When the suggestion that High Country News do a travel-themed edition first came up, there was a lot of skepticism. After all, who needs more fluff about the "Top 10" thisses, and the "Best Secret" thats? We focus on serious issues -- the West's cultures, economies and environmental problems. Right?

Right. And that's why you're holding the first-ever High Country News travel issue.

Travel and tourism have always been important to the West's identity and economies. As soon as the dust settled from the early land and gold rushes, people came west not to stake mining claims, but to visit healing springs, breathe dry, fresh air and admire majestic scenery. Even as white settlers were devising ways to solve the "Indian Problem," they were also exploiting those same tribes, transforming them into exotic spectacles to lure Eastern visitors and their cash.

In the 1970s, as communities grew weary of the extraction boom-and-bust rollercoaster, some sought out tourism as a more stable economy. At the same time, the growing environmental movement embraced it as a cleaner, friendlier way to "mine the riches" of the scenery. Former timber and mining towns, their dirt streets and rowdy bars once crowded with blue-collar workers flinging cash around, became quaint Victorian villages with brightly painted facades and ubiquitous Ye Olde Fudge Shoppes. Mountain bikers, kayakers, climbers and sightseers flocked to the peaks, rivers and canyons of the West, and a new industry appeared to cater to them.

It's not always pretty or fun -- one popular bumper sticker reads: "If it's tourist season, why can't we shoot them?" In Moab, many of those who once battled miners and ranchers, now wouldn't mind exchanging them for some of the lycra-clad recreational hordes. Some towns seem eager to sell their souls to the gift-shop devil just to peddle a few more cheesy T-shirts.

But tourism has also improved the quality of life for many communities and helped save Western landscapes. Tourism-generated sales taxes not only provide amenities; they offer a financial incentive for saving nearby wildlands. If you live in a tourist town, you or your neighbors likely first visited as tourists, fell in love with the place, then did whatever you could to find a way to stay.

As natural as it may be, then, for us to focus on travel, this issue was a challenge. We wanted to celebrate the Westerner's inherent urge to leave the highway and follow that ragged two-track into the sage, while not getting lost in the clichés that so often plague travel writing. So we highlight oddball destinations of the sort our readers relish. We also leave a lot out: We're not going to reveal any top-10-secret-hidden-gems. We know you'd rather discover those on your own, even if it means wandering deliriously around the desert for days on end. After all, that's what travel's all about.