Those of us who are ravenous readers of books set in the American West are used to stories of living life on the edge, off the grid, out of the box.
But two new memoirs, both debuts, take isolation and fortitude to a delightful, and at times terrifying, extreme. Both are complex reflections by maverick women directing an honest gaze at their chosen lifestyle and all that it entails.
Rough Beauty starts with great loss: Karen Auvinen escapes the wintry isolation of her Colorado cabin for a day only to return to what looks like a “voluminous orange cloth … forming scarlet and orange ripples that flicked and snapped.” Everything she owns is burned, save her truck. She raises a middle finger to her 40th year and the charred remains of a life, and what follows is a journey of grief, attempts at coping, and a deeper retreat into isolation. We worry for her: She hasn’t been on a date for 20 years, and when she meets a flirtatious waiter in Utah, where she’s gone to recover from the fire, she realizes that “I’d not been touched in years.” Returning home to rebuild her life in another iffy-sounding cabin, she notes, “Neighbors were seasonal or scarce, and that suited me. I just wanted to be left alone.”
Estranged from family, from community, from intimate relationships, from neighbors, she is shockingly detached, her life spare. “Living wild succinctly arranges priorities,” she writes. “You make food, take shelter, stay warm. Seasons and weather dictated every aspect of my day.” It’s appropriate, then, that she finds an abiding comfort in the work of Gretel Ehrlich, whose Solace of Open Spaces is a tribute to the reasons certain people seek such solitude. There is some grace in this: “Anything you do deeply will be lonely,” she notes, quoting Zen master Katagiri Roshi, realizing that, for her, “lonely is a word that describes what it means to live profoundly.”
But this memoir is no simple celebration of solitude—there are very real dangers in choosing such a path. “I’d learned from a very young age to isolate myself from people and from a world that offered up far too many dangerous uncertainties. I thought I was being smart,” Auvinen writes, before eventually realizing that vulnerability is necessary for connection, and connection deepens life. From a childhood that fostered it to the fire that cemented it, we see Auvinen claw her way out of numbness and into real emotion. She finds herself becoming a caregiver for a mother who never gave her much care, finding real love with a canine companion, and experiencing her first panic attack well into middle age—the result of allowing herself to feel emotion. She also heartily engages in community, hosting spunky T.S. Eliot parties, helping when the Jamestown Flood obliterates her town, and then, yes, going on a date and finding a human companion. “Real strength, I’d come to realize, lies not in resistance but in softness,” she writes. “The willingness to go unguarded into a new day.”
Jane Parnell’s memoir bears striking similarities, though her choice for extreme living is mountaineering. By the age of 30, she had become the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks of Colorado, and she then went on to hike nearly all of the 300 highest. Fifteen to 20 summits a summer, she hiked until the joints in her big toes got dislocated, and her doctor ordered surgery; she hiked until she got cataracts, the result of too much ultraviolet light exposure; she hiked because she had to. “You love the mountains more than you will love any man,” her mother tells her, and indeed, it is the mountains that anchor her during her divorce, grounding her in a life that is otherwise swirling.
Like Auvinen’s book, Off Trail gives sweet attention to the subtle differences that distinguish being alone from loneliness, as well as to the importance of seeking real connection where it matters. “How do I explain that even though I am alone for the first time in my life, I am not alone as they might assume? That this is my belated rite of passage at age 40,” she writes. Guided by frayed topo maps and her dog, and inspired by Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, she hikes on and on. “I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them—the density and condition of their forests; the scent and variety of their flowers; the angle, age, and condition of their rock; the size of their summits.”
Neither writer shies away from the difficulties of her particular brand of maverick life: the finances involved in choosing a non-9-to-5-er job; changing gender roles and the particular challenges experienced by women alone in remote areas; the toll that physical activity takes on the body. The lengthy timespans covered by both books offer ample time for introspection and perspective; years of living reveal change. But in the end, both continue to live life like a “river froths at the banks, straining against the confinement of its sinuous canyon,” as Parnell puts it.
These are fearless memoirs, written by women with both a healthy dose of pragmatism and boundless courage.
This piece originally appeared in High Country News.
Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living
By Karen Auvinen
320 pages, $27
Off Trail: Finding My Way Home in the Colorado Rockies
By Jane Parnell
University of Oklahoma Press
144 pages, $19.95