In the summer of 2015, when my sister and I went through family memorabilia from our parents’ house, we did a rough sort of our dad’s photographs. We threw the envelopes of negatives and prints into three piles—one for me, one for her, and one for our brother—based on whose family was most featured on that roll of film at first glance. I ended up with two large boxes of stuff, including my share of the photos, which wended their way to my house.
Sometime last year, I sorted those photos into two shoeboxes—one containing pictures of my childhood years and the other of when my kids were young. But I didn’t organize them any further. I should have, I know, but I didn’t. I knew it would make me emotional.
This past weekend I decided it was time to go through all the stuff I have from my parents’ estates. I didn’t get very far.
As I was trying to separate photos from files, then start to discard the paperwork I collected while managing their estates, I opened the shoebox loosely categorized as photos of my children. These were mostly taken when my parents came to visit us in Kansas City or when my kids went to visit them in Washington State.
At random, I pulled an envelope of snapshots out of the box. “Absorka Ranch Trip ’89” my father had labeled it. (He was never a good speller. Moreover, the trip was really in 1990. But I knew what the envelope contained.)
I’ve written before about our vacations at the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming. (See here and here.) Of horseback riding and campfires and such. This random envelope I grabbed contained pictures of the family trip my husband, children, and I took in 1990 with my parents, my in-laws, my husband’s sister and her family. We had a total of twelve in our party, ranging from my five-year-old daughter to my 72-year-old father-in-law. We took up about half the cabins in the ranch, and two other families filled up the rest.
I found a nice snapshot of my daughter. And many panoramic views of the mountains and fields where we rode. Many mornings, my parents and I walked out from the ranch house before breakfast while waiting for the meal to be ready, and my dad took several of the pictures in the envelope on those walks. As I went through the deck of pictures, I remembered our trip.
But the snapshots also resonated with me in the summer of 2017—twenty-seven years after they were taken—because I am currently writing about the emigrant travel through Wyoming. The settings I describe in my work-in-progress look much like the views my father captured, though at the point I am in the story, the wagon train is not yet to the Absarokas. In fact, my novel will end before the wagon company reaches the Absarokas—it ends at Independence Rock. But I write about things I experienced in the Absaroka Range. About the sagebrush and the sand, the mountains and the meadowlarks, the hawks wafting on the wind, and the cool morning air before the heat of the day.
My memories of those trips to the Wyoming ranch have colored not only my life but also my fiction, in ways I never imagined in 1990. My memories give depth to the research I’ve done.
Writers, how have your personal experiences influenced what you write?