Editor’s Note: S for Survival

Alta Journal editorial director Blaise Zerega introduces this issue’s epic tales of danger and resilience.

honey anne haskin, bull fighting
Honey Anne Haskin

The “Soviet” soldier threw me to the ground. I was hooded, hands trussed behind my back, thighs pushed to my chest, and a leather strap slid beneath my folded knees. Two of his comrades used the thong to hoist me up, then lower me into an oil drum that was buried vertically in the earth. When I didn’t fit, they pushed with their booted feet to wedge me inside the steel barrel. I sensed them placing a plywood lid above me. That was followed by the crunching sound of a spade digging into dirt and the soft thumps of soil burying me alive. It was the summer of 1985, and I was a West Point cadet who’d been ordered to Colorado’s Front Range to take part in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training. After 9/11, SERE interrogation and torture techniques were found to have been used by the CIA in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. It was lucky for me that the S stood for “survival.”

Do you have a true tale of survival that has stuck with you? A heart-thumping yarn involving unexpected dangers—one that you read long ago, or that was recounted to you by a family member, or, God forbid, that you experienced firsthand? Think of a surfer encountering a great white shark. Or that cousin of yours waking to find an intruder in their bedroom. Or that time you forgot to check the weather and wound up on a mountaintop during a lightning storm.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

For many of us, these gritty tales provide not only entertainment and escapism but also inspiration. Yes, inspiration. The stories thrill us, offering enough details and imagery to put us in the action, exploring our limits and discovering what we’re capable of…from the safety of an armchair.

For this issue of Alta Journal, we decided to go all in on true tales of survival—though admittedly, some of the stories are so wild, it’s hard to believe they’re fact. You’ll want to fasten your seat belt for “No Pity,” a fast-paced drama by David Wolman. Picture the dystopian film Mad Max: Fury Road set in present-day Portland. A ragtag band of citizens fed up with rampant car thefts use drones, social media, and human surveillance to take back stolen vehicles, sometimes from violent thieves. They can move faster than the police and don’t depend on search warrants.

Tales of peril may also arise when we pursue our dreams. In 1977, a young woman from Los Angeles made a bold attempt to become modern-day Spain’s first matadora de toros. As reported by Geoffrey Gray, “The Bullfighter Draws Her Sword” describes how one afternoon in Móstoles, Honey Anne Haskin gave the performance of a lifetime, but was unable to advance her career. It wasn’t until 1996 that bullfighting anointed its first matadora in Europe.

Troubles arrive, too, during the pursuit of love. In “ ‘Look Out or You’ll Be Poisoned,’ ” Joy Lanzendorfer transports us to the Carmel, California, of 1914, during an era when the fledgling coastal town attracted many writers and artists: George Sterling, Jack London, Mary Austin, William Merritt Chase, to name a few. Much like an Agatha Christie whodunit, the story begins with a man biting into a marshmallow laced with strychnine. He becomes violently ill but later recovers. A hunt for the would-be killer ensues, and a murder takes place.

Next, you may travel from a fabled artist colony to an unforgiving landscape. In “ ‘Agua, Agua,’ ” you’ll meet prospector Pablo Valencia, who in 1905 survived a week without water in the Sonoran Desert, and the high school teacher who set out 75 years later to trace Valencia’s route and nearly succumbed to the ordeal. The anthropologist who rescued Valencia described his condition:

His lips had disappeared as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh was black and dry as a hank of jerky; his nose was withered and shrunken to half its length; the nostril-lining showing black; his eyes were set in a winkless stare.

And perhaps no one faces more threats than a wild animal in an urban setting. “P-22’s Life in L.A.,” by Denise Hamilton, is an autobiography of the famous mountain lion and his time in the Santa Monica Mountains. This first-person account brings to life the puma’s need for wilderness, his encounters with humans, his futile quest for a mate. It ends with his tragic death last December. P-22 was more than a cougar; he represented the hope that somehow we can fix our environment enough to sustain beautiful, native creatures like him.

While our epic tales include themes of love, death, and resilience, they also feature a powerful sense of place. It’s something that distinguishes the writing in Alta, a firm grounding in California and the West. Open this issue and you’ll find a lively account of life at the Malibu Colony by novelist Jay McInerney, National Book Award winner Charles Yu on his Interior Chinatown, and Lynell George on the elusive Alene Lee, on whom Jack Kerouac based one of his characters in The Subterraneans.

Whether you go from front to back, read through in reverse, or open our publication to a random page, we hope you’ll discover stories that pull you in and remind you of what a miracle it is to be alive in this most amazing region.•

Blaise Zerega is Alta Journal's editorial director.
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