Readers’ foreign travel tales

Winners of the High Country News essay contest for our annual travel issue.

 

We asked our intrepid readers to send us stories about ways the West can feel foreign. What follows are the editors’ picks.

THE GUIDE INSIDE
By Erica Berry – winner

Bryce Gladfelter

Anna’s braces fell off after breakfast on the fifth day. I was rolling my rain-jacket into my backpack when she came up to me, clutching them in her rosy palm — tiny metal pieces that had once been on her tiny ivory teeth. “Cricket,” she said, “they’ve been loose for a while. I think we need to call my dentist.” Part of the chain was still in her mouth, and she cocked her head at me, smiling through wire and chapped lips, her cheeks a sunburned topography of mosquito bites.

We were deep in the Centennial Mountains of Montana — Indian paintbrush meadows, alpine streams — and nothing made sense. My camp name, Cricket, was also the name of the miniature Australian shepherd my parents owned back home. That morning, I’d woken up clutching my bear spray like a talisman, sweat-drenched in the mesh cave of my tent. My co-guide had left on horseback around 4 a.m., evacuating the ever-vomiting Mary. We were hoping it wasn’t Hantavirus: There were mouse droppings in the cowboy yurt we had cooked in a day before. 

I was facing a world where 13 12- and 13- and 14-year-old girls were chirping my dog’s name, looking for me, and I had to respond with a smile. The previous night, after stringing up bear bags of lotion, tampons, pots, granola and trash in the trees, I let myself cry. I was 19. I had signed myself up for both motherhood and the wilderness, and I wasn’t sure I could handle either.

A pair of alien hands rummaged through my pack: Dirty fingernails, swollen knuckles, bug-bitten palms, branch-scratched wrists, a rainbow of friendship bracelets. I put Anna’s braces in a Ziploc bag, telling her we would sort it out when we got back to the van. Her eyes were wet. I told her I had once accidentally thrown my retainer into the trash with a paper plate, and it required a dive through a dumpsterful of crusts and cores to recover it. “Just think, this will be a great story one day!” I told her. She laughed. 

Ahead of me, 24 eyes peered through pine needles and sunlight. The girls were grinning, kicking their feet like horses in the trail.

“All ready, crew?” said a strange, strong voice from inside my ribs.

“Come on, Cricket,” said Astrid. “We’re following you!”

 

LAND OF RETIREMENT
By Ralph Moore

Nothing I could relate to; no tracks that meant anything. A wilderness for sure. Directed by colors — the piercing blue overhead brilliant and uplifting; the baked cinnamon sandstone varnished, solid and comforting — I found all the crayon shades between red and brown, hovering this morning near burnt umber. Early signs led only to box canyons, an occasional wash. Nothing that matched the guidebook’s description beyond the trailhead, nothing recognizable. No cairns. Where were the familiar patterns, the landmarks? It hit me then, like late afternoon thirst on an all-day hike: I was in this for the long haul.

Bryce Gladfelter

I was retired. I was retired, and there had to be an app for that. It was definitely the most foreign place imaginable. I needed reference points, and sought understanding through observation, conversation and writing. I looked for plants and people to relate to, yearned for weather to connect with, and sought prepositions that wouldn’t end phrases. I came to this place by traveling, exploring and education, balanced with living and working in 10 Western states over 40 years, mostly through a career in land management. My wife and I fell for the expansive prairie in Nebraska’s Panhandle, the spring snow in the Sierra high country, the rich distinctive smells of evergreens in the Pacific Northwest and the waves along the West Coast. Alaska will be with us always. Generous and gracious hearts opened up through stories, setting waypoints. 

The Colorado Plateau is a powerful place, where return means reconnection. Yet this place where I now reside — “retirement” — is shaped as much by open space as time, with different currency and language — and it begs perspective. This landscape is our new home, yet those living here look vaguely familiar. 

Somewhere in Desolation Canyon, or Stillwater Canyon, or Labyrinth Canyon, as we floated day after day and laughed and listened to sandy water run under our drifting rafts and canoes, listened to canyon wrens at dawn, listened to wind in cottonwoods at camp, and listened to each other, the terrain became better defined. I looked for butterflies (saltbush sootywing, sagebrush checkerspot, checkered skipper) and photographed spring wildflowers (desert phlox, scarlet gilia, globemallow, paintbrush). Identification, categorization, then realization. Become grounded by walking.

At the side canyon’s junction with the river, a petroglyph. Where once prominent features defined a journey’s course, I am learning the customs of this new place and looking, looking for nuances.

 

UNFAMILIAL
By Victoria Stein

I don’t feel at ease anywhere in the world. I’m the mixed-race child of immigrant families, almost blending in but never quite comfortable. Brown hair, brown eyes, average features: I can seem like a local anywhere I can act confident, and a stranger anywhere outside my comfort zone. But here in the Navajo Nation, as my boots hit the red soil beside our dirt-crusted car, I was confronted with an entirely new sense of foreignness. 

Juniper and sage clung to the cracked ground, and the recent winter rain had already evaporated from pools between the cactuses. A truck, stained over years to the burnt copper color of the earth, avoided the road’s worst potholes; the driver watched faceless through a dark window as my friend pushed open the sand-scoured gate to his grandmother’s house. The truck disappeared down the hill in a cloud of dust, toward the old schoolhouse and the abandoned trading post, past a sign advertising a backyard sheep roast, $5 per plate. The engine noise faded, muted against the flat sky, as my friend bounded ahead into the empty house. I lingered at the gate. 

Bryce Gladfelter

To me, this homestead did not evoke a sense of nostalgic love, no wistful remembrance of a golden childhood. It was sharp and cold, bare and beautiful, striations in canyon walls and branching brittle vegetation — visually similar to the high deserts I’ve known; politically isolated from the nation I belonged to, which enclosed this one. To him, even though the light was falling, the house was cold, and the water wouldn’t run from the taps, this place mattered: It was where his bones rested. I learned a lot over our days in that house with its family photos, cast-iron pans seasoned by generations, paintings and knickknacks, and backyard full of forgotten tools. His uncle came to fix the water, but I never saw him — another ghostly reminder to me that the real life of the land continued around my bubble of quiet observation. 

We stood looking down steep steps, laid for his great-grandmother by her husband to lead her, stone by stone, to the ancient peach orchard at the canyon bottom. I fell in love with that story, with the red grit in my teeth, with the tiny trickle far below that wound past the dry-leafed trees and became, in time, the Colorado River. But I wasn’t at home.

 

URANIUM BUST
By Irina Zhorov

Three bars used to serve beer in Jeffrey City — one for the oilfield workers, one for the uranium miners, and one for the ranchers. Now there’s one, and when I walk in a group of smokers sits at a round table playing card games on their computers. The barkeep, Vikki, is also the town’s part-time librarian. Why are there metal grates on the windows? I ask. The women kept getting into fights and throwing each other through the windows, she says. This is the ranchers’ bar, serving the approximately 75 people who remain here. The other workers have left. 

Bryce Gladfelter

The town hugs U.S. 287, but down the dirt roads that weave through sagebrush there are still ranches, still signs of life. I visit a rancher who tells me Jeffrey City used to have 5,000 residents. There were social clubs, schools, even a swimming pool. Later, a squatter was found dead in the emptied pool. The second hand of the clock in her wallpapered kitchen thunders above the rancher’s quiet recollections of community bustle. Maybe they’ll come back, she says. I ask if she’d like that, and she says, Sure, those were good times. 

Uranium is expected to boom again, and men in polished white trucks have been frequenting the hidden hills around Jeffrey City. They leave the keys to gated mine sites with Vikki between visits. I go out with Frank, who’s preparing the mine for opening, once uranium prices rise sufficiently. I carry a Geiger counter and point it at mounds of dirt piled up by the previous boom. It chirps enthusiastically. Frank takes me to an old mine pit, now filled with brilliant blue water. Amid the tans of the plains, the McIntosh Pit’s deep cyan is a portal to another world. The water is full of radionuclides. 

Back at the bar, I meet the Mad Potter and lose $2 playing dice. He makes ceramics in a small complex of structures across from the bar. It looks like he ended up here after breaking down on the way to Burning Man. Stop by anytime, he says as I head out. I pull out of the bar and onto U.S. 287, onward to my destination. Before I speed up, I roll slowly past rows of boarded-up company housing for miners. A herd of antelope grazes on the playground.

 

COLA HOLE
By Steve Snyder

Bryce Gladfelter

I had had a long but enjoyable day of hiking. Most of my treks had been relatively easy, and of course, beautiful, ever since that first morning barefoot walk in the sand at Nickel Beach after unpacking my tent and sleeping bag. Walks through cathedral groves of redwood giants had me wondering if I had seen the tallest tree; it was one of them, though left deliberately unmarked. 

It was more than sky-high gazes. Noticing the difference in bark from tree to tree, looking at the luxuriant undergrowth, and appreciating another cathedral-like aspect — quiet, oh-so-rare today — completed the day. 

But I eventually headed back to my car. It was time to wrap up this segment of my vacation and ease on down the road, and I didn’t want to rush. 

And that’s when I found out the beauty of nature had been rudely punctuated by a small-scale human horror show. Or so it seemed to me.

Because the land, or at least some of its more prominent merchants, had turned its back on Atlanta. There was no Coca-Cola available. Georgia’s most famous product, in its most convenient form, was nowhere to be found here. 

Not a single convenience store in Crescent City deigned to carry it on tap, instead offering only a sticky, toothlessly sweet tar called “Pepsi.” 

I had heard tales of this strange phenomenon before. I knew that large swaths of the Pacific Northwest were deep into Coke Denialism. 

But I had never met this scourge face-to-face before. Until now. Heartless, remorseless, pitiless fountain machines confronted me. 

I needed to gas up, then visit the pier area at sunset before I bid adieu to the southern gateway to Redwood National Park. So after visiting every C-store on Highway 101, I finally settled for a non-cola product from a fountain machine. 

The forces of evil, lurking in the middle of stunning beauty, would not win. The setting sun might bring on natural nightfall, but human darkness would not conquer my soul. 

Lost Coast, here I come!

 

WHAT GOES UP
By Stephen Elliott

The last thing you want to hear when your life is in someone else’s hands is, “Oh, shit.”

Yet there I was, 80 feet above the Teton County, Idaho, fairgrounds and the neighboring industrial lockup, in a hot air balloon, listening to Earl the pilot repeatedly mumble, “Oh, shit.”

Hot air ballooning is about the most foreign type of travel I can imagine — untethered from solid ground yet unsupported by jet engines or safety harnesses … just a wicker basket, some steel cables and a gruff, leathery old man preventing you from falling to a potato field 100 or 1,000 feet below. 

Bryce Gladfelter

And I believed that Earl would keep me safe. He was wearing a cowboy hat, for Christ’s sake! He’d been flying balloons for damn near three decades! And not one accident! You had me at howdy, Earl. 

We took off around 6 a.m., with the sun just above the Tetons shining straight ahead. The oh-shits began about 30 seconds and 80 vertical feet later. Earl noticed that one of the four cables connecting the corners of the basket to the balloon was not, in fact, connecting the basket to the balloon, but rather dangling unattached and unhelpful, one corner of our chariot hanging dangerously below the other three. 

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Earl said, neither shouting nor whispering. He quickly yanked the cord to release air from the balloon so we could descend, but in his panic he let out too much. After a brief leveling off, we began falling faster and faster, toward a warehouse and industrial enclosure next to the fairgrounds. 

We skimmed the warehouse roof, then hopped down into the gravel piles in the yard. I braced for impact, which was jarring and immediate. 

Flight is foreign. It’s unnatural for humans to have their feet on anything but earth, yet the frequency and regularity of air travel has made flight seem boring and routine. Air travel is so safe and normal that I forget I’m 30,000 feet in the air; instead, I worry about legroom and not spilling my ginger ale. 

It took a return to the oldest form of human flight (France, 1783) to remind me that man belongs on the ground, no matter how liberating it is to ignore the laws of physics. What goes up must come down. I felt more foreign 80 feet above the Teton County Fairgrounds than I do 30,000 feet above middle America. Go figure.