Growing Home

In her latest book, ‘Deep Creek,’ Pam Houston gets real about how her ranch raised her to be the kind of woman her parents never could

The ram in Pam Houston's herd of Icelandic sheep has been breaking everything it can reach. Isolating him from other sheep would just make it worse, but left in the barnyard with the rest of the herd, he's brutalizing the outbuildings. Homesteaders built the barn in the 1920s, and it had acquired an endearing tilt by the time Houston bought the ranch 25 years ago, charmed by the view of it in front of a corral and the Continental Divide.

"I think it was Christmas Day when he broke the hell out of the barn, and I just thought, 'I just want to go live, like maybe in Kaua'i, maybe in a duplex, with a whatever they're called—a homeowner's association who comes and takes the dead leaves away. All I want is to live somewhere where nothing breaks and nothing dies,'" she tells SFR. "But then I don't."

Instead, she bought $600 worth of steel so he could ram that instead.

Ask her why she stays, and her eyes close. She faintly smiles, talking about that last corner toward home. There, the view opens into a horseshoe-shaped valley near the headwaters of the Rio Grande that holds her 120 acres, two-bedroom house, and century-old barn, all positioned before a backdrop of burn-scarred peaks.

It was on that last stretch where it occurred to her what her next book should be. Houston has made a career writing and teaching, and bought the ranch when she sold her first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, a thinly veiled autobiographical romp through the stories of a young woman adventurous to the point of near self-destruction. After her last novel, Contents May Have Shifted, was published in 2012, her editor called to talk about what she'd like to work on next, inviting Houston to imagine "a book-length adventure."

"I think she meant dogsled to the North Pole or sailboat around Turkey, because that's what I'm always up for," Houston says. "So I thought about that, and I thought of several adventures—things that I could do that would take a year—that sounded like fun."

She was driving home from the University of California at Davis, where she teaches for 10-week sessions twice a year.

"As I got closer to the ranch I thought, 'Well shit, that's my big adventure,'" she says. "That was the most unexpected thing I've ever done and will ever do. So I wrote a proposal and I was like, 'If we're going to talk about a book-length adventure, this is my book-length adventure.'"

Her latest book, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, a first work of nonfiction from her, tells that story. It opens with how she hunted down the ranch and took on a mortgage four times more than she'd budgeted, hustling for years to write and teach enough to make the payments. "Ranch almanac" interludes describe her tasks keeping the place together and wrangling its various animals and seasons, unfolding the lessons in each animal death or heavy snow. Intertwined are the pieces of the abusive childhood that led her to seek out a sanctuary. Eventually, that place taught her what her parents didn't: how to love and be loved.

It's a story of change—how the ranch, along with the rest of the planet, has changed, and how it has changed her.

"It's way more important than I even thought when I started writing, and way more formative of me as a person, in my 25 years of trying to learn how to care for it," she says. "Seeing myself as a person who can dedicate myself to something like that really changed me. And at the time, it seemed like I was just trying to pay the mortgage. It seemed like I was just trying to mitigate disaster."

Buying something other than boots

When she sold Cowboys Are My Weakness—now a classic among the kind of women who drive Subarus and live with bandanna'd dogs, as she jokes—for $21,000, her agent advised: "Don't spend it all on hiking boots."

"I didn't have a lot of real parenting, so when someone said something to me like that, I tended to take it very seriously," she says. "I was like, 'OK, I've got to do something with this, because this might be the only money I'll ever get.'"

For months, she drove around the West, considering homesteads in California and apple orchard-adjacent properties in Washington, before returning to Colorado.

"I had come out West as a young person, fallen in love with the West, as many people from the East do, and loved the natural beauty of it," she says, "Why that translated in that moment to, 'I have to use this $21,000 to find a piece of land that I will live on forever,' I can't even be sure."

She'd looked at a lot of properties—beautiful pieces of land where her down payment would have been reasonable—but nothing stuck. When the road finally brought her to Creede, a town with a couple hundred residents in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, locals showed her a 120-acre ranch that was for sale. She hopped up on the split rail fence, her would-be realtor snapped a photo to better make the case to the seller, and she knew this was the place.

"I want to apologize for the sort of hubris of this," she says, but "I would say the ranch called me to it, and I was momentarily awake enough to recognize that call."

It was four times what she'd budgeted—and a massive shift for a graduate student who'd been living on $4,500 a year out of her car and a North Face tent. Still, she put her 5 percent down and made monthly payments to the previous owner, who carried the note for her because, as she writes, any bank would have laughed her out its doors had she sought a loan.

"Buying the ranch in the moment—and it's a long time ago now, but—it felt like this crazy, risky, adrenaline rush-y thing to do," she says. "It did not feel like, 'Oh I'm putting down roots' or 'I'm using the money wisely.' It felt like an insane thing to do."

In some ways, saddling herself with 20 years of outrageous monthly payments would often feel like nearly flipping a boat over into the teeth of a strainer. It was in line with the Class V rapids she'd run or the summers she'd spent in the Alaskan bush, guiding Dall sheep hunts.

"In a certain way maybe I was just courting disaster, which I did a lot of in those years," she says. "But it was good for me. It was good for me to work hard. … I learned I could write almost anything if someone would pay me money for it—I mean, no right-wing propaganda or anything, but yeah."

When Outside published an essay now in Deep Creek, a fact-checker steered her toward sorting out a pivotal autobiographical detail: She was homestead-shopping right after her mother died, severing her ties to the East. Any sense of home there was gone, and it was time to make her own.

Her mother was, at best, disengaged and disinterested—drinking to distraction and routinely blaming her daughter for the life she forfeited by having a child. Yet Houston writes that perhaps her mother's greatest act of negligence was failing to intervene as Houston's father began sexually abusing her around age 7. While she's written around that abuse for most of her career, she says, a veneer of fiction camouflaged it. In Deep Creek, she finally lays it bare.

What the ranch has hammered in, one fight to keep it and keep it running after another, are lessons that have recolored those childhood scars.

A home away

Sit through the public readings for the Institute for American Indian Arts low residency creative writing MFA, and it's easy to feel the lure of this community. Writers exchange thoughtful and admiring introductions, and then read prose clearly informed with deep thinking and attention to the craft—taking, as one says, "a tiny wrench" to drafts they think are final, giving every sentence one last tightening.

Houston self-deprecates about how she joined the faculty at IAIA four years ago. Then-MFA director Jon Davis invited her to read because she lived just 200 miles upriver and could drive down the same day another writer canceled. She scrambled to arrive on time, and found herself in the bathroom without a hairbrush, asking to borrow one from other women. One woman after another announced having long ago ceased using one.

"I was like, 'Oh, my friends!'" she says. She related that sense of being among like-minded people while speaking that night, and Davis asked if she'd like to teach there.

"It was just too much of an opportunity for my own education about my country and all of that to be able to come here and work with these voices; it just was way too appealing to turn down," she says, seated on a couch near the auditorium after an evening reading. She looks ranch-ready in her snow boots and beige Carhartts, with a thin puffy jacket and tasseled hat her only buffer against the cold outside.

Between teaching at IAIA and the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Santa Fe has become her city, supplanting Denver as the place she goes for sushi, a Whole Foods, an arthouse movie theater and a good massage. She tallies 100,000 flight miles a year, traveling for teaching gigs and writing assignments, but the miles she logs on her car, driving to Santa Fe three times in four weeks this winter, and to and from UC Davis twice a year, must stack up to a good fraction of that total.

To handle owning a ranch when earning a living necessitates she often be away from home, she uses the recently restored ranch homesteaders' cabin, also her writing studio, as the host site for an informal writing residency. Young writers stay for six to 12 months, committing roughly two hours a day—barring catastrophes—to basic chores in exchange for a quiet place to live and write.

"I pay their expenses, and they finish their books, and I teach them about the animals and we live together—and it's wonderful," she says. "The ranch is a beautiful, powerful place that, in my opinion, really encourages creativity. And I knew from the second I got it, I wasn't meant to have it all to myself. It feels right to me to share the space with young writers, especially young women writers, and to let it influence others the way it has influenced me."

To some extent, she says, teaching at IAIA and working with students who often address rough family histories in their work inspired her to finally unpack her own childhood in print; their courage led her to be courageous in telling her story. In Deep Creek, she describes memories that were tough to talk to close friends about, even those like Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild about her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and reckoning with her mother's death. That book, Houston says, in some ways gave permission for Deep Creek. The two had joked Houston's book could be titled Tame. (Strayed's cover comment applauds the "beauty, wisdom and truth" in Deep Creek, declaring, "This is a book for all of us, right now.")

Writing about her personal history, Houston says, is always easier than talking about it: "I don't think about the fact that I'm telling everyone. I think about the fact that I'm making an essay—though I am telling everyone."

That shifted as she read the book out loud for Audible's audio version, saying into a microphone the very things she'd found it impossible to say to her friends. Then, her first interview on the book consisted of an hour of questions about the abuse. This time, she's also shed the label of "fiction," and that seems to have brought the conversation closer to home, though her material has long sourced from her life and in Contents May Have Shifted, she went so far as to call the narrator "Pam."

"I always used to say, 'So far, they haven't made a rule against fiction that is autobiographical. You don't have to make it nonfiction just because it really happened,'" she says. "I'd felt comfortable blurring those waters because I believe they're blurry. Because of the nature of memory and the nature of language, I don't believe that words on the page can represent lived experience wholly or totally or completely accurately."

But in a world of "alternative facts" in which people declare "there is no truth," that comfort ended.

"I don't say that anymore," she says. "I've come to understand the consequences of that kind of thinking, and in Deep Creek, I did my level best to represent reality."

That approach challenged her as a writer. In fiction, if she got stuck, she'd make something up or move locations, reinvigorating the story through a change in scenery. This time, she stayed to the truth, without exaggeration or repression. She also tried to keep the narrative on the ranch itself as much as possible and write deeply into that one piece of land.

Living with the damage

Digging into the landscape with her writing illuminated both how she saw the place as a figure in her life, and how the place itself is changing. The quarter of a century she's spent there is longer than she's done anything else in her life, she says, except write and love dogs. In that time, she's seen winters soften from routinely plummeting to 35 or 40 degrees below zero. This year, it's not yet hit 20 below. The snow is less deep. The beetle-killed trees more common. Last year, for the first time, her pasture didn't come in and she had to buy hay in the summer to feed her horses and sheep.

"It used to be if it hit 80, people would walk around talking about the end of the world, and now we probably have 30 or 35 days that are above 80," she says.

With rising temperatures and drier winters have come more wildfires, and in 2013, just as she was making her last payment, Houston thought she might lose it all as the West Fork and Papoose fires encircled her property. She'd driven through black clouds of smoke to get home ahead of road closures, had her horses hauled to Gunnison to graze under cleaner skies, and for weeks, tore her attention between the workshops she was teaching and monitoring every fire update posted online as the flames crept closer to her house.

What the fires taught, she said, is the lesson we all face with climate change: how to love the Earth despite how much we've damaged it.

"During the fire, I looked out and thought, 'How am I going to live in this scar for the rest of my life?'" she says. "But in fact, it's quite wonderful, because it changes every week, every month, every summer. There's new trees. There's new growth. The streams change their course."

In the five years since, aspens have regrown over the mountains outside her windows. In the fall, their leaves turn riotous colors, a stunning contrast amid the blackened skeletons of spruce trees left from the fire.

"It's probably taken me three-quarters of my life to really believe that I'm deserving of love because of the damage that I sustained as a kid, but I do believe it now," she says, "and there's a real relationship between that and my commitment to continue to love the Earth, even in its diminished beauty, and even if it's too late."

Writing Deep Creek felt like making an urgent case, as that Earth has seen increasing attacks from the presidential administration, she says. It was time to write something to honor the natural world that stepped in to raise her in her own parents' absence.

"For all its frustrations, and for all the things I don't know, and for all the ways I'm a terrible steward of the land, it has given me an identity in a way that nothing in my upbringing did," she says. "It takes care of me, I take care of it, and maybe that's an ideal sort of parent-child relationship."

As that identity has shifted, it has made space for her to make commitments she'd once avoided. She got married last year—to a man who loves that valley as much as she does and has lived in it for 40 years, she jokes, "so now I'll never get out."

She looks back on the woman who wrote the book that helped pay for the ranch with what the ranch has taught her. Now, she's got a few things to say to that person, 25 years later.

"I think of [Deep Creek] kind of as a talkback to Cowboys Are My Weakness—that girl was so clueless who wrote that book. I have great affection for her, but she wanted to blame everything on everyone else," she says. "If I were saying, 'Who do I hope will feel this book?', it's young women who think they have to give their power away, as I did as a young woman."

What the ranch's kind of mothering has instilled, as it mandates daily tending and constant defense from small disasters, is her own capacity. She doesn't need to chase cowboys. She can be the cowboy herself.

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