When he stands on the deck behind his home in Rio Rico, cowboy-turned-author Carew Papritz can point out Patagonia Lake, a nearby observatory and caves long used by indigenous people just behind those hills.

He knows this land and has traveled it by foot and by hoof.

He lowers his voice when a whitetail doe and her fawn appear in the shrubbery beneath his son’s tree house.

“I paid them to do that,” he jokes. Carew is, after all, rather media-savvy these days.

His inspirational fiction book “The Legacy Letters: His Wife, His Children, His Final Gift” took off after a Huffington Post review launched it into the national spotlight. It was a lucky encounter — he passed the book to a writer for the site after meeting her in an elevator at the end of a national publicity summit in New York. This moment, like so many others in his life, makes for a good story.

“I feel like all my life has been in training to write this book,” Carew, 52, says. The book is fiction, but Carew poured much of himself into it as he worked on it for more than 15 years.

“We see a lot of all of us and the reflection of our family and family traditions,” says Rawhide Papritz, Carew’s 76-year-old father. “When I first read the entire manuscript, my first thought was, ‘He could call this an autobiography…’”

But not quite.

“The Legacy Letters,” published by Carew’s company, King Northern Publishing, is a collection of fictional letters written to the unborn twins of a dying man estranged from his wife. It is a chronicle of this man’s life as he passes on guidance and memories.

In online reviews, readers often confuse the book as nonfiction, mourning the author’s death. Carew calls it a “passion book” and a “love story about life.” But that doesn’t mean he is done living his.

‘How These Letters
Came to Be’

Carew was born in Yosemite National Park. His father Rawhide, a geography professor, worked in national parks for several summers.

Rawhide remembers taking Carew, the oldest of four boys, to round up cattle in the Grand Tetons one summer.

“I want to be a ranger like you someday, riding horseback,” an 8 or 9-year-old Carew told his father that day.

“I said, ‘Someday maybe you will,’” Rawhide says, calling from his home in Auburn, Washington. “And someday maybe he did.”

Theirs was an active family that spent its time snowshoeing cross-country, hiking and kayaking. Living in a rural area in Auburn gave Carew and his brothers space to ride bikes and build tree houses.

“I remember making this decision around 12,” Carew says. “I wanted to lead the most adventurous life I could. I wanted to be a ranger like my dad. I loved reading about these explorers.”

These days, he calls himself a life explorer — a writer.

‘Travel the World’

If any letter in the book stands as the Papritz family’s manifesto on wanderlust and curiosity, it is the letter titled “Travel the World.”

In it, the father recounts for his children the hardship and joy of time spent on the road, sharing a few glistening memories he collected along the way — running into the pope in St. Peter’s Square or falling in love with an Italian girl at the Trevi Fountain.

These memories, Carew says, are his, on loan to his character.

The family’s foundation in travel began with Rawhide’s work. He often brought home mementos from his trips for his children to ogle. “I’m sure Carew picked up on that and said, ‘The world is my apple, and I have to travel to get around,’” Rawhide says.

In high school, Carew taught cross-country skiing and was on a backcountry ski patrol. After graduating, he struck out for a Norwegian ski school — a cross between a community college and Olympic training facility, he says. In the nine months he spent at school, he took a few leaps of faith, both on the ski jump and in his system of beliefs.

“Here I was, skiing and racing, but this was a prelude to the book,” he says. “I end up going on this amazing spiritual adventure and journey, so when I was there, I’m 17 years old and questioning life, skiing with these guys and devouring books. I was reading every religious book imaginable.”

He decided then that he wanted to see humanity’s extremes. Carew wanted to see war.

He says he backpacked through Europe and hitchhiked to Lebanon, a country in the midst of a civil war. There, he connected with university students who took him in, and for five weeks, he experienced life pierced by war.

“I wake up in the morning and I hear the machine guns. I say, ‘I did it. I’m in the middle of a war zone.’ And I look out the window, and it’s a jackhammer,” he says. “There is a war going on, but there is also baking bread and jackhammering.”

He penned his last letter to his parents from Istanbul before his jaunt through a war zone, he says. Rawhide and his wife Diane Papritz had given ski school their blessing. At the time, they didn’t know the extent of their son’s gallivanting.

“Diane can speak to concern of his Norway year and when he decided, ‘I’ve had enough skiing. I think I’ll go see what that civil war in Lebanon is all about’,” Rawhide says. “She was a tad more worried than I. I looked at it as, ‘He is having an adventure.’ I didn’t realize he was in a hole-in-the-wall around shooting.”

“I’m more the concerned one,” Diane, 75, says. “I’m the mama.”

That year away from home changed Carew. It took him time to process those experiences. “The Legacy Letters” testifies to the zeal for life he discovered there.

“You can’t un-gong that bell, and that changed me for the rest of my life,” he says. “That’s why I look at life as more fragile.”

‘The Art of Work
and Working

Carew’s parents say he has always been a natural writer and even won a national writing award as a sixth grader. In his early 20s, he published two anthologies of editorial cartoons.

Then, in the midst of leading river rafting trips in Grand Teton National Park and driving tour buses in Alaska, Carew enrolled in film school at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I think he tried kind of playing the game, especially trying to get into the business with films and movies” says Ken Johnson, 51, whom Carew met at community college in Auburn. Their affection for adventure and the outdoors cemented their friendship. “It’s hard for me to put into words a feeling. He’s the kind of person who has always been very thoughtful with family and friends, and I think during that time he kind of got away from that.”

In Hollywood, Carew worked on sets for a handful of films, including “Don Juan DeMarco” with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando and “Forget Paris” with Billy Crystal.

Richard Brunton, a lead man on film crews at the time, was Carew’s friend and boss on several films. Carew taught him to rock climb.

“He has an abundance of charm,” says 50-year-old Brunton by phone in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is working on a Ben Affleck action film. “Whenever we needed a favor from another department, Carew was the guy. … He would hang out and shoot the breeze and chit chat with whoever and would always come back with whatever you needed.”

After 10 years of living the fast-paced, technology-saturated Hollywood lifestyle, Carew needed out.

Southern Arizona would be his respite.

‘A Most Important Letter’

Carew says he began writing “The Legacy Letters” by lantern light in the back of a pickup truck after a day of working for Arizona ranchers near the border.

Returning to the outdoors — where he had “soul room; what your soul was aching for” — sparked his creativity.

The 40 letters that appear in the published book are only a fraction of about 200 that he wrote. Carew hopes to release all the letters along with music he wrote for the book next year.

He wrote first by hand, then by typewriter, and finally switched to the computer. He says the first draft felt like “finger-wagging wisdom,” and he “wanted to burn it.” Editing came slowly and painfully for this lifelong letter-writer.

In the days before cell phones, Carew wrote letters from the road. His mother still hangs on to the postcards he sends, and Rawhide says they can still count on handwritten cards from their son. He takes pride in his penmanship — its swoops and curls appear with his father’s sketches in several letters that appear in the book.

Johnson also kept postcards from Carew, though the friends made it a practice to call each other from the wackiest payphone locations possible to leave ridiculous voicemails.

And then, in the midst of writing his book and working on a ranch, Carew wooed his wife-to-be.

‘I give to you our vows …
Our wedding vows’

Dawnie Kildoo Papritz met Carew on a horseback riding trip in Patagonia.

Then living outside of Washington, D.C. and going through a difficult divorce, Dawnie decided to wander west for a trip of camping and horseback riding with her oldest daughter. Carew would be their guide and wrangler on that trip.

“I thought he was kind of goofy at first,” Dawnie, 59, says. They connected over their love of the outdoors and similar family values, talking on morning rides when her daughter slept late.

On the flight home, mother and daughter rehashed the trip, including their charismatic guide. Dawnie thought nothing of it.

“We went back home, and he wrote me this incredible, motivating letter,” she says. “It all started with a letter. It just gave me the strength I needed to persevere.”

So she called him.

For several years, they wrote letters and talked on the phone. Reading an early copy of “The Legacy Letters” gave her insight into his values.

When they finally married, they did it on horseback in Patagonia.

“He built this cross on the top of the hill, and that’s where we got married,” she says. “We each rode up on horseback — him from the west and me from the east — and got off our horses and had our ceremony with family all there. And then we rode off on one horse into the sunset.”

Johnson, who teaches middle school in Bellingham, Washington, calls the wedding “typical Carew.”

“Oh gosh, it was right out of Hollywood,” he says. “He likes to downplay it, but he’s an organizer, and he loves panache. He likes to have a flair for the dramatic … He doesn’t do anything half-hearted.”

The wedding vows that Carew wrote for his wife that day appear in his book. Fifteen years later, he still tucks love notes around the house for his wife. She saves them all, occasionally pulling out that first letter when she needs an extra dose of strength.

‘On My Boy Becoming a Man’

The success of “The Legacy Letters” has whisked Carew around the country for media appearances and book signings.

And these aren’t just any book tours. Carew inscribes books at pop-up signings on Amtrak or at Mount St. Helens. Last year, he signed books on horseback at a Tucson Barnes & Noble, 5130 E. Broadway.

“I just figured, ‘What the heck. I might as well exemplify what this guy wants to pass on to his children and wife,’” he says.

It is a book about savoring life, and its publication has been long awaited. The irony, Carew says, is that this book sometimes threatens his own personal life.

“I always knew he would be successful, but I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be,” Dawnie says. “He’s not at my beck and call anymore.”

Carew travels at least once a month to promote the book. Over the summer, his son — who Carew calls “the cat’s pajamas” — accompanied him on a book tour, while Mom held down the fort at home and at her dental practice, Legacy Smiles of Southern Arizona in Green Valley.

“I get very leery, because I only have one son and one child, and I have got to make the most of it,” Carew says. “I don’t want to let the book take away from that. I’m on a fast track with a pony that is supposed to be slow and meandering.”

And now he has a book that challenges him to live up to his own words. Carew wrote many of the letters before becoming a parent himself.

“This one letter eluded me, and it was important for me to write,” he says. The letter titled ‘On My Boy Becoming a Man’ stumped him, until he asked his son, then a toddler, for some help.

“What do I do here?” he asked the giggling boy. He realized he needed to write to his son.

“Over the years, we have had this night time thing, and I would say, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

His son answers, “A good man, a fair man, a courageous man.”

So far it has stuck.

A kindergarten teacher told Carew that when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the boy responded with his father’s mantra.

That floored Carew. “Oh my gosh,” he says. “This stuff works.”

In the last year, the book has won four awards — three in nonfiction categories and one in a fictional category.

It took trading the busyness of Hollywood for the open spaces and slower paces of life in Southern Arizona to get here.

“I essentially fell off the face of the Earth; it took that to regain my soul,” he says. “That’s been the fascinating part. People have responded to the nakedness and the truth that came with revealing myself to myself.”

Contact reporter Johanna Willett at jwillett@tucson.com or 573-4357. On Twitter: @JohannaWillett

Writing about Tucson's heart and soul — its people, its kindness, its faith — for #ThisIsTucson.