In 2007, I heard a radio interview with a Chinese author who talked about visiting the mountain village where his ancestors had lived for thousands of years. When he stepped onto that soil, he knew instinctively that he was home, felt in his bones that he was where he belonged. At the time, I'd been living in Paonia, Colo., (HCN's home base) for just a few years, and I envied that author's sense of rootedness.
In the American West, most of us can't claim that long ancestral connection, can't say we've been knit into the fabric of the land for hundreds of generations. Yet many of us feel like we've earned localness, by trading love for longevity, intensity for time.
That passion for place is the subject of this special books and essays issue, and it's the theme of our first-ever student essay contest, which asked high school and college students to tell us why they feel at home in the West. "Being a Westerner is being rooted … wherever the wind blows you, you carry the West in your heart just as a seed carries the nutrients of its native soil within its shell," wrote Elle Brunsdale, a Colorado native studying at Yale University.
You can read the winning student essay on page 37. The rest of the issue is packed with similar musings from some of the West's best writers; it's a chance to slow down and reflect, discover some great new books, get to know authors you may not have heard of, savor an essay over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
HCN contributing editor Craig Childs takes us from the Bering Land Bridge to the desert Southwest. He visits Yup'ik Eskimos whose ancestors came to Alaska 2,000 years ago, and traces their connection to today's Navajo tribe in Arizona, considering what it means to be truly local. Boulder, Colo.-based author Hannah Nordhaus writes about her family's 150-year history in New Mexico. She discovers that much of the lore handed down to her is closer to myth -- or ghost story -- than historical fact, and ponders not only how the past links us to the places we love, but also whether those links are more imaginary than real. And HCN associate editor Sarah Gilman explores how her parents -- scientist transplants from the East -- adopted the High Plains as a sort of heart-home through 30 years of fossil-hunting treks.
The truth is, these days, most Westerners aren't born. We're made, becoming of this region in all sorts of ways that can feel just as legitimate as being raised here, or being fifth generation. As Jamie Wygle, an 11th-grader in Sun Valley, Idaho, put it in his student essay, "Over the years I realized I didn't become a Westerner, the West turned me into one."