About twenty-five years ago, I remember picking up a short story collection called Cowboys are my Weakness and falling in love with Pam Houston’s writing. Though the characters and contexts she wrote about were far different from the world I was navigating in the Twin Cities post-college, I still felt a strong connection to the stories and emotions they created.
Flash forward several decades and I’m listening to Pam Houston read aloud the piece, “The Season of Hunkering Down” from her newest book, Deep Creek – Finding Hope in the High Country in a hip bookstore in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago and trying not to cry openly in a room full of strangers (though when I turned to the left, I noticed my sister was doing the same thing.) In that piece, Houston combines a discussion of getting her Colorado ranch ready to face the challenges of winter with stories of her relationship with her mother, who dreaded and drank her way through the winter months. Here is the part, right near the end, that got me:
There were so many things that made my mother sad: the weather, my wardrobe, the choices she made, most notably, it turned out, having me. I want to write here that I understand, that I know she did her best, that there was no one in her early life to teach her how to love, how to take responsibility, how to be something other than a victim of the circumstances life had dealt her. And as I write these words I can see that they are true. But the other thing I need to say is this:
For all of my childhood and throughout my teens, I prayed to have myself sucked right back up into the aether, because I thought it might give my mother back her hopes and dreams and joy. But the universe wouldn’t make that trade with me, so my mother died, drunk and unhappy, and I found my way to this ranch, this place where I protect and am protected by animals, this place where nature controls how I spend my days and how I spend my life, this place where I can love every season.
In running from parents who did the opposite of parent, Houston finds a better relationship with the outdoors and nature and this memoir, along with some of her earlier work, has explored that process. This book combines stories of Houston’s experience with buying, maintaining and finding joy (and heartbreak) on a remote ranch in Eastern Colorado with other aspects/moments of Houston’s life—showing the way these things are all interconnected.
The story of how Houston ended up with the ranch is worth the price of admission. She drove west with a check for $21,000 in her pocket from the publication of Cowboys are my Weakness and an interest in buying some land. She ended up in Creede, Colorado and after meeting a real estate agent (in the buffet line at a wedding) was taken up to the Blair ranch—a place the agent described as both not quite right for a single woman (12 miles outside of town) and not in Houston’s price range. Still, Houston was intrigued and the listing agent who showed her the property, Mark, did not seem fazed by Houston’s financial limitations. He said, “I believe Donna Blair is going to like the idea of you,” and he was right—Houston ended up getting the ranch for 5% down (that $21,000 check), and a signed copy of Cowboys are My Weakness (as well as Donna Blair being willing to hold the mortgage because no bank would.)
There are moments in this memoir that made me cry (the essay entitled “Kindness” is one) but most made me think and look around my own little patch of land (in suburban Illinois) with new and appreciative eyes. Though Houston (like any sane human being) is worried about the environment, she also is comforted by the fact that though we may kill ourselves off in the next 100-200 years, the Earth itself is made of hardier stuff and will keep going. In the meantime, she is going to fight for it, write about it, and love it.