Go West(ern), Young Man

In 1972, I was a goofy 18-year-old,

freshly graduated from Sehome High in Bellingham, ready to enter Western Washington State College to pursue a degree in Speech Pathology. That last one quarter — until I failed my first physiology class (do you know how many muscles there are in the face? Too many for me to memorize). The Speech Path classes were in College Hall and so were the Speech Communication classes. I made the switch, eventually switching one more time before I graduated to the “new” major of Broadcast Communication.

I worked briefly in radio news (even then I had a voice for the printed page)

and spent a dozen or so years after graduation trying to find my true passion. (I don’t hold Western in any way responsible for this.)

It was a complete honor, then, to be invited back on campus after 23 years to be the keynote speaker for the university’s Scholar’s Week. Western is some kind of great school: their debate team took second place overall in the 2008-2009 National Debate Season and the school ranks 6th among top medium-sized colleges and universities with alumni serving as Peace Corps volunteers. Let’s just say I felt underqualified to be speaking.

As I told the audience, I felt the invitation boiled down to one thing: buffalo chips. You see, I had been asked to talk about the research involved in writing and, for me, that particular item best represents to what extent I poked and prodded in order to write Hattie Big Sky. The eastern Montana homesteaders were shy on wood so they kept the home fires burning with materials at hand. In this case, it was buffalo chips, left by animals long gone by 1918. My challenge was that I didn’t know what burning chips smelled like (we don’t really use that as a fuel source in Seattle). So I had asked my friend, Tricia, whose family runs Montezuma Angus in Jamestown, California, to send me a few cow patties so that I could burn them to see what they smelled like.

Tricia is a good sport and collected several dried samples for me and sent them via USPS.

Two things: the homesteaders in 1918 probably did not have ziploc baggies and they used chips much drier than the ones Tricia sent me.

Needless to say, the package that arrived was not something I could really deal with, let alone burn.

Using what I learned, I concluded that, since the buffalo diet was prairie grass, burning chips must smell very grassy.

That was the one detail in HBS that I never really verified for myself.

And now you — and the attendees at the WWU Scholar’s Week banquet — know the rest of the story.

No Responses to “Go West(ern), Young Man”

  1. Kirby Larson

    Barbara, you crack me up!

    Do you know Dr. Nancy Johnson? You need to know her! In fact, I think we need to lobby her to invite us both to speak at her annual first-weekend-in-March Children’s Lit conference!

  2. trinity

    HI! i love your books, i am 12 years old and i am doing a school project on you, what were some of your accomplishments and extra facts?

  3. Karen Purkhiser

    I recognized your name on the book, Duke. I was looking for a “boy” book for our grandson. So I looked inside, reading that you live in the Seattle area…and then I knew who you are.
    You attended the Weight Watchers meeting that I lead in Woodinville a couple times. And I bought Hattie Big Sky, and you signed it, and enjoyed reading it very much.
    We moved to a little town close to Indianapolis in 2008. This is where I found your book, at the Goodwill store. I know my grandson will enjoy the book and the fact that I actually knew you in Woodinville.