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Know the West

Solace and perspective in writings about the West

Western authors offer different lenses through which to understand our region.


Wildfires. Hurricanes. Mass shootings. Political threats against all we hold dear. In times like these, we seek perspective where we can find it, trying to make sense of all that’s happening. Me, I’ve been taking long walks on the public lands near HCN’s hometown, Paonia, Colorado. On a crystalline October day, I hiked the dusty trails of Mount Jumbo through sagebrush and juniper. A ridged chunk of sandstone caught my eye: a fossilized clam, about the size of a 50-cent piece. John McPhee’s Basin and Range came to mind: “If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time … sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away … continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella. …” It was oddly comforting to picture the travails of today as just a ripple in a vast stretch of time, and to imagine these clay hills again submerged beneath a shallow sea.

On the cover: Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff National Park, Alberta, as seen through a crystal ball.
Lily Avetisyan, @lilyavephotography

This special issue of HCN might offer a bit of perspective as well: It’s our annual break from covering the news of the West, a look at the region through a different lens, that of literature. Thomas Mira y Lopez contributes an essay from The Book of Resting Places, a series of meditations on death and grief. Lopez visits places including Monument Valley, a cryogenic center in Arizona, and a Tucson rock shop full of oddities, which prompts him to consider, “What is the right way to treat the relics that do not belong to you, but in some way define you?” Los Angeles writer Daniel Olivas tackles a different sort of hallowed ground: In a short story that turned out to be uncomfortably prescient, he imagines families forcibly separated by a great wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Author profiles, Q&As and book reviews round out the issue, introducing Francisco Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent turned author, and Tommy Pico, a queer Native American whose poetry juxtaposes his childhood on California’s Viejas Reservation with his current life in New York City. Another Native poet and artist, Esther Belin, grapples with how English verse can reflect Navajo existence. Writers Blair Braverman and Emily Ruskovich discuss women writers challenging traditional visions of the West. Essayist Leath Tonino and a handful of other writers consider “wild reading” and how the books we read in the backcountry can provide solace, distraction and a deeper experience. And finally, Laura Pritchett and Ana Maria Spagna ponder a question for these sometimes dark and uncertain times: If we knew we would die today, what would we most want? Faced with that question, I’d find part of my answer in that fossil shell — the knowledge that the Earth will go on, in spite of us, even without us.