Kathryn Wilder’s work has been cited in Best American Essays, nominated for the Pushcart Prize and other awards, and has appeared in several publications and anthologies. A graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Wilder was a finalist for the 2016, 2019, and 2022 Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers Award; and 2018 finalist for the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. She lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado, where she ranches with her family in the Dolores River watershed.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Kathryn Wilder: Some chapters in “Desert Chrome” started as essays, a form I love, partly because I can see an end as I write them. I published an op-ed about mustangs in “High Country News” and a couple of mustang essays in “High Desert Journal,” and knew I wanted to tell more of the mustang story. At the same time, I needed a place to hold some of the grief I experienced when my best friend OD’d followed by the deaths of my two fathers, which also triggered some earlier losses. As an MFA student at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a thesis seemed like a good container, and I started working toward a longer form, transitioning essays into chapters, writing about the losses. Living next door to mustangs in southwestern Colorado, I was also gathering lots of new material.
This is a non-linear answer to say that mine was not a linear process—I did not know what the theme really was until I was well into the book; I just knew I had to keep writing. I completed my thesis and graduated before discovering a way to describe the basic storyline. At a writing workshop on the Snake River in Hells Canyon, I was standing near the bank of a big eddy talking with another participant, Monica Cary, when she asked what my book was about (this was before I had its end in sight, or a publisher). I floundered for a minute and then said, as if I’d known all along, “It’s about a woman lost in grief who finds her way out by following mustangs.” That simple comprehension carried me through to the end of the story, and I thank Monica for that. It still fits today.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Colorado is an amazing state, with its unique tapestry of the Great Plains, Front Range, Rocky Mountains, Western Slope, and the Colorado Plateau (named not for the state but for the river and river basin that characterize it).
This excerpt comes from the chapter “Mustang Dust,” about halfway into the book, which places the narrator in a remote area of the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau, in a landscape much different from the Front Range or the Rockies, which are what many people picture when they think of Colorado. I wanted to give readers a sense of the part of the Colorado Plateau that’s actually in Colorado. This desert melds with southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico as if there were no artificial lines separating the states, only a movement of geology oblivious to mapping and geography that would later create the Four Corners and Western Slope.
Sometimes when looking backward we can see events leading up to decisions that mark turning points in our lives. This excerpt—from a few hours of a simple drive along random highways—is a turning point in the book and in the narrator’s life, when I first see a band of Colorado’s wild horses. Unlike other events that I might not recognize as turning points until later, when I saw those horses my personal world came crashing back into alignment, in a good way. The best way. The way love can feel, and then guide.
It was those wild horses who led me out of lost into the next phase of my life. Much to my surprise—because this is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place, I mean since birth, though I actually move back and forth between mustang cabin and ranch headquarters—those horses are still my neighbors today.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
Maybe memoir is different from other literary nonfiction projects—at least for me. Because I’m simply living my life and writing about it. Or maybe my writing process differs from, say, a journalist’s. Rarely have I sat down to intentionally write about a topic.
I might have a feeling I want to express, or a first line comes to me in the shower or on the road or in a dream, or I see something I want to give words to, or I’m sitting on a rock and writing about everything I can see and sense from that viewpoint. These short thoughts may become vignettes that weave into a bigger piece, like an essay, or they may live forever in journal pages.
I was already writing when I “found” mustangs. Maybe this is because I’m always writing. Then mustangs started showing up more often in what I was writing, because they were becoming more part of my life. When I knew, kind of as an afterthought, that I wanted to write about mustangs, research and travel followed.
And then I knew PZP (fertility control) had to be part of the story. And so I went to Billings, Montana, for PZP training at the Science and Conservation Center—more experiences, more story. And then the wrestling of all this into a form that might flow. A river just works her way down. I had to work backwards and upwards and downwards. That’s where good readers and editors come in (the readers with whom I shared drafts and the editors at Torrey House Press)—they helped me see the course the book needed to take.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
When I write fiction, the characters lead and I follow. Because this was nonfiction and I was, by default, the main character, I had a harder time following that lead. Because who would want to read about me? Again, mustangs helped. They became the river. My backstory had to flow into their story, which helped me select and shape material.
It kind of worked like this: I didn’t want to write about being a heroin addict. But later, when I’m struggling with a situation at 19 years clean, it becomes necessary to say I was a drug addict, hence the struggle. But just to drop in heroin addiction without backstory isn’t fair to the reader, so I had to insert a why. I didn’t want to write about abuse, either, but that was a why, so a dusting of abuse shows up.
Although painful, the thread I did want to write about was losing custody of my kids when they were little. Mustangs helped me do that. They helped me understand, so many years later. Watching family bands and how tightly the band members stick together, how important their social fabric is to their survival, helped me understand what I experienced when the fabric of my life was ripped apart.
Like helicopter roundups ripping apart family bands. Making the parallel between their losses and mine was not intentional, yet it helped me greatly. Mustangs helped me with everything. Writing about mustangs was mostly easy. It’s much easier to write about love than to write about pain.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered, in completing this book?
Being an essayist, I find comfort in the short form, and I had trouble seeing the book as a whole thing. I just couldn’t hold it all in my head. So one of the biggest surprises is that I finished writing a book, one that I think makes sense—the narrative thread may fray but it doesn’t break: There is a woman who finds and follows mustangs and here she is!
The biggest challenge was that I got hurt at a crucial time. Did I say that my day job is ranching? So this is from the other part of my life:
We moved the cows to the high country on summer solstice, and as the cow-calf pairs mothered up I noticed a sick heifer. In the morning my son Ken and I set out ahorseback – my other son, Tyler, on the side-by-side, to check the cattle and find the sick calf. My rope down and loop built, I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it.
Ken saw the heifer, moved in close, and as his loop settled over the heifer’s head I stepped off my mare and Tyler ran over. We both grabbed the rope and Tyler flanked the calf, lying her down on her side and removing the rope as I settled upon her, a knee on her chest and one on her neck, holding her foreleg bent and back so she couldn’t use it to get up, Tyler putting the loop over her two hind hooves and holding her tightly. My bad knee in the wrong position, I shifted my weight slightly and in that second of release the heifer swung her head up in a great lunge for freedom and met my face with her skull.
I flopped back and Ken dismounted and I could see that the boys didn’t know what to do—doctor the calf or help their mother. “I’m okay,” I said—I was conscious—so they turned to the calf as I sat with my legs knotted beneath me and then they turned to me. “Are my teeth still there?” I said, pulling up my lip.
I was ahorseback again later that day, but a couple of weeks later, when Ken said, “You’ve been acting weird ever since that heifer hit you,” I called my doctor, who confirmed a concussion. She told me to stay off the computer—no more than an hour a day—and naturally that’s when the publisher sent the manuscript back with a long list of revisions and a deadline. I printed out a hard copy and conducted research the old-fashioned way—using real books. I could still ride and did so nearly every day. When the prescribed two months passed, I worked on the book 101 hours in one week, making all the changes on the computer and missing my deadline by a day.
That’s probably more story than you wanted.
The other biggest surprise: being a finalist in the Creative Nonfiction category of the 2022 Colorado Book Awards. I mean, I feel like I’m 8 and Daddy came home for the holidays.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Yes! There is so much controversy about wild horses in the West—between ranchers and mustang advocates, environmentalists, conservationists. Proponents of PZP. People who want mustangs left alone, no matter what (despite inevitable starvation in some herds); people who want mustangs removed, no matter what (despite the cost to taxpayers).
I simply say what I know to be true on the ranges where PZP is used—in Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area, our “home range” in southwestern Colorado; and the other HMAs in Colorado, and in Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and elsewhere that practice fertility control—PZP works if you use it.
Opinions go deeper than fertility control and other wild horse management practices. Often people want to talk about wild vs. feral, native vs. introduced, and where mustangs should be allowed to live—what terrain, what habitats. There are lots of questions, and many come with already-formed opinions.
I don’t want to argue. I want to share what I know from experience and firsthand observation, and answer questions about the book, and I love it when questions veer back to the writing itself.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
May I confess that my favorite time to work on a writing project is when I wake up early and can write in bed as the sun rises, no pressure to get up and face the day?
That seems to be when I get the most concentrated and fluid work done. That said, I love writing new material pretty much anywhere outside—beside a river or up at cow camp or on the beach (when I still lived in Hawaii) or even in my truck, watching a bobcat watch me or cows coming to water.
That new material is written by hand, the way I prefer it. When I integrate these random writings into a piece, I’m either inside by the woodstove in winter or outside on the porch overlooking Disappointment Creek in spring and fall. Summer often finds me up at cow camp with a hard copy in hand, editing, revising, because there’s no power (or running water) up there. I get more focused work done in the winter months. So I guess I could say that my writing process and practice has to adapt to place and season, as I do.
In the book you have what seem to be randomly placed short pieces you call “Detritus.” What are these and how did they come about? And why “Detritus”?
While I had to follow a loose chronology, I did not want to spend too much time in childhood or early adulthood, instead wanting to move through the last 10 years toward the present (the present is always past by the the time publication takes place; I’m referring to the teens as the last 10 years, 2020-2021 as present). Yet there were things I needed to tell. I found that I could get into a space of freewriting and get down the bones of what I wanted to write about, adding the meat later, and then stripping it back to bones.
In an interview with Traci Halesvass of KSJE in Farmington, New Mexico, she said isn’t that kind of how it is when we meet someone—we share pieces of backstory as we get to know each other, and over time we share less and less of the old and more of the new, the current story. That’s exactly what I was doing, though I didn’t see it quite that way until she said it.
As far as the word detritus, I was watching Disappointment Creek change through the seasons: The flash floods of summer would deposit silt and pinecones and pine needles and other kinds of debris in new places with each burst of river, and those deposits eventually became soil from which new growth would spring. I saw those bits of my past—painful or awful or just there—as the detritus from which I grew. Those experiences, like it or not, helped shape me into the woman I am today.
Tell us about your next project.
I have two next projects in the works, and by that I mean in my mind, in my journals, and on the computer, not accepted by a publisher.
One is a collection of essays (you know I love the short form), tentatively titled “Fragments of Water and other Elements of Life.” The essays, short and long, lyric and conventional, come from parts of my life that got somewhat neglected in “Desert Chrome”—Hawaii, the river—as well as from Disappointment Valley and the ranch. But essay collections are a hard sell, so that project might not get very far.
The other manuscript, with the working title of “The Last Cows,” focuses on the ranching part of my life, on our family history, heritage, and cows. It will require lots of research as I want to delve into the breed of cattle we run, why we do so, and whether or not the breed and our management practices justify running cattle of any kind in the desert and semi-arid lands.
Along with research and natural history, “The Last Cows” also will contain personal experience (memoir-ish writing) intermingled with the more objective story.
I just learned that my proposal for this project was a finalist for the 2022 Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers Award. I see that as a sign: Time to get to work.