Conservation at its Finest: “Can you tell me where your bathroom is?”

“In the wilderness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau, perhaps on a dark stormy New England night by a wood burning stove after a blissful day wandering under enormous pine trees and through secluded bodies of water. The preservation of the world… what a lovely thought. One, in fact, that almost perfectly sums up my endless draw to the natural world, and consequentially my deep desire to revolve my life’s work around its protection. Similar to my most-referenced and idolized author, my passion for this was ignited in the wilderness of the American northeast. But towards the end of my undergraduate career, I received a call from a Park Ranger in Utah who wanted to know if I was comfortable working in temperatures consistently above 100 degrees and if I wanted to work in a visitor center that saw upwards of 1.2 million tourists each year. Out of combined curiosity and impulse, I kept saying yes until a final yes got me my first SCA position as an interpretive guide at Arches National Park in Utah.<p>I don’t know about you but for me, the word “conservation” is far from synonymous to standing in an air-conditioned building spending half of your day informing tourists in colorful flip-flops that the bathroom is outside and to the left (half of my position consists of staffing the visitor center, while the other half is leading guided walks or roving through the park). Coming from a backcountry background, Arches’ grand total of 18 miles of trails was initially a frustrating adjustment that was only exacerbated by the endless flow of traffic and questions about “what can we see without getting out of the car?” But you learn quickly that there is a reason for this lack of trails: the desert is not the place to be wandering around for hours in the backcountry during the heat of the summer. Furthermore and more importantly, people do not spend long days here because of one simple reason: we are not supposed to be here. After this personal realization, my role regarding conservation took on an entirely new meaning.

We are not supposed to be here. I imagine no one ever forgets the first time they enter Arches National Park. Nature’s dominating presence is felt immediately by the fact that to get into the park, your vehicle has to climb a series of steep switchbacks up the side of a giant red rock cliff. After this accomplishment, it is impossible not to be awestruck as the road wraps around with views of the La Sal Mountains to provide the first glimpse of the expansive, colorful landscapes and spectacular, unique rock formations. The simple vastness mostly exempt from any sign of human impact (with the exception of roads) has a huge allure in and of itself before any of the famous arches are even in sight. This space brings us back millions of years with dinosaur bones, arrowheads, and faults that display ages of geological history, reminding us of the sobering fact that despite the young political history of our country, thriving life has been here long before us.<p>While researching materials during the writing process of my guided walk, I came across a book in our library titled Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash. This book was fantastic on several levels, but Nash concluded it by arguing, “wilderness will not exist by accident or oversight much longer. Wild will remain wild only as the result of deliberate human choice.” The vast majority of people that come out to explore their national parks are coming from places where nature is restricted and regulated in the form of a city park, or perhaps a single remaining tree in one’s backyard. In some ways, Arches National Park is no different: we paved a road so we have to exert minimum physical effort to see the famous sights, and we have gravel paths with bathrooms at the start to lead us there. But in other ways, nature is clearly winning in this situation. As Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire (about his experience being a ranger here in the 1950s), “Out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men.” That is the most amazing part about this park: it does not matter what your definition of hiking is or if you are upset that we still have not opened a restaurant on the other side of the park; when you look around at the nothingness that is so full of a history of survival and freedom from human destruction, those “whoa” moments are impossible to escape.

The desert is a sobering place. The best part of my job is witnessing those “whoa” moments. We are not going to protect these places until we care about them, and every day I get to watch visitors fall in love for the first time, or maybe reignite this connection with the real world that we all came from despite the barriers we use on a daily basis to disconnect from it. In wilderness is the preservation of the world… So if directing weary travelers to the bathroom means getting them into the park to have that moment that leads to a newfound ecological sensitivity, that is conservation, in its bizarre 21st-century form.<p>My name is Jackie, and I am honored to be blogging for SCA. I look forward to sharing some more thoughts from Arches. Thank you for reading!