Nicole Cullen on “Banner Creek Summit”

Nicole Cullen’s story, “Banner Creek Summit,” appears in our Spring 2011 issue, guest edited by Colm Toibin. The story opens with these lines:

It was Whitney Putnam’s first time inside the Boise airport.  He stood in the baggage claim watching two suitcases and a car seat rotate on the carousel.  The plane arriving from Denver landed twenty minutes ago, and the passengers have come and gone already.  He searched the faces of women descending the escalator at the far end of the lobby, and he thought it was a conspiracy, the way they all looked the same.

Here, Cullen describes how a trip to her hometown, a drive with her father, and a sense of “place” inspired her to write this story:

I wrote the first draft of “Banner Creek Summit” shortly after a trip from Austin, Texas to my hometown of Salmon, Idaho. Salmon is a remote valley town backed by the Continental Divide and surrounded by national forests. My father picked me up at the Boise airport, 250 miles away, and we headed for Salmon late in the day, traveling the same route Whitney and Emma Lee travel in the story.

It was October, and the rain quickly turned to snow over Banner Pass. My father slowed to a painful speed, and the five-hour drive inched closer to seven. He had one CD in the car—Tim Janis—and the radio stations had long ago faded to static. So, in a lot of ways, I have him to thank for the genesis of the story because I had nothing better to do than look out the window and think. I’d traveled this route countless times, had seen the roads at their worst, and it was easy to imagine what might go wrong under true winter conditions. To put Whitney and Emma Lee in a dangerous situation—further complicated by their insecurities and existing tensions—seemed to fit the mood of the landscape. In fact, I wrote the story from a sense of place, and the characters came secondly.

A year later, having finished the story, I made the same trip to Salmon. After a routine week of steelhead fishing and beer drinking, I packed my bags to return to Austin. In the hour before we left for the Boise airport, my father readied the car with his usual canned food and emergency candles, sleeping bags and bottled water, a handgun under the driver’s seat and a glove box full of Burger King napkins. Only now there was hardly room for my luggage.

I asked him, “Do you really think we need all this survival gear?”

“You never know what the weather’s going to do,” he said.

“But we just drove over the pass a few days ago and it was fine.”

He forced the hatchback closed and leaned against the bumper. “Listen,” he said, “I just read this story about two people who get into some real trouble on that pass.” He rubbed his hands together and smiled, like he’d just finished taking out the trash, and in a lot of ways, he had.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll give you that one.”

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