“Motion improves any day for me — the farther, the faster, the better — on a plane, a boat, a dogsled, a car, the back of a horse, a bus, a pair of skis, in a cabbage wagon, hoofing it down a trail in my well-worn hiking boots,” writes Pam Houston in her memoir Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. “Stillness, on the other hand, makes me very nervous.”
But decades ago, after Houston had sold her first book of short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, her agent advised her not to spend all the money on hiking boots. So she drove around looking for a place where she might feel comfortable sitting still.
A ranch nested at 9,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains captured her attention. “It was the third week of September, and if you can’t fall in love with Colorado in the third week of September, you can’t fall in love,” she says. “Because the aspens are changing in giant, undulating swaths of Tequila Sunrise colors all over the hillsides, and the sky is blue and the air is crisp. And here was this place, with this hundred-year-old barn with a big, beautiful mountain behind it.”
She decided to trade her North Face tent for a mountain meadow. Her $21,000 down payment represented a fraction of the ranch’s price tag. But the real-estate agent told Houston that she thought the widow who was selling the property was going to like the idea of her.
Houston, 57, has often traveled far from her beloved ranch to write the stories that allow her to pay for it. But her daring act was worth it. She learned to care for the land — and it taught her what it means to feel at home.
Experience Life | Some of the things that stood out in your memoir were the acts of kindness you’ve received from strangers. We’re often taught to fear people we don’t know. How did you come to be so open and trusting of strangers and people different from you?
Pam Houston | I happened to be born to parents who didn’t want to be parents, and they acted that out throughout my whole childhood, which was really unfortunate. The way I was raised, I learned to distrust the people who were closest and to look to the outside for support. I learned that the person I didn’t know always had a chance of being kind, and more often than not they are.
In the essay “Kindness,” I write about how this total stranger — Martha Washington — came into my life when I was 2 days old and how I basically survived my childhood because of her. She taught me to read when I was 2 ½, and now I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t important to me to be able to know what a thing is called or share my experiences by writing them down.
Over the years, there were so many people who reached out to me — teachers, babysitters, and parents’ friends. I learned to appreciate it. I’ve relied on it all my life and continue to in terms of my neighbors and the people who come here and help me take care of this ranch.
I’ve also had the good fortune to travel to countries where I had three words in common with the people I was there with, and I can’t tell you how many times those people have been kind to me.
Whether I’ve been in trouble or not, strangers have helped me or sat me down and served me tea simply because I was standing there and I was another human being.
I believe that most people are good and want to connect, because why the heck else are we here? We all probably have scarring episodes and remember the times when the interactions didn’t go well. But if we sat down and made a list of the times when someone has done something nice for us, I bet they’d outnumber the times when someone’s been cruel. At least that’s true in my life.
EL | Why did you decide to buy a ranch on the spur of the moment?
PH | I bought it because I fell in love with it the second I laid eyes on it, but the real reason is because Dona Blair agreed to sell it to me. It seemed so impossible that — speaking of the kindness of strangers — she would accept my 5 percent down and a hardcover copy of my first book, and carry the note, because at that time no bank would’ve loaned me five dollars.
I was 30. My first book had come out and all my dreams had come true. I had no money. I was living in my car. I had dropped out of grad school. There was no long view. There was just the next town that I was going to drive to and the next campground where I was going to pitch my tent.
But it seemed so impossible when she said yes, that for me to have said no would have seemed like I was just staring generosity and fate in the face. I was on a train and the train had left the station, and to be like, “No, I want to get off the train” is just not how I’ve ever led my life.
I try to read the signs. If everything’s pushing in one direction, I tend to go that way. If six things line up to say, “Yeah, you should do this,” I’m not going to be the person who says, “No, I’m too scared.”
So, once I agreed to buy the land, everything was just a whirlwind of trying to pay for it. It’s really only in the last 10 years or so, when I owned more of it than I didn’t, that I’ve been able to really even begin to think about how crazy of a thing to do it was.
That I have learned from and have been given so much from the land, and that the land has become the story of my life, is only a realization that I came to when I sat down to write this book.
EL | You obviously have a deep love of nature. What has that relationship meant in your life?
PH | My mother always said, “I don’t want to see you till dinner.” So I went outside and spent hours and hours finding the nurturing and mothering that I needed from the rivers, trees, little patches of forest in suburbia, or from walks in a city park.
I happen to love these 120 acres and the land that surrounds it, and my heart’s all wrapped up in it, but it doesn’t have to be this. I can find beauty anywhere. I can find a beautiful tree in the roughest city in a country that doesn’t care about trees in the city.
To me it’s solace. It’s healing. I feel in relationship to it in a way I don’t feel in relationship to things other people do, like malls, sporting events, or children, for that matter.
If I want to feel better, I go outside. If I can go for a walk, a swim, or a ski, it’s all the better because then I’m moving my body and I’m interacting with it. Moving through natural space is where I find comfort and happiness. It makes me feel like my life is valuable.