Where Rivers Change Direction
By Mark Spragg
New York: Riverhead Books
...I can step my memory onto the backs of the big boulders and hear my boots scuff against the black and rust and corn-yellow lichens that covered them.
When I was a boy ... I lived on the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the forty-eight states.
- Mark Spragg, Where Rivers Change Direction
As a bookseller who started out (back in 1993) exclusively with used stock, I still gravitate heavily in that serendipitous direction, ready for a previously overlooked or treasure somehow previously missed to take me by surprise. I also maintain that certain words grant magic to a book title. “Rivers” is one of those words. And so it I saw and picked up Mark Spragg’s book. Turning it over, I saw a sentence fragment, “... wrangles horses for his taciturn father,...” and had to start reading. It had me at “Hello.”
I knew that David would enjoy the setting as well as the writing, so I tried reading aloud to him from the first chapter. I didn’t get very far. He was fully attentive. The problem was that I simply could not pronounce aloud, with a steady voice, sentences that had such a powerful effect on me as these:
I knew the horses as I knew my family. ... We caught them, used them, turned them back into the kidney-warm manure cake of the corrals, into the ridden-to-dust round corral. They rolled and stood and shook and milled. When I was separated from them I felt wrong in the world. When I was separated from them I took no comfort in the sound of the creek. I felt chilled without the heat of them. ...
The ranch life is a beautiful but also hard, even brutal. Much of what might sound like “hardship” was intentional, since the family business is a dude ranch in the Yellowstone Plateau, with clients looking to “get away” from civilization. Thus --
No one ever asked why we had no television, no daily paper. They came for what my brother and I took for granted. They came to live the anachronism that we considered our normal lives.
But much larger difficulties, privations, and challenges come with the territory, unsought. At least half the chapters are what a friend of mine (who speaks of certain movies she recommends as “hard to watch”) might call “hard to read.” I winced through much of the chapter titled “Bones,” in which thirteen-year-old Mark accompanies one of the older ranch hands, John, on an overnight hunting expedition for winter meat, looking for an elk to kill. They find and kill the elk, but early in the butchering process John’s hand is badly cut. The description is graphic enough that I won’t quote it but will just say that for most of the chapter that mutilated hand hangs in the balance. And that’s early on, with much more to come.
A gentler chapter is “Wapiti School.” The school is named for the valley, green only two months of the year, the valley where, scattered far from one another, some two dozen ranching households form a kind of extended family.
America was not yet rich enough for the coastal populations to buy up the hinterland and subdivide it into a patchwork of second homes. The Wapiti ranchers worked their land; they did not sell it. It was a life that lined the face, leaned the body, and satisfied. We knew our neighbors.
School days bring the author to his first shy boyhood venturings into the agonizing mysteries of love. He strives to tame his cowlicks and buys his first gift for a girl, but how to declare his feelings?
Then there is my favorite chapter, “Greybull,” the story of the boy’s first trip to the livestock auction, an hour beyond Cody, outside Greybull (population: 12), a trip made with his father in their old truck with the busted radio.
The parking lot is gravel, rutted from a recent rain, grown up at the edges in tire-broken weeds. The pickups are mud splattered, most of them hitched to trailers, their grills and windshields uneven fields of smeared insect body. There is a row of stock trucks. A semi is backed to a loading chute.
In one of the pens, a horse catches the boy’s eye,
... a single dun gelding. His mane and tail, muzzle, and stockings darkened as deeply brown as wet earth. So is the line that dissects his back, from his mane to the base of his tail. His ears are pricked. His face alive with intelligence. He’s well muscled and put together like a cutter.
The boy has eighty-nine dollars in his pocket, a fat, damp roll mostly of one-dollar bills. Reading this chapter, the reader fears not that someone or something might die, only that the boy might not be able to buy the horse.
(“Only”? Did I say “only”? I was in a fever of excitement reading this chapter, excitement similar to my grandfather’s, so long ago, as he read for himself, at my urging, one of my favorite books, The Black Stallion’s Filly, by Walter Farley. When he reached the chapter of the Kentucky Derby chapter, my grandfather gripped the book more tightly and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead.)
With Spragg’s book in hand, we know the young boy in the stories will grow up to be a writer and that he will be living back in Wyoming when this book is published. But that road away from the ranch and into the future was not an easy ride. A winter of mountain isolation following college was easier for me to understand than a later sojourn in town, both measured against the backdrop of a wilderness boyhood. His parents’ divorce, reported without explanation, struck me as unutterably sad, and his mother’s death was wrenching. But more than that -- the young boy’s openness to the world and everything in it, his early life with horses, hard and sometimes brutal as that wilderness life could be -- I wanted to turn back time.
In the end, Spragg writes that he fears having lived “a careless life.” I read those words and wonder – asking myself -- does he have horses now? Is it possible to – can anyone -- live a “careless life” with horses?
I claim no objectivity whatsoever for my post today. “When I was separated from [horses] I felt wrong in the world.” I am riveted by that sentence. Since I have been separated from horses all my life, except for whatever stolen hours I could find to be near them, seeking them out, I can’t help wondering how I would have felt in the world if my girlhood horse dream had come true or if, later, I hadn’t allowed myself to be sidetracked away from horses, again and again, by other shiny, glittery objects along the way.
But I should clarify: It is not necessary to be “horse-crazy” to appreciate Where Rivers Change Direction. Don’t expect a series of pretty postcards, that’s all: nature’s power would be cruel if not so completely indifferent. But if you can’t get yourself out to Yellowstone, read this book and you will be well rewarded, seeing things in your reading mind’s eye that you would never see out your car windows. If you’ve been to the wilderness, Yellowstone or any other, you’ll enjoy reliving the freedom of these open spaces.
Spragg’s writing is mesmerizing. The wilderness he experienced half a century ago, beautiful and brutal, makes for a compelling story, and the author's shortest, simplest sentences carry emotion and poetry. I highly recommend this unusual, startling, and vivid memoir. I have copies in stock. Come see me soon.
Horses shown today were photographed in Cochise County, Arizona, in early 2015.
Read more about Mark Spragg here.