It is December and I can’t see the snow-capped mountains. Salt Lake has been smothered in an inversion for a week. The air is grey-brown-yellow, and toxic ice crystals fall from the smog.
I bought a face mask last week. Not the kind that keeps your face warm while skiing, but the kind that filters air. As I googled face masks online, I soon discovered that filtering air has become a kind of fashion statement. Should I choose the ocean scene or go with classic black? I chose a colorful geometric pattern—anything but grey.
I haven’t lived through a winter in Salt Lake in seven years and the inversion is worse than I remember. I left Utah at eighteen years old to go to college in Colorado. As an angsty teen who thought I was too cool for Small Lake City, I wanted nothing more than to leave Utah. However, a couple months into college, my heart ached for the Wasatch. I often thought of my favorite trail in Big Cottonwood Canyon, the sound of City Creek gently flowing in Memory Grove, the sweet cruise on my bike through my old Sugarhouse neighborhood. My heart raced with joy every time I jumped in the car or hopped on the plane to return home for the holidays. But once I arrived, my throat scratched and my nose congested. My heart continued to race, not out of excitement, but because I struggled to breathe. I just assumed I had a cold. But the headache and sore throat would always go away when I landed in Colorado.
I moved back to Salt Lake in the fall of 2016 for graduate school at the University of Utah. I say I returned for my master’s program, but school was really just an excuse to return to the place I love. I longed for the guidance of those peaks that hug our mountain city.
During the inversion, our guide disappears. We become directionless.
On this cold evening, the air tastes acrid. As the smog thickens, I bike down to a meeting with community members to discuss actions we could take to address our air quality problem. The meeting feels inconclusive and ineffective. We disagree over strategies, whether we should promote individual actions or bold systemic changes. When I leave the meeting, I feel the smog infiltrating our spirits, leaving us unable to act. We are lost, clinging masks around our faces as if that is the solution.
I pedal quickly through the dark, wearing my large black puffy jacket, thin gloves, and my new brightly colored mask. As I bike up 2nd Ave from State Street—a block steeper than most canyon roads—I breathe deeper and snot flows from my congested nose. I reach the top of the hill, and gasp for breath through the mucus reservoir. I rip off the mask, but, as the taste of the toxic air reaches my tongue, I don’t want to breathe.
A recent KSL article referred to the growth in mask wearing along the Wasatch Front as a “trend.” We may browse for masks on the internet like we online shop for clothes, but wearing a mask is not a fashion trend. It is the result of elected officials failing to protect the people of Utah, and our own failure to collectively demand our right to breathe clean air. We are lost. This is desperation. This is dystopic.
Brooke Larsen is a master’s student in the Environmental Humanities Program. She grew up in Salt Lake City and graduated from Colorado College with a degree in Environmental Policy. Her essay “What Are We Fighting For?” recently won the High Country News Bell Prize. b. 1992