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Know the West

Travel, HCN-style


Note: This is an introduction to a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

My wife, Linda, and I try to avoid the expected when we travel. When our kids were young, for instance, we all vacationed for several days in Orlando, Fla., the site of Disney World. But we didn't spend a minute in the famous orchestrated amusement park. Instead, we visited the museum in the Tupperware world headquarters and perused the history of food containers.

On that trip, we also spent hours at Gatorland, a retro theme park that was like a time machine back to the 1950s. There we saw a shirtless sunburned guy "wrestle" an alligator that was half his size (even I could have pinned that poor little gator). We watched other Gatorland employees fling dead chickens into a pool of thrashing reptiles, and took snapshots of our kids climbing on the teeth of the gigantic gator-jaw sculpture.

To find quirky attractions like these, we read guidebooks and travel stories that devote a few paragraphs to travelers with our tastes. Thus, we also discovered a San Franciso Asian-fusion restaurant where the wait staff were men cross-dressing in sequined gowns, dancing on the bar while singing throaty tunes like "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend."

On a trip two months ago, Linda and I walked across a bridge over the Rio Grande and into Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua -- the drug cartel murder capital. At the Mexican end of the bridge, we met a friend who moved to Juárez for work-related reasons. He loaded us into his vehicle (travel tip: to reduce the chance that your vehicle will be stolen in Juárez, drive a rusty old pickup) and gave us a tour of the chaos, including the fortified but useless border fence. On one Juárez street, we spotted a roadblock ahead, where guys in black uniforms were doing something with automatic rifles, and our guide muttered "better turn off here" and pulled a hard left to avoid them.

In 1984, Linda and I spent our honeymoon getting blisters, backpacking in the Grand Canyon. On a recent Christmas day, with the temperature around zero degrees Fahrenheit, we drove snowmobiles into Yellowstone National Park, assessing the controversy over motorized winter travel while also enjoying the whole experience (travel tip: opt for the heated handlebar grips). On our wish list, we'd like to tour the spectacular Bakken oilfield mess.

I expect that many of you in the High Country News community also have quirky travel tastes, looking for meaningful explorations of the wild and the human condition, rather than just fun and games and getting skin cancer lying on some boring beach. So, in this second annual special travel issue of HCN, we're highlighting a wide range of unusual destinations and approaches to travel in the West.

It's worth noting that, among the writers in this issue, three are University of Montana journalism professors. Their presence indicates UM's emphasis on environmental and Native journalism, and HCN's interest in developing relationships with the West's universities.