Novelist and essayist Pam Houston describes her years living on and maintaining a 120-acre Colorado ranch site in her new book, “Deep Creek.” Part memoir, part elegy to her observations on the destruction of the earth, and part almanac documenting the changing of the seasons, “Deep Creek” is a deeply personal reflection on the author’s search for peace, both within herself and with her surroundings.
Houston describes her early years as an only child in a Pennsylvania home with a brutal, abusive father and an emotionally distant, alcoholic mother. She escaped as soon as she could, first to a small liberal arts college in Ohio, then to the University of Utah for a graduate program. When she reached the American West, she “never looked back.”
In the years before publication of her first book of short stories, “Cowboys Are my Weakness,” Houston supported herself with a series of outdoor occupations, including guiding river rafters through the most challenging of rapids. All of these occupations were physically risky.
Her life changed when she received an advance—“more money than I had ever imagined having”—for her book. With that money she was able to make a down payment on the ranch site in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, a locale that measures winter snowfall in feet, not inches, and where winter temperatures can drop to double digits below zero. From her kitchen window she can look out on “a horseshoe of snow-covered peaks, all of them higher than 12,000 feet above sea level.”
Her descriptions of her land and the challenges she must overcome to maintain it, and protect the lives of her animals, paint a vivid portrait of the stark beauty of the high country. The parallel narrative of her conflicted relationship with her parents and the unexpected trauma of her mother’s death tell an equally wrenching story of her attempts to reconcile her clashing memories of their time together.
“Deep Creek” is not a smoothly flowing narrative, nor should it be read as such. Houston tells us that the book took her five years to write, primarily because it was written entirely at the ranch, where she spends only half the year. Most readers will appreciate “Deep Creek” better if taken in smaller bites, recognizing that some of the essays (“Diary of a Fire” being the best example) are substantial mouthfuls indeed.
With that in mind, readers will be able to judge for themselves whether Houston’s objective, stated in the book’s subtitle, “Finding Hope in the High Country,” is a goal she has been able to achieve.