Stories we wish we’d written

A look at some of the journalism from 2021 that inspired us, made us feel seen, and, sometimes, even made us cry.

 

As 2021 wraps up and we enter the unknown world of 2022, High Country News staffers took some comfort in revisiting some of our favorites among the stories our fellow journalists turned out this year. These pieces impressed us with their depth and nuance, and their ability to humanize the many challenges Westerners face as we navigate a global pandemic, a climate crisis and deepening inequality. There are also stories of hope and tenderness, informative accounts of the intricate lives of our non-human neighbors and discussion of the necessary changes the region faces in coming to terms with its complicated history.

A sincere thank you to all the journalists who helped us understand the West just a little bit better than we had before.

Collage that accompanied Sierra Magazine's article on the legacy of John Muir.
Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Images: Public domain and courtesy of University of the Pacific Library.

John Muir in Native America

Any conservation-minded reader will appreciate this tough piece on the legacy of John Muir, which Rebecca Solnit wrote for the Sierra Club’s own magazine. In it, she describes a man with a long-reaching vision for a land ethic that ultimately obscured the Indigenous stewardship of that very land. The piece is packaged as a story about the Sierra Club's co-founder, but Solnit delivers so much more. She deftly takes down the organization’s own elitist legacy and exposes its ugly secrets and many shortcomings. But she also introduced me to new writers and thinkers, such as Camille Dungy — the new minds paving the way for the future of the environmental movement. In this account of conservation’s dark past, there’s also hope to be found.

Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor, South Desk

Chloé Zhao’s America

This Vulture profile of Chloé Zhao by Alison Willmore delves behind the recent Oscar success of Zhao’s docudrama, Nomadland, about recession refugees living in cramped vans on the open, rural Western landscape. As Willmore’s word magic guides us through the psyches and day-to-day of the now Oscar-winning filmmaker, the story distills what makes Zhao unique: her love-and-hate of her own rootlessness. Zhao’s wavering feeling over “home,” and whether to stay or go, along with the critical lens the story applied to the celebrated director, will inspire and guide a generation of transplant storytellers new to the Western United States. 

—Wufei Yu, editorial fellow, South Desk

 

The climate crisis is worse than you can imagine. Here’s what happens if you try.

In this ProPublica story, Elizabeth Weil gives voice to feelings many of us hold inside: our climate anguish, climate fear and climate grief. The people she interviews have gone through some rough waters and are now descending the never-ending rapids that lay beyond, proving how a journalistic act of collective rage can allow us to feel seen, if only briefly. Weil’s profile carries the emotional power of an essay on death and dying, and yet whose primary subject is the planet that makes our lives possible.

—Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief 

 

Who can afford to live in the American West when locals can’t?

I love this story from The Guardian by Kathleen McLaughlin. One of the biggest stories in the Western U.S. right now involves the intertwined issues of rising income inequality and rural gentrification. What do those forces do to a town and the people who already live there? McLaughlin distills these effects through the stories of real people, some of whom are being priced right out of their homes. 

—Emily Benson, associate editor, North Desk

 

At one Alaskan hospital, Indigenous foods are part of the healing plan

This New York Times article by HCN's former fellow, Victoria Petersen, is so lovely that my eyes still well up when I read it. The donation program profiled in the piece, which provides traditional foods to Indigenous patients, should be a role model for others in the health industry.

“They talk about not being in the hospital anymore.”

“When we’ve made seal soup and have been able to serve that to patients, and really watch as they take the first couple of bites, it transforms people,” said the chef. “You can watch them relax. They share stories. They talk about not being in the hospital anymore.” 

Gretchen King, managing digital editor 

 

What it’s like to fight a megafire

This New Yorker piece does a fantastic job of capturing the human cost of fighting wildfires in the age of megafires. Readers feel the heat and fear as flames blow up around a hotshot crew struggling to escape. As wildfires increase in intensity and complexity, we can expect that more wildland firefighters like Mike West, the story’s main protagonist, will suffer from trauma. Following his journey into — and eventually out of — firefighting provides a useful narrative arc for the feature. The reporter's personal experience of being embedded with a crew fighting California’s Dixie Fire this summer adds depth and expertise to the story.

Kylie Mohr, editorial fellow, North Desk

 

The tribal coalition fighting to save Monarch butterflies 

At a news meeting this fall, I referenced this wonderful article I’d read about inter-tribal groups that were meeting to tackle the unique conservational challenges of helping monarch butterflies. I asked if anyone else had read it, and it turned out that my editor, HCN’s own Nick Martin, had written it during his previous stint at The New Republic. I’m glad we have Nick now because this story sets me all aflutter.

—Brian Oaster, staff writer, Indigenous Affairs Desk

 

Postcard from Thermal: Surviving the climate gap in Eastern Coachella Valley

I’ve read countless stories explaining how climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities on the neighborhood and city scale, but it wasn’t until I read this breathtaking piece by ProPublica that the gravity of the situation came into clear focus.  Through multimedia reporting, the story illustrates the “climate gap” that persists in one of the most unequal parts of America: Thermal, California. It’s the kind of impossibly lavish place where the wealthy will soon be flocking to a new beach club complete with a 20-acre surf lagoon. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, farmworkers living in mobile home parks don’t have access to clean water. 

—Jessica Kutz, assistant editor, South Desk

 

Why animals don’t get lost

This wonderful, wending story by Kathryn Shultz for the New Yorker took me on a journey. I read this at a time that I was thinking quite a lot about how animals move across the landscape, a period during which I was tormenting myself with questions like Where are they going!? And why? Do they have a destination in mind? Shultz delivered in both a practical sense and also a deeply intuitive sense with this deep-dive story on navigation. This piece is rich with head-scratching tales from the natural world and descriptions of how house cats, cuttlefish, red-tailed hawks, emperor penguins, wolves and other wild beings get to wherever they’re going and, indeed, why they take off in the first place. Along the way, Shultz’s story reveals quite a lot about where humans are headed, too.  

Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor, South Desk

 

What happens when you have an all-women city council? New Mexico is about to find out.

This piece by The 19th opens my eyes to the possibility of change. Reporter Barbara Rodriguez reminds the reader that leadership originates in all citizens willing to try to make a difference in their community. 

—KHowe, customer service specialist

 

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...