I’m a lifelong city-dweller, and reading High Desert Journal reminds me of one of my favorite experiences in travel: immersing oneself in a new normal. High Desert Journal “is a literary and visual arts magazine dedicated to further understanding of the people, places and issues of the interior West.” The key word is “understanding,” broad enough to encompass myriad means of expression, and at the same time narrow enough to tamper attempts at the pedantic or the exotic. There’s nothing fancy about the journal. The horses, rifles, ranches, and cowboy aspirations in the stories are not packaged as the stuff of artistic ambition, but rather parts of ways of life. The artwork and images bespeak the dedication of the journal to perpetuate the expression of the various understandings of this part of the world. For someone visiting from outside the region like me, High Desert Journal is a proud and easy-going host.
The entire journal feels personal. Perhaps it is because of the number of nonfiction pieces, which more than doubles the number of the fiction. In “Cowboy,” Russell Rowland recounts the early floundering of his father’s life and the strains on his marriage as he chased his dream of being a cowboy, as well as the eventual stability and perhaps happiness when he began to work at a hearing-aid business and found a creative outlet. The piece is honest and nuanced in describing the father’s flaws and the difficulties he brought on himself and his family, and yet respectful and generous toward the desires, weaknesses, and share of bad luck that he, like anyone, had.
“GG’s. Just for the Fun of It” by Ellen Waterston tells of a group of women in Prineville, Oregon that met regularly just to have fun. “Not getting smarter, more fit, cultured, beautiful, skilled as cooks,” but to go antiquing or glass blowing or riding or pan for gold. The fun and the friendships they had make me wistful. As Waterston observes, nowadays, “[g]oing to the trouble to physically gather with women just for fun competes with more serious and ostensibly more worthwhile pursuits: academic, career, cultural, financial.”
Most curious is the inclusion of “Closing the Door on the Clovis-First Theory: New Evidence Debunks the Canadian Ice-Free Corridor” by Mark E. Swisher and Dennis L. Jenkins, an argument against the theory that an ice-free corridor had opened up in central Canada at the end of the last Ice Age to allow humans to migrate from Siberia to North and South America. On second thought, however, isn’t the choice simply consistent with the journal’s expansive vision: to understand the West, from whichever angle? Literary magazines have long included the visual arts, the social sciences, and politics in their pages, but few have even attempted to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences. High Desert Journal’s inclusion is welcome.
The journal features prints from the collection of the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which was formed to nurture Native American artists. The vibrancy in these prints is striking: a yellow sun claiming its place in a dark blue sky over a mountain range and a bear, a one-legged kestrel, a long-haired man with almost solid ovals for eyes and a streak of red across his face and—my favorite—a bird standing on top of a man’s head under a red cloud. Gabriel Manca’s paintings look by turns like stained glass windows, crowded lily ponds, a festival of lights, or the hanging gardens. They are a pleasure.
There is something quiet and matter-of-fact about High Desert Journal. It does not care about impressing you, and the evident love it has for the region and its people never trips into narcissistic self-regard. It invites you in; go ahead, step through.