D’Arcy Fallon is the author of “Camp Wonder,” an essay featured in North Dakota Quarterly Volume 80.2. The essay explores the author’s journey into discovering her grandparents’ letters to one another, along with her own personal travel to the place that their story took place; Leadville, Colorado. D’Arcy was very enthusiastic to share more about her essay for NDQ’s author interview series.
How would you say the knowledge of Blanche’s life that you have recently gained has shaped the way you see her, as opposed to how you would have viewed her prior to it?
You know, a lot of way I initially saw Blanche was colored by the few things my mother told me about her, as well as my own feelings of being “stuck” in a situation that sometimes seemed untenable. My mother felt that Blanche was limited in her later years—when my mother knew her—because she became so profoundly hard of hearing. My mother also clearly adored her grandfather, Blanche’s husband, because he’d had the more exciting, dramatic and stimulating life. He was charming and full of stories. Blanche, at least to a self-involved teenager, was not as attractive a character to my mother. So my mother’s version of Blanche—someone who had been a youthful beauty but not, well, a real intellectual—was how I initially viewed Blanche too. But as the years went by in my own life and I heard other stories about what kind of a person she was, and read her letters, and thought about her challenges and her fortitude, I ended up having a lot of respect for her. She was tough and she did the best she could. She had grit. She was not some hothouse orchid after all.
2. Have any aspects of your daily life changed since learning about Blanche’s life in Leadville?
Initially for me, Blanche’s story was bookended by that dramatic, larger-than-life beginning in Leadville where she met Richard and then the waning years of her life, when she was frail and living in an old age home in Monterey. I saw the beauty and drama and then I saw the isolation and descent into confusion that claimed her in the last years. I saw the beginning and I saw the end, but I somehow had glossed over the middle part. Beginnings are easy, and as for endings, well, sometimes the die is already cast. But the struggle for most of us comes in the middle, in the everyday doing of things, the richness of daily work, the disappointments and losses and adjustments we all have to make. That’s where the living is. And the beauty. That is where I am. I embrace that now. The thing that had seemed so hard to me—leaving a place I knew intimately and loved deeply—turned out to be a huge blessing. The life I have now is a good one and I’m very grateful for it. I have meaningful work as a writing teacher and I’m surrounded by people who love language and learning. I don’t know if I would’ve had that if I hadn’t taken a risk. We all have a chance to write our own narratives, shape our life stories. This is mine.
3. You say that “anything could happen in Leadville,” can you expand upon your line “Somehow Leadville seemed synonymous with optimism?” Was it based off of your desire to experience some of the things Blanche had, or was it merely an escape from reality?
A lot of my feelings about Leadville are tied up in my deep love for Colorado, where I lived with my husband and son for fourteen years. When we first moved to Colorado from congested California, even though we had moved east, it felt like we had really moved to the west, the real west. We moved from earthquakes and the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge to mountains and prairies and blue skies and crystalline snow. There was land and sky and coyotes. For someone who drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic across the Golden Gate Bridge everyday and then struggled to find a parking space in downtown San Francisco, Colorado was the Promised Land. Leaving Colorado was wrenching for all of us. Moving to the fertile, low, green, wet countryside of Ohio was a shock to the eye and the heart. I had just turned 50, I was homesick, we were all trying to adjust to a new life, and I was afraid of failing. I wanted to escape. Leadville with its brick Victorians and crazy ski culture and tilting streets took on a totemic power for me. I wanted to start over again, to be at the beginning of my narrative instead of in the middle of it. I was resisting being older and living in a new place. The idea of living in Leadville became psychologically attractive to me. To be up high in the sky, close to the clouds and sun, to be back in the West—this was a very potent draw.
Our fantasies, of course, never square up with reality. In truth, Leadville is a scrappy, blue-collar town, despite some of its upscale trappings. I love that about Leadville. It’s not Aspen or Vail, it’s a real place with real working class people. It’s cold there. It gets a ton of snow. It is the highest incorporated city in the nation. I could not hack living in Leadville year ’round, despite my romanticism about it. Winter is just too long.
4. Why do you think you originally became so preoccupied with learning about Blanche and Richard?
My attraction to Richard and Blanche is like a zen koan. The dynamic of their relationship resonated with me in a way that, originally, I didn’t really understand. There’s the man who goes forth looking for adventure, the risk-taker, the romantic. There’s the woman who has to stay behind and be patient, attending to the tasks of living. He’s out on the farthest edges of consciousness, out there in the desert looking for that big score, excavating, and she’s in the jangling world, minding the store, attending to here and now. Both deep searching and attentiveness to life are required in the act of writing. We are rooted, yet we soar. We’re tethered and we wander. I identified with both Richard and Blanche. Sometimes I liked one of them more than the other, but in the end, I claimed them of both.
5. Overall, were you disappointed with your visit to Leadville or did you find what you were looking for?
I’m going to be honest. It was a disappointment to me. I thought I was going to go there and have a great epiphany about living. I was going to steal some of my great-grandparents’ mojo, just scrape it up like Pixie Dust, and use it in my own life, as a kind of courage elixir, a tonic for grief. But when I got there I felt lost. I kept hoping to feel something big, to realize something grand, but what I found were echoing streets and T-shirt shops and bars. Isn’t that the way life goes? Blanche and Richard weren’t there anymore. Not a single atom.
6. You say that you used to believe their story after leaving Leadville was one of defeat. After learning more about their lives, how do you view their story now?
I had been ready to see their story that way because I had such limited information about them and I was feeling fatalistic myself about life. He makes his fortune, wins the girl, they ride off into the sunset. And then they lose everything in the Great Depression. Boom! But after digging around I realized that Richard’s great passion in life, mining, didn’t end with the Great Depression. He worked in mining most of his life, in Arizona. He managed an extremely successful mine. He wrote a book about mining. He loved mining, and although they lived modestly, they did all right for themselves. They raised four delightfully vital, curious and big-hearted girls, one of whom was my grandmother Mary. They thrived.
7. At the very end, you say, directly to Blanche “Knowing your story gives me the courage to live mine.” I thought this was a very powerful statement; after learning of Blanche and Richard’s story, do you view your own life in a different light?
Blanche had character. She did what needed to be done. She was so courageous. After their fancy society wedding in Leadville, she moved with Richard out to Nevada and they lived in a tiny shack out in all that dust and cold and nothingness. Life was very primitive for them. He took risks, but she did too. She cast her lot with his, she partook, and she didn’t complain. Hard things came her way, like her isolating deafness, or being alone with their four children for long periods of time, but she struggled to stay connected to the people around her. That could not have been easy. She prevailed and even at the end of her life, there was a sparkle to her.
8. Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m working on a collection of essays right now about what it means to be home.