A Celebrated Colorado Author Comes Home: Pam Houston
By Alesha Damerville
By Jennie Lay
Falling under the Colorado spell is an adventure that most Steamboat “locals” (i.e., all us transplants who’ve flocked here for decades) can relate to. Prize-winning author Pam Houston is no stranger to that sensation.
She found her way to the Mile-High state as a carefree ski bum after college. Then she meandered back after grad school with just enough cash from her widely adored story collection, “Cowboys Are My Weakness,” and put a down payment on her own slice of paradise. The rest is history. It is her story—the tale of a ranch and a full life on that land, which Houston shares with signature warmth and humor in her new memoir, “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country.”
Houston returns to Steamboat Springs to talk about her book in July. In anticipation of her visit, she shared some insight about “Deep Creek” with Steamboat Magazine this spring.
Steamboat Magazine: I must ask what every Colorado mountain person probably thinks when they read your new book: What made you buy that land, and do you realize how lucky you were to snag 120 acres of paradise in 1992?
Pam Houston: I bought the ranch because I fell in love with at first sight and because Dona Blair agreed to sell it to me for five percent down (which was all I had) and she agreed to carry the note herself because I had no job, and was living in my car and my North Face VE 24 tent. Maybe the improbability of her faith in me (a total stranger) startled me into saying yes, but it feels like to have turned around and said no to that tremendous vote of confidence and act of generosity would have identified me as a person I don’t wish to be. I don’t feel like I exactly “snagged” it. Five percent down meant I worked my butt off for 20 years to be able to call it mine, but I take your point.
SM: Does its modern-day rarity make you love it, maybe even cling to it, even more in 2019?
PH: It is a unique piece of land in Colorado, big enough to feel like you have something but not so big it needs to be owned by a corporation. I certainly feel lucky to be able to live there.
SM: What inspired you to write this memoir?
PH: My editor at my longtime publisher, W.W. Norton, asked me to think about a book length adventure I wanted to go on. They wanted a nonfiction book from me and because they had let me pretty much do anything I wanted all these years, book wise, I was happy to oblige. I made a list of adventures I might want to go on. Sail the coast of Turkey. Mush dogs to a pole. Then I was driving back to the ranch after 10 weeks teaching in Davis. The dogs were in the car and we had just gotten over to the leashless side of the Sierra and we were all so excited about getting home and it hit me. I was in the middle of my book length adventure already. And that adventure was the ranch.
SM: Where do you do your best writing—at the ranch, or elsewhere?
PH: I can write well, or poorly, anywhere. I am especially productive in airports after a plane has been cancelled, because there is no temptation to go for a hike. After many years of leaving the homesteader’s cabin that sits on my property alone, because I didn’t want to disturb his ghost, I fixed it up three years ago and turned it into a writing studio, because to not have done that would have meant it would collapse. I feel pretty certain Bob was involved in the writing of this book. I wrote most of the final drafts in his cabin. I am pretty sure he helped me get through a few road blocks.
SM: This book is deeply confessional, of your personal life and your personal space. How has writing the book, sharing so much, affected you?
PH: Well, writing about my personal life and my personal spaces is kind of what I do, even when I call it fiction. So, I don’t think writing it affected me more than any of the other books. But it is my most plain spoken, most sort of, here I am, take me or leave mebook of all. And the fact that people really seem to like it has had a big effect on me. Kind of like, I used to think you liked me for how fast I could tap dance, and now it seems like you like me just for who I am. I’m still on tour, so I haven’t really figured it out yet, but when it is all over, I think it will be a nudge toward self-acceptance of a new kind.
SM: You write about how a lot of people, men and women alike, fell in love with you after reading “Cowboys Are My Weakness.” But what’s your true love like? Congratulations, as I hear you got married…and I’m curious what it felt like for you to cross into another kind of commitment. Is it like loving your ranch—something more or less?
PH: I think it makes perfect sense that my 25-year commitment to the ranch taught me a lot of the things I needed to know in order to believe I could make a similar commitment to a person. I don’t think there is any question about that. The ranch taught me what it means to show up. Mike is a little like the ranch in how grounding and grounded he is, in how he is always there, pulsing a kind of low-level love energy and I can soak it up if I need it, if I am tuned in and paying proper attention. Also, like the ranch, I am not going to get enough time with Mike even if we live to be 100. So, I am smart enough to appreciate it every day.
SM: Inquiring Steamboat readers want to know—what makes a good caretaker at the ranch?
PH: The most important thing is to be willing to look into my dogs’ eyes and know whether or not they are happy and report that to me. That is number one. And I guess I could extend that to loving animals in general. The next thing is that you have to be happy on your own for sometimes extended periods in a houseful of books (and animals.) Everything else is negotiable.
SM: Tell me about the craft of this book. Did it erupt out of intermittent journal entries that emerged as essays, then a book. Or was there a long, devoted writing immersion to get to the book?
PH: Both. Like all books. Certain bits of it were published as essays, and everything I write is made of up bits and pieces, glimmers I take from the physical world. So, everything starts as hunks of the physical word, jotted down on something. But there is no way this book could have been written without years of immersion to make it whole. It took five major drafts after it was whole, which took about four years work.
SM: You’ve nested hard in Colorado. But you’ve been teaching at UC Davis for quite a while now. How do you handle the California-Colorado contrast, and all the traveling you do? Do you still identify hardest in the Rockies, or is your love for place more dispersed these days?
PH: I will always identify hardest with the Rockies. It’s where I am meant to be. But I also love many, many places and think of them as my million second homes. Chamonix, France; Point Reyes Station, Calif.; Sitka, Alaska; Santa Fe, N.M.; the kingdom of Bhutan…I could go on and on. The bottom line is I have had a ranch to pay for and to keep up and I have been lucky enough to get to do work I love. Teaching is the real center of my life and there is no opportunity for me to teach in Creede. I am just grateful to be able to do what I love for a living. Plus, I can’t lie, it’s nice to get sushi every once in a while.
SM: Do you have a favorite memory from Steamboat Springs you might want to share with readers?
PH: Absolutely. It was in 1993, and I had been invited to participate in the Literary Sojourn. It is such a wonderful event, so friendly and classy at the same time. I met two other writers there, Ann and Mary Scott, who invited me to come and stay in Denver with them. They had tickets to Broncos-Raiders on Monday night and then tickets to a Tuesday Rockies double header back when we were setting the all-time attendance record. Because I had lived in Winter Park for three years before I went to grad school in Utah, I had thought I had had my Colorado experience, and I had spent that summer looking for a place to call home in other states. But the excitement of the folks at the Literary Sojourn, combined with like 70,000 people coming out to see the last place Rockies on a Tuesday afternoon in September just to prove how excited Coloradoans were about baseball made me remember anew how beautiful Coloradoans are, how beautiful Colorado is, and I rethought that idea that I was looking for some other place other than Colorado. By the weekend after the Literary Sojourn weekend, I had already bought the ranch.