Through my car window, I watched the burnt orange blur of Utah rush by, feeling dizzy as I tried to keep up with each new patch of sagebrush or towering rock pile. I was on my first road trip through the West, traveling from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to a new life in Los Angeles, and I’d already crossed hundreds of miles of big sky and open spaces. Suddenly, a blue-and-green triangular signpost caught my eye, identifying an agency I had never heard of: the Bureau of Land Management. The next time I stopped, I pulled out my phone and searched for it on Google, entering a rabbit hole of wikis and websites. I learned that the BLM manages 264 million acres of public land, and that originally its holdings were considered “land nobody-wanted.”
For the next few days, I obsessively scoured Utah for the perfect remote, wild BLM campsite: cheap — or better yet, free — and secluded, silent except for scurrying wildlife and howling wind. On a dirt road east of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, a few miles from the Hamburger Rock Campground, I found my refuge: soft, flat red ground with one sprawling tree, miles of rocks to scramble, and a sunset that brought tears to my eyes. In the narrow beam of my headlamp, I set up the tent, unrolled my sleeping bag, and fought to stay awake long enough to watch the stars appear in a sky clearer than I’d ever seen before. I woke early to sit and sip coffee on one of those warm red rocks. A few hundred yards away stood that little BLM sign.
Back home in Kentucky, the whole concept of public lands — what they are, who protects them, why there is an ongoing battle over their management — rarely entered my consciousness. The wild spaces closest to my hometown are privately owned or managed by the city or state. The federal government owns 28 percent of the U.S., and about 92 percent of that land lies in Western states. Less than 5 percent of Kentucky and several other Southeastern states is federally owned. The lack of immediate access to nature inhibited my relationship with it. I adored exploring the outdoors, and yet I couldn’t help but feel distant from it. So I was ill-prepared for the sheer size of federal land Americans share — land that I had no idea existed — and the cultural, political and economic tangles in any given corner of it.
About a week into the trip, outside of Durango, Colorado, a National Park Service sign directed me toward Mesa Verde, which preserves cliff dwellings from the Ancestral Puebloan communities that lived there from about 600 to 1300 A.D. It was only an hour out of the way. Back East, visiting national parks required deliberate planning, a search to find historic landmarks or places, and a long trip to see them. Here, I happily veered off-course for a spontaneous history lesson and a chance to wander through pockets of fire-scarred trees. At the Montezuma Valley overlook, I waited until all the cars left, so I could stand alone at the edge. As I shivered in the chilly evening breeze, I focused on the valley below, imagining it filled with thousands of people bustling in villages and tending farmland.
In the last week of August, in the dead of night, I pulled up at Chilao Campground in Angeles National Forest, just outside Los Angeles — 4,300 miles from home. Angeles, the first national forest designated in California, covers about 700,000 acres and five designated wilderness areas. At 5,300 feet above sea level, Chilao provided a respite from the smog and traffic of the city below.
I did not know then that the public lands and the agencies that manage them would define the next two years of my life. I would spend countless hours in the national forest, in the Santa Monica Mountains and in other nearby recreation areas. By early 2016, the land-transfer movement dominated the news; the first story I remember reading — and understanding — involved the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Those militants were trespassing on my land.
But that night, a few hundred yards from my tent, I just stood on a rock and stared at the radiant lights of Greater Los Angeles. Between my boots and my new home were thousands of acres of protected land. The glow of the full moon sharpened the edges of chaparral and yucca — flora I had never before encountered. Though I was far from home, I felt more attached to the land than ever, reveling in the fact that all of it — no matter where I was from or how long it took me to realize it existed — was mine to discover, explore and protect.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former HCN fellow and the editor of Southerly, a newsletter for the American South. Follow @lyndseygilpin