In the spring of 2009, my husband, Steve, and I left Salt Lake City—an unacknowledged act of desperation. Without knowing how we would support ourselves, we put our house up for sale at the dead bottom of the housing market, walked away from a reliable income, and moved to rural Southern Utah. We had lost the illusion; we could no longer hold the cognitive dissonance required to live with unbreathable air.
As a child growing up on the west side of the Oquirrhs, I shared my mother’s infatuation with Salt Lake City. For those of us in Tooele County, a trip to Salt Lake was both common and special. We bought our school clothes in Salt Lake, we received medical care in Salt Lake, and we drove past the spewing smokestacks and glowing slag heap of Kennecott to get there.
For my tenth birthday, my mother booked two nights at Little America, and took me and my sister to Hansen Planetarium, Hogle Zoo, and the Beehive House. We ate cream cheese and pumpernickel sandwiches at Auerbach’s and tasted our first Chinese food at Ding Ho Café. My infatuation with the city turned to love, and it has never waned.
The recognition that I had to leave my beloved city came upon me suddenly. As the shroud of filth that settled upon Salt Lake each year darkened, deepened, and lengthened, so went the shroud that descended upon Steve and upon our marriage. The need to leave had been chipping away at Steve incessantly over many years, the cavity deepening with each sun-blocked winter. By the time I took note, things had become acute. I don’t think it hyperbole to state that leaving Salt Lake City saved Steve and saved our marriage. It also broke my heart and continues to do so every time I drive into the sludge of the Salt Lake Valley.
I don’t know how to argue for clean air. Typically, when I put words to paper for the purpose of argument, I have something to push against. No matter how strong my opinions on an issue, I can usually find logical points of opposition, points of empathy and understanding. What is the argument for not addressing filthy air? Who is taking that stand?
Addressing the issue of unbreathable air in our particular geographical location is complex, challenging, and multifaceted. There are no quick fixes and no easy answers. I get that. I read (and agree) that we are all complicit on an individual level, and, if we believe the rhetoric, that means that we are all responsible for taking on the challenge to fix the problem. But I’m not sure how I feel about this.
Guilt is the first feeling that rises to the surface. I drive. I consume. I pollute. Every day, I am besieged by every wrong move I make, and every evening I ponder whether I reached the nebulous moral threshold for human goodness. Overwhelmed is a close second to guilt. I find the “every individual makes a difference” mandate difficult to navigate. It attaches a heavy burden to every small decision made. And I’m not even sure I believe the mandate. Psychological studies have shown that we have less fate control than we want to believe, yet we continue to place our bets there. Why? Because manipulating individuals is easier than demanding action from public officials? When did the most complex problems we face become a matter of crowd sourcing?
Yes, I can agree to drive fewer miles. I can even agree to drive under 55 mph at all times. But wouldn’t it be easier for me to do so if my elected officials passed a 55 mph speed limit maximum—and enforced it—so I’m not the driver causing the safety hazard on the freeway?
My public officials have chosen to put themselves in positions of leadership, and we desperately need leaders. They are, by proxy, required to be visionaries on my behalf, and we desperately need a vision. By running for public office, they have promised to put the health of the citizenry at the top of their agenda. On the issue of clean air, I expect from my public servants bold action, fearlessness, and imagination resulting in alternatives and relief for individuals who truly want to do the right thing—if the right thing is available to them.
Until I see that sort of leadership, I’m going to bumble along as best I can, nurturing the shattered soul of a lost city and practicing compassion for my beleaguered fellow human who would like to breathe clean air and make a quick run/walk/bike to the store for a missing dinner ingredient.
Jana Richman is the author of a memoir, two novels, and a forthcoming collection of essays. She was born and raised in Utah’s west desert, the daughter of a small-time rancher and a hand-wringing Mormon mother, and now lives in Escalante, Utah b. 1956