Peter Anderson has written “Heading Home: Field Notes,” a collection of flash prose and prose poems exploring rural life and the modern day eccentricities of the American West and “First Church of the Higher Elevations,” a collection of essays on wildness, mountain places, and the life of the spirit. He lives with his family on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado, where he launched the Crestone Poetry Festival, an annual gathering of southwestern poets.

SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to put together this collection? Where did the theme originate?

Peter Anderson: After coming west to Colorado College in 1974, I got interested in the literature of the region. The geography of Colorado, which was especially compelling to me as a newcomer from the northeast, led to an interest in the ways that landscape affects people. 

Reading people like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and Wallace Stegner, all of whom, in their various ways, celebrate the virtue of getting to know one’s place, laid out my path. I wanted to be a good student of this region’s history, natural history, and literature. That desire eventually led me into graduate work in American Studies at the University of Wyoming, where I took a deep dive, for a few years, into the literature and history of the West. 

That continued for another year in Moab, Utah, where I worked as publications manager at Canyonlands Natural History Association and was thoroughly immersed in literature related to the Colorado Plateau. Almost all of my work since then, most of it back here in Colorado, has been devoted, in some way, to deepening the map so to speak. 


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The act of reading and writing about those parts of the West where I have chosen to live, most recently on the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo Range in the San Luis Valley, has done that for me. It has been an important part of making a home.

SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

Anderson: Tom “Dr. Colorado” Noel has devoted himself, with great passion, to celebrating the history of this fine state, so I was really excited when he agreed to write a foreword for the book. It seemed like the best excerpt to feature in the Sun because it conveys, in a concise and focused way, the incredible range of literary voices who have had something to say about Colorado.

SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project as you began choosing pieces to include? 

Anderson: I love maps. I’ve spent a lot of time getting lost in them. They can be a kind of springboard into the recollection of a place. They can also invite us into conjuring the possibilities of travel, exploration, or even the inhabitation of a place. Maps are a kind of shorthand that represents our knowledge and experience of any given geography. 

But they can only approximate the nature of the places themselves. For example, landscapes evoke emotion, some of it personal, some of it of a more universal nature — almost anyone would be thrilled to see the Rockies on the horizon for the first time. A map can’t really convey the emotional dimensions of experiencing a place, but a good piece of writing can. So the idea of gathering material for a kind of literary map of the state seemed like a worthwhile endeavor. 

I also love roads and I like to drive. For 10 years I taught writing at Adams State down in Alamosa, which is about an hour’s drive south of here via County Road T and Highway 17.  Other than the occasional challenges of staying alert on the road after a day of teaching, it was a delight to witness the changing weather and  light across the San Luis Valley throughout the school year. 

It was also a contemplative way of entering into the work day and coming home from experiences with students and colleagues.  “Windshield time,” as Sureva Towler says in the book, “is good for the soul.” So the idea of revisiting many roads traveled in Colorado (as well as some old friends and old haunts) in the process of gathering material for this book had a lot of appeal, as did the promise of fresh geography seen from roads I had yet to drive. The most compelling reason for all the travel was to learn more about my home territory. 

It was also an opportunity to revisit and reflect on different parts of the state where I’d been fortunate to live: Colorado Springs, the Upper Arkansas Valley, the Four Corners, and the San Luis Valley. Each of those places represents a different cultural and geographical region of the state. Approaching this project from the perspective of Colorado’s different watersheds and the regions associated with them was an important part of organizing the material in the book. 

SunLit: What did the process of editing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter – in this case, the physical and cultural landscape of Colorado?

Anderson: I had spent 40 years living in or near the mountains of Colorado with only occasional forays into the eastern part of the state, mostly on my way to another destination. So I looked forward to getting more acquainted with the Eastern Plains. 

Those who are obsessed with vertical landscapes will tell you that eastern Colorado, the other Colorado from their point of view, is nothing but flatland, a description that holds true only if you aren’t paying attention. Though more subtle than the more famous mountain geography further west, the geography of the Eastern Plains is more diverse and complex than one might think. 

In addition to vast stretches of short grass prairie and various kinds of agricultural lands, there are canyons, washes, swales, and rolling mesas; there are sand hills, buttes, arroyos and wide-ranging river valleys. The Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was as moving and provocative as any landscape in the state. Some of my favorite excerpts in the book, from writers like Kent Haruf and Sanora Babb, not to mention Mark Twain, came from this region.  

“Reading Colorado”


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Another takeaway from a lengthy road trip around Colorado was the way in which the influences from surrounding states were evident along our borders . . . a stronger Mormon presence out toward the Utah border, the libertarian cowboy ethos of Wyoming in the north; hardscrabble agrarian values akin to farming and ranching cultures in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma in the east, as well as traces of older ways and traditions from New Mexican villages and pueblos to the south. The cultural nuances of Colorado from town to town and region to region are far more diverse than a casual visitor might appreciate. 

SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in compiling this collection?

Anderson: When I set out to gather materials for the book, I was open to any genre — letters, journals, memoir, history, fiction, poetry, journalism — as long as the writer knew about a particular part of the state and had something of interest to say about it. 

Thirty-five hundred miles and a few months into the project, I came home with folders of maps, brochures, and many pages of copied excerpts found in museums, libraries and visitor centers all over the state. The amount of material was staggering. Isolating the most compelling passages was only part of the work that followed. I also had to think about the geographical distribution of the material so that all regions of the state were appropriately represented. 

Determining how roads and regions would frame the material took a while. Others have delineated various regions in the state, but I felt that I needed, for the purposes of the book, to break it down even further. A category like Southeastern Colorado might include everything from the San Luis Valley out to the plains east of Trinidad, which were all part of Mexico until the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, but there were enough geographical and cultural differences within that frame to warrant further division. For example, the San Luis Valley is a place with its own unique cultural geography, and its own literature, and I wanted the book to reflect that. 

SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this collection, what would that be? 

Anderson: I hope that this book will deepen the map for those who spend some time with it. We all develop a kind of inward sense of our geography based on our experiences in various places. 

I hope that the material in this book illuminates that inward geography somehow. That the experiences and insights of various writers who know the lay of the land in some part of the state, will add to our own understanding of Colorado.  As the great farmer poet Wendell Berry once said, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?

Anderson: I am so grateful for libraries and librarians. Libraries are a sanctuary for many of us. They are quiet places that allow us to explore and imagine and evolve as readers and thinkers. 

In the course of gathering material for this book, I found refuge in many of Colorado’s finest libraries and I found support from lots of great librarians. Not only do librarians serve as our guides when we need to find a certain book, maybe even one we don’t yet know about, they also help us gain access to the materials we know we need but can’t get our hands on. 

Librarians were crucial in gathering material for this book as they have been for any other project I’ve ever worked on. But more than that, librarians are advocates for the kind of deep democracy that guarantees us the freedom to read whatever we choose, not what others want to choose for us. In many cases, they put their livelihoods on the line in defense of that freedom. They are America’s quiet heroes who deserve to be recognized as such, and who deserve our full-hearted support.

SunLit: Walk us through the editing process that goes into compiling a collection like this. 

I’ve already mentioned the gathering, selection, and organizing parts of the process. But those steps can only happen after there is a clear concept of the project. Many questions come up in the process of gaining clarity at this stage, which have to do with various  criteria for gathering material: What is the topical focus? What genres will be considered? What kind of time frame are we talking about? Contemporary, historical? How far back? Are there certain authors who must be included for the anthology to adequately represent a region’s literary tradition?

Some years back, I was lucky to be part of a group of Colorado writers and poets, led by Denver Poet Laureate, Chris Ransick, who met periodically to shape the concept for an anthology of Colorado literature. Chris had been part of a similar project in Montana, which resulted in a massive anthology called “The Last Best Place,” edited by Bill Kittredge and Annick Smith among others. 

As things turned out, Chris had to move for health reasons, and some of our momentum left with him. But a few us continued the conversation, which ultimately led to approaching this anthology project, not as the Colorado version of “The Last Best Place” — none of us had the time or resources for that — but rather as a kind of scrapbook of place-based literature related to Colorado, organized in a road guide format.  

The other important part of putting an anthology together is researching and pursuing permissions to use various passages. Knowing some of the writers helps. But inevitably, this phase also requires some detective work in order to track down the appropriate contacts and publishers. The detective work can be fun, but the entire permissions process can also be exhausting. 

SunLit: Were there any anecdotes that emerged from dealing with so many authors, whether contemporary writers or the representatives of those who have died? 

Anderson: I had only a few face to face contacts with contributors to the anthology, although that will change as we begin to set up readings and events around the state. But some of my correspondence was rich, including some telephone conversations with members of David Lavender’s family, whose enthusiasm for this project I really appreciated. 

In my view, Lavender was an underrated Colorado author who wrote beautifully about the state, mostly as a historian but also as a storyteller. I loved his description of the Continental Divide. He said that the path of the Divide as it snakes through Colorado — bending east then west, but always heading south — resembles a badly abused crankshaft. Getting to know more of his material, and visiting with his family over the phone, was a delight. 

Many authors were also really generous in sharing material. I enjoyed corresponding with Amy Irvine, a writer who lives out near the Utah border and whose work I admire. When I told her about the project, she sent me a breathtaking and previously unpublished essay about a mountain lion encounter, which is a great read. 

SunLit: Tell us about your next project.

Anderson: As with just about everything I’ve written, upcoming projects grow out of the geographies I’ve come to know and love. I have a brief collection of short essays and prose poems, written originally for a Colorado Central column called Dispatches from the Edge, that are focused on my home ground here on the western slope of the Sangres. 

I’m also working on a mystery set in a town that bears some resemblance to the town of Crestone. A little further afield, I am working on a book about personal maps, how we invent them and live in them, and how it affects our sense of self and place. 

Quick hits: 10 more quirky questions

SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of editing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?

Anderson: Editing has so many different dimensions in a project like this. All of the gathering and selecting of passages to include is the heart of the editor’s work, which is deeply satisfying as the project starts to take its shape. 

Then of course there’s writing and editing introductions and other copy. I always enjoy editing and fine-tuning a piece of writing in the same way I might enjoy whittling on the front porch if that was my medium. The only part of the editing process that can be tedious is the copy editing at the very end of the pre-printing part of publishing.  

Reading a manuscript for the umpteenth time, looking for a misspelling or some missing punctuation gets old, but it’s no less necessary, and comes with its own small rewards.

SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?

Anderson: I was kind of a late starter. I didn’t start publishing until I was in my late 20s. Those first pieces of writing that got into print were related to the Upper Arkansas Valley where I lived at the time. My first publication was a small book about an old mining town called St. Elmo. I was mighty pleased when that book (“From Gold to Ghosts”) rolled off the presses, even though the writing itself was pretty basic. Another early project, written when I was a cub reporter with the Mountain Mail, was a weekly column called Sense of Place. Those early essays were fun to write and deepened an interest in place-based writings. 

SunLit: When you look back at your own early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?

Anderson: It’s been a great ride and I’ve had the chance for some do-overs, which I appreciate. Since I self-published the St. Elmo book I was able to tweak it, as needed, with each new edition. In another situation, a Denver start-up called Ghost Road Press published “First Church of the Higher Elevations,” a collection of autobiographical essays on mountains and the life of the Spirit. A few years after Ghost Road went belly up and that book disappeared with them, Conundrum Press, an imprint of Bower House Books, decided to reprint it, so I had the opportunity to revise it and add a new introduction. 

Every new book feels like the best one yet, although the last three or four are very different projects, so it’s hard to compare them. 

SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why? 

Anderson: I would choose three of my favorite poets: Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser, and William Stafford. Kooser is still around, so who knows, maybe we’ll cross paths. In the case of Harrison and Stafford, both of whom I met briefly, any further conversation will have to take place in the hereafter if there is such a thing.

But if I could, I would invite these three, in part because we share so many interests: roads, birds, rivers, walking, wild places and the critters that live there, as well as the great mystery of it all, not to mention the pursuit of a soulful time on this old rock and the role that writing can play in helping us along that trail

SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?

Anderson: William Stafford had such a welcoming approach to writing. I often turned to one of his most famous comments while I was teaching. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block…” he said, “just lower your standards.” In other words, the initial phase of writing is all about openness and receiving what comes,  the evaluation and editing phase can come later.

SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?

Anderson: They would find an entire wall of books or poetry. Other large sections are focused on geography and the natural world, the literature of the West, and religion (especially Quakerism, Taoism, and other contemplative traditions). 

I guess I would make sense of this by going back to William Stafford. He once referred to the two rivers in his writing life: one represents his external life — places, people, events; the other has to do with the inward flow of thoughts and emotions. His writing life was the confluence of those two rivers. That rings true with my own experience. 

SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you work?

Anderson: Mostly silence, but sometimes a little jazz — Bill Frizzell, Bill Evans, Miles Davis. 

SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer/editor?

Anderson: I came to one of those Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do? moments when I was around 28. For most of my 20s, I had been working seasonal jobs — river guide during summers, carpenter the rest of the year — and I was ready for something else. Writing, in some form, came to mind. I’d had a mentor along the way who had lavished some heartfelt praise on my academic writing. So I thought I’d see if I could find a way forward as a word wrangler, first writing and self-publishing a small book, then reporting and writing for a small mountain newspaper. 

SunLit: As an editor, what do you most fear?

Anderson: In an anthology, I guess the fear would be that you miss or neglect an important piece of writing that really should have been included. Editing any publication, there’s always the uneasy anticipation of the inevitable typos and glitches and that kind of thing, which you will hear about from the writers themselves or from their readers. You just hope that your oversight, whatever it is, doesn’t detract too much from the writers’ hard work

SunLit: Also as an editor, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?

Anderson: A good book well received. 

The Colorado Sun

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