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.

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