Large kidlit gathering are like gourmet chocolate—special, and savored. Well worth me cruising down to Davenport, Iowa, last weekend to join 350+ kidlit creators. There, six SCBWI regions hosted the fourth Marvelous Midwest Conference (MMC).

With great passengers, the road trip itself is half the fun though! Thus, a shout out to lively discussions with my riders Mark Ceilley, Lou Aamodt, and Laura Ulrich. Once we arrived, more fun was had catching up with people I hadn’t seen since pre-Covid. Not to mention connecting with new kidlit people.

Opening welcome.

With MMC’s buffet of activities for authors and illustrators, I felt like a kid in Wonka Land (50+ breakout sessions, four keynote speakers, and several social/networking events). But one must accept they can’t simultaneously eat candy bars in different rooms. What did I devour?

Friday’s candy options began with a variety of 2.5 hour intensives (extended breakout sessions). I went to Linda Stephen’s workshop, which detailed book promotion strategies, timelines, and media kits. The panic level of debut authors dropped here, but the workload estimate was daunting. Afterwards, the first keynote speech was by Ellice Lee. She gave an update on book bans and kidlit’s ongoing efforts to address Diversity/Equity/Inclusion.

The evening ended with a costume party/art show/social. Construction props and outfits matched the conference’s work-in-progress (WIP) theme, with entertaining music, games, and community art. My costume was a caving outfit from my research for one of my WIP non-fiction books.

Saturday’s sweets started with the second keynote speaker, Gary D. Schmidt. He had the crowd at his mercy with his touching stories about prison inmates and hilarious letters from kids. He stressed the power of stories, and urged storytellers to be brave in the face of challenging times. His standing ovation was well deserved.

Whispering Woods reunion: Mark Ceilley, Lou Aamodt, Jill Esbaum, and myself

My first breakout session was Jill Esbaum’s look at inventive, hybrid non-fiction books. Her room was standing room only, and every attendee’s to-read list grew. Jill’s part of the dynamic duo who run the Whispering Woods Picture Book Retreat. It was nice reconnecting with her and Whispering Woods alumni during the conference. Plus three of the four of us carpooling down were alumni, so we snapped a quick reunion photo.

I then went to an agent panel, which shared the trials and tribulations of four agents. Advice was plentiful, as were “beauty contest” regrets of the books lost in bidding wars. One of these agents, Charlotte Wenger led my next breakout session on narrative voice. She analyzed numerous books, and led several exercises. Following that, I listened to prolific non-fiction author Jennifer Swanson. She profiled innovative books, and shared comical behind-the-scenes publishing stories. My evening ended surrounded by group critique sessions, where writers broke into small groups to give and get fresh feedback on WIP stories.

Sunday’s sugar fix launched with Sherri Smith’s opening keynote speech, “The Enchanted Plot.” Can kidlit creators save the world with “enchantivism?” Sherri detailed how stories can use evolving archetypes to alter society’s collective unconscious. This change isn’t easy or fast, but seeds are planted that can break historic cycles. In particular, those being oppressed rising only to become an oppressor themselves. Small steps were stressed, and “Don’t grow weary in well-doing.” A Pandora’s Box exercise was shared, with four attendees reading aloud short, heartfelt essays. In the end, another standing ovation.

Sherri Smith and her Pandora’s Box speakers.
Carter Hasegawa’s keynote speech.

Then, I was off to another Jill Esbaum non-fiction session where stellar examples of non-fiction voice were profiled. Laughs and admiration were plentiful. To read lists again swelled. Carter Hasegawa gave the final keynote speech, “The Gift of Failure.” He challenged everyone to stop seeing rejection as failure, or letting others define one’s goals or success. His comical personal story of “failure” rocked the house with laughter over and over. In short, it was a Christmas tree harvesting fiasco while driving a tiny Mazda RX-7. With the conference’s Work-In-Progress theme, his speech’s message earned its standing ovation.

In the final stretch, I attended Helen Frost’s historical fiction session. She detailed the tricky business of research, voice, and being respectful. Lastly, I went to James Ransome’s session about visual stories and pacing. His own art and other examples were impressive, as was his jovial vibe. After final words and door prizes, four of us piled into my car and drove back to Minnesota. The 75 hour bonbon blitz was done.

MN’s Kevin Kunkel (center) was bustling as the tech support volunteer, helping Helen Frost’s session get going.

SCBWI isn’t for every kidlit creator, but a large conference like this one always leaves me better informed, energized, and with an updated “must read” list. No large conference is without curve balls, but volunteers pounced on them quickly. My thanks to their efforts before and during the conference!

Now, after gorging on kidlit candy, it’s time to for all attendees to return to healthier food to fuel our read, write, and revise efforts. With pie now and then of course…


Last weekend I was with Indiana Jones, Klingons, and jedi. We and other sci-fi/fantasy fans were at Marscon, a Twin Cities sci-fi/fantasy convention determined to break up winter blahs, even on Hoth. As a first-year attendee, I thought I’d share my rookie experience.

With limited time, my main focus was attending 1-2 panel talks each day (a fraction of the 60+ that occur over three days). Highest on my radar was the Artificial Intelligence (AI) panel. AI discussions can quickly digress, so this open panel was chaotic. One notable example came from MaryJanice Davidson, who shared that her novels had been swiped to train Meta AI (and others). To learn more about AI’s torturous promise and risks, you might read a comprehensive New Yorker article published this week (link here).

My favorite panel was moderated by David Lenander, which delved into dozens of childrens’ fantasy and sci-fi stories and authors (Philip Pullman vs. C.S. Lewis was a lively discourse). Afterward, I added these four kidlit books to my to-read list:

Film panelists (click to enlarge)

A reoccurring panel gave its annual report about a hypothetical, uncrewed probe speeding toward the Proxima Centauri star system (reviewing the tech involved). Here, I learned that my understanding of quantum entanglement (“spooky physics”) was cursory at best, misinformed at worst.

Lastly, the popular filmmaking panel had a packed room. The panelists’ passion and collaboration message was infectious. But I suspect none of the engaged audience will quit their day job soon after hearing how Hollywood accounting hides streaming income. So many panels, so little time. I wished I had clones, drones, or a time-turner to attend everything I wanted to!

For fun, I watched several performances, but regret I didn’t have time for any of the celebrated comedic/filk concerts. My personal favorite was the taiko drumming concert, which included horns and flutes with its choreographed thunder. The improv comedy act was applauded for skillfully handling the audience’s prompts (sometimes risque). For a touch of danger, I watched a portion of the Korean swords demonstration (where the sounds of slicing air were a constant reminder that swordplay is serious business). In the gaming area, I enjoyed my chats with players and staff from Dreamers Vault Games (where they demonstrated newly released card and board games). Quieter attractions I strolled through included the art show and intriguing “Q Branch” Prop-A-Torium (displaying private collections of TV/movie props and fan art, pics below).

For any convention, the #1 draw of course is meeting people with the same interests. Many sci-fi/fantasy guests are novice, emerging, or established artists/writers, and Marscon was no different. In addition to me chatting with other writers, who doesn’t appreciate fandom’s impressive cosplayers? I especially admired the props and costumes of a plague doctor, and the squad of Nomad Ghostbusters of Minnesota safeguarding the hotel before this month’s release of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.

Pic courtesy of Nomad Ghostbusters of Minnesota’s Facebook page

My lone disappointment was the Red Cross blood bus was sabotaged by gremlins. Oh well, I rescheduled my donation to next week. This blood drive was organized by the local Star Trek fan club chapter, USS Nokomis. I plan to bleed for them again at July’s Convergence convention blood drive. Interesting blood drive trivia: “The Minnesota and Dakotas Region is ‘particularly generous’ and contributes 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply.” That equates to 2% of Americans donating 40% of the nation’s blood. Wow, “Minnesota Nice” is real! Just don’t tell the vampires.

In closing, thanks to Marscon’s Shhh…That’s Classified volunteers, panelists, and performers! Well done. I’ve pre-registered for 2025’s Gone Rogue convention, and look forward to another fun, informative weekend (and making time for filk concerts)! Until then, as Stan Lee would say, “Nuff said.”


Missississippi River in Little Falls, MN

The “Mighty Mississippi” was my childhood backyard. The river provided endless wonder with its ever-changing scenery and activity. Amid fall colors, large flocks of geese and ducks migrated south. During winter, snowmobiles and cross country skiers traveled over the river’s frozen surface. Deer and fox tracks crept across thin ice. Come spring, sheets of ice crashed and clawed against the riverbank’s budding trees. Summers featured water-skiers, fishing boats, canoes, and kayaks. Jumping fish. Ducklings paddling by. Plus, our Tarzan rope swing promised a cool plunge on a hot day.

In contrast, water’s wonders were rare when I wintered in arid New Mexico. While there in 2021, I volunteered as a dogwalker at the High Desert Humane Society. To help a special dog find a new home, I started walking him around the Silver City’s downtown area with an “Adopt me” sign. One stop was city hall’s lawn. Few lawns exist because water’s expensive. This dog pranced for joy on the grass—much different then the dry region’s sharp stones and prickly cactus. Another stop was a tiny creek hidden in a ravine. On his first visit there, it was clear he had never seen standing water before. He was suspicious of the water trickling between small pools. He inched forward. He sniffed. He eased a paw into the water. Instant glee. He waded in and didn’t want to leave. His adoption before I departed was memorable for all. Deserts have their own unique beauty, but my furry friend’s lasting impression on me was how precious water is. It creates happiness.

Me at Caribou Falls, Minnesota

Nowadays, I’m a waterfall junkie. Tumbling water creates iconic sounds. Sounds that change through the seasons, and after rainfalls. Sunlight, clouds, and shadows also alter waterfall scenes. Especially in gorges, where mid-day sun highlights the mist, moss, leaves, glistening rocks, and hidden trout or salmon. These subtle variables make a waterfall different on every visit, or even while you watch. This past year, I viewed dozens of waterfalls, many in Hawaii. Some were new, others were perpetual favorites along Minnesota’s North Shore. To celebrate their wonder, I compiled video clips of several below (which will be my webpage header video for awhile).

Unfortunately, clean water, droughts, and aquifer depletion are hot topics. Yet ignoring water problems doesn’t make them someone else’s problem. Growing up, our family drank well water with high nitrate levels (caused by nearby farm fertilizer pollution, which is now gone). I also watched frequent chemical slicks float by our house (Hennepin Paper Company pollution, now gone due to the factory’s closure). Back then, nobody knew, or cared enough, to stop unsafe water practices.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay pollution-8252584_1920 by Pete Linforth

Today, clean water is a priority. Yet water faces new threats from microplastics, mining, “forever chemicals,” and sewage treatment ponds. Threats that create hard questions. Who pays for water pollution that can last centuries? Can we restore vast oceans that billions of people rely on for food? Will irrigation needs exhaust ground water sources? And most importantly, should you feel guilty about flushing toilets? (Probably not, but water conservation and composting toilets are worth learning about!)

Photo courtesy Pixabay global-warming-2958988_1920 by Chris LeBoutillier

Earth’s surface may be 71% water, but less than 1% of all water is fresh water, easily used (i.e. not salt water, or frozen). Fresh water obviously is used for drinking and household needs, but also fuels industry and farming. Competing water needs mean fierce debates will continue over pollution and water access. In Minnesota, some ideas include diverting water out west via freight trains, or filtering mining wastewater “indefinitely” (i.e. for at least a thousand years). Projects like these seem ludicrous, but are real. Climate change, greed, and desperation mean such ideas will persist and evolve. Especially in Minnesota given we’re the literal “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” headwaters of the Mississippi, and have access to Lake Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake).

Vigilance, conservation, and facts are essential for a future with safe, accessible water. That’s why it’s wise to learn more about the “H-two-O” molecule! To start with, I’ve listed kidlit books throughout this post that have water as their subject, plot, or setting (click on any book cover to enlarge it). Although I enjoyed these books, my usual disclaimer is no book is for everyone, or for all-ages. With endless books to read, skip books that don’t appeal to you—unless there’s a test involved! But read more about water. You won’t regret it.

Take care in 2024, including the wonderful water around you.


Photo courtesy of Hawaii Invasive Species Council website

Since I was a kid, I love watching fireworks. That’s why last month, while island-hopping in Hawaii, I couldn’t miss seeing Mount Kilauea’s latest eruption. To avoid parking problems and crowds, I went after midnight. For three hours I was mesmerized by lava fireworks, often watching through binoculars or my camera’s zoom lens. All the while, tiny-but-loud coqui frogs’ chirped (one of countless invasive species disrupting Hawaii’s unique ecosystem.)

The lava lake’s subtle flares and shifting crust are hard to notice in real time, so I made a 90 second time-lapse video below. (The video highlights are at eight times normal speed, with the coqui frogs’ Ko-KEEE peeps in real time.)

Over millions of years, eruptions have made sprawling lava tube complexes on every Hawaiian island. On the Big Island, Kazumura Cave’s 40+ miles of lava tubes are currently the longest and deepest complex in the world. Inside tunnels, superheated winds can shape and dry receding lava into unusual formations.

After lava cools, its porous rock allows abundant Hawaiian rain to seep down into old lava tunnels. This moisture creates mineral formations, as well as supports “unique ecosystems of troglobites, animals specifically adapted to live in this dark isolated world. Distinct species of crickets and spiders develop alongside special microbial colonies found nowhere else.” (NPS excerpt)

Hawaii is honeycombed with lava tubes, but most aren’t accessible or suitable for tourists. Family-friendly cave tours I recommend are at the Big Island’s Kazamura Cave and Kula Kai Cave, plus Maui’s Hana Lava Tube (Ka’Eleku Cavern) and Kauai’s Makauwahi Cave. If you have limited time, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Thurston Lava Tube is self-guided and its lit passage only takes a few minutes to safely explore. For more adventuresome cavers, try Kazamura Cave’s extended tour, or contact the National Speleological Society’s (NSS) Hawaii grotto to tag along with one of their regular educational caving trips (they loan you caving gear for free).

Without further delay, enjoy Mother Nature’s lava fireworks.

(For those interested, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park live-streams Mount Kilauea’s caldera. Just click here.)


The murder victim…

I was a murder suspect last month. So were 25+ others that attended Ely Public Library’s murder mystery party. The event was set in the 1970s Harry Potter universe, during a Hogwarts Midwinter Ball.

Before dancing occurred though, a scream echoed through the library. News spread fast—there was a murderer among us. Attendees quickly began sleuthing for clues and conspiracies. Who and why had someone murdered a wizard diva that had performed live as people arrived?

During the party, I played Gregard Avery, a moody prankster with ties to the infamous Lord Voldemort (as a keepsake, attendees each got a personalized character glass for sipping unpoisoned punch). My costume was inspired by the setting’s disco era. For a prank, I passed around Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (which have a random mix of horrid jelly bean flavors like booger, earwax, vomit, etc.).

At the end, I got two votes as the likely murderer. With the large cast and numerous schemes afoot though, many suspects got votes. Yet only one person smartly deduced who the real murderer was.

Each murder suspect gave a big speech at the end.

Impressive, fun library events like this are surprisingly common nowadays. Libraries are now community centers with activities, classes, and social events—many inspired by popular books. Such as the following week, when library fun continued with a Harry Potter “prep school.” There, children learned about potions (making colorful, bubbling lava lamps), herbology (planting chives in seed starter pots), and cracking secret codes. The week after, an event encouraged people to bring in their favorite games, as well as play test their invented games (Minnesota winters cultivate board games, story here). Ely and other public libraries also regularly host book clubs, hobby clubs, craft sessions, jigsaw puzzle swap meets, storytime, STEAM classes, escape room events, and oodles of other activities! Clearly public libraries aren’t just for housing books anymore.

Ely’s Friends of the Library logo

After my winter stay in Minnesota’s northland, I salute Ely’s library staff and its Friends of the Library organization. They demonstrate that public libraries make reading and lifelong learning fun for all ages. Even if fun means being a murder suspect now and then.

(All event photos are courtesy of Ely Public Library’s Facebook post, link here)


Nature’s transformations make fun time-lapse videos. This fall, I began two such video projects that I’m now sharing. The first turned autumn’s colors into a hyperlapse video that moves along Itasca State Park’s scenic Wilderness Drive. My 33 minute trip below is condensed to 2 minutes of painted forest rushing by.

The second project may not appeal to everyone—a 3 minute time-lapse video about “the circle of life.” Here, scavengers’ beaks and teeth transform a deer carcass into bare bones. The backstory is, sadly, a car hit a young buck near where I was staying (thankfully, the driver wasn’t injured).

Nobody wanted to salvage the deer’s meat. So, I decided to have a new experience. I asked the state patrol trooper managing the accident to issue me a permit to take the deer (without a permit, it’s illegal to harvest a deer outside of hunting season). With an ATV, I then dragged the buck to a quiet glade in our family’s woods. There, scavengers could peacefully eat, safe from the highway’s dangers.

I’d never butchered a deer, so I watched several online videos. Then, with a sharp knife, I removed salvageable venison. To spoil my friend’s dog, Mia, I also saved the buck’s antlers as chew toys (plus, I cooked venison scraps to make dog treats).

When finished, I set up a trail camera to spy on the remaining carcass. The video’s 6,600+ photos show how a deer’s death gives life to many, many animals. Magpies. Blue Jays. Crows. Ravens. Seven Bald Eagles (four adults, three juveniles). Larger visitors included a coyote, gray fox, and family of four bears.

Unseen benefactors were countless smaller birds and insects, Mia (gnawing on antlers and gobbling her treats), as well as people (myself and four families I shared the venison with). After 72 hours, only a partial skeleton remained (dragged fifty yards away). A week later, I couldn’t even find a hair. A saying sums up the following video well, “Nothing goes to waste in nature.”

Truly, nothing is wasted in nature—things just transform. Falling leaves transform into soil. A dead animal transforms by feeding other animals. Far stranger, supernovas long ago created elements that transformed into essential parts of our bodies. Wow. For me, nature’s transformations are a never-ending source of wonder. I hope these videos inspire that same wonder with you!


A few weeks ago, I attended my first CONvergence convention. There, I joined thousands of science-fiction and fantasy fans to ponder this year’s theme, “Your reality may vary.” Indeed, nowadays it seems perception and reality can vary widely. Perhaps John Lennon summed up this dilemma best, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.”

My shared reality was the countless things to do at CONvergence. I was drawn to a dozen+ panel discussions and events (out of hundreds). Panels I was impressed with included the future of artificial intelligence, outer space physics, a NASA employee’s presentation on Mars missions, and multiverse theory/physics.

Numerous panels on fiction writing were my top priority though. One discussed a variety of storytelling techniques that “break the fourth wall.” Another analyzed classic “other worlds” such as The Land of Oz, time travel, portal stories, and myths.

Two writing panels with Professor Jack Zipes were a highlight for me. One of his panels discussed the original 1923 Bambi story—not the Disney adaptation. The 1923 version is filled with fascism metaphors that foreshadowed WWII’s Holocaust. His second panel, “Excavating Fairy Tales,” discussed his efforts to republish hundreds of out-of-print books—in particular children’s books with authoritarian themes (he feels we can learn from authors who confronted fascism a century ago). For those more interested in his efforts to generate hope and action among children, you can read an interview by clicking here. Or, click here to learn more about his publishing house (a few of these republished books are below).

Of course the convention had endless fun activities too. A few popular reality events I attended were stand-up comedy acts by a Guest of Honor, Reverend Matt, and local comedian/writer Joseph Scrimshaw. Closing the convention was the exciting Cirque du Multivers, where circus acts performed in cosplay costumes.

Gaming realities take place all-hours, from cards to board games to role-playing games. Endless pickup games exist for anyone wanting to play a favorite game, or try something new. Amid the abundance of games, I enjoyed trying Everyone is John and Exploding Kittens.

The Cinema Rex theater offers free popcorn, candy, and drinks. Guests relax in dozens of couches as they suspend their disbelief in movie realities. Two movies I particularly liked were the time-travel madcap comedy Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, and the time-loop comedy Palm Springs.

Various party room realities are open throughout the day and night, many for all ages. This was a fun way to meet others with similar interests (such as cats). The Star Wars cantina was impressive, as were extensive 1980’s details in the Ready Player One-themed room (with an adjacent party room filled with retro video games).

The Space Lounge was a surreal reality, with a sensory bar that did NOT offer drinks. Instead, it offered experiences that perplexed your senses (reinforcing “Your reality may vary”).

Two teens I brought with praised the popular Connie’s Sandbox, with its all-ages arts and crafts activities. Personally, I was captivated by this room’s creation and subsequent gleeful smashing of a cardboard fairy-tale village.

For those who like riddles, quests, or achievements, an addictive endeavor is collecting and trading ribbons. Rookie attendees like myself may get random quests via a special invite by staff. My quest led to several ribbons, and was a neat way to discover areas of the sprawling convention. A few of my ribbons were given by cosplay characters—I must say, the spectrum of cosplay costumes was fascinating, as were all the fan T-shirts.

Overall, WOW. Lots of fun, creativity, and learning crammed into four days. The friendly community also took excellent Covid-19 precautions as we transition to a new normal for large gatherings. Thanks to the hundreds of dedicated CONvergence volunteers that made this amazing convention possible. I look forward to next year, as are two teens I’ll bring again!



Stefanshellir lava tube by Dave Bunnell, Creative Commons photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Sorry Australia, caves are the real “Land Down Under.” The past few years, I’ve been researching caves for a kidlit book project. I’ve went to national caves like Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park. The visitor centers at each, as well as the park rangers, have excellent information. But I’ve also enjoyed many lesser known caves. In each cave, I’m always amazed at the efforts to construct safe entrances, passages, and staircases that let the public experience these natural wonders. A century ago, ropes, ladders, and candles were the norm, limiting who could tour caves. Here’s a few pics of developed “show caves” I’ve visited.

In recent months, I’ve gone to two notable places that long-time cavers know well (even if they’ve never been to either). The first was The National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. If you’ve never heard of the word ‘karst” before, it’s basically soluble rock areas where underground water and aquifers flow. This subterranean water often creates caves, hidden rivers, and sinkholes. Or, surface water can also transform karst areas into scenic landscapes. In fact, NCKRI states, “Over 90 World Heritage sites and 70 UNESCO Global Geoparks were designated entirely or in part for their karst and caves.” If you’re curious to learn more about NCKRI and karst, their website has extensive information.

The second fascinating place was this year’s National Speleological Society (NSS) annual convention in Rapid City, South Dakota. I attended just a fraction of many simultaneous presentations–you simply can’t see everything! Microbiology and extremophiles. Cave cartography and mapping software. Cave photography. Fossil excavation. Cave conservation. Expedition logistics. And much more. You appreciate why entire teams are mobilized to explore difficult caves. One popular program has cavers detail their expeditions in rapid-fire, 20 minute presentations. These fascinating stories are scheduled for two entire days! Each story details new cave discoveries and/or unique challenges.

A convention highlight for me was the photography and video contest. I even got to chat with Dave Bunnel, a famous cave photographer. Overall, the audience was wowed by dozens of photographers and filmmakers who make dark caverns come alive. In their captured images, caves become magical. Their explorers, heroic.

In addition, seeing authors and books I’ve read, such as Hazel Barton’s awesome Exploring Caves, was inspiring. An entire auditorium, including me, was excited to learn she’s working on a new book about Lechuguilla Cave (it’s supposedly the world’s most beautiful cave, but only scientists can explore the complex to protect its unique formations and microorganisms).

Craters of the Moon lava tube cave entrance

Is caving for everyone? No! You must tolerate tight spaces, inky darkness, and the fact you have umpteen tons of rock above you. At Jewel Cave, I saw a man’s claustrophobia overcome him, forcing him to leave. During Wind Cave’s “wild cave” tour, the advice given to us all was “Caving isn’t pretty.” Soon, our group was low crawling through muddy passages. Passages you often contort in ways that are undignified. Small adults and children are well suited for caving though. Why?

Have you ever tried squeezing through an 8.5” gap that’s two feet long? Jewel Cave’s “wild cave” tour requires guests to prove they can fit through such a gap before they can go on this special tour. I tried several times to push and squirm through their concrete test gap. On my last attempt, going for broke, I got hopelessly stuck (the park ranger then releases the “ceiling,” so you’re easily freed—no panic required). I was disappointed, and my sternum area was sore for days.

Afterwards, the park ranger guide suggested I check out CaveSim, a fun “cave simulator” exhibit (kids LOVE this mobile education exhibit). CaveSim has a station where you can adjust gap space to measure what you can easily crawl through. There I learned I can worm through a 9.5” gap. Less than that, I won’t try again! Knowing one’s limits is essential in caves. Why?

Tight spaces aren’t the only challenge for would-be cavers. At NSS’s convention, Carol Vesely detailed her team’s carbon monoxide alarms going bonkers in Belize. The bad air halted their exploration of parts of Panti Pit (of note, this cave team is all over 55 years-old, so caving isn’t just for the young and small). Wind Cave’s story of Rachel Cox is a cautionary caving tale about the dangers of pride and bad decision-making (read here how she got lost in Wind Cave for 36 hours, nearly dying). If risking hypoxia, hypothermia, or dehydration aren’t enough, cave ins, falling, and drowning are additional cave hazards. In fact, cave diving is one of the most treacherous activities on Earth. But with proper preparation, equipment, and experience, as long as you’re not alone, caving is a safe, exciting activity.

Carlsbad Caverns chandelier formation

Thanks to the countless cavers I’ve chatted with the past few years. But a special shout out to Devra Heyer at NCKRI and NSS’s outgoing president, Geary Schindel–both graciously offered to fact check my book project when it’s ready. I hope my book helps kids appreciate why cavers are so passionate about the magic that exists in the real “land down under.”


Fat Man’s Misery by David Kem-NPS Photo

As a kid, my family visited Mammoth Cave’s “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s the first time I recall when being a kid had advantages—the cramped passage was only a problem for adults! Our family also went to the Grand Canyon one year. At the time, I didn’t comprehend the significance of national parks.

Years later, I worked at Mammoth Hot Springs, in Yellowstone National Park. I was a room attendant. This wasn’t a glamorous job. What mattered was the scenery. Although, as the summer progressed, the spectacular views became hazy from that summer’s historic forest fires.

Military firefighters in Yellowstone 1988 by Jim Peaco–NPS in Wikimedia Commons

Frequent fire updates showed the estimated burned acres. Each total resembled a lottery jackpot that kept growing. Stories of harrowing escapes spread, especially from Old Faithful. Thousands of firefighters arrived, yet couldn’t stop a single fire.

On my last day of work, ash fluttered down like snowflakes. I watched literal pillars of flame erupt along the surrounding mountain ridges. The fiery pillars dwarfed the helicopters dumping red fire retardant. The futility was apparent. Our location, the last still open, closed hours later. Employees were evacuated. Days later, an early snowfall snuffed out the widespread fires. The final jackpot total was a million acres burned.

Lechuguilla Cave’s Pearlsian Gulf by Dave Bunnell-Under Earth Images

Despite the forest fires, that summer was when I began to fully appreciate national parks. Parks preserve wilderness, history, and unique ecosystems. It’s humbling that past generations protected these areas for us to enjoy. But these public lands also help future generations. As we enter the age of genetic engineering, saving valuable habitat and biodiversity is allowing scientists to make breakthrough discoveries. Isolated ecosystems, such as Yellowstone’s hot springs and Carlsbad Cavern’s Lechuguilla Cave, have extremophile microbes. These rare organisms are helping develop future antibiotics, and understand what life might be like on other planets. Who knows what future scientists will learn in our national parks?

Southest Idaho highway

This fall, my admiration of national parks led me on another road trip out west. In seven weeks I visited five national parks, as well as other state parks and a national monument. With limited time and countless national and state parks, it’s overwhelming deciding which to visit. Each park is unique. Each, incredible in its own way.

To date, I’ve been to fourteen national parks, visiting several of these multiple times. What I’ve learned is in 1872 Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Although America has inspired many ideas, I find myself agreeing with Ken Burns. He made an award-winning documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There’s a book adaptation too. His belief is that America’s “invention” of national parks is its biggest legacy. Yellowstone inspired humanity to begin preserving wild lands for future generations.

However, we shouldn’t take America’s best idea for granted. New threats and ongoing challenges face all parks. I’ll touch on this topic with a “Part II” blog post. Safe travels to all amid our ongoing pandemic.


(For those interested, what follows are comments and photos of the parks I visited this fall.)

Fall 2021 Camping Trip Parks

Badlands National Park. Rapid erosion of sedimentary rock has created a maze of hills, canyons, and colorful rock layers.

Craters of the Moon National Monument. Sixty lava flows have created a surreal, barren landscape that gives the park its name. Bonus points for those venturing into the rugged lava tunnels.

Cultus Lake State Park in Oregon. A remote, scenic lake with wild huckleberries around the campground!

Ecola State Park in Oregon. This park’s epic coastline has beaches and sea stacks featured in movies like The Goonies, Twilight, Kindergarten Cop, and Point Break.

Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon. This is a great base camp to visit two museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark’s historic journey (Fort Clatsop and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center). Goonies fans can geek-out in scenic Astoria, the movie’s setting, and explore the Oregon Film Museum (where the Goonie’s opening scene took place). Astoria also has a cool observation tower overlooking the Columbia River’s mouth. This river mouth is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Pacific” after sinking over 2,000 ships with its treacherous sandbars, tides, and currents.

Glacier National Park. This “hiker’s paradise” is filled with stunning views. Its Going-To-The-Sun Road is an engineering and scenic wonder, but not for faint-hearted drivers or bicyclists.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana. Abundant cave formations are this park’s highlight. Incredible staircases and a literal slide descend to a blasted out tunnel that leads you back to daylight. Its visitor center also has an outstanding park ranger talk about bats. I highly recommend this cave for children.

Mount Rainier National Park. This photogenic park is far more than its namesake mountain.

Olympic National Park. Park rangers describe this famous park as three amazing parks/ecosystems in one (coastline, temperate rainforest, and mountains). They’re right. Of note, if you rely on solar panels while camping, they’re useless in most of this park’s campgrounds because of the towering trees.

My favorite experience here was portaging my bike around a washed away bridge. This Elwha River washout has isolated a part of the park for three years, making it like a ghost town. I biked two hours, rising 1,500 feet to Appleton Pass. There, I turned around and coasted downhill for thirty minutes. For fun, I shot a rough video during my descent to make a hyperlapse video. This experimental video condenses my descent to less than three minutes. That’s like going 150 miles per hour. If you’re curious about hyperlapse video, click on the Youtube link below.

Wind Cave National Park. The boxwork cave formations here are extremely rare. Even more fascinating is whether Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are actually connected? Air-flow studies suggest they are. As cave mapping technology advances, time will tell if this becomes the longest cave complex on Earth.


This past Fourth of July I met a teenager who collects aluminum can pull tabs. Not for recycling though. Each tab is an achievement. The teen removes tabs from a can’s tiny center rivet without damaging the tabs. It’s not impossible, but takes practice. Maybe people with this skill grow up to be a surgeons, or jewelers? Or, some job where patience and precision are essential? Fingers crossed this teen finds other people who share their pull tab passion.

Last week I was with people who share my passion for kidlit writing. Esteemed writers Jill Esbaum and Pat Zietlow Miller hosted nine eager students attending this year’s Whispering Woods Picture Book Workshop. Many know Jill and Pat from the Picture Book Builders blog.

Besides critiques and writing wisdom, Jill and Pat brought 200+ books they admire. Readings from this small library were always entertaining, or pulled heartstrings. My “to read list” has swelled, and my “read list” now includes these funny tales:

Besides reading and writing, another free time activity was wandering the serene paths of the prairie preserve.

Amid the preserve’s flora and fauna, an Eagle Scout placed stone markers along the trails. Each invites contemplation on epic events of the universe, Earth, and humans. A few of the stones are:

Contemplating the workshop, I remembered what a boy told me two years ago. When I brought him to Minicon 54‘s Rumpus Room for the first time, he later smiled and said, “These are my people.” (Click here for an earlier post about the Rumpus Room.) Finding people who share your interests brings joy. So, many thanks to Jill and Pat, as well as my other eight kidlit peers attending the workshop. It was a pleasure spending time in person with my people, kidlit writers.