It’s been a challenging year. The year of plague.
If you look back over greater stretches of history, you notice that other generations also suffered plagues: the Black Death, yellow fever, cholera, AIDS. If you survive, you inevitably feel gratitude and guilt. You mourn people who died for no reason. And you wonder, Why should I have survived?
At Alta Journal, we have wrestled with these questions while also continuing to produce our publication. We have always operated virtually; our team works and communicates remotely across more platforms than I can count. But now, it’s time for the Alta community—readers, staffers, and contributors—to end hibernation and venture out into the larger world. It won’t take place suddenly.
For some time, we had been planning an issue on the Secret West. People who live out here, west of the 100th meridian—even if their daily lives are focused on arts, culture, commerce, farming, or just plain survival—feel the presence of the amazing geography, the landforms, of the greater West. So we asked our writers and artists to help celebrate this connection. To talk about their favorite locations. Many of us discover a physical place that feels like home, where we belong.
In this Summer issue, Alta explores the often hidden histories of these often hidden places. We profile dreamers and schemers. Some of our story subjects were seeking holy grails; others were on wanton and reckless adventures that took a devastating toll on the landscape. In our Q&A, I ask a friend, futurist Paul Saffo, to reveal his own most beloved spots in what is undeniably a disappearing West. We also delve into more than one mystery: What really happened to the brilliant satirist Ambrose Bierce? Who was the unknown shipwreck victim buried at Franklin Point? What is the story behind the soup kitchen that inspired Dorothea Lange’s first iconic photograph of the Great Depression?
Our editors also drew inspiration from another Depression-era creation, namely, the WPA guides to the cities, monuments, and wonders of the American continent. Sponsored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, these wonderfully written, always surprising books provided us with visual and literary cues to produce our own guides: 10 tours containing natural wonders, historic sites, and remarkable (yet hidden) works of art and design across Alta California.
Inside each issue of Alta, we like to offer something extra: in this case, a foldout map to these cherished locations by illustrator and designer Matt Twombly, which you can use on your own modern-day WPA adventure. Together with the map, we sought to supply enough clues in our guides so that a determined person could find these sacred places. But even with our map, you may still need intestinal fortitude, curiosity, and a Google search. It’s a treasure hunt, not a guided tour. •
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.