Pam Houston’s newest book, “Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country,” is a magical blend of essays that are somehow both memoir and autobiography. She manages to beautifully marry her life with the story of the land, her home.
Houston’s most well known books include “Cowboys Are My Weakness” and “Contents May Have Shifted.” In addition to her many awards, she is a professor of English at University of California, Davis. She also conducts workshops around the world. A busy woman indeed. Houston works hard and long to support her home, her ranch, Deep Creek. The ranch is 120 acres located 9,000 feet above sea level near the town of Creede, population under 300 souls.
The book is formatted in five parts. In the introduction, Houston tells readers how she came to find and buy the ranch in 1993 at the age of 31. She had wandered around the West searching for just the right place to settle down, which is ironic, considering she has to leave often to work to have the money to pay for it.
The first part, “Getting Out,” is where Houston begins to talk about her parents, and her deeply disturbing childhood. An only child, her mother found a babysitter, Martha Washington, when Houston was a mere 2 days old. This turned out to be a blessing for Houston. At the tender age of 4, she incurred her father’s fury, ending up with a broken femur. The abuse did not stop there. Early on, readers will discover that Houston is a survivor.
In Part Two, “Digging In,” Houston describes life on the ranch and the never-ending chores to keep up with having dogs, a cat, horses, miniature donkeys, lambs and chickens. Her loss of Fenton, her beloved Irish Wolfhound, is wrenching. She also had to deal with ranch sitters who don’t measure up.
In Part Three, “Diary of a Fire,” she describes how on June 5, 2013, lightning starts the West Fork Fire. As the fire expands and merges with the Windy Pass Fire, it becomes the West Fork Complex, and finally, the Papoose Fire joins in. Her ranch is under threat of loss as the fire complex gobbles more than 100,000 acres and lasts more than a month. Durango readers can relate to her experiences in light of our own Missionary Ridge, Valley and 416 fires. Houston intersperses her experiences with official definitions and announcements from the U.S. Forest Service. This chapter is compelling with her vivid descriptions.
In Part Four, “Elsewhere,” Houston describes how Washington met her at 2 days old. Houston knew her for 20 years, and discusses how Washington basically raised her. Washington was a blessing because it seems Houston’s parents were ill suited to having and raising a child.
In Part Five, “Deep Creek,” Houston describes the 25 years of blood, sweat and tears she’s given to the ranch to improve and work it. It’s the land that has helped to heal her.
Although most of the book is about the land and its critters, Houston also shares her experiences with her Western neighbors. For those readers unfamiliar with this part of the country, she sheds a light on what kind of people inhabit and grace this wild world we live in.
“Deep Creek” flows back and forth over the years of Houston’s life. This book is deeply personal. Houston bravely bares all, especially about her feelings of home. “Home is where the heart is,” and for Houston, it is also memories, learning, sanctuary, hopes and dreams. This book is a captivating and memorable read about the life of an extraordinary woman.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.