and there is just 0.7 person per square mile. (By comparison, Portland’s county, Multnomah, is 430 square miles and 1,700 people per square mile.) Scattered around the county are a half-dozen elementary schools, which have two sides: kindergarten through third grade on one side and fourth through eighth on the other. Maybe twenty kids total.

The high school is a boarding school—students live at Crane High School Monday through Thursday, and travel on Friday for sports competitions or go home to help on their families’ ranches.

The only problem: Where to write. Because some of the towns are an hour or more from each other, I couldn’t stay in one place the whole time or I’d waste my whole residency in the car. But there aren’t hotels, and the two bed-and-breakfasts that would have made the most sense refused to open early in the season just for me. So I cobbled together a series of unique residences.

Stay #1: Frenchglen

I stayed in the guest room of the teacher’s residence, right next door to the school. Carolyn provided a great first impression of Harney County. She was a conscientious and easygoing host. In retrospect, I should have stayed longer, but I was anxious to have some serious sequestering and dig into my manuscript. I had reserved a trailer in the middle of the desert, where hundreds of scientists and bird watchers gather because of the major migration routes that pass over Harney County.

Stay #2: Malheur Field Station

Trailer for sale or rent …

Wow, they weren’t kidding when they said “trailer” on the website. It actually had a hitch on it!

Not that it would survive being moved. While it wasn’t dirty per se it was easily the most run-down, ramshackle domicile I’ve ever seen. The floor was squishy with layers over layers of rotting plywood patches under the yellowed, chipped linoleum. The mattress was gray, but it seemed cleaner than the couch. I cowered inside my sleeping bag at night and during the day tried not to touch anything except the kitchen table, where I worked. I got a lot of writing done there, because even washing was off the itinerary—the size, number and variety of spiders inhabiting the shower stall saw to that.

Stay #3: Crane Hot Springs

My cabin is on the right; the steam is from the hot springs

This modest resort seemed absolutely lavish after leaving the field station! I rented a little cabin next to the small lake that is fed by a natural spring. The owners were smart and pumped the water under the sidewalks, which was great because it was still snowing in March! It was very sweet but it didn’t have a bathroom, a kitchen, or, most importantly, a desk, only a giant overstuffed armchair. The whole room had a cowboy theme! I tried to save my back by piling pillows behind me and sitting on the very edge of the seat. Not sustainable. Luckily, I could go dip in the hot springs when I cramped up!

Stay #4: Silver Spur Motel

No vacancy on Fridays!

This was the most practical place for me, so I spent most of my time here. I had wireless internet, a desk and a microwave; there were restaurants within walking distance; I was across the street from the library; the motel served a continental breakfast. The only bad times were Friday nights—I hadn’t brought headphones so it was difficult to hold at bay the revelries of country copulation from all sides. One Saturday morning after a particularly long, acoustic night, I had my revenge: I woke at 9 and starting practicing my fiddle.

Stay #5: Riley Store

Taken from a picnic shelter under a billboard that reads, “Whoa! You missed Riley!”

Classic Western “town”: a post office on one side of the highway and a gas station/convenience store/taxidermy/gun shop on the other. There were two apartments over the store, and I rented one for a couple days. I wrote at the kitchen table, in front of the “fireplace.”

Stay #6: Lone Pine Guest Ranch

This bed and breakfast has quite the view!

My hosts were super-nice but staying there was a little surreal, as I was basically in a house in the next bedroom over from people I had just met. I could hear them talking (and only talking, thank you Jesus) in bed. I’ve always had fantasies of just walking into strangers’ houses and sitting down like I belong there, and that’s more or less what I did!

Being a bed and breakfast, the house was decorated to the nth degree—knicknacks and doilies on every surface. Those sorts of “kountry krafts” like wooden plaques on which things are painted like “God bless this mess.” I hoped they didn’t take it personally that I mostly hid in my room when I was there; the television was blaring in the living room so there was no way I’d get anything done downstairs. I sat on my lace-bedecked bed with my laptop on my legs. I put doilies on them so I fit in.

Stay #7: Reload Ranch

Fine hosts, indeed

During the workshops that I held for adults I met many fine people, including a literal one—Nancy Fine. We got along swimmingly, and she took my plight to heart when I lamented going back to the Silver Spur for the final week of my residency. I will always be grateful to her and husband Matt for inviting me into their home.

They were the ultimate hosts—because Nancy is also a writer she understood my need for a desk (she set me up in a spare bedroom) and privacy, but was always there when I needed food or a break to chat. We are still friends. The best was, truly and by far, last.

Check back next week when we show you where Joyce Hennefeld writes.


  1. Suzanne Wright BaumhacklNovember 28, 2012 at 2:11 PM

    A wonderful insight into your experience! Thanks for sharing Kristy!

  2. Kristy forgot to mention something; she is the perfect guest. Helpful, considerate, known to toss extra food into the pantry, pitches in with the chores and more! The lovely woolen pear she left with us still sits in the south window reminding us of her warmth. We had a great time together and I can't wait for a return engagement.

  3. Aw! Well, I look forward to my next visit!

  4. In this rural world we not only accommodate spiders, we name them. Boris currently catches gnats at our front window. He's a good boy. If they occupy they shower, they get relocated to more comfortable surroundings.