Recently I was surprised to have a tornado as a hiking companion, said James Conaway in National Geographic Traveler. I was near Salina, Kan., when I noticed a fast-moving funnel cloud heading toward me. As the storm finally passed, I stood watching as the rain “glazed the prairie grass and turned the burr oak leaves a fluorescent green.” I was in the heart of a land preserve managed by the nonprofit Land Institute, and felt as if I might have been in the distant past. Some tracks I crossed were originally made by U.S. Cavalry wagons on their way west. From the top of a hillside, I could see “the dark, vaguely ominous silhouettes” of a dozen bison.
This year, I’ve been making a point of walking through the wild expanses of several states. I’ve learned that walking is not just “a matter of time, or distance, but of perception”: You see things differently when you’re traveling on two feet. When I reached northwestern Wyoming, “under the brow of the Grand Teton Mountains,” I tiptoed past a black bear and her two cubs and was reminded of both the dangers and charms of a long-distance trek. The Tetons—“breasts” in French—ostensibly received their name from “lonely Gallic trappers.” Even in July, the summits are topped with snow. Passing by several cabins that are now on the National Register of Historic Places, I crossed “a little wetland on a rustic bridge” and reached the Snake River. The resort town of Jackson Hole lay only a short distance away, but I was struck by my jarring “proximity to both the wild and the civilized.”
New Mexico’s Tsankawi pueblo, a Native American site abandoned five centuries ago, was a puzzle. The settlement is located in Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe in the heart of “P-J country” (pinyon pine and juniper, that is). For hundreds of years, it was home to the Anasazi people, until they suddenly dispersed. These mysterious hunter-gatherers lived in pumice block structures with up to 400 rooms. Only males were allowed into the kivas—“sub-surface cylindrical pits belonging to various clans”—even though the society was matriarchal. Why did the Anasazi leave here? Was it because of drought, exhausted resources, or—as some have speculated—a messianic cult that gradually overtook their civilization? Or did they one day simply decide to