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Know the West

Road trips and the importance of reflection

In New Mexico, tourism illuminates a violent atomic past and threatens a religious sanctuary.


Last year, I found myself driving from Colorado’s Western Slope to my home in North Idaho, my car loaded down with books, camping gear and my bike. As road trips go, it was short but illuminating: I saw, firsthand, a fundamental truth of that place, its desert heat and fire-scarred hillsides. The first evening, as dusk settled over the landscape, a sign announced that the narrow highway I’d meant to take through Utah was closed. As I detoured up the next road, I watched the glow of a wildfire — the cause of the closure — blossom on the ridge to the east like a brilliant, dreadful flower, the scent of smoke filling my car. Things out here can happen fast, and change even faster.

Few things are more quintessentially American than a road trip, especially across the sprawling West, with its ample opportunities for detours, reflection and epiphany. This issue examines all this and more, through outdoor recreation and travel. In our cover story, writers LuLing Osofsky and Key MacFarlane pilot a rented Kia Soul through New Mexico, navigating the violent history of the atomic bomb. On their journey, they discover the absurdities of nuclear tourism, including the image of a warhead on pins, hats and even, perhaps, on the stained glass windows of a church. In the process, they explore how centuries of brutality continue to reverberate across the landscape.

Elsewhere in this issue, writer Gustavo Arellano details in a bittersweet essay the changes he’s seen at a beloved 200-year-old chapel in New Mexico, El Santuario de Chimayó. Created as a spiritual refuge, the shrine has become a locus of a common struggle in the modern West, over how to conserve the character of places threatened by their own popularity.

Some changes, however, are welcome. Antonia Malchik describes the thoughtful design of outdoor spaces with disabilities in mind, where careful attention to gate widths and switchback angles can open up access to more people, while forcing land managers and people without disabilities to rethink assumptions about who belongs outside.

Emily Benson, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Challenging assumptions about who belongs in recreational spaces is something professional rock climber Emily Taylor knows well. To fill a void left by climbing companies unwilling to help diversify the profession, Taylor, a black woman, has created multiple initiatives for black climbers. A photo essay by Michael A. Estrada shows her at work.

From the Grand Tetons to Yosemite, past wildfires, churches and atomic test sites, many of us first experienced the vistas of the West through the bug-splattered windshield of a vehicle zooming down the highway. Some would contend this is not exactly the ideal way to get to know the place, and I wouldn’t argue. But I do enjoy the spectacle of the West at speed — if for no other reason than because it matches the region’s rapid rate of change.