The author of “Deep Creek” takes readers along on a road trip to find home in the high country.
When I look out my kitchen window, I see a horseshoe of snow covered peaks, all of them higher than 12,000 feet above sea level. I see my old barn – old enough to have started to lean a little – and the low-ceilinged homesteaders’ cabin, which has so much space between the logs now that the mice don’t even have to duck to crawl through. I see the big stand of aspen ready to leaf out at the back of the property, ringing the small but reliable wetland, and the pasture, greening in earnest, and the bluebirds, just returned, flitting from post to post. I see Isaac and Simon, my bonded pair of young donkey jacks pulling on opposite ends of a tri-color lead rope I got from a gaucho in Patagonia. I see Jordan and Natasha, my Icelandic ewes nibbling on the grass inside the goose pen, keeping their eyes on Lance and L.C., this year’s lambs. I see two elderly horses glad for the warm spring day, glad to have made it through another winter of thirty below zero, and whiteout blizzards, of sixty mile per hour winds, of short days and long frozen nights and coyotes made fearless by hunger. Deseo is twenty-seven and Roany’s over thirty, and one of the things that means is I have been here a very long time.
It’s hard for anybody to put their finger on the moment when life changes from being something that is nearly all in front of you to something that happened while your attention was elsewhere. I bought this ranch in 1993. I was thirty-one years old, and it seems to me now I knew practically nothing about anything. My first book, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” had just come out, and for the first time ever I had a little bit of money. It was twenty-one thousand dollars – more money than I had ever imagined having – and when my agent said, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots,” I took her advice as seriously as any I have ever received.
I had no job, no place to live except my North Face VE24 tent, (which was my preferred housing anyhow), nine tenths of a Ph.D., and all I knew about ownership was it was good if all of your belongings fit into the back of your vehicle, which in my case they did. A lemon yellow Toyota Corolla. Everything, including the dog.
I drove the whole American West that summer, giving readings in small mountain towns and looking for a place to call home. I started in San Francisco and headed north – Point Reyes, Tomales, Elk, Mendocino. I crossed into Oregon and looked at land in Ashland, Eugene and Corvallis. All I knew about real estate was you were supposed to put twenty percent down, which set my spending ceiling at exactly one hundred and five thousand dollars. I had no idea people often lied to real estate agents about their circumstances, and sometimes the agents lied back. I had twenty-one thousand dollars, a book that had been unexpectedly successful, no job and not three pages of a new book to rub together. I understand now that in a certain way, I was as free at that moment as I had ever been, and would ever be again. I came absolutely clean with everybody.
I checked out Bellingham, and all the little towns on the road to Mount Rainier, and then headed over the pass into the Eastern Cascades where I put a little earnest money down on a place in Winthrop, Washington. Forty-four acres on a gentle hill with an old apple orchard and a small cabin. I worked my way over to Sandpoint, Idaho, and Bozeman, Montana, sill looking, still unsure.
But when I drove through Colorado, a place I had ski-bummed between college and grad school, I remembered how much I’d loved it here. In those days I had lived in the Fraser Valley, at a commune of tarpaper shacks and converted school buses called Grandma Miller’s New Horizons. I lived for three winters in a sheepherder’s trailer named the African Queen. The twenty or so alternatives who lived at Grandma’s shared an outhouse, a composting toilet, and a bathhouse. From late December to early February it often got down to thirty-five below. I was working as a tourist bus driver by day and a dishwasher at Fred and Sophie’s steakhouse by night. I would collect every strip of steak fat the diners would leave behind on their plates in a giant white Tupperware next to my station. When I got off work, I would go home and feed all that steak fat to my dog Jackson. If I packed the little wood stove just right, it would burn for exactly two and a half hours. I would don my union suit, my snow pants, my down coat, hat and mittens, and get into my five below rated North Face sleeping bag. I would invite Jackson up on top of the pile that had me at the bottom of it, and he would metabolize steak fat all night, emitting not an insignificant number of BTU’s.
It was my writer friends, Robert Boswell and Antonya Nelson, who first told me about Creede. When you drive into town, the sign at the outskirts boasts 586 nice folks and 17 soreheads. It was, and still is, the kind of place where if you happen to be in town for a couple of days poking around, someone will invite you to a wedding. That September, the guy who owned the hardware store was getting ready to marry his longtime sweetheart, and instead of sending out invitations they just put an add in the weekly Creede Miner, so everybody would know to come by.
At the wedding, I met three women who owned their own businesses: Jenny who made jewelry out of silver and horsehair, Beth who sold flowers and plants, and Max who had opened a coffee shop and was making Creede residents their very first lattes.
“Creede people wouldn’t have even thought the word flowers until I showed up,” Beth told me, “But this town supports anyone who has a dream. Nobody goes to dinner without a handful of tulips anymore.”
The morning after the wedding, a real estate lady named Kathleen who I’d met in the buffet line showed me an empty lot of approximately five acres, and a couple of houses in town that had been built by silver miners using paper and string. She said, “I really ought to take you out to see the Blair Ranch,” and I said, “Sure,” and she said, “But, it wouldn’t be right, a single woman living out there all by herself,” and I said, “How far?” and she said “Twelve miles,” and I said, “Maybe I should see it,” and she said, “I’m afraid it’s out of your price range.”
For that I had no argument.
I was sitting in my car, studying the Rand McNally, contemplating the next potential future home…Lake City? Gunnison? Ridgeway? I was just that close to driving out of Creede forever, when a tall, rodeo-buckle-wearing cowboy named Dale Pizel knocked on the window. “I hear you want to see the Blair Ranch,” he said. I got out of my car. “This is Mark Richter,” he said, indicating his equally tall, handsome friend. “The property is his listing and he is going to take you out there right now.”
If you can’t fall in love with the San Juan Mountains during the third week of September, you can’t fall in love. The mountainsides are covered with the world’s largest aspen forests, and they are changing in vast undulating swathes: yellow, golden, orange, vermillion. The sky is a headstrong break-your-heart-blue, the air is so clear you can see a hundred miles on a straight horizon, and the river is cold and crisp and possibly even clearer than the air. The coyotes sing, all night sometimes, and the elk bugle in the misty dawn along the river.
And there was the Blair Ranch, with the best view of it all I had ever seen. One hundred and twenty acres of high mountain meadow in the middle of the larger Antelope Park: 9,000 feet above sea level, with the Upper Rio Grande cutting serpentine turns through the center of it, surrounded on three sides by the 12,000 foot peaks of the Continental Divide, the lower slopes carpeted in Engelmann and blue spruce, Douglas Fir, bristlecone pine and aspen. The house was a simple two bedroom log structure that, rather than being ostentatious, seemed to apologize for itself in the middle of all that beauty. It hunkered down behind a little hill, just enough to miss the worst of the wind and weather. At the top of the hill, Mark told me, the homesteaders, who were called the Pinckleys, were buried in shallow graves. Old Man Pinckley’s tiny cabin was still standing behind a weathered fence, along with some outhouses and a pen where he had bred Canadian geese. But the real prize was the barn – raised by Pinckley himself in 1920, and built from hand-hewn spruce logs, silhouetted against Red Mountain to the south, and leaning now, just slightly, to the west.
I had no way to imagine, in the first moment of seeing it, that the view out the kitchen window – of the barn and the corral and the Divide behind it – would become the backdrop for the rest of my life.
That I would take thousands of photographs of that exact view, in every kind of light, in every kind of weather. That I would write five more books (and counting) sitting at the kitchen table (never at my desk), looking, intermittently, out at the barn. That it would become the solace, for decades, for whatever ailed me, and that whenever it was threatened – and it would be threatened, by fire, flood, cell phone tower installation, greedy housesitters and careless drunks – I would fight for it as though I had cut down the trees and stripped the logs myself.
The price tag was just shy of four hundred thousand dollars. I told Mark the same things I had told every real estate agent from Mendocino to Casper. My $21,000, in terms of the Blair Ranch, would represent just over five percent down.
Mark rubbed the back of his hand against his chin for a minute and said, “I believe (owner) Dona Blair is going to like the idea of you. Dale knows her pretty well and between the two of us….why don’t you give me your five percent down and a signed copy of your book and I will see what I can do.” He snapped a picture of me sitting on the split rail fence like a girl who already owned the place.
Excerpted from “Deep Creek” by Pam Houston. Copyright 2019 by Pam Houston. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Pam Houston’s Top 10
Pam Houston teaches English at the University of California, Davis, and has just published “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.”
She also is the author of five previous books including “Cowboys are My Weakness,” which gained widespread attention for her portrayal of adventurous women in a rugged American landscape.
In advance of Houston’s Feb. 12 visit to Spokane, we asked about her reading list, interests and guilty pleasures.
1. What are you reading: I just read Lucia Berlin’s collection “A Manual for Cleaning Women” and it is great. Before that, “The Great Believers,” which was my favorite book of the year. I am about to read “An American Marriage.” (I’m a little behind.)
2. Watching: You mean on TV? Nothing. I don’t ever have time for TV. I watch the snow fall when it does. I watch the mountain.
3. Listening to: A band called Indigifemme out of Santa Fe, and the songs of Don Richmond, another local, out of the San Luis Valley. Always, Wilco. Lately been listening to Idina Menzel signing “Gravity” in the car on repeat and crying.
4. Working on: Not really anything at the moment except getting my book into the world and trying to keep up with my students’ work while I am on the road. But I’m going to write some short stories after this. Short stories are my first and last love.
5. Planning: A trip to Iceland, which is a retirement present for my new husband, Mike Blakeman, who will retire at the end of February after 40 years with the U.S. Forest Service.
6. Inspired by: My students, especially the ones at the Institute of American Indian Arts, but really by all of my students, and by the young people, the Parkland kids and others, the young people who are trying to save the country.
7. Imagining: A Supreme Court with more women than men on it. Ditto, Senate. A country where we all got to participate fully in its making.
8. Challenged by: Staying optimistic in the face of all the cruelty in our country right now. My need and my determination to hang on to hope.
9. Guilty pleasure: I need more. I need one. I am all work all the time right now. High quality espresso, I guess. I wish there were more. I brought a whole box of these amazing dark chocolate covered alfajores from Argentina. They were an amazing guilty pleasure. I wish I had another box.
10: Craziest thing you did to get a story: I don’t even know what variety of crazy to begin with, because doing crazy things has been the story of my life. I guess buying a 120-acre ranch for 5 percent down.
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