The water is crimson with blood by the time they arrive.
The six surfers had paddled out from Taiji at dawn, the early light softening the lines and shadows of the small Japanese seaside town. Among them are Hollywood star Hayden Panettiere, pro surfer Dave Rastovich, and Denver journalist Peter Heller. They are here to document the slaughters taking place in Taiji’s hidden inlet—a graveyard for thousands of dolphins and other small cetaceans every year.
More from our March 2019 Issue
Razor wire and fences protect the terrestrial entrances to the killing zone, so the surfers approach by sea. It’s a couple hundred yards from the shore, past the rocky finger that hides the massacre from public view. The surfers cover the distance quickly, rounding the peninsula to a nightmarish scene.
A dozen or so pilot whales huddle together against a net, terrified. The large, bulbous-headed dolphins’ sensitive hearing picks up the screams of family members farther inside the cove, where fishermen spike and spear the 2,000-pound mammals repeatedly. The dolphins don’t die instantly. They bleed out, slowly, often making a final escape attempt, one last desperate arc out of the blood-water before they sink beneath the surface.
The surfers approach the pod, where the pilot whales knit tighter together in fear. Heller and the others circle their boards and clasp hands, praying and crying, in a kind of floating funeral ceremony. A baby pilot whale hops out of the water, and the pod relaxes and begins to swim against the net closest to the surfers. The dolphins lock eyes with the humans, pleading. In the distance, a motor buzzes to life. “They were asking us…” Heller says, swallowing hard. “They were asking us to help.”
Heller recounts this story to me for the first time inside Tennyson Street’s Cozy Cottage. He comes here often enough to have a regular table, a four-top near a window at the back. He’s not inflexible about it, though; he’s just as happy to slide into a booth if the table’s taken. The servers know him, and he knows them, calling each by name when he orders.
At 60 years old, Heller has become fond of routine. He rises every morning at 6:40. When he’s in Denver (he also has houses in Paonia and Mexico), he goes to his favorite coffeeshop, on West 32nd Avenue. The staff pours his latte into a John Deere mug and makes him an omelet with whatever the chef chooses. He pulls on his Bose noise-canceling headphones, opens his SimplyRain app, and starts writing. He drafts about 1,000 words every day, a Graham Greene style of working he adopted years ago. Sometimes it doesn’t take very long, but he always stops midscene; it keeps him motivated to come back to the page. Then, he closes his laptop and goes about the rest of his day. Often they end with an evening paddleboard around Sloan’s Lake, near where he lives.
The quiet habits seem like a contradiction to the life of the daring journalist who paddled out to witness a dolphin slaughter. Or the 46-year-old who boarded an eco-pirate ship, armed with a battering ram, bound for Antarctica to stop a Japanese whaling fleet. Or the Heller who made the first kayak descent of Tajikistan’s Muksu River, the country’s Class V equivalent of Mt. Everest. “I’m sort of at this point in my life where I could just go to the coffeeshop,” Heller says. “Or go out to Paonia and down to Mexico to surf and never go anywhere else.”
Perhaps that’s because in the eight years since he largely tucked his reporter’s notebook away, Heller has been on a literary adventure arguably more exciting than any real expedition he ever undertook. In his three previous novels, he’s witnessed the end of the world from the Front Range (The Dog Stars, 2012), watched a reclusive painter transform into a killer in Paonia and Taos (The Painter, 2014), and tracked an elderly private investigator from Brooklyn to Yellowstone National Park, where she battled wits (and gunfighting skills) with a Navy SEAL (Celine, 2017). His newest book, The River, which will be published on March 5 by Knopf, follows two friends on a canoeing trip through Canada, where they must outrun a deadly forest fire and a murderous husband. It’s as much an allegory about man’s impact on the Earth as it is an adventure story. Heller has already written two more novels; they’re just awaiting publication. “I’m finally getting to do what I’ve wanted to do since I was 11,” he says. “I’m 60 years old, but I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Before he was an author, before he was a journalist and a world-class kayaker, Peter Heller was a poet. “My eye, my eye, with which I view the world,” his first poem began. He was six. Heller’s affinity for language was hardly surprising. Born into an affluent East Coast family, his father was a copywriter who also penned plays and read to his son almost every day, from e.e. cummings to W.B. Yeats. Heller’s mother was a gifted sculptor and artist. He grew up, the oldest of three, in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood so picturesque that Hollywood regularly commandeered its narrow brownstone-lined streets and promenade overlooking Lower Manhattan for backdrops.
Heller and his two younger sisters attended Saint Ann’s School, a rigorous private institution. There, Heller fell in love for the first time—initially with Annie Bosworth, the British school librarian whose clipped way of pronouncing Heller’s name enchanted the young poet, then later with Ernest Hemingway. It was Bosworth who introduced Heller to Hemingway, pulling In Our Time, a slim volume of short stories mostly about protagonist Nick Adams, off the library shelf when Heller was 11. “I cracked it open and my heart leapt out of my chest, and I was like, I wanna do that. I want to hop off an old slow-moving freight train in upper Michigan and carry an old rucksack through long grass that wets my pant leg with dew. I want to camp by the Big Two-Hearted River and make cowboy coffee,” he says. “But mostly I wanted to write like this guy because the prose, for one of the first times in my life, came through my skin. It didn’t go through my head; it went straight to my heart somehow. Ever since, he was sort of my model. I wanted to be a man of action, and I wanted to write beautiful stories.”
This, Heller will tell you, is his origin story. The fact that he identifies it as such tells you something about his ability to craft a narrative—especially his own. “Have you heard this one?” he asks before launching into another amusing reminiscence. I get used to this question over the course of our many conversations, just as I do the ease with which Heller sprinkles entire stanzas of poetry into casual conversation. The verbal tic usually prefaces some endearing anecdote or an exciting tale, each a chapter in Heller’s own curated collection of short stories.
There’s the time he hand-sewed a tepee and lived in it instead of the dorms at the Putney School, a private high school in Vermont, so he could canoodle with his then girlfriend. Or when he took up kayaking as a sophomore at Dartmouth College and half-drowned his way down the Arkansas River that summer (yet still loved it). Or the time he cold-called Outside magazine and convinced the editors to send him to kayak an unrun river on the Tibetan Plateau. Or his chance encounter with acclaimed science fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi in a Paonia coffeeshop, where he asked Bacigalupi for writing advice. Most of these sketches are humorous, self-effacing, and delivered with Heller’s omnipresent smile and a stuttering laugh. They are engaging snippets from his life that closely match the cheerful author who articulates them. Heller’s written work, though, is different. In it, there’s a darkness that hints at something more.
High on the eastern Tibetan Plateau, the Dadu River is born a cold, snowmelt-fed trickle that collects three tributaries as it gradually descends from 14,000 feet, past heavily forested canyons and rugged peaks and through tiny villages clinging to muddy banks, covering approximately 700 miles before arriving finally in western Sichuan, where it meets the mighty Yangtze. This waterway on the frontier between China and Tibet has a violent history: A 1786 earthquake created a landslide dam, and when it broke 10 days later, the subsequent flood killed an estimated 100,000; the Dadu’s Luding Bridge was the site of a bloody battle between Communists and Chinese Nationalists in the early 20th century. This was where Heller, in 1988, asked Outside magazine to send him.
Heller had never been to China, but he’d kayaked waters more daunting than the Class III and IV rapids on the Dadu, one of China’s last undescended rivers. The 29-year-old had come a long way since his initial paddling forays at Dartmouth, learning a lot from the two experienced friends who had taken him down the Arkansas—Sascha Steinway (of piano fame), a skilled New England white-water kayaker, and Landis Arnold, an equally gifted paddler whose primary talent was ski jumping (he competed in the 1984 Olympics). Heller had also discovered he had not just a tolerance for, but also a kind of masochistic enjoyment of, getting rolled. After a short, unhappy stint trying to make it as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, he had moved in with Arnold in Boulder, where Heller taught paddling and delivered pizza by day and wrote poetry in his cabin beside Boulder Creek at night. None of it paid very much; Heller couldn’t even afford to replace his duct-taped paddle until Outside accepted his pitch to join several other kayakers on the Dadu expedition. It would be his first story for the magazine.
After the paddlers had assembled in China, they planned to warm up on a river near the Dadu called the So Muo, an easy Class II and III diversion before the main event. The group was split between kayaks and rafts; Heller cruised along in a kayak near the back of the pack. As he rounded a corner, he saw that one of the rafts had flipped. Two of its paddlers became caught in a logjam farther downstream. Heller broke for the shore near them and, with the aid of another kayaker, hauled one man out of the deathtrap. He was barely breathing. They went back for the second man, Dave, one of the least experienced paddlers in the group who was on his honeymoon with his wife, Fiona. She was in the other raft, which had not flipped.
Heller and several other men worked furiously to free Dave, whose legs were trapped in the logs. They knew they had limited time—swollen from rains coming off the plateau, the So Muo was rising. The logjam allowed the rescuers to climb out to Dave and hold his head above the water as they labored. He was conscious and calm as the paddlers heaved and pulled. More help arrived, and the group tried to free Dave using a system of ropes and pulleys, but nothing worked. The force of the river was too strong. Heller returned to Dave’s side and held his head as the water slowly rose over it. When it was over, he paddled to the opposite shore to tell Fiona her husband was dead.
The group held a memorial for Dave on the banks of the So Muo the next day. They shared stories and sang “Amazing Grace.” Heller read a poem by Li Shangyin; it was from a book of Tang dynasty poets he’d brought with him:
When will I be home? I don’t know.
In the mountains, in the rainy night,
The Autumn lake is flooded.
Someday we will be back together again
We will sit in the candlelight by the West window.
And I will tell you how I remember you
Tonight on the stormy mountain.
Outside published the story of what happened on the So Muo, “Set Free in China,” in its February 1989 issue. More than 20 years later, those same Shangyin lines closed Heller’s inaugural work of fiction, The Dog Stars. “It just came zinging in,” Heller says. “That’s the thing about fiction that is so incredibly thrilling—if you’re not writing from an outline or plot, you’re just sort of vulnerable to wherever the language and characters take you. There’s all kinds of stuff that you don’t know that you know or remember.” Heller finished the novel, a post-apocalyptic tale that follows a heartbroken pilot living at the Erie airport with his beloved dog, Jasper, in seven months. He wrote it in a white heat, he says, as though Hig—the fly-fishing, Cessna-flying hero—was sitting across the campfire telling him the story.
Hig, in fact, bears a remarkable resemblance to Heller, who took up fly-fishing when he moved to Paonia in the 1990s and became a pilot over the course of three weeks for a Men’s Journal story (he later wrote about the experience for this magazine, too). Like Heller—who earned an MFA in poetry and fiction from the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop—Hig is a poet who also writes for magazines. Before losing his wife to a decimating flu, Hig lived on a lake in Denver. So does Heller. “People always ask me when I’m speaking: ‘Are you Hig?’ and I always say, ‘Well, I’m not six-foot-one, and I can’t cook.’ ” But otherwise, Hig’s passions and aversions mirror Heller’s.
It’s not a singular appearance. Heller makes a cameo in almost all of his novels: as the Pablo Neruda– and Rilke-loving poet who sells Jim Stegner, The Painter’s protagonist, his adobe home. (The house is a facsimile of the one Heller built by hand over several years in Paonia.) And as Hank, the journalist-poet son of Celine’s eponymous hero, who feels “wreathed in the music of language.” He shows up in his newest novel as Jack, the Louis L’Amour–obsessed outdoorsman who, when he paddles, hums “bars of old cowboy songs his father had sung to him like ‘Streets of Laredo’ and ‘Little Joe the Wrangler’ ”—the same songs John Heller performed for his son in Brooklyn.
It would be easy to cast these appearances as autobiographical indulgences—except that Heller doesn’t just mine his life as fodder for his fiction. Many of his characters, both central and supporting, are drawn from real life. Celine reads as a near biography of Heller’s mother, Caroline “Caro” Watkins Heller, an artist/private investigator who died in 2014. Wynn, Jack’s artistic, optimistic best friend in The River, is a beautifully rendered approximation of Heller’s college friend Jay.
It takes a fair degree of confidence and trust to translate your friends and family as characters for the world. Heller has both. He has not one or two close lifelong friends, but devoted confidants by the dozens. When he’s not in Denver, he might be surfing with an old paddling buddy at Heller’s home in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Or reconnecting with his family and Putney School or Dartmouth friends in New England. Or cooking steaks over a campfire behind his house in Paonia with the men who helped him build it more than two decades ago. Although he has no children (“I love the idea of kids, but I loved doing my adventures, and it wouldn’t have been fair,” he says), he has half a dozen godchildren. His ex-girlfriend Lisa Jones, an author herself, also remains his close friend and one of his first readers—along with acclaimed local writer Helen Thorpe and Heller’s wife of 12 years, Kim Yan. “He wrote a book and I wrote a book, and he became massively famous and I became massively obscure,” Jones says. “That can be hard on a friendship. But he’s so loyal and helpful.”
This loyalty to the people he loves is also what ensures that when Heller channels their personas and lives in his stories, he does so generously. The menagerie of characters spread across Heller’s four novels are artful re-creations of Heller and his most beloved generally living out the best versions of themselves on the page. If the rounding off of some edges makes them at times a little implausible, well, that just makes the characters all the more endearing. After all, such improbability never stopped anyone from falling in love with Nick Adams or Huck Finn. In fact, that romantic quality in Hemingway and Twain’s heroes has compelled millions of readers to keep turning pages. And it compelled at least one of them to start filling them. “He wanted to be in the stories he was reading as a young person,” says Brad Wieners, Heller’s longtime editor at several magazines. “As a journalist, he became a character in them. Then he graduated to imagining them.”
In most bookstores, Heller’s novels share shelf space with his childhood inspiration, a lucky result of booksellers’ tendency to shelve fiction by authors’ last names (Heller comes right before Hemingway). At the Tattered Cover Book Store on East Colfax Avenue, the two authors also share a sign: In one corner of the shop, two green street signs intersect; it’s the junction of Hemingway and Heller.
“Is that Joseph Heller?” Heller asked a sales associate when he first noticed.
“Oh no,” she said. “It’s Peter Heller. He’s a local author. Have you read The Dog Stars?”
“You mean like, sat down and read it as a book?” Heller asked.
“Yes. The book.”
Heller smiled. “No,” he said. “I haven’t actually.”
“Well, you should.”
Although Heller has published eight books (four novels and four works of nonfiction), The Dog Stars is his most widely known. It was a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club pick of the week, and it was tagged by both Publishers Weekly and the Atlantic as one of the best books of 2012. It is also arguably his darkest. The post-apocalyptic tale forecasts not only the degradation of our natural environment—a recurring theme in Heller’s books—but also the demise of humankind. He never spells out just what, exactly, is responsible for this undoing, but the subtext not so subtly points to man. “Did you ever read the Bible?” Hig asks the reader on the book’s first page. “Check out Lamentations. That’s where we’re at, pretty much. Pretty much lamenting. Pretty much pouring our hearts out like water.”
Darkness grounds all of Heller’s novels—from the undercurrent driving Jim Stegner (the loss of his daughter) to the murderous intentions of the scientist in The River. It’s a fact that’s difficult to reconcile when you’re looking at the animated creator of the works across a cafe table. How does such an ebullient presence dream up these shadowy stories? Where does the darkness come from?
Heller is adept at sidestepping the question. In a 2015 interview with CPR’s Colorado Matters, Heller humorously avoided host Ryan Warner’s question about finding balance between darkness and light in his books by saying simply, “Heck if I know.” Except, Heller does know—at least a little. But he keeps whatever feeds the darkness tightly wrapped, instead allowing the shadows to surface in his fiction, his poetry, and his musical preferences (he likes country music because there are narratives there, often sad ones).
“I don’t know what aspects of life have given him this material, because he doesn’t unpack it,” Thorpe says. “That’s the essential mystery of Peter.” He doesn’t share the origins with his father, nor his sisters, nor even his wife, who observes that everyone has a dark side. (Although not everyone has a mother who made sculptures out of human skulls, as Heller’s did.) “But that’s just one of the paints on the palette,” Yan says. “Peter is an artist, and artists are able to access all of the colors.”
Press too hard for an explanation, from Heller or his friends, and you might see a faint blush of irritation—a gentle, distant cousin to the anger Heller reserves for people who are cruel to animals or reckless with others’ lives or the environment. It dissolves quickly, though, into Heller’s own poetically opaque explanation. “It’s been part of my ethic to turn that pain into beauty,” he says. “Every writer is like a mountain spring that contains a certain kind of water. Some writers’ springs have a lot of sediment; they’re gritty. My spring holds a lot of loss. I return again and again, and the propulsion in my fiction and where the energy comes from seems to be this wellspring of loss and also beauty and also wonder and joy.”
Those last three things—the beauty and wonder and joy—are the hopeful threads that knit each of his novels together; whether that’s finding love at the end of the world or peace in a pristine stretch of creek, they remain the thin lines of redemption glittering against the dark. “Peter’s books are filled with his love of life and exuberance and powered by questions of what it means to be human at our core and how you keep going,” Thorpe says. “You see a lot of his characters are not succumbing to the darkness. They’re usually trying to figure out how you pick up and take on the next day.”
“This is my favorite place on earth,” Heller says as we bump along a snowy, muddy road in the West Elk Mountains in his truck. “You can’t tell anyone where it is.” I swear I won’t. It’s the third time he’s made me promise.
We pull over near some flats and wander down a small embankment toward a creek. Peter’s creek. It’s a pretty little thing cuffed with aspen and spruce, its clear waters running over stones painted in hundreds of shades of gray and blue and green. But the setting isn’t nearly as impressive as others just a few miles away. The fish here aren’t very big, and they’re difficult to catch. It’s not the easiest place to access. All of which is why Heller loves it so much. Its quiet beauty means most of the time it’s all his.
“There are much more spectacular places, but I don’t love them like this,” he says. “I’ve fished it in every season. This one stretch. I get into different kinds of water and I don’t know how to fish them, but I know how to fish this.” We’re standing on snow-covered banks as we survey the stream. Its edges are crusted with ice, and snow has crept halfway across the creek. There will be no fishing today.
As we turn to head back, Heller spots a spider stranded in the snow, several feet from the bank. In spider miles, he’s a long way from where he needs to be. Carefully, gingerly, Heller tests the ice. It takes only three or four delicate human steps to reach the spider. Heller stoops to help him, first offering a stick bridge then trying to scoop him up. He only succeeds in scaring the creature, though, which disappears under the snow. Heller worries about the spider as we crunch back toward the truck.
“It occurred to me that we love the places we bring the best of ourselves to, maybe,” he says once we’re in the pickup. “I’ve come here to fish when I got my first book published, when my mom died, when I was heartbroken, when I got the best news. This is my touchstone.”
So is his writing, which takes him to the wild places where he has spent so much time. Heller has hiked, camped, and kayaked on nearly every continent; he’s paddled, surfed, and swam in more than 20 countries. He’s ridden a horse from Paonia into Wyoming and snorkeled—yes, snorkeled—the Gunnison River (sadly, Outside killed that story). He’s camped above treeline and slept beneath the stars more times than most of us have stayed in hotels. When he’s drinking coffee, telling a story, he’ll close his eyes and suddenly he’s back navigating frigid Class V drops on the Muksu River in Tajikistan or paddling his surfboard across the river mouth in Zihuatanejo at dawn with his wife. With his eyes squinched tight, his hands pantomime the 40-foot swells he rode aboard the Farley Mowat in the Antarctic seas or the steep, snowy slopes that rise out of Tibet’s Tsangpo Gorge. “Sense of place is so important to me, because I go where I love when I’m writing,” he says. “And I love nature. Love wild country. When I sit down to write, that thing happens where I just get the wind and the smells and I transport.” The writing process, like fly-fishing and kayaking and surfing, is immersive. “I like stuff where I disappear,” he says. “Where you’re in the zone and you forget your name, you almost forget you’re human.”
Perhaps that’s why Heller’s prose is at its best when he’s describing the natural world. His sometimes short, clipped sentences unfurl into long, lyrical lines, each syllable stretching toward near-poetry as he describes the landscapes. Heller’s melodious renderings are drawn from a lifetime of not just witnessing nature, but of actively paying attention to how it is woven together. He can name nearly every bird that wings past his ramada in Paonia and tell you how it hunts, what it eats. He identifies game from the tracks animals leave. He knows the names of the plants we pass on our creekside walks. It’s important to him to know these things. They are the details that make up his world, real and fictional. Be particular about the details, he advises young writers now. It’s something he learned from his drama teacher at Saint Ann’s, who told him that to be an artist, he had to notice everything.
He has. He does. Perhaps never more so than in The River’s metaphoric scenes. In the book’s final chapters, Wynn fishes a section of creek somehow spared by the recent forest fire, casting his line between scorched earth and untouched opulence, a ribbon of hope running through the black: “The land rose gently away from the river eastward, there must have been some broad uplift beneath the soil, and so he could see the creek for a long way like some sinuous creature glinting in its scales and slithering down through the seam between the green and the black, life and death. The green side was feathering and unkempt, chaotic with being. The grass and the brush along the bank, the flowers, limbs of the trees, all reached past each other for the light of the creek. He could hear warblers and thrushes. The black side was burned to soil. It had not much to say and was startlingly eloquent in its silence.”
When Heller returned from the dolphin massacres in Taiji, he couldn’t sleep. He and the other surfers hadn’t been able to save the pilot whales that day. A motorboat full of Japanese fishermen arrived and broke up their circle, shouting at the surfers and hitting them with long sticks. Heller captured footage of the attack on his helmet cam; it later appeared in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, directed by then Boulder resident Louie Psihoyos. “I’d lie next to Kim at night, and she’d go to sleep and I’d just cry,” Heller says. “It was the worst thing I’d ever seen. I’d written environmental stories, but I felt like that just solidified it: We have to talk for the ones who can’t speak for themselves. It’s a sacred trust.”
Heller remains dedicated to honoring that trust. When a bid to build a golf course near Paonia fell through and the land behind his home became available, Heller pounced. He bought every acre he could, borrowing money from friends and family to do it. He dug ponds for fish and migratory birds. Today deer, elk, and foxes freely wander his 180-acre property all the way up to the gray and white feet of Lamborn and Landsend peaks. “I don’t think of it as mine,” he says. “I’m just here trying to protect the wildlife for a little while.”
His dedication is on display near Sloan’s Lake, too, where he and Yan built a net-zero house, which took more than two years to create. An architect friend in Montana designed it, using an old-growth Douglas fir abandoned at an Oregon sawmill for some of the beams and posts. There’s a wood stove, sauna, and outdoor shower that remind Heller of his early years in Vermont. The kitchen table was procured on a visit to Costa Rica to see Fiona, the woman widowed on the So Muo. One of Heller’s longtime Paonia friends, Chuck, anvilled all of the home’s iron towel racks himself. “The house is made up of parts that are attached to the people and places that I love,” Heller says.
He gathers those people regularly—on skiing, surfing, and paddling trips, yes, but often for simple backyard barbecues at his Paonia property. After our unsuccessful creek-fishing sojourn, Heller hosts one of these. It’s a proper grilling session: steaks over a campfire, Nick Adams–style, as the sun slips behind the Grand Mesa and the wind pushes the smoke around our little circle. The cold and hunger eventually chase us inside to savor a supper of West Elk bounty, much of it grown by the very people seated at the table. I’ve met some of them before in the pages of Heller’s books: There’s Willy, who dropped out of Harvard University and became a woodworker and rancher. And Chuck, the towel-rack maker, a former Outward Bound instructor who, 25 years earlier, watched a wildland fire devour the home he’d built by hand. I marvel at the richness with which Heller managed to draw them as we pass plates.
A consummate host, Heller facilitates both the meal and the conversation. He fills the quiet moments between topics, easily transitioning from fracking to the war in Afghanistan to Paonia’s changing ways. Other times, he listens, really listens. He watches the faces of his friends—the essences of so many elements of his fiction—caught in the cabin’s soft light. Tonight, they aren’t characters. And Heller isn’t Hig. Nor Hank. Nor Jack. He is simply Peter, the poet-adventurer, the gregarious gatherer of people and contemplative crafter of stories, a gentle contradiction who’s always quietly observing, asking, brooding, and laughing, skirting the line between shadow and light.