Whenever a new book arrives, it’s like holding a new baby. It is tangible, something indelibly of me, a being that has been gestating, and gestating, and gestating through the process of conception, slogging through drafts, editing, finding a publisher, negotiating towards final product, and finally going to press. It has that same quality of wonder and disbelief and joy when I look upon it for the first time, along with a measure of trepidation – that, what have I gone and done undercurrent.
This spring, 2012, I’ve really done it, because I went and had twins. It’s a confluence of timing, more than anything, but the coming-of-age-as-a-family book that has been in the works for an interminable seven years is finally out as of April 1. Published by Fulcrum, a Colorado house that has brought three of my books into the world, and titled Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water. At almost the same moment my second title has come into being (May 1 release). It is titled, Montana: Real Place, Real People and is a collaborative work with photographer Thomas Lee, published and designed by Companion Press. I am as proud as a new father of both titles, and as hopeful and fraught as a new parent about their futures.
Read on for the baby announcements, in order of birth:
Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water (Fulcrum):
The motivation for our tradition of coming of age expeditions grew out of our realization that we’d been pregnant with each of the three kids on a major river trip. It dawned on us that it might be cool to return as a family to each of those trips as a way to mark this transition in life that our culture does so little to recognize. Not to mention that it was a great excuse to do some big trips with the kids.
In 1991 we were pregnant (5-6 mos.) with Eli while we canoed down the Kazan River in northern Canada. In 1992 we were just pregnant with Sawyer when we took on the entire navigable Yellowstone River across Montana. Eli was a nearly-walking 9 mos. Then, in 1995, we were very pregnant (7 mos) with Ruby when we spent two weeks on the Rio Grande along the Big Bend Park border, and the boys were a tough-to-contain 2 and 3.
So, starting in 2005, we returned, one by one, to each of these pieces of exceptional geography as a family and did the same journey again. The Kazan was a 40-day northern epic, and Ruby was only 10. The next year we did the entire Yellowstone, and added a week-long hike to the headwaters, in northern Wyoming. In 2008 we did two expeditions for Ruby. She had fallen in love with the Far North on our earlier trip, and lobbied hard for a return to that country. During the summer we paddled for a month on the Seal River and Hudson Bay, where we got chased around by polar bears and escorted by pods of beluga whales. That same winter (Dec/Jan), we returned to the Rio Grande for two weeks, paddling from Colorado Canyon, upstream of Big Bend NP, to La Linda, just downstream of the far park boundary.
The book tells the adventure story of all these journeys, including the drama, the silliness, the wildlife, the challenges and joys and shared exertion that such endeavors call for. It covers these stirring pieces of geography, each with issues and threats and power and beauty. And it covers the story of a family paying homage to each child’s personal history, their character, their turning points, as well as a sweep of 4-5 years in a family’s history, reckoning with raising children through the teenage years, coping with our culture, being affected by things like the economic crash of 2008, and exploring options for how to live.
My hope, and I don’t mean to be pretentious, at all, is to share this adventurous saga, pay respects to this geography, and to, perhaps, provide a spark of inspiration for other families who might find their particular theme by which to celebrate this passage to adulthood.
Montana: Real Place, Real People (Companion Press)
“For the better part of a decade, writer Alan Kesselheim and photographer Thomas Lee collaborated on a series of Montana-based stories for Montana Quarterly magazine. Over the years they met ordinary people with extraordinary life histories. What they found — in the spacious landscape under the Big Sky — was the human embodiment of inspiration, endurance, triumph, hard work, talent, humor, great schemes and daily heroism . . .”
In Kesselheim’s introduction, Braiding Word and Image, he writes, “So the stories come to us. Thomas and I go out with camera and notebook to see what’s there. Some days we drive from Bozeman to Sidney and back, a fourteen-hour round trip, for a story. Or to Miles City, Glendive, Dillon, Frenchtown, Deer Lodge. We interview people in cafes, in their living rooms, over lunch, in corrals, in prison parole-hearing rooms, along riverbanks. We watch them feed chickens, jump irrigation canals, pet their dogs, make food, look at pictures, plant gardens, forge steel, sort mail, read the Bible. Mostly, for both of us, we wait; for that crystalline moment, that revelatory scene or image that makes the whole. When Jerry Cornelia steps off of his back porch and nuzzles up with one of his horses. When Tia Kober pauses over the kitchen sink to gaze out at Youngs Point, looming over the Yellowstone River, where William Clark stopped to camp in July of 1806. That moment when Thomas catches Elsie Fox tapping her hand on the four-hundred-page FBI dossier with her name on it, or he gets Frank Dryman gesturing his hands with the tattoo that led to his recapture in Arizona. . . .
“Sometimes we recognize that moment. Bingo, we think. With other stories, it’s only later that we realize that when Richard Stewart talked about the juniper tree he sat next to for solace, it is the metaphor the story has to hang on. Or that when Robin Puckett gets out of her truck halfway up a slippery hill and punches her pen into an electrical connection under the dash to make it start up again, it sums things up.
“The elegance is the melding of those photographs and those words, the “bingo” moments each of us brings to the table, which create something greater than the sum of its parts. How that happens is largely a mystery. That it happens is the magic of a duet.”