Karen Auvinen prefers the company of foxes and pine trees to neighbors and traffic. For over twenty years, she’s lived remotely in the Colorado Rockies, filling her days with poetry, backcountry hiking, and long winding drives to the University of Colorado-Boulder where she teaches film and popular culture to hundreds of college freshmen.
But life wasn’t always this peaceful. In 2004, a fire ripped her life in two, leaving her and her dog, Elvis, thankfully unsinged, but empty of material belongings, including decades of journals and other writing. She was forced to start over.
She resumed her life in another remote cabin at an altitude that favored snow to rain—this time closer to Jamestown, Colorado, a community she initially tried to ignore. It took time, but she was able to start writing again and, eventually, the words she put on paper began to help her heal. While she initially tried to shield herself from close relationships, her dog—a husky rescue mix—had other ideas. His friendly nature became her ally and gave her an “in” within the close-knit mountain town where she finally allowed herself to be accepted and accepting of them, too.
In her book, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, Auvinen tells the story of her life, mixing in themes of self-preservation and perseverance following a ragged childhood to backcountry self-reliance. She traces the convoluted path that took her from a single woman wearing invisible armor to one that finds love twice: first, unconditionally, in her dog, Elvis, and, second, romantically, in Greg, an artist who shares her passion for the outdoors, but still lived fifty-five miles away.
Recently, I spoke with Karen about her inspiration for Rough Beauty, what it’s like to lose everything only to start over again, and why the mountains are her true kindred spirit.
The Rumpus: I actually found out about your book, Rough Beauty, through Twitter of all places and was instantly intrigued. I was in the middle of re-reading Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman for the fifth or sixth time and your book sounded like the modern-day equivalent. Were you at all influenced by LaBastille and her writing?
Karen Auvinen: I was influenced by her before I even wrote Rough Beauty. Woodswoman was the first book I read in my twenties where I thought, “Oh my god, I want to do that.” Growing up in my family and general society, the messages I got were that women should not go and live alone, they shouldn’t be out in the wilderness. I was so taken with LaBastille’s self-sufficiency. My life was nothing compared to hers… I mean, she floated logs across the lake and built her own cabin and that was astonishing to me. I was just so inspired because I was so hungry for role models and I think women in general are really hungry for role models, to hear stories about women who go it alone. I actually re-read it when I was working on Rough Beauty and it had a different impact on me once I was writing my own narrative. I definitely see her as my foremother. She’s no longer with us, but, boy, women still need to be reading that book.
Rumpus: What inspired you to write Rough Beauty? Was there one instance where you thought you had to do it? Or was it gradual?
Auvinen: It was kind of a gradual thing. I wrote the book because people kept asking me, “Why are you living up there by yourself? Aren’t you afraid?” And their tone was as if they had tasted something very bitter so I started to conceptualize the book as an answer to those questions.
I am a strong woman. I have an opinion. I’ve been called bossy and aggressive and so I kept thinking, it’s in my nature to just turn around and walk the other way. So that’s what I did. I kept moving until I found the mountains and the mountains were full of people like me in that they’re all kinds of outliers and they’re all on the fringe of society. I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to do this by myself and I’m going to show the bastards that I can.”
Rumpus: The story starts out with a big fire—one where you lost decades worth of journals and other work. As a writer, I think losing our words before they have a chance to live beyond us is a real fear. How did you cope? Did you try to recreate any of the writing that was lost?
Auvinen: No. The thing with tragedy or some big great loss is you really have two choices. You can die. Or you can get on with it. Dying might be metaphorical or it’s somebody who can’t get over what happened and is always looking back. That’s not helpful. It’s amazing to lose everything… it’s breathless, particularly the writing. I was nearly forty and everything I’d ever written was gone with the exception of two manuscripts that I’d filed at universities as my master’s thesis and dissertation. I didn’t write for a couple of years and it took me a while to come back to the land of the living.
Here’s the thing: I’m a poet. Poetry is an oral art form and, when I’m writing, I often hear the language in my head that’s going down onto the page. Some things circled back. You have to trust that the things that are meant to stick will stick.
Rumpus: Throughout the pages, you also wrestle with other themes: one focuses on finding a home of your own. You write “Placelessness was a grief deeper than all that had happened.” Why did it take so long for you to truly feel at home?
Auvinen: I never felt the world had a place for a woman like me. I certainly didn’t get that in my family and I certainly didn’t get that even from college. I struggled on a biology test and a professor suggested that I switch immediately (I was a freshman) to pre-nursing from pre-med, which is a total gender stereotypical response that you can’t hack it. Because my family moved around so much when I was a kid as Air Force families do (roughly every five years), I never felt like I had a place where I belonged. We were like tumbleweeds.
Place is physical, but it’s also spiritual. Where is the place that feeds me? And the answer is that the mountains are the place that feeds me. At the end of the book, Greg and I move to what I refer to as the prairie, which was Longmont, Colorado. We lived there for three and a half years. I felt like a plant that had been uprooted and stuck someplace where I wasn’t meant to grow. Finally, we left and bought a house back up in the mountains.
Rumpus: Why did you want to get back to the mountains?
Auvinen: I’m one of those people who needs a lot of space and quiet. I get overstimulated way too easily. I’m like a grizzly bear—I need a lot of room to roam. I don’t really want to know what my neighbors are doing. I want to look out my windows and see pine trees. My sensibility does not want to be in closed-in, tight spaces where I can hear other people’s noises. I find it much easier to focus, to concentrate and to feel calm when I’m living in the mountains. I feel rooted here.
Rumpus: Living in such close quarters with nature has to have both its ups and downs. What are the high points? Low points?
Auvinen: The highs are the peace, the solitude, the little fox who comes to sit by the tree outside of our house. There’s this big tree there where I have a Buddha head that my mother’s ashes are beneath. The fox sits there every morning and waits for me to bring her a chicken leg.
The lows are, well, wildfire season is scary. Extreme weather events and the commute sometimes. We’ve had two bomb cyclones in the last two weeks that have made the commute a little dicey, but, for me, it’s all really worth it.
Rumpus: Did you have backcountry experience or did you have to learn more self-reliance once you arrived?
Auvinen: I had a long apprenticeship and was pretty prepared. We camped when I was a kid. My dad is a great woodsman; the man never gets lost in the woods, which is pretty amazing. I learned my love of the mountains from him. When I was in college, I was a camp counselor for a summer camp. One of the things we did was take kids for overnights in the mountains and teach them how to build a fire, etc., so I had to learn those things in order to be able to teach that. But I’ve made stupid mistakes too. Have I left my trash where the bear could rip the lock off the shed and try to get in there? Yes. Hopefully, if you’re lucky, those mistakes don’t get you killed.
Rumpus: In your memoir, there are two other characters that round out your book. One is obviously Elvis, the dog that captures your heart and, also, in his own way, pushes you out of your comfort zone, propelling you to interact with your community more than you might have otherwise. Do you think he helped you fit in within the close-knit town?
Auvinen: He certainly was a conversation-starter. I used to call him my ambassador of goodwill because people would talk to the dog and then they would talk to me. Taking care of Elvis when he got sick, when he got hurt, when he was lost made me realize what it meant to love unconditionally. I learned that relationships have ebbs and flows. This is something I didn’t learn when I was younger. He helped open doors for me and my relationship with him made me realize I could have relationships with other people. I hate to say it, but the dog was a lifesaver. Dogs are pretty amazing that way. If you let them, they’ll wiggle their way into your life.
Rumpus: He definitely had his own personality and your mourning of him pours off the pages. Have you been able to make peace with his absence? Do you have a new dog in your life?
Auvinen: Yesterday was actually the anniversary of his death and, for the first time in eight years, I didn’t have a moment where I thought about him and started bawling. He was a really important, great part of my life. He had a long life and a good life and I feel really happy about all of those things. I don’t feel sorry that he had to die because dogs die.
I feel really complete when it comes to Elvis. We did everything that we needed to do together and he’s still running around somewhere in the stratosphere… he keeps an eye on me, I think. I have his ashes. They’re in my office and pictures of him all over the place.
We have another husky named River, who is a completely different kind of dog. Elvis was really a kind of human being in a fur coat and it was a one-on-one relationship. It was me and him. We went everywhere together. I could look at him and pretty much know what he was thinking and I’m pretty sure that he knew what I was thinking. I don’t think every animal that comes into our lives is like that, but, if we’re lucky, we get one.
Rumpus: The other main “character” within the book seems to be Jamestown as a whole. While there’s an entire cast of characters who make up Jamestown, you’ve written about the town as though it could almost be a single entity. What’s your relationship like with Jamestown now?
Auvinen: It’s funny that you say they are a single entity because I definitely hear them as a “we.” In some ways, there is a town voice and it’s made up of all those types of crazy characters. And, in fact, my next book, Flood Stories: A memoir of one community’s journey from wreckages and ruin to recovery, is going to be about the Jamestown flood that happened in 2013. We had a thousand-year flood event and a third of the town was washed down the river. It changed the town and I want to tell the story from the perspective of about six different people who lived through it, but I’m playing around with using a collective town voice, a “we.”
My relationship with Jamestown is fine. I thought I would get more flack about writing about the town than I have, but I haven’t gotten any. I thought people would get upset with me about invading the privacy of the town because mountain towns are very kind of hermetic in some ways. You walk into the Merc (town bar/hub) on a Saturday night and everyone turns to look at you if you aren’t a local, which is not the best thing about a mountain town, but that’s what happens.
People have been very happy. In fact, I had the book launch at the Merc and there were about eighty people there. Many seemed really happy and many have written me really nice notes about the book and about some of the antics that I recreated. I live about forty minutes down the highway from them now so I don’t get there as often as I’d like to, but I still have dear friends in town and I still go to events for the town.
Rumpus: Your first love is poetry, right? The final chapters definitely appeal to the poet in me—the way you describe spirituality and energy. Do you consider yourself a religious person? Or spiritual in some specific way? Or just akin to Mother Nature?
Auvinen: I am very spiritual. I was raised Catholic so therefore I love ritual. When I was in college, I took a feminist spirituality class and for the first half of the class, we studied goddess spirituality and for the second half we made up our own rituals and we performed them with the class. It was one of the most fabulous things I’ve ever done.
When you live deeply with nature, what you realize is that there are forces bigger than you. This is where my sense of magic and my spirituality comes from. One of the reasons I live wild is to keep me from thinking I’m at the center of it all. I prefer to simply be another part that is connected to everything living. In fact, I want that connection, to feel it in my bones.
Rumpus: The paperback cover depicts a fox: what does the fox symbolize?
Auvinen: The fox really articulates the idea of Rough Beauty. It’s symbolic in that I got to write this book as a result of an essay I published in the New York Times called “The Fox Who Came To Dinner.” The essay is about this little fox who was eating at the cabin after Elvis died and the fox becomes a foil to my relationship with Greg—really, the first long-term relationship I’ve ever had—and how to navigate that relationship. When that essay was published, an agent contacted me the next day. I love the beauty of the natural world and part of that beauty for me is that it’s dangerous, it’s harsh and it’s all of these things wrapped up into one. It’s not just all beautiful vistas.