Finding Solace

My life in Utah really began in Wyoming. As I’d driven across the country from Vermont westward, I passed through a lot of familiar territory. The densely forested mountains of New England, the flat lakes and streams of the Great Lakes states, and the endless farm fields of the Plains.

I was headed west toward a new kind of adventure: to make a life with a man I’d been dating. I’d moved across the country before, made my home in towns across oceans, spoken foreign languages, and started new jobs. That kind of change I was used to. Cohabitation was a new sort of challenge.

Around 10am on my third day on the road, I crossed the border from Nebraska into Wyoming, and the fog lifted, literally. (I’d been driving through dense fog on I-90 for going on two hours).

Something was different. The green fields had disappeared and given way to browns and oranges, dust and rock. There was space, but also dimension. Jagged patterns zigzagged up cliff sides. Meandering washes ran in opposition to the horizontal power lines marching clear across the land; man trying to make order among chaotic wildness.

I had no prior experience with Wyoming except what I’d read in Gretel Ehrlich’s “The Solace of Open Spaces” in my junior year AP Language class. Even then, 13 years earlier, the landscape had spoken to me. Hazy memories of passages I’d admired as a teenager rose to the surface as I rolled along at 80 miles per hour.

Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect—tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into a pure light.” – Gretel Ehrlich

These words had imprinted themselves inside of me over the years; the images that they conjured became sacred. Wyoming felt like familiar territory before I ever arrived.

After stopping for gas at a rest stop, a curious urge made me check the deep pocket behind my passenger seat. By something I can only call fate, the book was there, every dog-eared, highlighted, and notated page. I’d loaned it to my boyfriend a year earlier and must have never gotten around to re-shelving it. The fact that it happened to be in my car as I was moving all of my belongings across the country felt like a small miracle.

I sat in the car and thumbed through the slim volume, my eyes landing on passages I’d highlighted simply for the elegance of the prose. I perused descriptions of the Wyoming landscape and confirmed with my own eyes that they were, indeed, exactly as portrayed. I re-read cultural criticisms, contemplating them while looking out onto the biggest blue sky I’d ever seen.

We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.” – Gretel Ehrlich

After a time, I knew I had to get moving. As much as I wanted to sit and read all morning, the gas station parking lot was neither the time nor the place. I had a destination, and a man was waiting for me in Utah that evening.

I made my way across the state, past oil rigs and soaring cliffs and miles of sagebrush. I entered Utah and continued over mountain passes, past pines and reservoirs and open ranch land. This wild west was to be my new home. I wasn’t sure what I’d discover there, but with all of the open space laid out before me, I had an inkling it’d be good.

Photo: Ranch outside of Kamas, Utah. 

This Land is Our Land: A Personal History of Public Lands

When I was growing up, I never really gave much thought to who owned land or what the implications of that ownership might be. In Wisconsin, only 5.1% of the state’s land is owned by the U.S. government, making nearly all of it owned by private parties. Public lands weren’t ever a topic of discussion, mostly because they didn’t really exist anywhere nearby.

I spent my childhood camping in state parks and walking on trails maintained by public trusts or nature preserves. My family got outside and hiked fairly often, but I never really experienced the feeling of knowing I could walk for miles or days and never hit a “no trespassing” sign. In a way, nature felt boxed in, meted out in small doses for daily excursions.

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Backpacking in the High Uintas Wilderness (Photo: Sarah Kichas)

The limits of nature got even smaller when I moved to Chicago, and aside from a narrow strip of green land that lined Lake Michigan, there wasn’t even a direction I could look in without staring down yet another block of apartments buildings.

At that point, I still thought of myself as a city person. I’d left my small town at 18 to attend college in Minneapolis and had lived in large cities ever since. I commuted on public transit and spent my days walking on crowded sidewalks. I didn’t own a car. Whenever I looked out the window, I saw more windows, belonging to other apartments and office buildings.

Eventually, an underlying sense of unease made me question what was missing from my urban lifestyle. I had vague notions of feeling trapped in the city. The constant noise began to wear on me, the train I took to work started to feel extra crowded, and the little park near my house simply wasn’t enough to fill the growing yearning for green space.

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Rock climbing in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (Photo: Wendy Stein)

For reasons completely unrelated to the outdoors, I eventually accepted a job in rural Vermont. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I cried the day I moved into my apartment, asking myself what the hell I was doing in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the country.

As it turned out, moving to the Green Mountain State was just what I needed.

I reconnected with the land almost immediately. I paddled down rivers in the sunshine with new friends and watched wide-eyed as great blue herons sailed right over our heads. I spent time pulling weeds at an acquaintance’s farm, feeling utterly accomplished when I returned home with a bag full of produce and black dirt under my nails. I swam in ice cold rivers on my lunch break and bumped down unmarked dirt roads that I eventually learned to navigate on my own, without a map.

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Atop Angel’s Landing during a solo trip to Zion National Park

Life suddenly felt smaller and more manageable in my little New England town. Opportunities seemed to fall from the sky, and I tried out things I’d never imaged before: cross country skiing, hoop dancing, trail running, and rock climbing. I started seeking out trails on my own, trained for longer runs, and embraced being outside. I started to appreciate my body more, using it as a tool to gather new experiences in the outdoors. The ever-present green mountains breathed life into me in a way I didn’t even know I’d been missing.

Eventually, circumstances conspired for me to consider moving out west. I had barely spent any time west of the Mississippi, but I figured if I could make a home in Vermont, I could probably do it somewhere else, too. I first set foot in Utah for a job interview, and six weeks later, I returned as its newest resident.

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A friend exploring Little Wild Horse Canyon, BLM land

Before I left Vermont, a co-worker confided in me that he’d once lived in Wyoming and that he was envious of my move. “The West is best,” I remember him telling me, and while I liked the ring to it, I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant.

What I discovered was a region with countless wild places, many that I never even knew existed. (True story: I didn’t even realize that Utah was half desert until after I’d already moved here.) There were national forest lands steps from my apartment, jagged red rock canyons that slice through the earth for hundreds of miles, and peaks so tall that trees don’t grow on the top.  I had so much to learn about my new home.

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Feeling small in Bears Ears National Monument (Photo: Sarah Kichas)

As I began to explore the landscape around me, I also learned about land designations. Approximately 65% of the land in Utah is owned by the federal government, and this public land goes by many names. There are national parks, national forests, BLM land, national monuments, wilderness areas, and national recreation areas. All of these lands are public, but the designation determines what one is allowed to do within their boundaries.

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Take a look at how much land in Utah is public land compared with most Eastern states. (Privately-owned land is marked in white.)

In the course of my research, I discovered the term “dispersed camping”, which is allowed on most BLM and Forest Service land. I’d grown up camping in campgrounds, and I thought that’s how camping worked. You selected a site, paid for it, and hoped the people in the spot next to yours weren’t too loud. The idea that I could drive down a dirt road and call it home for the night – for free – was incredible.

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Dispersed camping in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyoming

In my twenties, I traveled internationally so much I had extra pages added to my passport. So far in my thirties, I haven’t stepped foot outside of North America. Not that there aren’t a lifetime of places to explore abroad, but there’s still so much to see here I can’t tear myself away.

My mom once told me a friend of hers said that she had no interest in traveling abroad until she’d seen all the wonders of the United States. At the time, I thought that was crazy talk. But in a way, I now understand where she’s coming from. I am not the same person now that I’ve seen fog dissipate off the jagged peaks of the Tetons, watched furry marmots scurry around alpine meadows, and stood before ancient dwellings that have remained staunchly in place for over 800 years.

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Atop Bald Mountain, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest

With so much of Utah’s land being public, I’ve recreated nearly exclusively on land that is owned by us, the American people. I feel lucky to be able to use this land, to be a steward of our country’s landscapes and heritage.

I don’t know how many days and nights I’ve spent hiking, camping, running, and climbing since moving to Utah, but these public lands have changed me. They’ve turned me from a city girl into a trail walker, a solitude seeker, a mountain climber, and an amateur naturalist. I’m stronger both physically and mentally. I worry less, breathe more deeply, and feel less stressed overall.

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First backpacking trip in Captiol Reef National Park

Maybe I was never really a city girl, and coming to Utah was a return to who I really am. Either way, public lands have played a critical role in nearly every lesson I’ve learned and memory I’ve made since moving out west. Recent political acts, like Trump’s decision to shrink two of Utah’s national monuments, have felt like a personal blow to me, impacting the lands I’ve come to know and love.

If you haven’t been out west, plan a trip! Visit these places and I guarantee you’ll understand why so many of us love these lands so deeply. They belong to us, they move us, and they change us in ways we often can’t fully express in words. Public lands are our lands, and I hope you’ll join me in the fight to keep them for everyone, for now and into the future.

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Staring into the past in Bears Ears National Monument (Photo: Sarah Kichas)

Here are some ways you can take action:

Donate to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group that represents five tribes in the region who advocate for Bears Ears.

Contribute to the Bears Ears Education Center that the Friends of Cedar Mesa are building. When the government won’t protect what’s important, it’s up to us to do it ourselves. (This campaign ends on December 31, 2017.)

Learn about the different groups that are working to save Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

Watch this report on Bears Ears by AJ+ Docs.

Contact your representatives and tell them you support keeping the monuments as they are. On social media, reach out using #SaveGrandStaircase and #StandwithBearsEars.

Give to The Access Fund, a climbing advocacy organization. Some of the world’s greatest rock climbing areas sit inside Bears Ears National Monument and would be impacted by oil and mineral extraction if the monument is reduced.

Support companies that are fighting for our public lands, like REI and Patagonia.

Finally, get outside. It’ll calm your mind, focus your attention, and make you healthier. For real.

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Cross-country skiing in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest

Step by Step: A Backpacking Adventure in Capitol Reef National Park

“It’s too quiet out here, and I’m sleeping without the rainfly. The thin mesh netting seems a flimsy barrier to anything outside. But I feel a sense of independence and pride to have my own tent, to have carried all my things here, 9 miles, over the waterpocket fold and through winding canyons with tall, sheer walls hemming us in. Today I felt strong.” – Excerpt from my journal, May 21, 2016

It was bright and eerie in the stillness of the southern Utah desert as I wrote those words in my tent. Switching off my headlamp, I watched the full moon crest above the cliffs facing us, sending a column of white light across the floor of the cave.

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Camping in Capitol Reef National Park

This trip was the first step toward one of my goals, to go on a solo overnight camping trip. I’d organized the outing with some women I’d met through a local hiking group, and it was my first time backpacking. We decided on a one-night, 18-mile excursion deep in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. The trail we chose to follow, Lower Muley Twist, climbs over a geologic formation called the waterpocket fold and then follows a deep canyon for seven miles before exiting out onto wash-filled flats.

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The other-worldly Waterpocket Fold

The others in my group had backpacked before, and they were confident in our ability to complete the hike. Theoretically, I knew that I could do it with proper planning. Yet with this being my first backpacking trip, there were a few things that made me a bit nervous:

It was remote. The trailhead was 30 miles down a rarely-traveled and deeply-rutted dirt road, an hour’s drive from park services. Moreover, the trail was unmaintained and saw few visitors.

It was dry. There was no water available on trail, meaning we’d have to carry everything we needed for two days of hiking in the early-summer heat.

Finally, could I walk 18 miles in two days with a heavy backpack on my shoulders?

Weeks later, I snapped shut my rented REI backpack and hoisted it on my back. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to tote this monstrosity 18 miles across the desert, but as I looked out over the wild expanse of twisted rock and then back toward my eager friends, I knew I had to try.

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Ready for whatever comes my way

Our first day brought a steep climb over the waterpocket fold, its white rock sloping upward toward the sky as we meandered past rock cairns and occasionally braved steep dropoffs. Two miles in, we dropped over the ridge and descended into Muley Twist Canyon, so named because it was narrow and crooked enough to “twist a mule”. Pioneers had used this path since the late 1800s, emigrating south with their wagons. Later, cowboys would use the canyon’s massive caves as a shadowy respite from the hot desert sun.

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Breathtaking scenery make the hiking worth it

We wandered along the canyon floor, our path easy to follow as thousand-foot-tall Kayenta sandstone walls soared above us. Occasional gusts of wind sent sand flying, scouring our limbs as we shielded our eyes. But mostly it was a pleasant walk under a heavy pack that felt more tolerable as the day wore on.

We covered ground quickly on flat, sandy paths and slowly picked our way across scattered pebbles in dry washes. Occasionally we’d encounter huge piles of boulders or soaring, curved ceilings of stone, undercut from the rock above.

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Late in the day, we began looking for a spot to camp. Finally we arrived at the Cowboy cave, a massive bowl carved out from the rock. We marveled at the markings left by young cowboys nearly a hundred years ago and examined the artifacts amassed around a fire pit. Old tin cans of beans, cigarette cartons, and bits of tools had been preserved by fellow hikers, a testament to their respect and also the remoteness of this place.

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While we relaxed and had dinner, two hikers passed by, making them the only other people we’d encounter during our journey. Soon after, the sun began to set and we set up our various sleeping systems: tents or bivvies or open air pads.

I snuggled up in my sleeping bag, looking out across the cave floor and into the sky above. I’d done it, I thought, at least halfway. Too exhausted to write more than a couple phrases about my journey, I was asleep by 9pm.

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The next morning dawned with blue skies and bright sun, and we lingered over breakfast before hoisting our bags on our backs once more. Only another mile of canyon walking remained; the rest of the route was in open fields over sandy trail. After exiting the canyon, we decided to detour to Hamburger Rocks, a peculiar formation of round, red stone up on the waterpocket fold.

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Hamburger rocks, an oddity on the Waterpocket Fold

After several goofy photos and some trail finding confusion, we continued on under intense sun, finishing the final 5 miles over flat, red dirt with dreams of cold Apricot Hefeweizens dancing in our heads.

The cars became visible at least a mile out, becoming somewhat of a tease as we continued to walk and seemed to get no closer. Finally, finally we arrived. I’d done it. Survived my first backpacking trip, suffered very little, and experienced so much. I felt strong, I felt relaxed, I felt badass. I’d fallen even more in love with the desert, and I’d turned acquaintances into friends.

What’s funny is that once it was over, it didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore. The thought of carrying everything you need to survive off into a remote place sounds so daunting, but with a bit of planning and optimism, it felt easy. I suppose that can be true for many unknown projects, destinations, or ideas – it’s only in going for it that you wonder why you’d waited so long in the first place.

All in all, the trip was a success. And my new backpack (which I have since purchased) is ready for another adventure!

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Nature Therapy: Lessons from the Desert

Recently I spent the weekend in the desert, walking through sagebrush, across slickrock, and past prickly pear cacti, listening to the wind and the silence. I watched the sun set over a fragmented, ever-changing landscape that has seen a million sunsets. The lack of urgency and the desert’s steady existence calmed me.

The trip had been planned last minute. I left on a Friday afternoon, driving down to Moab with a friend. Our glorious, 48-hour trip was filled with juniper and sunsets, red rock and puffy coats, and not a single news article or radio rant. We didn’t even have cell service half the time.

And after a rough November –  filled with election drama, overwhelming social media posts, and protests in the streets – it was so healing.

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Sunset at Murphy Point, Island in the Sky district, Canyonlands National Park (Photo: Sarah Kichas)

It can be easy to forget how crucial nature is when life is busy, you’re feeling down and sitting on the couch feels easier than going outside. That’s exactly when you need to do it anyway. Being outside has been proven to reduce anxiety and rumination while increasing mental clarity and self-compassion.

Don’t believe me? Maybe National Geographic can convince you.

While being able to visit national parks on a whim is a luxury (and one I’m constantly grateful to have), you don’t even need access to wilderness to reap the benefits. While I very much recommend getting in the car and heading to the nearest trailhead, even spending 20 minutes at a nearby park has been proven to help.

Get outside, use those lungs, let your eyes wander. Be curious. Don’t think of anything in particular, except maybe to remark on the odd angle of that tree branch, or how the air feels cold on your cheeks, or notice it’s actually quiet for the first time all day. Don’t check your phone. I repeat: stay away from your phone. Seriously.

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Exploring a wash near Park Avenue trail in Arches National Park

Even moments of silence can teach the greatest of lessons. As I walked along Neck Spring trail that weekend, I thought about change and time and how small actions can produce massive results.

Narrow rivers can carve deep canyons through dense rock, simply by continuing to flow forward. Constant wind smooths even the roughest of stone. A million, tiny actions can, over time, create new pathways, transform landscapes, even send tall, sturdy walls crashing down.

Noticeable change doesn’t always happen overnight, but don’t let that fool you. Change is happening all around us, constantly. Be the river, the wind, the tiny grain of sand. Alone, you may feel powerless, but together, we have the power to move the earth.

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Overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park (Photo: Sarah Kichas)