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Postcards from the West: A Photojournal

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I used to believe, until much too recently, that there was someone or something that looked out for me whenever I veered dangerously close to trouble. I didn’t know whether it was God (god), or some other collective good, or my dead friend Shelton, or the ghost of the woman who raised me (whose name was Martha Washington) come from the other side to pluck me up out of danger and set me down safely in the nick of time. Recently, I have come to understand that what I have thought, all this time, was a benevolent spirit was probably just white privilege.

I have lived for 27 years in a valley were people have more guns than children, more guns than cars, more guns that books (even bibles), more guns than bags of potato chips, more guns than ten gallon hats. I used to know why I lived here, amidst these mountains and forests, in this beautiful valley of ten thousand guns, but after Donald Trump got elected, I forgot.

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When I was in fourth grade, I got caught stealing a candle in the shape of a cat from Spenser Gifts, and not only did no one kneel on my windpipe, or shoot me seven times in the back and leave me paralyzed; I wasn’t even arrested. I was taken into the back room, where amid boxes full of lava lamps and psychedelic posters, I received a stern talking to by a security guard before the manager called my parents to come and take me home.

I expect I will die soon, not from Covid-19 probably, as I have already had it, and hopefully not even from the heart and lung damage I have sustained from it. I think I will die here in this valley, at the end of gun, held in the hands of a man who believes it is his right to shoot an outspoken woman because the president or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham told him so. If that sounds grandiose, (and it does, I can hear it), all I can say is that I have seen the bullet leave the barrel, repeatedly, in slow motion, have seen the face behind the gun, with its patchy sideburns, plump cheeks, and tiny eyes, in recurring dreams that send my heart rate soaring.

By being an outspoken woman in the valley of ten thousand guns during this fascist takeover of the United States of America, I have made myself a target, and yet I can’t ever seem to shut up! Because to be silent, after the life I have been privileged to lead as a cisgendered Caucasian woman—a very good life by any measure—would be, and I say this as a nonreligious person, sinful.

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Toni Morrison once said that if you find yourself free, it is your job to reach your hand down and pull someone else up to freedom. I am only one woman, living in the valley of ten thousand guns, but I have a platform, and one of my jobs is to use it, that and to help my students get their beautiful books into the world.

I was raised by a malignant narcissist. I know what it is to be helpless in the face of daily terror, daily rape, a broken femur, permanent physical and psychological damage. To be helpless in the face of a bully, and a system that never believes the woman or the child. Between the tyranny of my father’s house and the tyranny of the Trump presidency, I had forty-one beautiful years full to the brim with freedom. I don’t mind so much that the bill is coming due.

Horse Preview

October 19: Horse

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My new horse Benjamin likes to take baths in the stainless steel water trough that is meant for drinking, the same water trough that my older, possibly dying horse, Deseo, has been afraid of all his life. While Deseo has spent nearly thirty years sneaking up on that trough as if it is about to make a fast move on him, Ben runs straight at it and dunks his head all the way to his ears. He lifts one leg up and over the two-foot side, kicks roughly half the 100 gallons over his flank until he is soaked, then gracefully switches legs and uses the rest of the water to soak his other side. He finds a nice dusty spot and drops, rolls on his back and kicks his legs in the air. Then, he lurches to his feet and shakes so hard his teeth rattle.

Ben came to me because he needed a new home and I needed a horse in my life that wasn’t dying. He is big for a quarter horse, seventeen hands, a dark bay who looks like somebody hurled a bucket of white paint at his left shoulder. Every morning when I come outside with the carrots and apples, he makes a noise like a Harley Davidson outfitted with glass packs, idling. If I don’t close the barn door quick enough, he ducks his head and follows me in, turns his big body around in all the tight spaces, offers to assist me in throwing the hay. When I give him his grain in a shallow rubber feeder, he doesn’t mind sharing it with Isaac, the mini-donkey, or a chipmunk or a ground squirrel or the magpie that often perches on his broad rump to eat insects. Ben seems not to be startled by anything, whereas Deseo crow hops and spins every time the barn creeks or the wind blows.

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In a few weeks or months, I will have to put Deseo down, because no matter how much I soak and soften and pulverize his food, he is thirty-two and has run out of teeth, which is what happens to horses when they live to be old. He is not lame or blind or otherwise uncomfortable. He just doesn’t have enough meat on his bones to last the winter. He will leave Benjamin and Isaac to cavort around this 120 acres, until the snow gets too deep and they commit to the barn, and the little pasture to the south of the barn where the wind is blocked and the sun warms the ground all winter.

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Every animal I have ever cared for has had something important to teach me, and Ben’s arrival in the summer of 2020, this summer of so much death and fear, serves as a reminder that carrots and apples are cause for celebration, that a magpie on your back works better than fly spray, and that a scary water trough, looked at correctly, is an excellent opportunity for a bath.

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October 26: West

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A male friend asked what I had been thinking about lately and I said “the feminization of the myth of the American West.” The look on his face was one part condescension, two parts disgust. Or that is what I imagined from the tone of his voice, because we were talking on the phone.

He said, “That’s a little too academic for me,” which made me laugh. I have been accused of a lot of things in my life, but never of being too academic.

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Some years ago, when I visited the fracking fields of North Dakota, I saw nothing but men in trucks and fast food restaurants erected so quickly they hadn’t even paved their parking lots. I followed a man in a truck for a hundred miles along a two-lane highway between Killdeer and Williston, watching him flick cigarette after cigarette into the dry September grass. The beat of a Smashmouth song reached back and curled inside my windows. His bumper sticker read “I (heart) Crack Whores.”

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“It’s just that I’ve been thinking,” I said to my friend. “The stories you guys carry around all day might not be all that sustainable anymore. You know, the whole break the horse, tame the land, kill the Indian, save the man, frack her till she blows type of ethic. Those stories might not be working out so well for the rest of us.”

Only after he hung up on me did I realize my hands were shaking. Right after that, I realized he had never actually been my friend.

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November 2: Possible

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When you are a dog, all things are possible. That the human might give you the hamburger right off her plate, that the human might take you for a walk, even though she took you an hour ago. That the human might go away forever, or that she might come home and never leave again. That a bull elk might pop out of the trees at any minute, that those little brown birds that fly low to the ground might not elevate themselves sufficiently this one time, that the eviscerated squeaky toy might once again find its voice.

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The human might stop to pet you on her way down the hall. She might, this night, invite you into the bed with her. It might not be too smoky tomorrow to go for a hike, and on the hike there might be blueberry treats, and squirrels, and a creek still running even this far into the drought. Or if there is no hike, she might ask if you want to go for a ride in the car. She might (or might not) pass the turn off to the vet (yikes), but if she does (hooray!), she might drive instead down the road that leads to the lake.

At the lake, she might throw the stick for you. She might throw the stick for you one hundred times. She might throw the stick for you so many times you’ll wish (only a little bit and with one part of your brain) that she would stop, but you can’t let her see that, because if she wants to keep throwing the stick, you know it is your job to retrieve it. You promise yourself that if she throws the stick a thousand times, you will continue to retrieve it. There is no amount of times she could throw the stick where you would let her down.

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Later, when you are back home, the human might look at the news and cry, as she does, these days, so often. She might lay on the couch with you and put her head on your flank. When she closes her eyes, you close your eyes too and tell her with your mind that all things are possible. That the bad guys can’t win forever, that even at the vet’s you sometimes get cookies, that love, and this you are absolutely sure about, has always been stronger than fear.

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November 9: Renew

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My vet, Doc Howard, says sheep are born looking for a place to die, and it’s true. I have lost many sheep over the years in a lot of different ways. One ram got cast up against the barn (that’s rancher talk for being so stuck you die); another died of a twisted gut. One ewe caught pneumonia after the stress of a routine shearing, and something that was probably nose bots killed another. A few years back we were stalked by a 300-pound black bear for the whole month of May and by the first of June, I had nine dead sheep and only three living, and one of those, Jordan, had her head inside the bear’s mouth long enough to have four holes in her neck big enough for me to insert an entire index finger.

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And yet, every April, no matter how diminished our numbers, a lamb or two or four are born. Sometimes they are a little bit premature, and I have to hang out in the barn for a couple of nights, keeping them warm, force feeding them with a bottle, and convincing the ewe that the baby is worth trying to save. Tank went from nearly starving to death on day two, losing the use of his back legs (a sure sign), to ramming the holy hell out of the water trough on day seven, which qualifies around here as a raging success.

The lambs smell like lanolin and hope, and when they leap for joy out in the pasture, twisting their little bodies into one and a half gainers over the top of the tall grass, it is hard to remember that anything bad is happening, that 200,000 people and counting, for example, are senselessly, unnecessarily dead.

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Today we have so much fire smoke in the air from the eight states that are burning to the west of us that we have donned our Covid-19 masks to feed the animals. Which feels convenient for a second.

Seven years ago, 119,000 acres on three sides of my ranch burned in the largest fire in southwestern Colorado history. I took my friend Maggie hiking in the burn last week, and when she told me that walking among the burned trees made her sad, I realized I no longer saw them. I saw the fireweed, the baby spruce, the regenerated stands of a million skinny six-year-old aspen trees. I took a minute to ponder whether my myopia was a sign of resilience or denial, to think about the fine line between being honorably optimistic and dangerously naive. Again and again, the world asks us to see the beauty and the terror, to hold the wonder and the grief together, to learn once and for all that they are two sides of the very same coin.

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November 16: Cluster

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When shelter in place began, I bought eight four-week-old pullets from a lady in Walsenburg, Colorado, about a three-hour drive from here. We met in the parking lot of the Safeway. It resembled a drug deal. The pandemic was new, everyone was masked, nobody wanted to hang out for very long. She handed me a cardboard box without speaking. I could feel the warmth of the chicks’ bodies through the sides. When I got home, it turned out there were nine chickens instead of the eight I’d paid for, but one of the two orange birds had very large feet. I named him Rooster and now he crows, nonstop, from seven in the morning till nine in the morning, which as roosters go is a pretty good deal.

It was too cold to put four-week-old chicks in the barn in April, so I raised them in a stainless steel horse trough in the guest bedroom. Even though it was a giant trough, they all clustered at one end, not for heat, I don’t think, but for comfort. Each morning until they were ten weeks old, I would put them back in their cardboard box and carry them out to the part of the barn where they would eventually live along with the Icelandic sheep, and every day at sundown, I would scoop them back into the box and return them to the guest bedroom. I named one of the chicks Insanity because she was the hardest to catch and spent much of her time outside running around in circles. I named another Karen because she was white and screeching all the time. My favorite right from the start was Little Grouse, named for her colors and the intricacy of her markings. She was calm and sweet and is still, all these weeks later, the smallest bird. Soon they will begin laying as many eggs as we can eat, and that will make us feel like we have Covid-19 ingenuity.

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Last week it was uncommonly hot. In the nineties. When I first moved here twenty-seven years ago, before anyone I knew had said the words climate change, the oldsters in town started talking about the end of the world if the temperature got to eighty. Today, it is supposed to snow fourteen inches. That’s a lot for the first week of September, and it will likely send many of the people who have been living all over this country in their motorhomes all summer back to wherever they come from. It is supposed to get down to thirteen degrees overnight and my chickens will be tested for the very first time.

It’s 120 degrees in San Luis Obispo, 130 in Death Valley. Fires are raging up and down the West Coast, which is a cluster of a different kind. I read yesterday that soon much of the southwestern United States will be uninhabitable by humans, which will at least be nice for the coyotes and the lizards and the snakes. What would happen if we asked those folks in their motor homes—which get a mile and a half per gallon—to park them, permanently? I think we know the answer. Just think about what happened when we asked people to put a thin piece of cloth across their faces because 200,000 of their countrymen had died.

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The president said today that the generals want to start and accelerate wars to keep the companies that make the bombs happy, which was a thing we all knew, but still so funny to hear it from his lips. I believe that is what we call speaking with impunity.

Another cluster: A seventeen-year-old boy’s mother drove him across a state line so he could murder two unarmed protestors with an automatic weapon he is not old enough to own. Show of hands: How many of us prefer to have untrained teenagers patrolling our streets with weapons of war? The orange man is always speaking with impunity. Unlike my rooster, he never stops crowing and has zero Covid-19 ingenuity. I want to be like Little Grouse, but I lean, by nature, toward Insanity. Somebody, somewhere, sound the alarm.

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November 23: Resolve

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Somedays I wonder how many of us have been raised by malignant narcissists. I think the answer is probably: A lot. It is to you, my fellow survivors, that I am speaking in this essay. I know that when we were too little to do anything about it, to free ourselves of the tyranny, it sucked, hard. But (tell me if it is the same for you) when we finally did free ourselves, if we did (and I did, and if you are reading this, I am guessing you did too), life was glorious, even more glorious, I might argue (though I would be open to be proven wrong) than it was for people who were raised by loving and generous adults.

When I left my parents’ house, at seventeen, to go to college at Denison University, I walked out of a dungeon of gaslighting, violence, and fear and into a garden of humanism, good works, and critical compassionate thought. If someone had dragged me from Denison back into the hell of my parents’ house, I would have chewed off my own forearm to escape. But no one did, and there was not one day in the forty years between my departure for college and the last election that I didn’t remember to be grateful I was free.

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Now, I am back in my childhood home, with my 330 million brothers and sisters, which includes you, dear survivor. I bet at first you were amazed to find yourself there. Is it Margaret Atwood who coined the phrase “the unexpected inevitable”?

Our passports have become useless documents, our government is systematically killing us, to the tune of more than a thousand per day, and destroying our institutions with a velocity and efficiency, even I, who saw it coming, would have not believed. Our freedoms are being challenged and stolen, one by one, and we are on the verge of losing the ability to speak out, to make art, even to dream of a better way of life.

For me, and I would guess for you, my friend, it is neither childhood nor the president that is the shocker, but the forty intervening years of freedom. And I am here to tell you that it is us, the children who were raped in the shower, who had their bones broken, who had cigarettes put out on their hands, we are the ones who were born to rise to this moment in which we find ourselves.

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It is easy to gaslight a child. Shockingly easy to gaslight a country. But I got out, and so did you, my fellow traveler, and what we understand, all the way down to our bones, is that the cruelty is, and has always been, the point. Surviving our families of origin took all our ingenuity. It offered us a glimpse of our own power, and we knew we were unstoppable. That is why you and I are so important to this battle. We have learned to think one step ahead of the malignant narcissist, and we’ll chew off our own arms to get out of his trap. We have arrived at the moment of the unexpected inevitable and this time, we have each other.

Come. Let’s rise together, and reveal all that we have learned.

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Pam Houston is the author of the memoir "Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country" (W.W. Norton), which won the 2019 Colorado Book Award, the High Plains Book Award, and the Reading The West Advocacy Award. She is also the author of "Cowboys Are My Weakness" (W.W. Norton), and five other books of fiction and nonfiction. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level on a 120-acre homestead near the headwaters of the Rio Grande and teaches at UC Davis and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is cofounder of the literary nonprofit Writing by Writers. Her new book, "Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics and Place," co-written with activist Amy Irvine is forthcoming from Torrey House Press.

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