To truly understand the West, peek beyond the beautiful scenery

The complex layers of history that underlie our region include both ugliness and beauty.

 

Every summer, readers stop by Paonia for a tour of High Country News’ headquarters. And like everyone else who sets out to explore the West, they always ask: What’s there to see around here?

The usual response is to send them to our beauty spots — the clear, trout-filled lakes atop 10,000-foot Grand Mesa; the immense aspen forest between here and the cute-as-a-button ski town of Crested Butte; the vertiginous chasm at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; even the patio of a local winery with a spectacular view of the West Elk Mountains. But as publisher of a publication whose journalists cover the region’s most difficult environmental and social issues, I can’t help but encourage people to peek behind the beautiful scenery.

“You should check out the dismantled coal mine owned by a billionaire in the town of Somerset,” I tell them. “Also the reservoir built by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is already a third filled with silt from the aptly named Muddy Creek. And don’t miss the freshly cut stump of the Ute Council Tree in Delta, where tribal leaders once met in the shade before the U.S. government expelled them in 1881.”

The West is so scarred by its turbulent, exploitative, hubris-fueled past — and present — that we have often thought of publishing A Guidebook to the Real Ugly West. But then again, that might be redundant. Almost every issue of this magazine delves into the complex layers of history that underlie our region, and, like a Hawaiian volcano, periodically erupt.

Contributing Editor Jonathan Thompson has excavated the Four Corners area for more than two decades, unearthing everything from the political fractures beneath Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to the real cause of the Gold King Mine disaster in 2015. Thompson’s cover story on the uranium boom that left a dangerous toxic legacy in and around his hometown of Durango, Colorado, and deeply marked his own family, not only adds another chapter to the story of the West, it is literally a chapter, slightly reworked, from his new book: River of Lost Souls, published by Torrey Press. I highly recommend it.

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Paul Larmer, executive director/publisher.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

This issue also features another dive beneath the surface, the second installment of HCN board member Wayne Hare’s “Civil Conversations” series, which explores the African-American experience in the West. Hare travels to the progressive city of Portland, Oregon, where he uncovers its racist roots and the kind of practices that locked generations of African-Americans into economic and social depression, not only in Portland, but in every major U.S. city. Like Thompson’s, it’s an uncomfortable story, but critical for understanding this place. As you head out on the road this summer, we hope that these vicarious journeys with our writers help deepen your own understanding of our beautiful and ugly West.

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