The West is the stories we tell

To truly know a place, seek out its hidden histories.

 

I lived in Tucson, Arizona, for about six years, and one of the best things about that sometimes sweltering place was being surrounded by mountains. During my first week in town, new friends and I drove the steep, winding road to the top of Mount Lemmon, past cactus, then piñon and junipers, and finally into the pines. We threw down our packs in a hidden grassy patch just half a mile from a trail, a place most people hiked past. I snuggled into my sleeping bag that night, happy to be on the mountain, ignorant of its disturbing history.

Most Tucsonans know the road up Mount Lemmon for its stunning views of waterfalls, desert and blocky cliffs; its rock climbers, cyclists and backpackers; its log-cabin vacation homes. Fewer know the road’s origins. During World War II, Native Americans and Asian Americans, among others incarcerated in a prison camp on the mountain, carved the road from ancient rock as forced laborers. They included Japanese Americans who were conscientious objectors; they had refused to fight overseas for a country that had detained their families. As the U.S. entered the war, it incarcerated thousands of Americans of Japanese descent in camps without due process or legal recourse, through a presidential executive order.

Today, some place names — Prison Camp Road, Gordon Hirabayashi Campground — hint at the mountain’s history. But it’s easy to hike, drive or bike on Mount Lemmon and never realize that you’re traveling a highway dug by prisoners.

I did not learn about Mount Lemmon’s World War II history in school; I came across it while researching the region’s ecology for a writing project. Nor was I taught the peak’s Indigenous history, spanning thousands of years before European colonization. Now, I wonder: What other stories of place and displacement, of community and landscape, are hidden in archives, personal diaries, family stories? Which stories about the West are ignored, while other stories are told and retold?

Maya L. Kapoor, associate editor
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
In this special issue of High Country News, we celebrate storytelling from many different corners of the West. Through his graphic novel, actor George Takei recalls his own childhood internment during World War II, an experience he finds painfully echoed in the lives of detained migrants today. Meanwhile, writer and scholar Beth Piatote, who is Nez Perce from Chief Joseph’s Band and an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, conjures a sister hoping for family connection in the long shadow of Indian school separations.

You’ll also read about the history and future of the West’s water woes; queer Indigenous life in the Four Corners; the challenge of teaching writing students to wield their art as a force for change; and more. I hope these pages encourage you to seek out many more stories of the West, including your own.

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