A Pilgrimage and Writing Inspiration for Castle Danger, Straight River

My wife and I just returned from a nearly two-week trip to Colorado. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. We rented a travel trailer to stay in most of the time. We rode bikes through the vineyards of western Colorado. (Yes! Colorado has numerous quality wineries.). We also hiked in Colorado National Monument and Black Canyon National Park and took in the amazing mountain vistas all over Colorado. The aspens turning gold were awe-inspiring! Wow. Can’t remember seeing such brilliant color in all my previous visits to Colorado. Even the locals said this is an exceptional year for color.


But I also made a few literary pilgrimages on this trip. Those of you who’ve read Castle Danger might remember that Allyson Clifford (aka Susan Danforth) was born and raised in Gunnison, Colorado. Black Canyon NP is west of Gunnison. After visiting the park, we decided to drive into Gunnison and take a look.

Black Canyon NP near Gunnison, CO
Black Canyon NP near Gunnison, CO

The drive along US 50 is starkly beautiful with mesas along the way, arid foothills, a huge reservoir formed by a dam on the Gunnison River. Mountains are all around in the distance. Upon arriving at Gunnison, my preconceived notion of the town as cowboy country was discounted almost immediately. We felt a more touristy vibe, perhaps a touch of ski resort atmosphere with a bit of artist colony. Fishing, hunting, and outdoor activities like mountain biking or off-road vehicle driving seem more prevalent. Cattle, horses, and western wear are still present but don’t seem to be prevalent.

Nevertheless, Gunnison has a feeling of remoteness because it’s miles from any significant population center and one experiences a whole lot of empty space before arriving from any direction. With a population of about 5800, it has a definite small-town feel. Overall, I feel I chose an appropriately isolated place for Susan Danforth to want to escape from as soon as possible. Donnie Vossler’s slimy charm easily seduced her primarily because she was so naïve and impressionable. Los Angeles must have seemed like another world when she and Vossler first arrived after she graduated from high school.

Another pilgrimage took place on the way home. I’ve set a few scenes in and around Rapid City, South Dakota, for the prequel to Castle Danger Straight River. One of the settings is US highway 16A, a winding mountain road that leads travelers to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I won’t give away that scene, but will only say what happens there is a key point in the plot.

Another important scene takes place in a down-and-out neighborhood in Rapid City. Because the Pine Ridge Reservation is close by, Rapid City suffers from a significant homeless population of Native Americans. Drugs, alcoholism, and gangs are a part of life in Rapid City despite its modest size (about 67,000 people) and remoteness. Many small towns have gangs and drug problems. Rapid City is only unique because it is a huge tourist town and the problems of the locals take a back seat to boosting and maintaining tourism.

The two scenes are connected because of the actions of one of the villains in Straight River. I more or less randomly chose Rapid City as the location for those scenes. I’ve visited the town numerous times and enjoy its vibe and surrounding scenery. It is truly a western town with cowboys, horses, rangeland, and cattle. Combined with its mega-tourism status, Rapid City is unique and worthy of inclusion in the book, mainly to change the pace and add flavor and character to the overall setting.

I love traveling in the mountainous west and get inspired by the drastic change of surroundings compared to the rolling farmland of my hometown and most of Minnesota. Don’t be surprised if another western town or area becomes a setting for future novels.

Last but not least, for those of you who didn’t think Castle Danger, MN is a real place, here’s proof:

The "real" Castle Danger, MN
The “real” Castle Danger, MN

Castle Danger is an unincorporated village with a handful of houses in a general “neighborhood.” My fictional Castle Danger is a small town of less than 1,000 with a tiny business district. Places like the Halcyon Bar & Grill, the AmericInn, and McDonald’s are  on the edges of town just off US Highway 61.

Fictional Castle Danger meets real Castle Danger
Fictional Castle Danger meets real Castle Danger
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