The beauty — and dangers — of living wild

Two new fearless memoirs deliver stories of pragmatism and boundless courage.

 

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 who embrace life in extremis, 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.”

In Rough Beauty and Off Trail, two women find companionship with their dogs during times of solitude.
Jon Paciaroni/ Getty images

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 forty,” 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. Too, the lengthy timespan covered by both books offers 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.

Republish Print
NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Live in a spectacular part of the West and work with great people to build power and win! The Western Organization of Resource Councils is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - MONTANA WATERSHED COORDINATION COUNCIL
    About MWCC: The Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) is a dynamic network advancing the Watershed Approach to conservation across Montana. The Watershed Approach is a...
  • COALITION FOR THE UPPER SOUTH PLATTE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    http://cusp.ws/jobs
  • GENTLE WILD HORSES NEED HOMES
    Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance gentles and finds homes for mustangs. With every day, more homes are needed for wonderful loving horses. Can you Save a...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Colorado Conservancy is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to build on growing regional impact within the current strategic plan. This is a...
  • WESTERN MONTANA FIELD COORDINATOR
    Job Title: Western Montana Field Coordinator Reports to: Programs and Partnerships Director Compensation: $33,000 - $37,000, plus competitive health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation leave....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Please send a resume and cover letter including salary requirements to [email protected] The Madison River Foundation is a fast growing, non-profit that preserves, protects, and...
  • CAMPAIGN OUTREACH ASSISTANT - SALMON AND STEELHEAD
    The Campaign Outreach Assistant will be responsible for grassroots efforts to organize, empower and mobilize supporters to take action in support of ICL's salmon and...
  • OWN YOUR DREAM - TAOS BIKE SHOP FOR SALE
    Gearing Up, well established, profitable, full service bicycle shop. MLS #103930. Contact: 435-881-3741.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • PLANNING MANAGER - FORT COLLINS NATURAL AREAS
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Canyons Association seeks an Executive Director to join a motivated board of directors, an experienced staff, and a strong national following at an important...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • LOOKING FOR EXPERIENCED FARMER
    for 25-year certified organic vegetable farm. Business arrangements flexible. 7 acres raised beds. Excellent infrastructure. NW Montana. Contact: [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM NM MOUNTAIN VALLEY HOME
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION & STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a wildly enthusiastic person to develop curriculum and educational, stewardship, and ecological restoration goals for a new grant-funded program.
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE, NOVO FOUNDATION
    About NoVo Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social...
  • SEEKING ORGANIC FARMER/RANCHER TENANT
    Large garden, current garlic production, small cottage, barn cats, small herd of livestock, poultry flock; some experience necessary; Union, OR. Contact: [email protected]
  • PERU: WEAVING WORDS & WOMEN ADVENTURE
    April 2020. A 13-day women-only immersion into the culture of Peru led by Page Lambert and True Nature Journeys. Includes Machu Picchu. Graduate credit available...