Disappointment Was What I Needed: An Interview with Kathryn Wilder

By Rebecca Lawton

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When I accidentally stumbled into Disappointment Valley, I found that Disappointment was just what I needed to carry me through loss that still felt fresh and overwhelming.

Introduction

Kathryn Wilder
Kathryn Wilder.
Photo by TJ Holmes.
Kathryn Wilder’s Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West (Torrey House Press, 2021) explores a world few get to know and even fewer inhabit. In the pages of Wilder’s memoir, we find the richness of life on the high desert and a deeply observed sense of place by a longtime writer, outdoorswoman, rancher, and water lover. From the first pages, we know we’re in the company of an author well-versed in the cycles of seasons and wild nature. We learn how she’s suffered at the hands of others, of betrayals early in her life, and how the lessons she embodied while still a child brought her a sharp sensitivity to abuse and loss.

Hers is not an easy journey. Through her narrative of living life outdoors, roaming the map of the West, and coping with the rigors of working with animals even as her own body ages, she helps us see how she’s come to care for the land and water, for wild horses and Criollo cows. Desert Chrome is the story of Wilder’s life through years of coping with her wounding. It’s also the story of healing deep hurts and championing the protection of others.

Wilder is a longtime essayist and writing instructor. Her work has been recognized in The Best American Essays and published in such places as High Desert Journal, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, High Country News, Sierra, and many anthologies. She’s a past finalist for the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers and the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. A graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program of the Institute of American Indian Arts, she lives among mustangs and mountains in southwestern Colorado.

Writing, like mustangs, gave me focus. Reason to be. And, eventually, writing gave me clarity.

Interview

Rebecca Lawton: Kat, this is your first book-length work of memoir. How long have you been writing Desert Chrome and how did it come together?

Kathryn Wilder: Desert Chrome came from essays and journal entries written since my best friend Rebecca’s death at the end of 2008. My first attempt at compiling that material into a book sank abruptly when I had a dream in which Rebecca said, “I don’t want you writing about me like that.” While I still have that material—which is a lot of backstory about drugs and men—I deleted it from this version and focused more on the story after Rebecca. While earning my MFA, I worked on several of these chapters for my thesis of the same name.

A shorter answer would be: about ten years.

Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horeses in the West, by Kathryn WilderRebecca Lawton: You were well into the process of writing what would become Desert Chrome when you found your current home in Colorado. What about landing in Disappointment Valley near the Dolores River allowed you to complete this book?

Kathryn Wilder: I just kept writing and publishing essays and vignettes that ended up in the manuscript as parts of chapters. While I have written (and not published) several other books—novels and essay collections—I find it hard to hold a whole book in my head, so I kept at the piecework with which I was comfortable. Eventually the book evolved, with the help of the MFA program at IAIA and mustangs, who became the sinew that held the pieces together, at least in my mind.

When I accidentally stumbled into Disappointment Valley, I found that Disappointment was just what I needed to carry me through loss that still felt fresh and overwhelming. Being back on the Colorado Plateau in country familiar, near a river system I love, gave me (gives me!) mustangs, space, time, solitude, and constant inspiration. I couldn’t not write here. The book started pulling together.

When I had what I thought was a working manuscript, I started sending it out. Torrey House Press expressed interest in it, which ultimately gave me the impetus to rewrite and revise until collectively we had Desert Chrome, while the days and weeks alone in the cabin in Disappointment Valley (I mean without other people around) allowed me to meet deadlines and finish the book.

Rebecca Lawton: You write your passion for nature, water, and wild creatures so beautifully. Can you remark on how you’re able to access your emotional ties to these things when you’re removed from them to put words on the page?

Kathryn Wilder: Much of my writing happens outside at the cabin, sitting on the porch overlooking the creek and canyon, with long views in every direction. From there I’ve watched a coyote try to kill a fawn and get fought off by the fawn’s formidable mother; bears daintily stripping three-leaf sumac branches of berries with their big paws; mustangs grazing and shading up in an afternoon. I’ve followed the drag marks of a mountain lion kill to the doe the lion covered with detritus and watched bobcats watch me as we crossed a road. Golden eagles often fly overhead.

At the ranch headquarters, which is miles closer to town, I’ve watched 200 elk crossing a pasture, fawns chasing each other around like calves, and foxes lurking near the chicken coop. Bald eagles winter here.

I do not feel removed from, but rather part of, the world around me. I have made life choices that keep me close to that which buoys me through whatever emotional turmoil I might encounter. Sometimes there are walls between the bears and me, say, but those walls are not barriers between my heart and the sun, land, and water. To access that necessary emotional connection, I simply stop, breathe, look, feel, listen. It’s all there, if I pay attention.

Rebecca Lawton: When your subjects get the most intense, your writing slips into stream-of-consciousness, heartbeat-fast prose. I believe this part of your style has grown bigger with the writing of Desert Chrome. Is that true?

Kathryn Wilder: That’s very interesting. In a way I think I’ve been writing like this for years, but editors and publishers repeatedly rejected earlier pieces of a similar style. Now the publishing world seems to have come round to welcoming literary voices that sing prose in a different rhyme and meter than were popular 25 years ago. Writers like Lidia Yuknavitch are leading the lyric writing trend found in workshops and MFA programs today.

An example: In 2019, I published a small piece I’d written in the early 90s—it had been rejected dozens of times, but I pulled it up, dusted it off, and sent it out yet again. The publisher said that piece was one of the bravest things she’d ever read. Maybe the world is finally ready to hear the raw voice of a woman’s pain.

When I first taught freshman composition at Northern Arizona University in 1991, I used Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind as a textbook. The students and I began every class with a ten-minute “writing practice,” as Natalie called it (in years prior the practice had been referred to as free-writing). The rules of Natalie’s writing practice I still remember and use most often are keep your hand moving and go for the jugular. The voice that shows up in some of the Detritus sections of Desert Chrome comes from that practice.

I think if you put a mountain lion in an airplane she would be terrified to death. She needs soil, detritus, solitude, and a river nearby to survive. So do I.

Rebecca Lawton: The Detritus sections are written in an absorbing, gripping voice. And you’ve said you write in three distinct voices in the book. How would you describe them?

Kathryn Wilder: I hear three voices in this book. One is what you’ve described, the unfiltered voice. One is that of the narrator, the teller of the overall story. Third is a more journalistic voice—though I’m not a journalist and don’t presume to be—a studied voice that I seem to slip into when writing about the natural history of horses, biology, and geology, say.

Rebecca Lawton: Your portrayal of childhood sexual abuse events especially reflects an emotional rawness and heightened intensity. I imagine the terrifying ride I took while reading these passages felt somewhat like your experience writing them. Is that true?

Kathryn Wilder: Writing about something uncomfortable can indeed be uncomfortable; writing about something horrific can be horrible. Yes. Some passages unearthed me. Turned me inside out. After years of various forms of therapy, this surprised me—that I could still be so easily retraumatized. That’s post-traumatic stress disorder in action.

Rebecca Lawton: You also share, with much courage, the loss of beloved friends and family—your friend Rebecca, your lover Craig, your father and stepfather, your sons to custody battles—and how you responded. Was writing these events painful? Transformative? Enlightening?

Kathryn Wilder: Writing about the custody loss is the most painful thing, still. Because I can never recover those lost years with my sons. Imagine watching your three-year-old through the window of another woman’s car, his big blue eyes looking at you until you can’t see them anymore, his blonde head becoming smaller and smaller until even the car is gone, and then you see him months later and he has grown and changed without your knowing, without your involvement. Writing about this trauma has helped me put things in perspective, but what happened still happened.

My “cure” back then was drugs, and when I got clean while in the creative writing master’s program at Northern Arizona University, the cure became writing. In all these years without the use of drugs, I just keep writing. Writing is the flotation device upon which I can rest when in deep water. It has been since I was a child. Before drugs. Before horses even. Now if I’m not writing it’s usually because I’m outside, checking cattle ahorseback, doing chores, watching my grandkids climb trees. Those activities are cures in themselves. But when I get back home or alone and a horror hovers like a wave about to break, I turn to my pen. In the ocean, I would dive under that wave. In the desert, I dive into more writing. In part, Desert Chrome was that—helping me survive the overwhelming loss of three key people in my life dying so close together. Writing, like mustangs, gave me focus. Reason to be. And, eventually, writing gave me clarity.

Desert Chrome book and mustangs in the west.
Photo by TJ Holmes.

Rebecca Lawton: Healing happens in so many ways in your book, from multiple, cumulative traumas. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it felt to pull those threads together.

Kathryn Wilder: I have looked at my life as a handful of different lifestyles—junky, cowgirl, river girl, Maui girl, paddler—and not known how to weave those lives, or me, together. The themes that recur are water, horses, motherhood, writing, and wildness—whether that be the open ocean between Moloka‘i and O‘ahu, facing Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon (as a passenger—I have never wanted to row it!), or watching a band of wild horses. I guess heroin had an element of wildness to it—certainly of danger. Were these escapes from trauma? Perhaps, but I think now that what they really offered me was connection, to the Earth, to the animal me, the whole me. Without that connection I become so ungrounded it scares me. Is that trauma-based? I think if you put a mountain lion in an airplane she would be terrified to death. She needs soil, detritus, solitude, and a river nearby to survive. So do I. So I have relied on what is consistent and used those consistencies to tell some of my story.

But—I have to say this—I did not plot this book or write with an intention of healing. In the moment of creation it’s about creation, not about me. The physical act of writing—words coming down my arm and out my pen—is such a gift and surprise that I’m usually just being in the moment with it, with that feeling, that joy. The rewriting of Desert Chrome brought the challenges of weaving me together, and that was hard, and so I relied on the metaphoric sinew of mustangs and the themes of me mentioned above: water, horses, wildness. Hmm. I guess that’s the subtitle of the book! And yes, it feels good to have found a way to explain me, even if just to me.

Rebecca Lawton: There is so much honesty here, things you’ve said you once hid from your mother, for instance, which have now come to light. How has sharing them affected your extended family in general?

Kathryn Wilder: My sons will likely not read this book, but my mother and sisters and cousin have, repeatedly. I have not asked them directly how they’ve been affected—I trust them to handle whatever comes up, and if there’s anything they want to talk to me about, I would welcome the conversation, especially if that request came from my sons. Beyond the messier facts, abandoned after Rebecca’s dream request, there is not a lot in here my sisters and mother didn’t know—over the years since I was in treatment, the general story of my addiction was revealed, so much of this hasn’t been a surprise.

Rebecca Lawton: Your family history goes back many generations through ranching life in California and Colorado. You founded Cachuma Ranch in part as a place for sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren to live and work. Can you comment on your background and your small-scale, family approach to raising beef cattle in the West?

The loudest objections to wild horses competing with other animals for feed and water come from those with cattle interests, including the government.

Kathryn Wilder: I’m fourth-generation Californian on both sides. The family brought sheep across the continent in the 1800s, buying into an established rancho on the California coast, which my great-grandfather then both purchased and inherited from his father, who died very young. My grandmother and her sisters were raised on that ranch and another in Santa Barbara County named Rancho el Cojo. Since early childhood I remember going to the Cojo.

A summer program had been established at the Cojo for the teenaged children of family members, but when I applied I learned that it was intended for boys only. When I was rejected I was told that ranch life was somehow beneath me and that I should aspire higher—I have that letter somewhere—and so I met and married a cowboy, just like my Aunt Sister had done, cowboying alongside my husband for the ten years we were together. Rebellious perhaps, but I was determined to follow the dream I had inherited from Sister and my grandmother and great-grandfather.

When I left my husband, the ranch, and ranch life behind, I felt the void—the loss of the lifestyle and animals I loved—but soon I entered the creative writing graduate program at NAU and writing all those words saved me. When 20ish years later I reunited with Ken, my cowboy son, I found this ranch in Colorado and made a huge decision based on hope, hurt, and naiveté, naming it for Sister’s ranch, and here we are: my son, daughter-in-law, two grandkids, and my son Tyler when he’s not ocean or river surfing.

We raise a heritage breed of cattle, and the cows weigh an average of 400 pounds less than those the majority of Western ranchers raise for commercial markets. Our Criollo cows are desert-adapted browsers, and their impact on the land is much less than that of the typical Hereford, Angus, or Charolaise breeds. Horned cattle, Criollos are equipped to deal with predator threats, and they are very protective. And smart. Many of my cows know their names.

We sell grass-fed-and-finished beef at the local farmers’ markets, to a food co-op, and to a great restaurant in Cortez, The Farm Bistro, which celebrates locally raised meats and produce. We have wonderful, loyal customers—some older and health-compromised—who rave about our beef, because they know it is natural, organic, and hormone- and antibiotic-free. When I went grain- and soy-free years ago for my own health reasons, I switched from eating commercial beef to grass-fed only and noticed a huge difference in how I felt. Our customers enjoy the same experience.

The Criollo cows are my day job. In a good (non-drought) year, I winter with them in Disappointment Valley, calve them out in Disappointment, and summer with them at our cow camp high up on the western edge of the San Juan range of the Rockies. Cattle (like mustangs) are a controversial subject, and it is my belief that running this small breed of cattle where someone else would run huge cows is a good thing, lessening the impact on the land and leaving more feed for wildlife. On one of our parcels we work closely with the Nature Conservancy, and they have been thrilled with the health of our range and riparian areas. This means so much to me, as does working closely with my family.

Mustangs
Photo by TJ Holmes.

Rebecca Lawton: Your landing in Disappointment Valley in part to ranch (and to write) brought you in touch with mustangs again, with your friend and fellow mustang advocate TJ Holmes, and with a passion for helping save wild lives. You write in the book that you’d known mustangs before. How long had it been since your original encounters with mustangs, and how was this different?

Kathryn Wilder: I landed in Disappointment as a place to enjoy solitude and to write. First came mustangs, then finding the cabin, then meeting TJ, then advocacy. Ranching here came several years later.

I had first seen mustangs some 40 years earlier, but the only one I knew personally was Craig’s mustang Patty. Things were changing in the mustang world back then with the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, but I was only peripherally aware of it. As a kid I was against slaughter and horse meat in dog food, and I loved wild horses in a girlish, romantic way, but watching the wild herd with whom I now share a fence and learning the family bands—stallions, mares, their offspring, the lieutenant stallions—and bachelor bands and lone stallions brings everything closer to my heart. They are my neighbors, and I value them as I do all my wild neighbors. I will fight to protect them just as I will fight to protect my grandkids and my sons. So the difference is, perhaps, that 50 years ago when I first saw mustangs, I loved them; now I see them, know them, and love them.

Rebecca Lawton: In Desert Chrome, you remind us that horses evolved in North America and as such you consider them a native species. The single-toed Equus of today does well in steppe ecosystems and can out-compete other grazers struggling to cope in our changing world and intensifying climate. Can you explain your advocacy in the book for increased use of fertility control versus other means used to offset Equus’s potential competitive advantages?

Mustang and foal
Photo by Anthony Wright, courtesy Pixabay.

Kathryn Wilder: The loudest objections to wild horses competing with other animals for feed and water come from those with cattle interests, including the government.

To understand issues surrounding competition among grazers, we have to look at human intervention in today’s lack of predation. If you take away predation as a source of natural selection and reproduction control, you create problems. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt thinned predators in northern Arizona in the early 1900s to protect the deer herd of the Kaibab Plateau. In 1905, the Kaibab deer numbered about 4,000. In 1906, Roosevelt banned hunting there. In 1907, predator extermination began, and by 1925 the deer population had increased to 100,000. In 1926, it was estimated that 60,000 deer had starved to death over the previous two winters. Still, predator control continued and, by 1939, the killing of 816 mountain lions, 20 wolves, 7,388 coyotes, and more than 500 bobcats had been logged. Eventually hunting had to be relied upon as the means to maintain the predator-prey balance.

Apparently we have not learned the Kaibab lesson. As I say in Desert Chrome, some “mustang advocates” want nothing at all done to manage wild horse populations, which will ultimately result in mass starvation. Others, such as journalist David Philipps in Wild Horse Country, advocate for the return of natural predators, especially mountain lions. I am all for this, but the government is not, as evidenced by the numbers of permitted lion hunters prowling the back roads of Disappointment Valley each winter.

Slaughter was a popular option for controlling wild horse populations in the past, but the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed to protect them from this horrendous death and other harassments. Among government agencies, removal seems to be the most popular method for controlling mustang populations.

Is there another solution? Yes. As I explain in Desert Chrome, fertility control with porcine zona pellucida (a vaccine made from pig ovaries) is humane, reversible, and inexpensive, costing the government about $30 per darted mare per year. Volunteers are at the ready, with many already in the field. The Bureau of Land Management could be doing this all over the West. Why they don’t is the question.

Removal and housing wild horses cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually. I’d like to see the federal government support and fully implement a plan to vaccinate more mares, prevent pregnancies, and let wild horses remain wild while supporting healthy herds and rangelands.

Rebecca Lawton: I found it heartening to read about your family and the land (and about your desire for waters and wildness that led you to your current home). In sharing about them, you’ve written a moving love story. It’s a triumph of spirit stitched into a creative process you’ve engaged with for decades. Were there other loves you just didn’t have room to fit into the book?

Leaving Hawai‘i is one of the harder things I’ve done, and I haven’t yet found the courage to really write about it.

Kathryn Wilder: Thank you for asking this. It was hard to figure out how to incorporate the different lives I’ve lived into one story, as I mentioned before. I touched on Hawai‘i, and paddling, sailing, Kaho‘olawe, and Maka, but there is so much more to all of that than I could put into a book about mustangs. Plus leaving Hawai‘i (as both a child and later as an adult) is one of the harder things I’ve done, and I haven’t yet found the courage to really write about it.

I also only touched on the river. You know better than most how important rivers are to our psyches and spirit. I have not written from my present perspective about how much the river has meant to me—as with Hawai‘i, there is pain there, some of which has to do with the awareness that I am not and never will be the boater I aspired toward in my 40s. Auwē!

Rebecca Lawton: May you keep on boating and reclaiming lost aspects of those lives. Any ideas of what writing comes next for you?

Kathryn Wilder: I have several essays in the works and my next book-length project is underway. It’s a collection of literary and lyric essays about the beauty and wonder of the Colorado Plateau. In these harsh times, when despair hovers like that wave of horror, sometimes I have to remember to seek out joy. It’s there, in wild horses and wild rivers, in a quiet night sky, the touch of a hand, a dog’s tail speaking—and it’s essential that I keep noticing and writing down what I see.
 

Catch up with Kathryn Wilder at wilderhorses.live.
 

   

Rebecca LawtonRebecca Lawton is a fluvial geologist and former Grand Canyon river guide. Her recent books include the Nautilus Book Award-winner The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019) and her first chapbook of poetry, Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She’s at work on a memoir about becoming one of the first boatwomen on the Colorado River in the 1970s. Read about her at beccalawton.com.

Header photo by Akif Oztoprak, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Rebecca Lawton by Paul Christopulos.

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