Reading the Northwest: Pam Houston saved the ranch, and it saved her in return
Sat., Jan. 19, 2019
When Pam Houston was 31, fresh off the success of her first book, “Cowboys are my Weakness,” she drove across the American West, giving readings, living out of her car “and looking for a place to call home.”
She drove north from San Francisco, all the way to Bellingham, before heading east across Washington, Idaho and Montana. She seriously considered a 44-acre plot in Winthrop, Washington, before finally settling on a rugged 120-acre Colorado ranch near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which she bought for 5 percent down plus a signed copy of her book.
The story of how she learned to take care of the ranch – and how the ranch took care of her – forms the basis of Houston’s new book “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.” The book is an elegy to the disappearing wild places on Earth, including her pocket of paradise, where cellphone towers are banned, developers are persona non grata and the pantry is always stocked against the next three-day snowstorm.
Houston, will share her story in Spokane when the Northwest Passages Book Club gathers on March 26.
Houston says she set down roots almost impulsively after a traumatic childhood followed by years of thrill-seeking – from whitewater rafting and backcountry skiing to guiding big-game hunters deep into the Alaskan wilderness. Buying the $400,000 ranch with her $21,000 in book royalties was another adrenaline rush, and Houston was fairly sure she would eventually default on the note and lose the property.
“I don’t think it was exactly a thought-through moment of wisdom and clarity,” she said in an interview. “I just fell instantly in love with it when I saw it, and some part of me that I previously had no access to reared up and said: You could make a home here.”
Houston grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania but made her way west after college and never looked back. She spent time in Colorado and Utah as well as Alaska, often in wilderness settings that form the background for her highly autobiographical fiction – she now calls it “autofiction.” And it’s not just any part of the West that draws her in – it’s the “high and dry” country east of the Pacific range.
Asked to explain the attraction, Houston can veer into the mystical, describing her physical reaction to the rugged landscape of jagged peaks and open valleys.
“The same thing happened the first time I went to the Himalayas,” she said. “Is that past-life stuff? Was I a Buddhist monk on a mountain in Tibet? I mean, who knows? But I have a natural reaction to that set of circumstances.”
That attraction to high desert country is probably why she put down earnest money on the spread in Winthrop as she was driving up the coast so long ago. “It was the first place where there weren’t so many trees,” she said, laughing. “It was the first place on my trek that I got out of that coastal climate and back into the high, dry mountain basin-and-range climate.”
Houston’s essays glow with love and humor as she describes her life with horses, wolfhounds, sheep, two mini-donkeys and a cat, Mr. Kitty. “I don’t ever underestimate the importance of animals in my life,” she said. “Because of the way I was raised, because of the trouble in my household, I trust animals automatically in a way that I don’t ever trust people right off the bat. … For me, so many of my lessons have come not just from my dogs and my horses, who I’m super emotionally close to, but also from the sheep and the chickens. There’s something to be learned even from the animals who aren’t cuddly.”
Houston writes movingly about her love for the land and this “dying planet,” rejecting the ironic eye-rolls and “hollow chuckles” she sometimes gets from colleagues at the University of California, Davis, where she lives half the year teaching English.
“One of the things living in the West – what I’ll call the real West – has done for me is made me see it’s OK to be sincere,” she said. “It’s OK to be earnest. It’s OK to have gratitude and compassion.” When she’s not tramping across her meadows at 9,000 feet, Houston teaches at the university and at fabulous-sounding writing conferences in Santa Fe, Mallorca and Big Sur. But sometimes, she says, the academic life makes her want to just “go back to my ranch and praise the grasses.”
“Deep Creek” is a love story that tells how Houston found salvation through the hard work of maintaining the ranch and the joy of hiking through the aspen and spruce forests that cover the mountainsides around her pasture. (Or did, until a massive wildfire tore through the area in 2013, sparing her home but blackening more than 110,000 acres.)
As readers of Houston’s fiction and nonfiction know, her relationship with men has often been complicated, to say the least. Buying the ranch helped steady her, she says. After years of chasing “nasty cowboys,” Houston realized “I could make my own life … . I could have my own ranch. I finally realized I could be the cowboy.”
Along the way she found love with her new husband, Mike Blakeman, a Forest Service worker who she calls “even more dedicated to the Upper Rio Grande Valley than I am.
“I’m letting myself be loved by a man in a way I haven’t ever, and it’s terrific,” she says. “I’m just really happy.”
Martin Wolk is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and msnbc.com, among other publications. He writes The Spokesman-Review’s monthly “Reading the Northwest column.”
Pam Houston at a glance
Born in: Trenton, N.J., 1962 (age 57)
Lives in: Creede, Colorado
Background: Grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a stage actress and businessman. Houston describes surviving serious abuse as well as 16 major auto accidents by the time she was 16. Moved west after college and worked at a variety of jobs including river runner, hunting guide and horse trainer.
Academics: B.A. with honors, Dennison University. Currently teaches as a professor of English at University of California, Davis, and at writing workshops across the country.
Breakthrough book: “Cowboys are My Weakness” (1992), a collection of short stories, was named a New York Times Notable Book, won the Western States Book Award and gained widespread attention for her portrayal of adventurous women in a rugged American landscape.
Latest book: “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country” (2019), personal essays largely focused on her relationship to the Colorado high-country ranch she bought in 1993. It is her second book of nonfiction and sixth book overall.
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