Mapping our place in the West


I'm a Coloradan because of a map. Six years before I was born, my newly married parents, seeking to leave cloudy Tacoma, Wash., for a bigger, sunnier city, spread out a Rand McNally map of the West. Phoenix was too hot; L.A. seemed alluring but unreal, a land of movie stars and palm trees. Drawn by climate and mountains, they finally picked Denver.

Other Westerners came out here much earlier, of course, following rougher maps. Perhaps they traveled the Oregon Trail or the Santa Fe Trail, guided by landmarks like Chimney Rock or Raton Pass. Their maps were quite different from those of the region's Native occupants, which were not so much a representation of physical distances and features as they were narratives, describing seasons, events and the time a journey took.

This HCN special books and essays issue is a celebration of all of these ways of knowing a landscape and locating ourselves within it. With some of the West's most insightful authors as our guides, each fall we briefly set aside the news to create this special issue and take a more reflective look at our region.

The issue features a cover story by Craig Childs, esteemed Southwestern writer and HCN contributing editor, who writes about his still-evolving mental map of Utah's Canyonlands. Through countless explorations alone and with friends and family, Childs has woven a set of waypoints to guide him through the slickrock: "Not all maps are made of paper. The best ones are spooled in memory, better served by songs and stories than something that lays flat in a drawer." Joe Wilkins, Oregon poet and essayist, follows his grandmother's mental map of southern Montana to learn how his family's history intertwines with that of the Crow Indians. And Alaska-based Michael Engelhard, journeying across the Arctic, visits Inupiaq elders who trace their hunting and fishing routes on his USGS maps.

The issue also profiles Dave Imus, an Oregon cartographer whose maps express not just geography but character, and Ruth Kirk, a guidebook author ahead of her time, as well as other intriguing Western writers, such as Percival Everett, Richard Rodriguez and David Mason. And it contains reviews of several new titles, including Jedediah Rogers' history of Utah's wilderness road wars, reviewed by former HCN publisher Ed Marston.

Perhaps this issue will inspire you to pull out your own Western maps and seek out new geographies to explore. Every now and then, I daydream over maps of Montana and Oregon, thinking a bit wistfully about Bozeman, Missoula or Ashland. But then I realize that the state my parents chose all those years ago is the state I have chosen, too, the place that holds my life history -- and my heart.

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