Kim Steutermann Rogers | Longreads | January 2019 | 14 minutes (3,849 words)
As is typical with Pam Houston‘s books, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country is hard to define. Memoir? Collection of essays? Autofiction? But one thing clearly stands out: Deep Creek is an ode to Houston’s ranch, all of its 120 acres perched at 9,000 feet above sea level, seated in a horseshoe of mountain peaks near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and five long hours from the nearest airport in Denver, Colorado.
You wouldn’t think having to post-hole through the snow to reach her barn, double-digit below-zero temperatures for weeks on end, droughts, and forest fires would result in the kind of poetic love that Houston has for a plot of land on which few people would last for even a single winter. But maybe it’s those very challenges that rooted Houston to the place and taught her how to keep loving in the face of adversity — an echo of a lesson she first encountered in childhood but didn’t quite understand then. Of course, not all days on the ranch are filled with sick sheep, broken fence lines, and frozen water pipes; just as not every moment of her childhood was taken over by drunks who physically and emotionally abused her.
When Houston published her best-selling debut collection of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, in 1992, she was asked over and over again, “How much of this really happened to you?” Now, for the first time, in Deep Creek, Houston comes clean. She shares intimate moments of her personal life, those same moments that many of her characters encounter in her short stories — the kind of experiences that shaped Houston into the woman she is today. She writes about her fraught relationship with her mother, the other women who stepped in and mothered her in her mom’s stead, and, of course, as we would expect from Houston, she writes about her relationship with the natural world and her concerns for our environment in the face of climate change.
But this is Houston, after all, who is “…happiest with one plane ticket in my hand and another in my underwear drawer.” So, Deep Creek isn’t solely a meditative look at ranch life and long descriptive passages of the sound of horses chomping on hay. “I love the ranch differently than someone who goes to bed and wakes up 365 times a year here, someone who was born and raised here, someone whose most regular routine does not involve TSA security and running for connecting flights,” she writes early on in Deep Creek. “You have to be a certain age, I think, to understand longing as scarcely distinguishable from pleasure, and my love affair with the ranch is defined by a thousand leavings and a thousand returns.”