Part 3 of our series on how travel has inspired our members to write new stories and books.
By Caleb Pirtle III
I spent much of my early career writing travel stories for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and then Governor John Connally’s Texas Tourist Development Agency.
They were simple, traditional travel stories that told a vacationer where to go, how to get there, and what the cost would be when the family arrived.
When I became travel editor for Southern Living Magazine, however, all of my thoughts about travel abruptly changed.
I had come to a crossroads and took an entirely different direction..
We won two Discover America Awards because I turned our travel columns into short stories.
Just told from a new and different point of view.
Those days of travel writing remain with me still even though I no longer write travel.
But I remember the places.
I remember the characters.
I remember the faces.
I remember the stories those characters told me while sitting out whistling and whittling on a courthouse lawn or wedged into the back corner of country honky-tonk sipping a beer.
As the years go by, those characters remain in a locked room in the back of my brain, a place I refer to as central casting.
No matter what kind of character my novels need – hero, heroine, villain, or bit player – one is hanging around and waiting to be thrown onto the printed page.
The following travel story about Maine’s Hendrick’s Head Lighthouse was printed in Confessions from the Road, a collection of true short stories gleaned from my time as a travel editor.
IT BEGAN with a storm.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
It was little more than a gale blowing across the sea during the chilled evening of March in 1871. A ship’s captain battled the winds, fighting the swells of the Atlantic, headed toward the distant shore hugging the coastline of Maine.
It wasn’t far now.
He could see the splinter of beam from the lighthouse flashing at him.
Only a half a mile to go.
Only a half a mile from safety.
The ship suddenly trembled, and the captain heard the deadly, cracking of lumber breaking hard and in agony against the rock ledge.
The captain’s muscles tightened.
The ship was taking on water.
It was quiet for a moment.
Then came the screams.
Only a half a mile to go.
He would never make it.
Even the screams died away.
The cold, bitter sea water churned around his knees and kept rising.
The winds battered his ship.
The rains lashed at his face.
One last scream.
Then the ominous sound of night when there is no sound at all.
Early the next morning, as faint shards of light swept the shoreline, the keeper of Hendrick’s Head Lighthouse and his wife began picking through the debris that had washed upon the rocks.
A dying ship was a rest.
A captain, his crew, and his passengers had been drawn to the unforgiving ebony floor of the Atlantic.
The keeper heard a faint and gentle cry in the wind. He and his wife found a feather mattress bound with a rope. It held a tiny cargo, a wooden box, and wedged inside was a baby girl. She was alone but had not been abandoned.
Some heart-broken mother had done her best to save the baby, to cast her to the sea and pray that the ocean would not claim her.
There had been a prayer.
And a survivor.
The family of the lighthouse kept her as its own.
They looked for any trace of the mother until all traces had been washed away and buried by the sea.
But on some nights when the sky is dark, and a gale stalks the rim of the Atlantic, the silence is broken by a faint cry caught in the throat of a distant wind.
“It’s the mother,” I am told. “She walks among the rocks, and sometimes you can see her shadow outlined against the ocean. After all of these years, she is still searching for her baby.”
“Has anyone ever seen her face?”
“We only hear her grief.”
“She keeps coming back?”
“No.” There is a slight shrug. “She never left.”
It began with a storm.
So long ago.
It has yet to end.
Caleb Pirtle III
began his career writing about history and travel. He learned quickly, however, that what happens is never as important as those who make it happen. Many of those people have made their way into his novels.
He is the author of more than 65 published books, including the new noir suspense thrillers, Golgotha Connection, Secrets of the Dead, Conspiracy of Lies and Night Side of Dark. His other novels include Back Side of a Blue Moon and Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever.
He has written such award winners as “XIT: The American Cowboy,” “Callaway Gardens: the Unending Season,” “The Grandest Day,” “Echoes from Forgotten Streets,” and “Spirit of a Winner.” His nonfiction works include Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk and No Experience Required.
Caleb earned a journalism degree from The University of Texas and became the first student at the university to win the national William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing. As a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he received both the Texas Headliner’s and Associated Press Awards.
He served as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine, and his travel writing was given the National Discover America Award three times. For more than two decades, Pirtle was editorial director for a custom publishing company in Dallas.
He has also written teleplays for network television.
Find more about Caleb at his: