Two decades ago, the chair of the University of Utah English department shuffled a few papers on his desk. Pam Houston stood there, needing only a perfunctory signature for a tuition waiver. The problem was that the man didn’t particularly care for creative writing. “I can’t sign this today,” he said. Distraught and humiliated, Houston pictured the several-hour drive back to her cabin. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Instead, the young writer walked out, never to return. With a $21,000 advance for her first book, the near-classic collection of short stories “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” Houston did something far more interesting: She bought a ranch in Colorado. It’s this brave — and slightly bonkers — decision that informs every page of “Deep Creek,” her beautiful and inspiring new book about writing and life in the American West.
Growing up in New Jersey, a young Houston struggled to deal with a mother who regularly told the girl she’d ruined her life. “I gave up everything I loved for you,” she told Houston almost daily. Among other things, such as derailing her acting career and requiring occasional meals and hugs, Houston annoys her mother by lacking interest in makeup and pencil skirts. “Even the Mona Lisa,” the mortified daughter is told, “would not look good with hair parted in the middle.” Houston’s dad was worse, taking out his anger about being a father on his daughter’s body, using whatever tools were at his disposal. He broke her femur and raped her. Houston tallies up the times he drove drunk with the women inside and decides he totaled the family car nearly a dozen times.
I might be standing in front of a room full of students for whom the words ‘elk’ or ‘granite’ or ‘bristlecone pine’ conjured exactly nothing.
It would be misleading to call Houston a survivor. Seeking to flee those parents and to prove she could choose her own dangers, she went to work in her 20s as a rafting guide, then a sheep-hunting guide in Alaska, and eventually on a sailboat that once cruised through a hurricane. It all might have given way to an easier life. After all, that first book establishes Houston as a significant new writer, earning book contracts, a spot on the faculty at UC Davis, and invitations to literary conferences and workshops.
But every free chance she has, Houston returns to the fateful decision to buy that ranch, up at 9,000 feet right beside the Colorado mountain town of Creed, a place that “was, and still is, the kind of place where if you happen to be in town for a couple days poking around, someone will invite you to a wedding.” There she develops a way of life that isn’t at all routine and yet somehow becomes one. The people of Creed embrace Houston, sensing in her dedication to paying the mortgage on that ranch by herself, with her writing, as a kind of work equally as difficult and admirable as any mining or raising cattle.
Maintaining the place, she explains, involves tasks that “fell into two categories: Things I didn’t know how to do, and things I didn’t even know I didn’t know how to do yet.” She perseveres, stacking the hay bales, stoking the furnace and waiting for spring. Meaty narrative stretches unspool the intricacies of keeping horse troughs full when the winds are below 35 degrees, how to gracefully kill an old dog, what it’s like to have a forest fire headed your way, and what to do when an elk calf nearly rips off your leg on a barbed-wire fence. But some of the most delightful portions are the italicized interludes between these meatier chapters, when Houston allows her writing to reach for a more poetic register. One little sketch concerns a new puppy, rejected by a senior dog. “You don’t like me,” she seemed to say. “Then teach me how to be a dog you will like better.”
Houston, as generous a teacher and friend as she surely must be, seems particularly attuned to animals. A dry eye will be rare, in particular, when she documents the final days of a beloved wolfhound. Consoling Houston, a friend tells her about holding her own dying animal: “Maybe next time,” she says, “I’ll be the dog.”
Ranch life can be brutal, tough, relentless and imperfect. Few will ever come in such close contact with what can go wrong outdoors. “Last semester,” Houston writes, “when I asked my class, as I do each quarter, how many of them had ever spent a night sleeping in the wilderness the answer was zero, and I realized for the first time in my teaching life that I might be standing in front of a room full of students for whom the words ‘elk’ or ‘granite’ or ‘bristlecone pine’ conjured exactly nothing.”
Even so, good writing can make you envious, no matter how foreign the terrain. Other times, you read a good memoir and find yourself wanting to track down the author and become friends. A third kind of book is so insightful and evocative, you shelve it beside other favorite and instructive titles. “Deep Creek” might just do all three.
Houston estimates how many times her life has been saved by the trust and kindness of strangers, and she decides it’s 46. Two decades in, the Colorado mountains have done something entirely better; they’ve made her comfortable with the most important stranger of all: a happy and stronger version of herself. At last, she writes: “I finally realized I could be the cowboy.”
W.W. Norton; 303 pp., $25.95
Nathan Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”