Last week the Sarton Women’s Book Award announced their winners and finalists; Desert Chrome and I are honored to be among the finalists–thank you Story Circle Network! And Torrey House Press, always.
The week before, I learned that I had another essay listed as a Best American Essays “notable,” this one in Best American Essays 2022. “The Truth I Cannot Tell” was runner-up for the Kim Barnes Prize https://fuguejournal.com/news/winners-kim-barnes-prize and published in Fugue, Issue 61 in 2021 https://fuguejournal.com/issue-61.
After TJ Holmes and I went to the wonderful Out West Books https://www.outwestbooks.co in Grand Junction (standing room only!), Laurel Cole of the Women’s National Book Association published this interview in her Bookwoman column (I apologize for the formatting. I can’t find a way to link to the piece itself):
Special Feature: Author Interview with Kathryn Wilder
Desert Chrome: Water, a Woman, and Wild Horses in the West by Kathryn Wilder, “is a powerful story of Kathryn’s grief, motherhood, and return to the desert entwines with the story of America’s mustangs as Wilder makes a home on the Colorado Plateau, her property bordering a mustang herd. Desert Chrome illuminates these controversial creatures—their complex history in the Americas, their powerful presence on the landscape, and ways to help both horses and habitats stay wild in the arid West—and celebrates the animal nature in us all.”
“In Disappointment Valley, there is a sanctuary for the mustangs and the cabin is a sanctuary for me” -Kat Wilder
LC: Leaving is a consistent theme throughout the book. Since publishing Desert Chrome, how do you feel this has changed?
KW: When I was first working on Desert Chrome, I anticipated a lot of road travel to visit herd management areas across the West. And, in fact, along with TJ Holmes—documenter and darter of the Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area mustangs—I visited different herds and deserts as we did mustang errands and audited Buck Brannaman clinics. I also went on road trips alone, and this travel helped curb wanderlust, but the facts of my life changed prior to publication and I needed to stick closer to home.
Then Covid struck and we all slowed down. Desert Chrome had a release date of May 2021—any in-person events that followed were local. No big book tour or road trips. Covid didn’t change my day job much (ranching and cowboying)—that work actually increased—and so now that we are free to travel again, I’m not really able.
And yet, since publishing Desert Chrome two years ago, I’m actually starting to get the itch. I have to be careful. I am committed to the life I live—running the ranch with my son Ken, with the help of his wife and kids and his brother, Tyler. And I am committed to this corner of the Four Corners and the Colorado Plateau, which holds the ranch headquarters, the mustang cabin, and the mustangs with whom I share a fence. I am committed to them all, along with my own horses and cows, and I continue to rejoice about spending this time with my family. But—as my kids are quick to remind me—I’m getting older, and my time in the saddle may be limited, and so I have to think about what might come next. My need for movement has been satiated somewhat by the seasonal migrations between mustang cabin, cow camp, and ranch headquarters, but if that gets interrupted by age . . . what then?
LC: You discuss a lot of very painful memories. How did you decide to share your story publicly? Did you worry about your family’s reactions?
KW: Maybe part of the answer is that going deep is a style, and it’s just what I do—I’ve been writing raw for many years. If it’s too much for people, they can spare themselves and stop reading (I have to do this sometimes myself with other people’s work), but many people, particularly women, have thanked me for sharing the painful parts of the story. This “style” is also a survival tool. In treatment 31 years ago, and in NA, they emphasized tools to use to keep from using drugs. They did this repeatedly. Redundantly. Necessarily. Now when feelings come up that might do me in, I know I absolutely MUST pick up my pen or the phone—or go outside—instead of using. I’m still here because this has been my practice all these years.
I didn’t worry about my family’s reactions—they knew much of the story already. My sisters, mother, and one dear cousin read multiple drafts of Desert Chrome as a work-in-progress, so I don’t think anything in the published book surprised them. And my sons . . . they also know much of the story—at least that their mother is a recovering drug addict and survivor of sexual abuse—and they probably won’t read the rest, ha!
LC: The wanting. Your description of the emotion that moved you from place to place is powerful. How has that “wanting” transformed since finding your place in Disappointment Valley?
KW: The wanting I wrote about was an ability to read my na`au, my gut, that place of intuition, and by doing so I could listen for and sometimes hear the way forward. While married to my cowboy husband and since getting clean I have lived in wonderful places, so it wasn’t the places that I wanted to leave. It was more that I wanted to see something different. Disappointment Valley gives me something different all the time—mustangs, mountain lions, mule deer, amazing sunsets, flash floods, a place to write, my day job—and it has held that wanting beautifully. Now my na`au doesn’t seem to be working quite right—I don’t know what else to want!
Really I think that working hard, outside, with my family, and getting physically tired while experiencing such beauty and magic, fills the wanting place. I have been here for ten years—not just here in the valley and Dolores but here in basically two houses and on a cot at cow camp—and that’s about twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else other than Hawai`i, where I lived in one area for more than a decade but moved house four times. Before writing Desert Chrome my lifetime average was moving every year and a half. I’ll have to redo the math…
LC: The information you provide about the mustangs is concise and educational. How can readers become more involved with protecting the mustangs in a meaningful way?
KW: There are many ways to become involved in protecting mustangs. The best way to really make a difference is to connect with your area’s local advocacy group and learn what support is needed. Education is the first step in understanding what role a person can play in making a difference. After connecting with your local advocacy group, there are a variety of ways to become involved in a meaningful way. They’ll likely let you know what’s needed.
LC: You have overcome so many hardships in your life. If you could travel back in time and give your younger self a message, what would it be?
KW: Honor love above all. Love for family, animals, children, a partner, place, rivers, wildness. In that kind of love lives the divine—trust that.
LC: How has your life changed since publishing Desert Chrome?
KW: Desert Chrome came out while we were still in pandemic mode. Because of this, I didn’t do a lot of—or enough—in-person events, relying on Zoom along with the rest of the world. Still, I had to step out of my quiet little life with animals and talk to people—whether onscreen or in the flesh—and even though the book is heading toward its second birthday, that trend has continued. This actually thrills me: that people (such as yourself) are still interested, and still want to know more. I hope that continues to be true in the future—people wanting to know more about mustangs, recovery, and maybe me, even as time passes.
This has brought change to my writing life. Since most of my publications have been essays, articles, and some fiction, promotion wasn’t part of the gig. The magazine or literary review published the pieces over there, away from me. Mostly I didn’t meet my readers, though in Hawai`i I wrote for the in-flight magazines and everyone I knew flew inter-island. They would tell me they’d read an article, and I loved that—actually seeing and conversing with people who’d read something I wrote in the quiet spaces of my heart, head, and home. But I wasn’t doing readings, wasn’t doing the marketing. Now I spend part of most days on promotion, whether on Facebook, my blog, email, or on the phone talking to someone about the next event, or doing a Podcast or interview.
LC: Your journey of personal growth and recovery is evident. What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?
KW: The biggest challenge I faced with the material of my life was how to work it together into one piece. The things I did were lifestyles—even being a junky is a lifestyle—and I had looked at my life as if I’d had several—junky, cowboy, river girl, paddler. Each lifestyle occupied years, and I had no idea how to integrate those parts of me into one story. While writing, I realized that I am the common denominator—the different lifestyles were tributaries that flowed into me. Understanding this and giving room to those parts, those stories, helped me feel less fragmented and also helped me see what a full life I’ve had.
It’s funny, being a mother is also something I’ve done, but I don’t question its place in my life. It’s who I am, who I’ve consistently been for 38 years. Like being a writer, for much longer than that. I stopped being a junky (though I’m still a recovering drug addict) but I won’t stop being a mother or writer until, you know. It’s also like loving animals—I couldn’t not.
LC: What are you working on next?
KW: Three books are rolling around in my head and on my computer: a novel, also about mustangs; a book about cows; and an essay collection. I also continue to write individual essays.
Good for you!
Thank you, Pat!