Cross over into campground; or, on Houston’s Deep Creek

I usually have at least three books I’m reading at the same time. One is often either poetry or poetry craft or criticism, one is often science or some other kind of nonfiction, and one is what I keep by my bedside or read in the late afternoon when I’m tired of doing whatever I’ve been doing. In search of something for the latter category, I chose Pam Houston’s Deep Creek, just because I liked the cover — the viewpoint is looking up the back of a dog toward a meadow and mountain. Finding Hope in the High Country is its subtitle, and who doesn’t want a little hope nowadays? I expected, I don’t know, a nice meditation on what Gretel Ehrlich termed “the solace of open spaces.”

Well. I had never read anything by Pam Houston before, but certainly I had heard of her, but knew nothing about her. The book begins pastorally (or pasture-ly) enough but takes an abrupt turn into a horrifying chapter about her early life. Actually there is much harrowing in this book, as she has lived a life of much risk, some but certainly not all of her own making. She was verbally, psychologically, and physically abused by both parents. She lived a rough and rugged outdoor life — I’m still nightmaring from her tossed-off-in-one-sentence tale of backcountry skiing alone and breaking her leg.

But between these difficult chapters, including a nail-biter about fires ringing her Colorado ranch, is indeed a reach toward hope and the possibility of transcendence. She details the astonishing people she encountered throughout her life who saved her, both literally and figuratively — including a random other solo backcountry skier that day who, incredibly, happened by and was able to carry her out. And the amazing things that have happened to her along the way in her amazing life — including, and I’m so envious of this I could spit!, seeing narwhals in the Northwest Passage.

She also talks about the beautiful and terrible conflict of loving a world that is utterly changing under the abuse of our hand, the necessary torment of staying open to love and grief at the same time.

It was quite a wonderful read. But perhaps not just before going to sleep.

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