Strangers in a familiar land

 

A few years ago, my family and I lived for a while in Germany. Soon after we returned, we went for a hike in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area in northwestern New Mexico. Bisti is surely one of the weirder and more obscure wilderness areas out there, a collection of otherworldly rock formations and badlands, surrounded by high desert grazing land and oil and gas wells. It sharply contrasts with the soaring peaks, wildflower meadows and crashing whitewater in the Weminuche Wilderness, just a couple hours north, and is not nearly as well known as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon or the region’s other landmarks.

I figured we’d have the place to ourselves — besides the cows that had broken through the fence — so when we saw a few cars in the dirt parking lot, at least half of them with non-New Mexico plates, I was surprised. I was even more surprised to see, in the hikers’ register, that many recent visitors had come from Switzerland, France, even Lithuania. That Europeans were in New Mexico wasn’t unusual — the foreign fascination for the American West is well known. But in Bisti? Surely they must be lost.

About a half-mile into our hike, we encountered a German family and asked them what brought them to Bisti. They said they’d been looking for somewhere to pause during the long drive between Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon, and saw Bisti on a German website. And they loved it.

Later, I went in search of the website and found not one, but several travelogues from Germans in the American West. To my (admittedly chauvinistic) surprise, they wanted more than the stereotypical big-ticket destinations, and so they encouraged their fellow countrymen to leave the beaten path in search of obscure spots that even many locals haven’t visited. Their fascinating descriptions — of hidden slot canyons and little-known ancient pueblos — allowed me to see places that I thought I knew intimately in a new light, through the eyes of those to whom the wilderness and wide-open skies of the West are downright alien.

This international-tourism themed edition of High Country News’ annual Travel Issue is designed to help you see our home through more or less “foreign” eyes — whether they belong to Asian tourists on a tour bus through the Mojave, or Colorado children in the backwaters of Alaska. “Raccoonboy” will guide you through your unexpectedly foreign backyard, and a flowchart will let you know what kind of public land you’re visiting. We even have an “extraterrestrial” correspondent to guide wandering aliens (like you and me) through the wilds of Portland. Because the West is always mysterious if you approach it with open eyes. In the end, we’re all just visitors here.

We hope you enjoy this detour away from our regular content, and that it helps you see the West anew.