Everything I knew to be true about the American West changed the moment I took my first hike in southern Utah last May. Before even reaching the gates of Zion National Park, my new summer home, as a park intern, I felt my identity expanding with the landscape.
The profundity of the West evolved in my mind's eye as I left the airport and felt the dry air of a strange new world typified by orange-red sand and layers of ancient rock. Here, in the desert, the iconic West branched out from the dense hemlock and fir forests and the jagged mountains of my Pacific Northwest roots. Suddenly, the West that molded my identity was far more complex than I had realized. How could this awe-inspiring, sere terrain be connected to the northern coastal American West I grew up in?
Life took on new meaning as I peered over the edge of Zion’s canyon walls. Exotic birds circled below, vibrant lizards scurried along my side, and cottonwoods at the valley floor transformed into bristlecone pines dotting the cliff tops. Diversity in the wild is — or should be — mirrored in society. My own identity, too, is sculpted through interaction with the landscapes I call home. The West's diversity reminds us of the necessity of recognizing and welcoming our own diverse identities, as individuals and as a community.
This year is the centennial of the National Park Service. There has been much discussion about protected lands — wilderness areas, national forests and parks. We need more talk about the role of diversity and what that means for our public lands moving forward into this century. And we need to ask why the Park Service and similar agencies do not reflect the very diversity that characterizes the wild each protects.
I had spent little time in any one national park before I interned in Zion's Cultural Resources Department. But I grew up, first on the edge of the Tongass National Forest and then on the border of Olympic National Park, and so wilderness has always been crucial in giving me a sense of belonging, a sense of place. The Tongass provided more than solace for my multiracial family; when we couldn't afford food, we relied on the rivers for fish. The Tongass was there as steady comfort when the denigrating words of my small-town Alaska classmates made me wish I was someone else. Later, family outings to the Olympic Mountains provided respite from the concrete and asphalt jungle where I now live. Hiking over plush moss floors between the Pacific Ocean and inlets carved by saltwater sustained the wild buried inside me.
Zion was the same, but different. This time, I was on "the inside" of the park. I was a part of the Park Service, not a visitor.
In that canyon alcove on my first hike, I was in awe. Here I was, the daughter of a single mother and granddaughter of a Cuban immigrant, working for the U.S. Park Service in its hundredth year of existence. But later, seeing a wall of photos of the all-white, all-male past Zion superintendents made me question my place in such an established agency. More important, it also made me question who and what the parks are really intended to serve.
Despite the agency’s noted lack of demographic contrast, though, my Zion colleagues made me feel welcome. Like the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, Utah's palatial cliffs and the human beings they attract still felt like home. I was raised more than 1,000 miles north, but I still recognized this expanded West as also important to my identity.
The unknown and unfamiliar can be scary, but sometimes an encounter with the unexplored can help awaken our sense of nature’s richness. At times, we forget that humans are a part of nature. But instead of cutting ourselves off from what we don’t know, we should strive to understand it, because our identities are partly crafted through our interactions with the unfamiliar.
Zion didn't just change my concept of the West; it necessarily transformed it. The hundred-year history of the national parks offered me the opportunity to explore an unabridged West. It redefined the region from my own personal Pacific Northwest bubble to something exotic — a vast new terrain to adventure in. On that first May hike, I was able to, literally, look over the edge and say “Thank you” to my rocky past. Americans of all backgrounds should have — in fact, they deserve to have — the same opportunity for transformative experiences. Our public lands need this diversity as much as the nation’s diverse individuals need the public lands.
Runner Up for the 2016 Bell Prize
The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy. Read the winning essay.