I’ve spent the better part of my life defending misunderstood places. Chicago was the first. Everyone knew about the gun violence, but not many knew about the mile-long stretch of jalapeños and homemade tortillas along 18th street, a community that housed the best tacos in America. And there’s the grand beauty of the Harold Washington Library, or the stunning free exhibits at the downtown cultural center—I found myself constantly reminding visitors of these details when conversations drifted to gang activity and cold winters. The windy city has its share of problems, sure, but there are pockets of love and resistance for those who look for them.
Utah is special, too. After I moved to Salt Lake City in 2015, I found myself repeating a false narrative I’d heard as an outsider: oddity, lack of culture, backwardness. The first time I returned to the Midwest to visit my family, many of them poked stereotypical jokes about the place I’d accidentally become deeply attached to. They didn’t get it. They hadn’t seen the desert at dusk, or witnessed bird migrations on the Great Salt Lake, or listened to Smile Jamaica on KRCL on Saturday afternoons.
Despite my growing love affair with the Wasatch Front, I choked my way through the first winter I spent in Salt Lake City. The word “choked” is neither hyperbolic nor inappropriate; the smog invaded me, violently. Activities I had previously taken for granted—walking to the market, bike commuting to work—were now laborious and strategic. On red days, I didn’t leave the house. On orange ones I wore masks, but they didn’t really help. On clear days I hoped for precipitation, only to postpone the looming forecasts of dirty air. Headaches, sore throats, and eventually an acute breathing problem plagued my once-healthy body.
Describing what difficult, labored breathing feels like to those with healthy respiratory systems (often, those who live outside of Utah) is no easy task. The normal diaphragm contraction feels forced, strenuous, different. The typically smooth and natural movement of the lungs recoiling, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles relaxing, is now fragmented and awkward. I often resort to describing this process as “my body attacking itself,” which is not an accurate depiction of the process at all, even though that is exactly how it feels. In reality, my body is attacked by elevated levels of PM2.5, particles that linger in our air, ones from Kennecott and too many cars on the road. What’s attacking me is political gridlock that doesn’t seem to care that my body is being attacked in the first place.
Despite all of the ways my body rejects the toxic air it is forced to breathe, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have health insurance. I don’t live close to a highway, near a refinery, or on the west side, where the air is significantly worse. I’m not pregnant, in constant fear of miscarriage. Yet I worry for those who live in neighborhoods near refineries, who plan to carry future children in their bellies, whose jobs require them to leave the house in the worst conditions. Indeed, it’s my job to worry about them. I call myself a member of the Utah community now, and that is what communities do: take care of each other.
My ma tells me I have “a thing for underdogs,” which could partially explain why I developed such a lasting attachment to this often misunderstood state. Like Chicago, I’ll ruthlessly defend Utah as a place more complicated than its oversimplified and, sometimes, bizarre national image. I am proud of the vibrant community that I was welcomed into in Salt Lake City. But will I live a physically healthy life in this place, as all people hope for?
Austin Luzbetak moved to Salt Lake City in 2015 to pursue an MS from the University of Utah and to live in a state that offered both mountain and desert landscapes. She graduated from the Environmental Humanities program in 2017 and is currently pursuing a PhD. She spends her free time reading comic books, baking bread, identifying wildflowers, writing stories, and dancing. b. 1992