Dearest Darling by Andrea Downing

dearestdarlingWhen Emily Darling intentionally reads a letter left on her doorstep, but addressed to Ethel Darton, it becomes more than a mistake in postal service. It becomes a chance of escape from her over-bearing brother. The letter, starting with the greeting “Dearest Darling” captivates her heart and hopes. What kind of man would write such an endearing and tender letter? He is obviously in need of companionship, living in the wilds of Wyoming, and is making travel arrangements for his mail-order bride. But wait, there’s more: a train ticket to Cheyenne with instructions to take a stagecoach to Jackson Hole where he will meet her.

From the letter she learns these two have never met, but that Ethel Darton has sent a picture of herself in an earlier letter.

When Daniel Saunders meets the stagecoach on the appointed day, he meets an imposter, someone who has taken advantage of a free train ticket. He’s outraged. But what is he going to do? He can’t leave her in town, alone, with no means of supporting herself. He needs time to sort this out.

A novella, Dearest Darling is a delightful read, cleverly paced with seemingly insurmountable complications, and realistic, convincing dialog. Details of Wyoming ranch land enhance the story, giving the reader an exciting view of yesteryear’s west.

To learn more about the author, visit

High Desert Museum: An Extraordinary Museum

Indian Head Dresses Photo by Roni McFadden

Indian Head Dresses
Photo by Roni McFadden

While attending the Women Writing the West Conference this past October, I had the great pleasure of visiting the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, an excellent all-encompassing museum with many outstanding exhibits.

A temporary exhibit while we were there was “Tough by Nature: Portraits of Cowgirls and Ranch Women of the American West” which showcased Artist Lynda Lanker. Lanker’s heart-felt exhibit features charcoal and graphite drawings as well as stone and plate lithographs, acrylics, oil pastels, and egg tempera. These pictures honor the spirit and stories of ranch women and cowgirls who earn their sustenance and livelihood from the land.

Another temporary exhibit features the work of Edward S. Curtis who spent 30 years beginning in the late 1800s creating a photo-ethnographic study of the North American Indian. Curtis’ collection is widely considered the finest limited edition books ever made in the U.S. The High Desert Museum holds the complete set of the 20 bound volumes of The North American Indian.

The museum has several permanent exhibits. “Spirit of the West” is ever popular and starts with a stroll past a Northern Paiute shelter and a French trapper’s camp. The details depicted are in incredible detail with the sights and sounds of an Indian camp, a settler’s cabin, a hard rock mine, and into Idaho’s old Silver City.

“By Hand Through Memory,” another permanent exhibit, takes visitors through the Plateau Indian Nations’ journey as they traveled from reservation confinement to the 21st Century. Their struggle to retain cultural identity is both poignant and moving.

The High Desert Museum gives visitors a chance to see close-up in both indoor and outdoor displays of live owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, a Canadian lynx and bobcat. None of the animals cared for at the Museum can be released to the wild, either because of injuries or because, separated from their mothers, they never learned to hunt or avoid predators.

Another enlightening permanent exhibit is the Miller Family Ranch where visitors can meet the characters and watch as they do chores (be careful, or you’ll get roped into lending a hand).

As visitors walk around inside the different sections of the building, the outside is brought in by spacious windows looking out on meandering streams in woodsy settings.

The famous Henry James Monk stagecoach, a sawmill, ranger station, a nature walk–it’s all there. If you’re in the Bend, Oregon area, don’t miss this very special museum.

To learn more about the high Desert Museum and read about current and future exhibits, visit

My Guest Today: Shanna Hatfield


My blog guest today is USA Today bestselling author, Shanna Hatfield. Let’s start our celebration with a book review of her novel The Christmas Cowboy.

When Kenzie Becket meets a fellow traveler at the airport, she’s naturally attracted to him. Who wouldn’t be? Tate Morgan is the epitome of a cowboy—attractive, impeccable manners, and a champion rodeo saddle bronc rider to boot. But she knows better than to do anything but admire him from a distance. She been burned from this type before, and she will never let it happen again.

Tate Morgan recognizes a class act when he sees one, looking so attractive, yet professional in her business suit. Tate learns Kenzie Becket is a corporate trainer for one of the most successful direct sales companies in the country. But she resists every attempt he makes to become friends.

Both coming from the Tri-City area in eastern Washington, they happen to meet several times in their various travels, he to rodeo events, she to meetings and workshops. Their attraction grows, and slowly Kenzie’s reluctance begins to melt. She finds herself looking forward to running into Tate and disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

But when she sees Tate in another woman’s arms, she rebukes herself for thinking anything could come of a relationship with a cowboy. No matter what her friends say, no matter Tate’s attempts at explanation, she’s done. She should have known better in the first place.

Tate’s hurt and confused with Kenzie’s hostile attitude toward him. When an incident occurs that sends their lives spinning like a lariat, their world changes.

The Christmas Cowboy by Shanna Hatfield is a fun, lively way to kick off the Christmas season. The author writes with authority about rodeos, the corporate scene, and especially matters of the heart. The Christmas Cowboy is the first of Hatfield’s Rodeo Romance series, followed by Wrestlin’ Christmas, Capturing Christmas, and The Christmas Vow.

In the back of The Christmas Cowboy is information about one of the author’s charitable interests: Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund (JCCF), an organization that provides need-based financial assistance to athletes injured through their participation in professional rodeo.

The following is from my blog guest, Shanna Hatfield, who will explain JCCF in greater detail.

Ring in the Holidays with a Helping Hand

Shanna JCCF logo

The idea for my sweet Rodeo Romance series started with The Christmas Cowboy, a story that invaded my thoughts while CC and I sat in the Las Vegas airport after the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, waiting for our flight home.

Once I started writing the story, I did some research about what would happen if a cowboy sustained a serious injury at a rodeo. My research led me to the Justin Sportsmedicine Team® where one of the team members kindly answered my many questions. The team provides medical support services to professional rodeo athletes at rodeos across the country.

Beyond treatment at the arena, professional rodeo athletes can find help from the financial hardships that arise when they’re unable to compete due to serious injuries. Many don’t have a guaranteed salary or provisions for income upon injury. While injuries are part of the business of rodeo, financial worries don’t necessarily have to be par for the course.

The Justin Boot Company formed a partnership with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in 1989 to establish the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund (JCCF). The idea behind the JCCF is to assist professional rodeo athletes and their families in the event of catastrophic injuries resulting from professional rodeo activities.

Since my first encounter with the folks at JCCF, I’ve been impressed by all they do and how much they care about others, and decided to give something back to them.

November 1 through December 24, ten percent of the net proceeds from all my book sales will be donated to the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund. Every book purchased during this promotional period adds to the donation total. Don’t forget to add books to your Christmas shopping lists!

To kick off the promotion, I’m releasing two new books and celebrating with a party.

November 12, Capturing Christmas, the third installment in the sweet holiday western Rodeo Romance series, releases. Pre-orders are available today!

In addition, The Christmas Vow   , the fourth book in the Hardman Holidays sweet Victorian romance series releases that day. Pre-order your copy for only $2.99!

Also, a party to celebrate the release and raise awareness for JCCF will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Pacific Time) November 12 on Facebook. Join in the fun with guest authors, games, and oodles of cool prizes. Here’s the link to the party:


Convinced everyone deserves a happy ending, hopeless romantic Shanna Hatfield is out to make it happen, one story at a time through her sweet historical and contemporary romances. When she isn’t writing or indulging in chocolate (dark and decadent, please), Shanna hangs out with her husband, lovingly known as Captain Cavedweller. This USA Today bestselling author is a member of Western Writers of America, Women Writing the West,  Romance Writers of America,  Sweet Romance Reads, and Pioneer Hearts.

Shanna alleyoop



Riding the Rails to Yesteryear

MRSR 4 227In high anticipation, we gathered at the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad depot (MRSR) in Elbe, Washington. With a mournful whistle, the train, consisting of a steam engine pulling four cars, click-clacked its way toward us.

The longest continuously operating steam train in the Northwest, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad is a big attraction to this tiny town. Elbe, established by German immigrants in the late 1800’s, was named after the Elbe River Valley near Hamburg, Germany. The town is also known for its famous historical Lutheran church, Evangelische Lutherische Kirche.

We had our choice of seating and our family of six adults chose the last of four cars which happened to have windows with no glass, the better choice to hang out to take pictures. Some cars had glass windows. We sat on bench seats; the car before us had tables, much like a dining car.

Bill, our conductor, made his career on trains for 41 years and in his retirement volunteers with MRSR. He coached us to signal the engineer that it was safe to move the train forward, a signal known as “High Ball” followed by the train’s engine number. Together we yelled “High Ball 17!” and the train’s whistle immediately responded. With a blast of steam, we were on our way.

A train’s whistle, originally referred to as a steam trumpet, is an efficient means of non-verbal communication and each cadence has its own meaning. One whistle indicates the train is ready to go. When we passed a crossing, we heard two long, one short, one long cadence, other times it blew in greeting as we passed various landmarks. The gentle swaying of our bench seats and the nostalgic whistle made me think of what traveling one hundred years ago must have been like. Sitting by the window, I often felt the spray of steam condensation.

The train’s maximum speed is about 10 miles per hour giving us plenty of time to view a few back yards, then wide open space with grazing cattle and horses, meadows, a spectacular beaver dam, and mountain streams cloudy with glacier runoff. At one point we were on a trestle, high in the air.

As we climbed a grade, our sturdy little train chugged what sounded to me like, “I think I can, I think I can.” As we traveled Mount Rainier’s forests and foothills in October, we viewed fall’s colorful changing leaves, mixed with brilliant green conifers. At one point, as we crossed the Upper Nisqually River, we got a peek of the great mountain, its top capped with clouds.

We pulled into the small unincorporated community of Mineral for a scheduled museum visit. Mineral originally began as a mining town, then turned into a logging camp and sawmill, neither of which are currently in operation. Today Mineral claims to have the most comprehensive collection of steam logging locomotives in the world. The excursion schedule allows 45 minutes to visit the various exhibits which include individual buildings: Railroad Logging Camp, House of Gears, Rod House and Restoration Shop. A gift shop has railroad memorabilia, and a small concession has light snacks and beverages. Some people brought lunches and sat at picnic tables situated throughout the railroad camp.

When our conductor Bill learned I was a writer, he invited my husband Bruce and me to visit Engine 17’s cab. It was a high step up, plus three more steps to a space filled with boilers and the machinery needed to pull the train. A blast of heat–about 110 degrees–made me appreciate the work of an engineer. We were told that on a hot day the engine cab can climb to 140 degrees. No wonder we often see an engineer leaning out a window! A two-foot wide walkway the width of the train gave access to two pressure gauges and about 30 valve handles. Rather than wood or coal used in the old days, this steam engine is fueled by diesel and a large fuel tank is also in the engine cab. There are no ready-made parts for this American Locomotive Company Engine 17, originally built in 1929. In its renovation, all parts had to be machined from scratch out of blocks of steel. The rebuilt engine has been in use for about 1500 hours.

The MRSR excursion takes about two hours. We rounded out our day with a late lunch at the Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Company, an old train which has been turned into an Elbe restaurant. We enjoyed our meal and our group of six had a dining room to ourselves.

For more information about the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad and Museum, visit or call (360) 569-7959.

The Layered Look: The Painted Hills of Oregon

Painted Hills 750

You have to keep reminding yourself that what you are seeing is real. The rolling, rounded hills striped with colors of rich rust, deep green, and yellow appear surreal, like an artist’s conception of outer space. You want to capture them on camera quickly before the illusion disappears, just to prove to the folks at home this marvelous pallet of pastels really exists.

Believe it. The Painted Hills in north central Oregon are authentic, and very old. About 30 million years ago, volcanoes from the Cascade Mountains 100 miles to the west deposited layer upon layer of cooled ash over the region. In time, plants and animals churned the surface, water flowed, eroding and redistributing the minerals, and air oxidized the ash. Many different minerals combine to produce the colorful display we see today: aluminum, silicon, iron, magnesium, manganese, sodium, and many more.

Very few plants are able to grow on the Painted Hills. The soils bind water so intensely plants are unable to draw nourishment. So, except in crevasses and gullies where some plants survive, the hills are bare.

From a distance the striped hill surfaces look hard as though they are painted on canvas, but close-up, you can see they have a popcorn appearance and, particularly after a rain, they are soft and spongy. For this reason, visitors are asked to keep on trails and to avoid walking on the hills. Noticeable trails, however, are created by deer and antelope.

Several good walking trails traverse Painted Hills with excellent interpretive signs and brochures. The moderately strenuous, 1.5-mile Carroll Rim Trail rewards the hiker with an outstanding view of the Painted Hills and Sutton Mountain. For a close-up view of a crimson hill and to see the claystone popcorn structure, take the short Painted Cove Trail which winds around the hill on a wooden walkway.

Another interesting hike is the quarter-mile Leaf Hill Trail that takes walkers past the area where large quantities of plant fossils have been removed for study. Except for this trail, fossils are rarely found in the Painted Hills.

The Painted Hills, located 10 miles west of Mitchell, off U.S. 26, is one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. In 1975 Congress established the monument which is composed of 14,000 acres and contains rocks preserving millions of years of plant and animal life. The other two units are the Sheep Rock Unit, near the town of Dayville, Oregon, and the Clarno Unit, 18 miles west of Fossil, Oregon. The Sheep Rock Unit, located at the intersection of State Route 19 and U.S. 26, has several trails and overlooks.

The Clarno Unit, 18 miles west of Fossil, OR, known for its Clarno Nut Beds, is one of the world’s finest fossil plant sources where more than 300 plant species have been found. Several trails allow visitors to see the actual fossils embedded in rock.

Be sure to visit the Thomas Condon Palenotology Center, a National Park Service research facility dedicated to the John Day Fossil Beds. It also serves as the park visitor center and fossil museum. We were fascinated as we watched through a picture window a scientist at work in a laboratory and collections room which contains more than 45,000 specimens.

Another interesting side visit is the James Cant Ranch, located on both sides of the John Day River in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Cant Ranch complex is preserved as an interpretive site showing visitors an early 20th-century livestock ranch. The James Cant Ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, there are several short trails with exhibits showing a ranch of yesteryear with original wagons and farming equipment.

There are several camping facilities near Prineville, a small town (population 5,000) about 50 miles southwest of the Painted Hills. Prineville Reservoir State Park, located 17 miles south of Prineville, is a large 70-site facility. In addition, several U.S. Forest Service campgrounds are in the area.

Take your time at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area, particularly the Painted Hills, is a unique, fascinating place to visit and a photographer’s delight.


Book Review: Moonshadows



Settle in for an engaging period mystery with Moonshadows by Julie Weston.

Nellie Burns steps into a man’s world of photography in the small mining town of Ketchum, Idaho in the early 1920s. In Chicago she’d worked in a photography studio, but only with portraits. Now she plans to follow her heart’s desire with nature photography.

Nellie hires crusty retired miner Rosy Kipling to take her out to capture a winter night scene where “the moon will shine full on and create shadows on snow.” Although he’s never far from his bottle of whiskey, he and Nellie form a sort of bond.

While on her cold night-time trek, she makes a startling discovery at a nearby cabin. She discovers a hideous crime, then another. Nellie uses her talents as a photographer to capture on film what she discovers, but then finds herself embroiled in the mystery. Nellie’s fierce desire to be independent may cause her to be a victim as well. As the story spins into a tight mystery, Nellie emerges as a reluctant heroine, sometimes doubtful of her course, but determined that right will prevail.

The reader sees, through Nellie’s observant eyes, the flavor of Idaho’s rugged landscape in the early 20th Century. Moonshadows is packed with Idaho history, rich characters and information about the early days of photography and its cumbersome equipment. Weston does a worthy job of capturing the spirit of small town living and the attitudes of the day.

Moonshadows is the first of the series, ”A Nellie Burns and Moonshine Mystery.” For more information about the author, visit

Book Review: Free Spirit

Free SpiritJoshua Safran’s Free Spirit: Growing up on the Road and off the Grid is a haunting, beautifully written memoir about his appalling childhood. Although the subject matter is grim, the book is never-the-less poignant and often wryly funny.

Joshua’s early memories take place in the l970s San Francisco. His mother Claudia, steeped in hippie/revolutionary activism, searches for what she believes to be utopia. She leaves San Francisco in search of the perfect “intentional community,” a promised land free of nuclear war.

Joshua and his mother embark on a series of wild on-the-road adventures. There is no doubt Claudia loves her son, but many of her actions show a gross lack of common sense. In one instance, mother and son travel for days–mostly hitchhiking–to a Rainbow Gathering. She doesn’t think to bring a tent, or even food. Joshua is left on his own for days while his mother takes up with a just-met lover. Rain-soaked and miserable, the six-year-old pilfers a blanket and, on his own, finds food and shelter. Drugs and alcohol are plentiful; real food scarce.

Through the years Claudia travels with different men, but Joshua, even as a young child, can see no idealistic future with any of them. Claudia is unbelievably naive, always making excuses for her current lover’s failings. Through all their travels, she teaches her son a love of books and he learns to read at an early age.

They try a variety of living situations–communes, make-shift homes, a teepee, buses, a trailer, an abandoned ice-cream truck, and on Camano Island, Washington, a lean-to built on a stump. In the meantime Claudia has married an abusive Salvadorian guerrilla. Joshua struggles with his step-father’s alcohol-fueled abuse to both his mother and to him, or alternatively listens to their noisy love-making in their tiny water-logged shack. Joshua is eager to go to school, but he has huge obstacles to overcome to even get ready. They have no running water, no electricity, not even a decent outhouse. Joshua doesn’t own a comb, toothbrush, or a mirror. His clothes are patched and dirty. Kids bully him and tease him about his unkempt appearance. Still, he loves school, loves to learn and especially loves being warm. Eventually they move to Stanwood, just across the bridge from Camano Island, and he takes solace in the Stanwood library, relishing in the many books, being able to use the bathroom to wash himself with warm running water, and as a refuge from his abusive step-father.

Free Spirit is, in the end, a story of triumph. The language is rough and the situations harrowing, but it is an honest, stark but eloquently-told coming-of-age story. At the end of the book the author sums up his adult life. What he has accomplished is impressive.

To learn more about the author, visit


Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

go-set-a-watchman-281x400Go Set a Watchman, the book itself, has an interesting history. When Harper Lee presented her first novel to a literary agent in the 1960’s, the author was persuaded to rewrite it from the main character, the child Jean Louise Finch’s, point of view. To Kill a Mockingbird was the result, a book that became one of the most widely read books dealing with race in America. Now, 55 years later, the “original” book has been released.

Go Set a Watchman begins with Jean Louise Finch, now 26, returning home to the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has lived and worked for the past few years. She plans to spend three weeks visiting her father, 72 year-old Atticus Finch a beloved attorney who, despite suffering the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis, still practices law. Although the novel doesn’t specify the date, it is presumably in the mid-to-late 1950’s, because the Supreme Court has passed the school desegregation law, a 1954 law that has incensed most Southerners.

Having lived in New York, Jean Louise is seeing Maycomb County in a different light. In New York she has worked and lived near people of color, but in Maycomb she’s taken aback by what she sees as gross inequality. Worse, she sees her father, whom she has always worshiped, in a different, unfavorable light.

Go Set a Watchman is an important book for our times. Harper Lee doesn’t gloss over racial attitudes. She looks at the whole person, strengths and flaws together. While To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a coming-of-age novel, Go Set a Watchman is a coming-of-age novel for an adult, a work of wisdom, humanity and passion, a book evocative of another time, but relevant today. It isn’t necessarily a fun or easy read, but it’s a book that made me think. I highly recommend Go Set a Watchman.

Book Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Pettigrew

Helen Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is a delightful, charming story centered around Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired).

In the small English countryside village of Edgecombe St. Mary, Major Pettigrew, a widower, is attracted to a lovely widow, Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Jasmina Ali. Although Mrs. Ali was born in Great Britain and, in fact, has never been to Pakistan, she follows many of the traditions of her culture.

The Major and Mrs. Ali are drawn together by their love of literature and loneliness resulting from the loss of their spouses, but soon find themselves caught up in stronger feelings than mere friendship and a good pot of tea.

When they attend a country club program that spirals out of control, they find their relationship threatened. The village considers the Major a pillar of their community, while regarding Mrs. Ali as a foreigner.

The author, Helen Simonson, was born in England and raised in a small village. The English humor and way of expression is part of the enchantment of this novel. At one point the Major finds himself in a stressful situation. “He calmed his voice to a tone suitable for placating large dogs or small, angry children.” Great emphasis is placed on tradition, the importance of one’s family, and appearances. The threat of change can be one’s undoing, or can it be a good thing?

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a fun read, but it also has its moments of truth, issues most of us face in our modern world. I loved spending time in the English mindset, particularly of an older man happily set in his ways. And I particularly appreciated Major Pettigrew’s wit. To learn more about the author, visit

Book Review: Arctic Dreams

Arctic DreamsArctic Dreams by Barry Lopez is a compelling masterpiece about the Arctic, the mysterious land of stunted forests, frozen seas, and animals perfectly suited to the harsh far north.

The book offers exquisite descriptions of the biology, anthropology, and history of a land few of us will ever see. The arctic’s harshness has carved a way of life unknown to all but a few. Through the centuries, various countries have sent men to explore this mysterious land, and more often than not, the explorers did not live to tell about it.

Arctic Dreams is not a book you rush through. Nor does the author hurry through his descriptions of the animals, plants, sea life, or the frozen sea itself that is both the giver and taker of life.

Lopez’s keen observation of life is amazing in its scope. He is an uncompromising defender of the wild country and its native inhabitants, and shares minute details of the far north. He lingers with his description of the polar bear, its habits, its ability to not only survive but thrive in this cold country. He shares his fascination of the narwhal with its ivory tusk spiraling out of its forehead. This “unicorn of the sea” lives year round in the Arctic waters of Greenland, Canada and Russia. Many animals, birds and sea life are discussed in great detail: how they survive, how they relate to each other as sources of food, and how they serve the native people.

The author speaks highly of the Eskimos and normally uses that broader term for the native Arctic people throughout the book. Eskimos today more often speak of themselves in terms or their origin, such as “Inuit” that refers specifically to Eskimos of the eastern Canadian Arctic. Lopez has high regard for the Eskimos’ skill of survival, of observation, and adaptation to the harsh environment.

Memorable moments in the book stay with me. In describing a particular scene at Melville Bay, Lopez states, “It was so beautiful it made you cry,” but in the next breath, while looking at an iceberg, he says, “It was so beautiful it made you afraid.”

Lopez’ Arctic is a land of contradictions and mystery, of rare, raw beauty. Through Barry Lopez’s precise and thorough descriptions, I experienced a sense of this frozen landscape and could see, through his observant eyes, the beauty of this wild place.

If you’re a lover of nature and value detailed descriptions, you will appreciate Arctic Dreams. It’s a scholarly and engaging Arctic experience. To learn more about the author, visit