Some Kind of Calling
When I look out my kitchen window, I see a horseshoe of snow-covered peaks, all of them higher than 12,000 feet. I see my old barn—old enough to have started to lean a little—and the homesteaders’ cabin, which has so much space between the logs now that the mice don’t even have to duck to crawl through. I see the big stand of aspen ready to leaf out at the back of the property, ringing the small but reliable wetland, and the pasture, greening in earnest, and the bluebirds, just returned, flitting from post to post. I see Isaac and Simon, my bonded pair of young donkey jacks, pulling on opposite ends of a tricolor lead rope I got in Patagonia. I see Jordan and Natasha, my Icelandic ewes, nibbling on the grass inside the goose pen, keeping their eyes on Lance and L.C., this year’s lambs. I see two elderly horses glad for the warm spring day, glad to have made it through another winter of 30 below zero, of whiteout blizzards, of 60-mile-per-hour winds, of short days and long frozen nights and coyotes made fearless by hunger. Deseo is 22 and Roany must be closer to 30, and one of the things that means is that I’ve been here a very long time.
It’s hard for anybody to put their finger on the moment when life changes from being something that is nearly all in front of you to something that happened while your attention was elsewhere. I bought this ranch in 1993. I was 31, and it seems to me now that I knew practically nothing about anything. My first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, had just come out, and for the first time ever I had a little bit of money. When I say a little bit, I mean it, and yet it was more money than I had ever imagined having: $21,000. My agent said, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots,” and I took her advice as seriously as any I have ever received.
I had no job, no place to live except my North Face VE 24 tent—which was my preferred housing anyhow—and nine-tenths of a Ph.D. All I knew about ownership was that it was good if all your belongings fit into the back of your vehicle, which in my case they did. A lemon yellow Toyota Corolla. Everything, including the dog.
I drove the whole American West that summer, giving readings in small mountain towns and looking for a place to call home. I started in San Francisco and headed north—Point Reyes Station, Tomales, Elk, Mendocino. I crossed into Oregon and looked at property in Ashland, Eugene, and Corvallis. All I knew about real estate was that you were supposed to put 20 percent down, which set my spending ceiling at exactly $105,000. I had no idea that people often lied to real estate agents about their circumstances, and that sometimes the agents lied back. I had $21,000, a book that had been unexpectedly successful, and not three pages of a new one. I understand now that, in a certain way, I was as free as I had ever been and would ever be again. I came absolutely clean with everybody.
I checked out Bellingham, Washington, and all the little towns on the road to Mount Rainier, and then headed over the pass into the eastern Cascades, where I put a little earnest money down on a place in Winthrop. Forty-four acres on a gentle hill with an old apple orchard and a small cabin. I worked my way over to Sandpoint, Idaho, and Bozeman, Montana, sill looking, still unsure.
Eventually, I drove through Colorado, a place where I had ski-bummed between college and grad school, and I remembered how much I’d loved it. In those days, I lived in the Fraser Valley, at a kind of commune of tar-paper shacks and converted school buses called Grandma Miller’s New Horizons. I lived for three winters in a sheepherder’s trailer named the African Queen. The 20 or so alternatives who lived there shared an outhouse, a composting toilet, and a bathhouse. From late December to early February, it often got down to 35 below. I was driving a tourist bus by day and washing dishes at Fred and Sophie’s Steakhouse by night. I would put every strip of steak fat the diners left on their plates in a giant white Tupperware container next to my station. When I got off work, I would go home and feed all that steak fat to my dog, Jackson. If I packed the little woodstove just right, it would burn for exactly two and a half hours. I would don my union suit, my snow pants, and my down coat, hat, and mittens, and get into my five-below North Face sleeping bag. I would invite Jackson up on top of the pile that had me at the bottom of it, and he would metabolize steak fat all night, emitting a not insignificant number of BTUs.
The writers Robert Boswell and Antonya Nelson told me about Creede. When you drive into town, the sign at the outskirts boasts "586 Nice Folks and 17 Soreheads." It was—and still is—the kind of place where, if you happen to be in town for a couple of days poking around, someone will invite you to a wedding. That September, the guy who owned the hardware store was getting ready to marry his longtime sweetheart, and instead of sending out invitations they just put an ad in the weekly Mineral County Miner, so everybody would know to come by.
The morning after the wedding, a real estate lady named Kathleen, who I’d met in the buffet line, showed me an empty lot of approximately five acres and a couple of houses in town that had been built by silver miners using paper and string. She said, “I really ought to take you out to see the Blair Ranch,” and I said, “Sure,” and she said, “But it wouldn’t be right. A single woman living out there all by herself,” and I said, “How far?” and she said, “Twelve miles,” and I said, “Maybe I should see it,” and she said, “I’m afraid it’s out of your price range.”
For that I had no argument.
I was sitting in my car, studying the Rand McNally, contemplating the next potential future home. Lake City? Gunnison? Ridgway? I was just that close to driving out of Creede forever when a tall, rodeo-buckle-wearing cowboy named Dale Pizel knocked on the window. “I hear you want to see the Blair Ranch,” he said. I got out of my car. “This is Mark Richter,” he said, indicating his equally tall, handsome friend. “He’s the selling agent, and he is going to take you out there right now.”
If you can’t fall in love with the San Juans during the third week of September, you can’t fall in love. The mountainsides are covered with some of the world’s largest aspen forests, and they are changing in vast, undulating swaths: yellow, golden, orange, vermilion. The sky is a headstrong, break-your-heart blue, the air is so clear you can see a hundred miles on a straight horizon, and the river is cold and crisp and possibly even clearer than the air. The coyotes sing, all night sometimes, and the elk bugle in the misty dawn along the river.
And there was the Blair Ranch, with the best view of it all I’d ever seen. One hundred and twenty acres of high-mountain meadow in the middle of the larger Antelope Park, at 9,000 feet, with the Upper Rio Grande cutting serpentine turns through the center of it, surrounded on three sides by the 12,000-foot granite peaks of the Continental Divide, the lower slopes carpeted in Engelmann spruce and aspen.
The house was a simple two-bedroom log structure that seemed to apologize for itself in the middle of all that beauty. It hunkered down behind a little hill, just enough to miss the worst of the wind and the weather. At the top of the hill, Mark told me, the original homesteaders, who were called the Pinckleys, were buried in shallow graves. Their tiny cabins were still standing behind weathered fences, along with some outhouses and a pen where old man Pinckley had bred Canada geese. But the real prize was the barn—raised by Pinckley himself in 1920 and built from hand-hewn spruce logs, silhouetted against Red Mountain to the south, and leaning now, just slightly, to the west. I had no way to imagine, in that first moment of seeing it, that the view out the kitchen window—of the barn and the corral and the Divide behind it—would become the backdrop for the rest of my life. That I would take thousands of photographs of that same scene, in every kind of light, in every kind of weather. That I would write five more books (and counting) sitting at that kitchen table (never at my desk), looking, intermittently, out at that barn. That it would become the solace, for decades, for whatever ailed me, and that whenever it was threatened—and it would be threatened, by fire, flood, cellphone-tower installation, greedy housesitters, and careless drunks—I would fight for it as though I had cut down the trees and stripped the logs myself.
The price was just shy of $400,000. I told Mark the same things I had told every real estate agent from Mendocino to Casper. My $21,000 would represent just over 5 percent down.
Mark rubbed the back of his hand against his chin for a minute and said, “I believe that Dona Blair is going to like the idea of you. Dale knows her pretty well, and between the two of us… Why don’t you give me your 5 percent down and a signed copy of Cowboys Are My Weakness and I will see what I can do.” He snapped a picture of me sitting on the split-rail fence like a girl who already owned the place.
Dona Blair sold me the ranch for 5 percent down and a signed hardcover of Cowboys, and she carried the note herself because any bank would have laughed in my face. I bought the ranch for its unspeakable beauty, and if I am completely honest, for the adrenaline rush that buying it brought on. I nearly killed myself the first few years making the payments. I wrote anything for anyone who would hire me, including an insert for an ant farm, which I turned into a little communist ant manifesto that I imagined some enlightened but bored parent discovering with pleasure when they helped little Johnny open the box. I wrote a magazine article called “Why Clint Eastwood Is My Hero.” (He isn’t.) I wrote an article about twentysomething women who were getting plastic surgery to combat signs of aging. (Who cares?) I’ve been told by several locals that Dona tries to hide her surprise when she tells them how, for all these years, I never missed a payment.
The people in town, mostly miners and ranchers, didn’t understand or much care what I did for a living, but they respected the fact that I had to work hard to keep the place and that I was willing to. I began to get looked out for by the locals who matter: the postmistress, the banker, the judge, the owner of the hardware store, the cops.
There was the night my first winter when sheriff Phil Leggitt came barreling up my driveway at three in the morning and ran up to my house yelling, “Pam, Pam, are you alright?” Because, in an attempt to get my apparently dead phone to work, I had dialed 911 and then hung up fast when it began to ring. There was the time the president of the Creede bank intervened to keep one of my early housesitters from taking the ranch right out from under my nose in a kind of old-fashioned Wild West land grab. There was the time the postmistress, knowing I was snowed in, brought all my Christmas packages to her house, close enough that I could ski over there and drag them home on a utility sled.
In 25 years at the ranch, I have learned a few things: to turn the outside water spigots off by mid-September, to have four cords of wood on the porch and 200 bales of hay in the barn no later than October 1. I’ve learned not to do more than one load of laundry per week in a drought year, and that if I set the thermostat at 60 and bring the place up to 68 using the woodstove in the living room, the heater doesn’t do that horrible banging thing that sounds one tick shy of an explosion. I’ve learned that barn swallows carry bed bugs, and the only way to kill the bugs is to wait until it is 30 below and drag the mattress out onto the snow and leave it for 48 hours. I have learned to hire a cowboy every spring to come walk the fence line, because much as I would like to believe that I could learn to be handy with a fencing tool, I have proven to myself that I cannot. I know that eventually the power always comes back on, that “guaranteed overnight” is a euphemism, that for a person who flies 100,000 miles most years, choosing a place five hours from the Denver airport was something I might have given a little more thought.
Right from the beginning, I’ve felt responsible for these 120 acres; for years I’ve painted myself as both savior and protector of this tiny parcel of the American West. And this much is true: as long as I am in charge of it, this land will not turn into condos, it will not be mined or forested, it will not have its water stolen. No one will be able to put a cell tower in the middle of my pasture and pay me $3,000 a year for the space.
One of the gifts of age, though, is the way it gently dispels all of our heroic notions. The whole time that I thought I was busy taking care of the ranch, the ranch was busy taking care of me.
All my life I have been happiest in motion—on a plane, in a boat, on a dogsled, in a car, on the back of a horse, in a bus, on a pair of skis, in a cabbage wagon, hoofing it down a trail in my well-worn hiking boots. Motion improves any day for me; the farther, the faster, the better. Stillness, on the other hand, makes me very nervous.
My childhood home did not have any safe places. My parents were sophisticated, worldly, both brilliant in their own way, and they drank to distraction every single night. The consequences of getting underfoot in that house often involved violence, and sometimes there was violence for no discernible reason at all. One thing I was looking for when I bought the ranch was a place where I might be comfortable sitting still. I also wanted something that no one could take away from me, but my upbringing left me addicted to danger. So I put 5 percent down on a property that cost four times more than I could afford, one that required so much maintenance that the tasks fell into two categories: things I didn’t know how to do yet, and things I didn’t even know I didn’t know how to do yet.
That I survived, and that the ranch did, suggests something good about my karma. That when I thought I could go to Denver for New Year’s Eve and keep the pipes from bursting by dripping the faucet, it was only the mudroom floor that got flooded. (It went down to 38 below that night.) That when I thought it would be really cool to paint my propane tank to look like a watermelon, the dark green paint did not, in fact, absorb enough 9,000-foot solar heat to explode. That someone always came along in the nick of time to say, “When was the last time you had your chimney swept?” or “How often do you coat your logs with that UV protector?” and then I’d know what I was supposed to have been doing all along.
This is the only real home I have ever had—this log cabin with its tilted horse barn, leaking propane tank, and resident pack rat that has a weakness for raspberry soap. The house isn’t piped for a clothes dryer, so in the winter I string lines in the kitchen, in the mudroom, and around the woodstove in the living room. The 50-year-old furnace can keep up with the regular subzero temperatures only if the woodstove is burning all the time. As a result, when I go out into the world in a public way in the winter, I smell as if I have just come from a Grateful Dead concert. All the window screens are frayed because my little coydog, Sally, who came to me from some traumatic puppyhood that landed her in the Flagstaff, Arizona, pound, could predict a lightning storm at 50 miles, and at the first rumble would make a neat little X-shaped slice with her toenail and then power her body through the window to her place of choice, under the porch.
It doesn’t seem like 25 years have gone by since that girl who lived in her North Face tent, whose belongings all fit into the back of her Toyota Corolla, first sat on the split-rail fence that stands in front of the aging barn. That girl who dared herself to buy this ranch, dared herself to keep still, to dig in and care for it, to work hard enough to pay for it, to figure out what other people meant when they used the word home.
Blink your eyes and that girl is a 55-year-old woman who has lived here five times longer than she has lived anywhere else, in this meadow of lupine and fescue, surrounded by spruce and pine. Every penny that has gone toward the mortgage payments I have earned with my writing, and that fact matters so much to me that when my father died five years ago and what was left of his money fell to me, I bought a used Prius and a trip to Istanbul. Sometime in the past 25 years, the ranch changed from being the thing I always had to figure out how to pay for to the place I have spent my life.
Four years ago, during southwestern Colorado’s largest wildfire ever—110,000 acres burning less than a mile from the ranch, treetops exploding into flaming rockets down one arm of that horseshoe of mountains that for 20 years had kept me safe—I drove under an apocalyptic sky through lung-searing smoke past two fire-department roadblocks to take Dona Blair my final ranch payment, my mind unable to decide whether this gesture would make it more or less likely that the ranch would be engulfed in flames. When I got to her driveway, I saw that all the giant spruce trees that her husband had carefully designed the house to fit among had orange flagging tied in the branches. These would be the first ones the Forest Service firefighters would cut if the blaze got too close.
We’d been on standby to evacuate for weeks, and I’d decided that the only thing I really wanted to save (other than the animals, who were enjoying a smoke-free vacation 100 miles away in Gunnison) was the barn, which wouldn’t fit in the back of my 4Runner. But our summer monsoon arrived with the tourists on the Fourth of July, just in time to save us, as it has all the years I’ve been here, and now it looks as if I will get to spend the rest of my life watching the charred mountainside to the west of me regerminate, revitalize, regrow.
Sometimes, when I’m driving back out Middle Creek Road after a week in Majorca, Spain, or Ames, Iowa, and I round the corner where Antelope Park stretches out huge and empty and magnificent in front of me, I am open-mouthed with astonishment that this is the place I have lived the largest part of my life.
It’s a full-time job lining up ranch sitters for the significant chunks of time I need to be away, and even if it is someone more competent with a fencing tool than I am, it makes me nervous to leave so often. Some days I think I would like to live near the ocean, or a sushi bar, or a movie theater, or my friends, who by and large lead vibrant lives in sophisticated cities. But a low-level panic that feels downright primal always stops this kind of thinking in its tracks. A quiet certainty that if I gave up the ranch, there would be no more safe home, no place of refuge, no olly olly oxen free.
And there is one more thing. The summer before I drove all over the West looking for a home was the summer I lost my mother. I am only telling you now because I had never realized the coincidence of it, had never thought about the cause and effect relationship of it—until I began to write the story of the ranch.
I am only a little better at giving in than I used to be, at slowing down, at sitting still. But progress is progress, and any amount of it I have made I owe entirely to these 120 acres of tall grass and blue sage, with a simple log house, a sagging barn, and a couple of equine senior citizens.
And when the chores are all done, the ranch is a meditation in stillness. It says, Here, sit in this chair. For the rest of the afternoon, let’s watch the way the light lays itself across the mountain. Let’s be real quiet and see if the 300 head of elk who live up the mountain decide to come through the pasture on their way to the river to drink.
How do we become who we are in the world? We ask the world to teach us. But we have to ask with an open heart, with no idea of what the answer will be.
It might have been fate or some kind of calling. It could have been random, but it doesn’t feel random. Sometimes a few pieces of the puzzle click into place, and the world seems to spin a little more freely.
In other words, maybe I didn’t choose this ranch at all. Maybe this ranch chose me.
Pam Houston (@pam_houston) is the author of Cowboys Are My Weakness and Contents May Have Shifted. She is the founder of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. Giselle Potter is an Outside contributing artist.
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September 15, 2017 at 11:30AM