Out of tragedy, High Country News soldiers on


"1978, the year the Senate shortchanged Alaska?," asked the cover headline of the Sept. 8 High Country News issue that year.  The article outlined the Senate "horsetrading" over the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the bill that in 1980 ultimately created or expanded 15 of Alaska's national parks and preserves.

The article contained only seven paragraphs, short by feature story standards, and the normal 16-page issue was pared to just eight pages.  Below a photo of snowfields and volcanic calderas on the Alaskan Peninsula, the column "Dear Friends" explained that the small Lander, Wyo. staff had been shaken by a tragic car accident that took the life of news editor Justas Bavarskis and injured three other staffers.

"After a concert in Jackson Hole, the four were returning to Lander together in the dark hours of Sunday morning. About 20 miles north of Lander on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Justas swerved to avoid a horse on the road. He skirted the horse, but the car rolled into a steep borrow pit, turned over almost three times and threw out all its occupants except (one)." (Cover image at left, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf.)

Bavarskis was killed instantly and the three other staffers suffered various injuries. Dan Whipple, an editor, had a broken back, while another editor, Marjane Ambler, was pinned by her leg and had a broken collarbone, as did office manager Jazmyn McDonald. The victims lay near the deserted highway for several hours, until finally, in the early morning, a young Indian woman stopped and then drove on to call for help.

Bavarskis had spent seven years with United Press International before heading to Lander to help a friend build a home in nearby Atlantic City. He'd only been at High Country News for a few months, but "he'd asked the HCN writing staff to work harder than ever before," the staff wrote in "Dear Friends".

"He doggedly insisted on the human perspective (and) if you couldn't tell him you headed back to the books and the telephone.

"With his help, we saw HCN becoming more timely, comprehensive, interesting and literate." (Read a rememberance of Justas Bavarskis, written by Marjane Ambler for the 20th Anniversary edition of High Country News, at right.)

The now-even-smaller staff doubted its ability to pull off the paper's publication but they wrote, "the task became easier when we heard from people who want to keep the paper on its feet, despite disasters, despite the sadness that fills us."

Several issues later the staff reported just how helpful the High Country News community had been – none of the injured were insured and readers had sent in thousands of dollars to help.  "Students at two universities in Idaho gathered money; a Bureau of Land Management office passed the hat; and environmental groups from all over the country sent money.  We heard from a governor, congressmen and an oil company." In the end, $32,000 poured in, enough to cover the hospital bills and buy health insurance for the staff.

Like the fierce determination of readers to keep the organization alive when founder Tom Bell declared in 1973 that "barring a miracle", High Country News would cease publication, the outpouring of support following the tragic accident is another of the miracles provided by readers that's become part of the institution's folklore.

Eleven years later Dan Whipple wrote an essay about the accident in the Sept. 25, 1989, issue commemorating High Country News' 20th Anniversary (cover image at left, or click here to download the entire article as a pdf). He described a coyote visiting the accident while he lay near the overturned Ford Pinto in the quiet predawn darkness and then visiting him again three days later as he recovered in the hospital.

"I awoke and got out of bed, the first time I had walked since the accident," he wrote.  "Then I looked back and saw myself lying still asleep.

"A coyote was standing next to me.  He did not seem particularly friendly, much like the night of the wreck.  He considered me a moment and said nothing, but took my arm and helped me back to bed."

As Whipple tells it, and everyone at the organization agrees, it was a testament to the power of the High Country News community. In describing the accident, Whipple writes, "I don't tell (people) that I saw God, because it is too incredible. And that God was not the coyote I told you about, who is merely a legend. It was you, gentle reader, a generous, loving and benevolent spirit that convinced me that humankind can be lifted above the everyday pain and turmoil that we inflict on ourselves and each other."