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One night in May 2008, in a modest ranch house in central Nevada, Ryan Brune woke with a headache. He had complained about the pain earlier that week, but his doctor said it was migraines. This time, he couldn’t sleep, and so his mother, April, drove him to the hospital in Fallon, a farming town of 8,200 where the family had lived for most of Ryan’s 10 years. He was an otherwise healthy boy, with fleshy cheeks and sandy blond hair, but a CT scan revealed a chestnut-sized mass in his brain. By morning, he was flown to Palo Alto, Calif., and the tumor was removed. Ryan had glioblastoma multiforme, a brain cancer that rarely afflicts children. His likelihood of survival was 1 percent. 

From "Fallon’s Deadly Legacy," about the enduring effects of scientific uncertainty on communities struggling with high rates of cancer. Ten years ago, Fallon had the most significant childhood cancer cluster on national record. Investigators never found the cluster’s cause. Photographs by Max Whittaker, of the Prime Collective

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I met her in April, in Polson, Montana, on one of her last days shooting. We spent the morning with the crew at the Bayview Inn, all crammed into the bathroom of Room 17 while she filmed Wise shifting restlessly in bed. This, I thought – the stiff sheets, the carpet, the cigarette smoke drifting under the door – was the nadir of lonely transience. “Do you still see yourself in Doris?” I asked Brunner-Sung later, as we drove south for another scene. “I don’t feel as lost as Doris does,” she said. “I think she looks around Montana and doesn’t see herself here.” The anonymity Brunner-Sung once relished had worn off; she now recognized people in the grocery store. “I think if you decide to open yourself up to a place and make it your home, the place becomes you.” So would she stay in Montana a while? “I don’t plan on growing old here,” she said.

From “O, Pioneer,” my profile of Vera Brunner-Sung and her new film, Bella Vista, about being a stranger in the West.

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I didn’t hear from Gebhards much during this time. Later, she told me that the man had “sold his truck and moved out of town overnight.” She took a job with a company in Watford City, N.D. The winter grew colder, the snowstorms heavier. A mist seemed to hang over the prairie and glaze the roads when the wind blew. The way her truck swiveled on ice made her think of salmon swimming downriver. Only once, in a storm, did she call for help, after sinking a back wheel into sugary snow. The man who pulled her out said she was the third person he had helped that day. This relieved her. “I think that’s my biggest fear in life,” she told me. “To be the helpless female — to have to be rescued.”

From No Place for a Woman, a profile of Sandy Gebhards, an oil truck driver in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields. In the August 5th issue of High Country News

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If anyone in Kootenai County could have predicted the Democrats’ downfall, it was Dan English. He had spent most of his life in the Idaho Panhandle and monitored more than one hundred local elections in his fifteen years as county clerk. The first ballots he counted, in 1996, revealed tight contests between Republicans and Democrats, but in the years that followed, the margins only widened. By 2002, the Democratic presence had been so whittled down that only one Democrat — English himself — still held an elected county office. For his re-election campaign that year, he distributed wooden nickels labeled, “Save the Last One,” reminding voters of a bygone time when his party dominated the county. That caught the attention of USA Today, which observed that English was a rare political survivor in what had become “the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation.” Once again, English was spared.

But by Nov. 2, 2010, when he faced another election, Kootenai County had swung even further to the right. President Obama was especially unpopular with Idaho Republicans, and any association with his party and policies had become a political liability. English is a gentle, affable man with bipartisan appeal: His children served on active duty in Iraq; he founded the nonprofit North Idaho Youth for Christ; and he was civically engaged well before he became clerk, serving on the school board and city council. “You don’t have anything to worry about. People like you,” his friends assured him, but English knew that his record no longer mattered as much as the letter “D” beside his name. That November evening, he noticed the election supervisor studying the absentee ballots with particular intensity. “I have to run this again. Something’s not right,” she told him. When she left the room, English pulled the results from the trash. “Sure enough, there I was, losing.” He called his wife and said, “I think this may be the end of the run.”

From my cover story for High Country News, “Right-wing Migration”, about the geographic root of modern Western conservatism and North Idaho’s political makeover. 

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On an early morning last June, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota, tribal officer Nathan Sanchez was nearing the end of his shift when he noticed a frantic stirring in the cattails alongside the road. A girl emerged. Her jeans were wet, her halter-top fallen to her waist. Sanchez approached in his car to ask what had happened. The girl, in hysterics, mumbled that she had been raped and took off running. 

Sanchez caught her on foot. He saw she was white—not a member of the tribe. “Ma’am,” he recalled saying, though she was only 16, “I know you’re upset, but I need to get you out of here.” He wrapped her in a blanket and led her to the car. Was the man who raped her Indian, he asked? She said he was.

From my story for The Atlantic, about the Bakken oil boom’s violent underbelly. Since 2009, the population on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation has more than doubled with non-Indian oil workers—men and women over whom the tribe has little legal control. 

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After we buried my grandfather behind the Falls Church and hauled the dress bags out of the attic and stacked his books into traveling trunks, my aunt, in the final throes of our archeological dig, found a sketchbook that had belonged to my great-grandfather, Donn P. Crane. The cover was marbled and brown, and held together with a strip of yellowed masking tape. In the first drawing, dated March 14, 1908, an empty cradle hung from wooden rafters. In the second, a New Mexico Pueblo Indian posed with one foot forward, a hand on his hip, the other holding a bow. When I saw it, I recognized the man instantly. His charcoal portrait had hung over my grandparents’ dinner table, and I had spent hours staring at it, passing childhood visits to that stale, quiet Virginia house in an imagined world made of clay dwellings and corn-husk dolls.

Before I saw the sketchbook, I had never wondered about the man’s origin. I assumed my great-grandfather had dreamed him up, as he did the characters in his other drawings. He illustrated children’s fantasy — most notably the stories collected and edited by Olive Beaupre Miller in My Book House. Even before I could read, I lugged those heavy volumes from the shelf in my parents’ alcove and pored over scenes of knights, monsters and forest nymphs, inventing stories from the images. But now the sketchbook held a greater allure for me, a kind of magic that fiction lacked: Here were things he really had seen. On the page opposite the Pueblo Indian, my great-grandfather had written, “Scarlet head band. Old gold shirt. Leggings — light red … two green stripes.”

From my essay “Reimaginations” in High Country News, about my great-grandfather, his sketchbook, and my search for story in his illustrations. Continue reading the essay here. See his sketches here. 

Nash wonders, looking back, if the multiplicity of his upbringing shielded him from the harsh reality of what it meant to be young and black in America. His encounters with prejudice came in shades of black: a racial hierarchy within his community that denied darker-complected people access to social clubs. ‘We don’t partake in that,’ his mother would say. But when it came to ‘white-on-black’ prejudice, Nash said, ‘It just wasn’t part of my consciousness.’

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If even our most regrettable histories demand remembrance, then how should we remember them? And had Custer won at the Little Bighorn, would we celebrate at all? On the battle’s 10th anniversary, infantrymen and Cheyenne and Sioux leaders gathered to fire salutes and engage in mock skirmishes. On the 25th, members of the Crow Tribe, dressed as Sioux warriors, staged a battle with the Montana National Guard. On the 55th, 50,000 visitors attended, and by the 1960s the event had become a regular occasion. The fact that white people had lost made the battle easy to commemorate. The Saturday Evening Post reported that “nothing has brought the white citizens of (Hardin) and the Indians of the neighboring Crow reservation closer together than a full-scale re-enactment of the worst licking the Indians ever gave us.”

From “Real Play,” my profile of a Custer impersonator, in the latest issue of High Country News

Crow dressed as Sioux warrior, June 24, 2012. From my upcoming story on Custer, memory, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

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THE OTHER BAKKEN BOOM | A tribal nation is at the center of America’s biggest oil rush. Read my cover story for High Country News here or in pdf.

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, a lilting swath of prairie in western North Dakota, was once a quiet place. Though thrice the area of Los Angeles, it had only 5,000 residents. Even New Town, a more populous district east of a reservoir called Lake Sakakawea, looked sparse and ephemeral. There was a granary, a fire station, a Gospel Tabernacle and a Jack & Jill grocery. A brick Bureau of Indian Affairs office marked the beginning of town, and the few squat buildings on the main street were largely unoccupied. It was rare, here, to see a stranger, and even rarer to see so many gathered at the civic center one November morning in 2007. 

Stevens, 43, is tall and bespectacled with reddish-blonde hair, steely blue eyes, and a chameleonic knack for assuming a pace and posture fit to his environs. In his stark, tidy office not far from Hailey, Idaho’s main street, he is a very busy man. He budgets his time in tight increments and checks his watch often; even so, he rarely keeps on schedule. He has a penchant for boardroom buzzwords - “logic model: a visual depiction of the resources and activities that get you to your desired outcome” - and an acute entrepreneurial instinct. He eats with impressive speed and jokes infrequently - nor does he always notice when one has been made - and truncates these moments of humor with fits of earnestness. The day I met Stevens in his office, he paused a hurried discussion on the formatting of an executive summary to watch a man hook a dumpster to a pickup truck and drag it across a lot. “We are having an Idaho moment here,” he told me, and swiftly turned back to his document.

— From “Matters of Scale,” a profile of a conservationist and rancher who finds himself in the middle of Idaho’s fight over wolves. Read the full story. 

Last October, I accompanied a young conflict photographer, Trevor Snapp, to Tunisia for the first democratic elections of the Arab Spring. Tunisia was remarkably peaceful for having overthrown its latest dictator, and for Trevor, who has grown somewhat accustomed to war and revolution—Guatemala, Egypt, Libya, the Sudan—the country was a welcome respite. The first story I brought back, Depth of Field, is about Trevor himself. I wanted to know what it is that draws him to places in deep conflict and how he deals with seeing hard things. Photography, he said, is a moral act that edges frequently toward immorality; being on that edge forces him to reexamine his place in the world. “In America we have covered walkways and umbrellas,” he told me. “It’s frustrating as a photographer. Things are hidden in prisons, in old folks homes, in schools. We’re protected from so much of life and death. I could forget death exists until a loved one passes away. But if I wander around Nairobi long enough, I’m sure to come across a body.”  The photographs, including this self-portrait, are Trevor’s.

—Faye's Cafe | A short documentary for KVNF News

Faye belonged to the old school. She had always told me, I don’t like doctors, I don’t want to go to the hospital, just let me die in bed. Of course she wasn’t in bed.

— Rufus Miller, Austin, Colorado

Walking the Ditch, by Sharon Stewart in her collection, El Agua es La Vida. I interviewed Sharon about her work in the remote Hispanic village of El Cerrito for a High Country News feature, and later she invited me to join her there for the annual cleaning of the acequia. An acequia is a communal irrigation system, a fan of shallow ditches that run from a diversion in the river to cultivated fields. A mayordomo is elected by the people to maintain the ditch for a year, and in April, he gathers his neighbors to cut debris and lever boulders from the channel. Sharon’s photographs accompanied the story I later wrote: The Cleaning

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Last spring, I reported in San Juan County, New Mexico on a popular uprising of junk mavens, furious that a county ordinance would limit the number of old cars they could keep on their properties. I brought back this audio story, Riding with Rat Rodders, about the men who build hip, coveted vehicles from worn parts. One builder insisted that he take me out in his baby blue 1947 Plymouth, the same car he wooed his wife with back in high school. “Most people look at it and say, ‘it’s just an old junky thing,’ but it’s more than that. I was sixteen, going on a date in Iowa, twenty-four degrees below zero, and your girlfriend had to sit real close or you would’ve both froze to death.” When I asked what would happen to his salvage yard now that the ordinance passed, he didn’t seem the least bit perturbed. “We’re going to Dr. King it,” he said. “We’re going to turn heads. We’re going to say, ‘You better wake up and see what’s happening to your lifestyle.’”