I was born a city girl. Far more comfortable in road rage induced by bumper to bumper traffic than with a polite wave while passing on a hiking trail, I never gave much thought to the blessing of my birth in the Southwestern landscape. As a child, I wasn’t just oblivious, I was also undoubtedly fussy. At the announcement of a family road trip to Zion National Park, a five-hour-long drive from my hometown in northern Utah, I rolled my eyes and conspicuously donned my “I ‘heart’ NYC” t-shirt, as if to distance myself from the possibility of caring about this “unaltered” land.
Despite my unrelenting teenage pessimism, the trip carried on as planned. Upon arrival, we emerged from the car at the Emerald Pools trailhead. This particularly popular destination inside Zion National Park had been characterized as completely awe-inspiring. Standing at the beginning of the trail in the early morning, my groggy eyes struggled to focus on the quest for the day. Though I was less than enthused at the idea of this hike, the red dust gathering around my dragging feet peaked my curiosity. The early spring chill whipped around my braided hair, undoing the careful plaits. A lizard skittered across the gargantuan boulder to my left, while a still-unidentified squirrel-like creature scampered toward sustenance to my right.
Though intrigued, I was not yet convinced of the powers beheld by the great outdoors. As the walk continued, my legs started to burn in an arduous, yet satisfying manner. It was the feeling of a day’s work just beginning. As I approached the sweet spot of the hike—hulking emerald waterfalls—the burning sensation moved north to my heart, stopping my breath before I was forced to keep huffing and puffing, as my fitness had not quite caught up to my awe. The shockingly malachite water gushed from a hidden source in such a significant manner that it likened to all the world being drawn to that spot, only to be poured out and repurposed into the landscape. My eyes then travelled down to my shoes. They were caked with several different colors and variations of mud and silt, but somehow, that was more than tolerable.
Absorbed in the landscape, my angst melted, washed away by the spray of water that glistened on my skin when I stepped closer to the falls. It made room in my heart and mind for a few new feelings. Among them was a distinct consciousness of my own care. I cared for that place in a way that I had never known was so possible and so likely in the presence of natural beauty. Though it is against the law to take physical things from national parks, I have carried memories of that place with me into adulthood. While I still love some good hustle and bustle in the city, I will always be called to the water, earth, and life of local land.
At that moment in my early teens, I didn’t just change my mind about being outside, I flipped the switch on my youthful cynicism to find passion for the preservation of nature. Beauty wriggled its way into my heart and implanted a protectiveness for public lands. It didn’t t just spark a devotion for the grand sites of the southwest, it initiated an understanding of care for every part of the ecosystems in which I am a guest. From snails inching along the cracked pavement, to icicles dangling from the edges of homes, and marshy epicenters of biodiversity, there is beauty in the preservation of all. Regardless of aesthetic purpose, it is resoundingly cool to care about the land around you, far and wide.
The ever-increasing importance of protecting and valuing public land spurs a passion that I and many others draw from glorious recollections and hopeful aspirations. My mud-encrusted footwear has tracked much more than dirt into my life; it has forged the tracks that ground me in a mission. The flicker of this memory ignites hope in my heart, because protection of the future creation of these memories for others ensures that caring continues to be contagious. And slowly but surely, we will all be privileged enough to be drawn in by the spark.
Jordan VanderVeen is an undergraduate student at the University of Utah, majoring in Strategic Communications. She was born in Salt Lake City and looks forward to continuing her exploration of the land.