The Process of Life

We’ve just spent ten days at our little house in Torrey, Utah—the longest stretch we’ve ever had here.  I love the monsoon season, but this July has gone far beyond the normal afternoon thundershowers, with mornings dawning gray, lots of electrical storms, and, even on clear days, cloud build-ups starting at breakfast.    I’ve had a fine time photographing—and here is my luckiest (after much persistence) shot.

In my last entry, I posted an exchange about access to wilderness.  My respondent was concerned about wilderness (big “W” congressionally designated wilderness) excluding anyone but the hard-bodied young.  That’s not what we’ve seen in our series of day hikes here. On the main trails in Capitol Reef National Park, we’ve seen families, cohorts of multigenerational French tourists, young couples, and middle-aged folk.   In Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument and neighboring wilderness study areas, we haven’t seen many people, but those we have seen have been hikers like us, around sixty, slow and steady.

In a fine forthcoming book (Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks, University of California Press, 2010), Bill Tweed ponders the future of the national parks as he walks the John Muir Trail.  He notes the same phenomenon: most of the through-hikers are middle-aged.  Young people make quick dashes into the wilderness—trail-running, sport-climbing, and mountain biking.  Long contemplative walks don’t seem to have much appeal to millennials bred on the zing of whiz-bang technology 24/7.

My wife, Joanne, and our cousin, Carol (visiting from Maine), go to exercise classes, take walks, ride bikes.  I go to a yoga class and do as many errands as possible by bicycle.  We walk the dogs. We are fit but not in training, thin but certainly not on ascetic diets.  Nothing special in the way of physical specimens, really.   But we should be able to keep walking into the canyons for many more years.

Bill Tweed speculates that our generation has a distinctive history: coming of age at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, swept into wilderness travel as REI and EMS stores turned up in major cities.  Backpacking was cool and adventurous.

My 19-year-old son, Jake, joined us in Torrey for a couple of days, with a friend.  The two young men quickly grow restless with our four- to ten-mile day hikes.  They want more excitement.  Jake rediscovers Steve Allen’s canyoneering guidebooks on our bookshelf and gets intrigued with the notion of multi-day technical backpacks into the most remote canyons on the Colorado Plateau.  I know that Steve Allen and his buddies see no people at all on these trips.

Jake will try one of these trips, I’m sure.  He could become a real devotee of remote canyoneering.  Does this corroborate what my antagonist in the San Juan Record thought, that the wilderness is only for the young and strong?  Clearly not, given all those weathered and gray-haired hikers we keep seeing.

I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari for my book group’s next meeting.  I haven’t read him in years.  The last time I tried, I found him grumpy and sour.  Now, maybe I’m more philosophical about his refusal to romanticize.  It’s a terrific book, written when Theroux returned to Africa more than thirty years after teaching as a young man in Uganda to travel from Cairo to Capetown.  He is turning sixty, and he is acutely aware of that:

“What all older people know, what had taken me almost sixty years to learn is that an aged face is misleading.  I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think, and they are insulted to be regarded as feeble.  They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy.  Don’t be fooled by the thin hair and battered features and skepticism.  The older traveler knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful, and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise.  Years are not an affliction.  Old age is strength.”

Yup, it’s all of us strong old people marching down the trail!

Theroux also nails how I feel about my work mixed in with my life:

“When I told Africans where I had come from and how slowly I had traveled, they said, “So you must be retired.”

“No, no, no,” I said overreacting, because I despised the word and equated it with surrender.  “I’m traveling.  I’m working.”

That wasn’t it, either: not business, not pleasure, not work, not retirement, but the process of life, how I chose to pass the time.”

How I choose to pass the time tomorrow relates to all of this pondering.  I’m going to the “listening session” for the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative here in Salt Lake City.  I hope to be able to state some opinions that filter through to the Department of Interior about these stunning public lands of ours.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


Journaling at my new website

It seems only appropriate to start a journal (some would call this a blog!) in parallel with redesigning my website.  You can access these posts directly at or through my website, at

For my first entry, I’ll post my most recent op-ed, published in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News and co-written with my friend, George Handley:

San Juan County wilderness protection is vital to all Utahns

By George Handley and Stephen Trimble

Published: Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sen. Bob Bennett rightly takes pride in last year’s Washington County lands bill, which brought competing interests to the table and earned their support to protect permanently 256,000 acres of wilderness. Now, as the end of his term approaches, Bennett is working in San Juan County to craft similar comprehensive legislation.

This moment can lead to real protection for America’s red rock wilderness. Good legislation can reverse the decisions of the Bush administration that allow degradation of this irreplaceable landscape with increased off-road vehicle routes and rash and unnecessary natural resource development. But we worry that artificial haste and insufficient public input may lead to an inadequate bill.

Over the past three years, we were just two of more than 230 people who took part in two-hour “Faith and the Land” dialogues, sharing personal stories about the spiritual importance of wilderness in our lives and discussing how our faith traditions call on us to care for Utah’s wild lands. Utahns from Episcopalian, Islamic, Jewish, Latter-day Saint, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and United Church of Christ backgrounds met in their respective faith communities. These dialogues exposed a vital but often neglected common ground in Utah’s rich and diverse faith traditions: We Utahns love our wild deserts and canyons and mountains and rivers, and we want to protect them for generations to come.

San Juan County exemplifies these extraordinary landscapes with true wilderness character, including the rich archaeological resources of the canyons of Cedar Mesa and the ramparts and basins within Greater Canyonlands that remain unprotected by Canyonlands National Park. The stunning mesas and domes of the Glen Canyon proposed wilderness — one of the biggest and most spectacular tracts of wild land remaining in the nation — deserve special attention.

This wild Glen Canyon region includes Mancos Mesa, dissected by the 600-foot sheer Wingate Sandstone walls of Moqui Canyon. Unfortunately, the Bush administration plans designated the Moqui Canyon creek bed with its permanent stream as an official ORV route. The White Canyon wilderness, north of Natural Bridges National Monument, includes thousand-foot red rock cliffs and more than 100 miles of canyons festooned with alcoves, hanging gardens, arches and grottoes. Here, too, the Bush administration plans designate several unnecessary ORV routes, cutting this remarkable wilderness into pieces.

These are public lands, belonging to all Americans. As much as the good citizens of Monticello, Blanding, Bluff and the Navajo and White Mesa Ute reservations care for this land, San Juan County numbers only 14,000 people. The state of Utah, in contrast, is rapidly approaching 3 million, more than 80 percent of whom live along the Wasatch Front and rely on such wilderness areas to take their families backpacking. These citizens certainly constitute a vital part of the public who deserve a place at the table.

We call for Bennett to hold hearings in the Salt Lake area about the San Juan County bill — and any other county lands bills under discussion. Our elected officials will subvert the democratic process if they ignore the commitment of citizens along the Wasatch Front, inspired by faith, to permanent and sustainable protection of these wilderness areas.

Wilderness stewardship is intimately intertwined with living ethically, living mindfully and living with restraint. As the “Faith and the Land” dialogues made clear, what makes good ecological sense makes for good theology too. This idea can unite rather than divide us.

The wild lands of San Juan County are too precious to allow a small number of people to settle their future. Give all the people of Utah a chance to be heard.

Professor and writer George Handley is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo. Writer and photographer Stephen Trimble is a member of Salt Lake City’s Reconstructionist Jewish congregation Chavurah B’Yachad.


I always ask for dialogue–for call and response.  Well, I got it.  Here is a piece from the San Juan Record, full of fire and brimstone, written in response to our piece:

“Come to Jesus” group joins radical environmentalists to lock down San Juan

by Buckley Jensen

If SUWA, the Sierra Club and others of their ilk are not enough, locals now have a group on the Wasatch Front who have been spiritually directed to lock up all Wilderness Study areas in San Juan County for backpackers only.

In the June 20 issue of the Deseret News, a “My View” editorial by George Handley and Stephen Trimble say “we are two of more than 230 people who took part in three years of two-hour ‘Faith and the Land’ dialogues discussing how our faith traditions call on us to care for Utah’s wild lands.”

They continue: “San Juan County exemplifies these extraordinary landscapes with true wilderness character and consists of one of the biggest and most spectacular tracts of wild land remaining in the nation…and it deserves special attention.”

They go on to discuss several specific areas of San Juan County, including Mancos Mesa, Moqui Canyon and the White Canyon Wilderness, as examples where the Bush Administration’s recommendation was to have a network of ORV (off road vehicles) trails to allow a vastly larger percentage of Americans access and enjoyment of these places.

Allowing ORV trails in these places is simply unacceptable to Handley, Trimble and their flock of religiously-enlightened preservationists.

“As much as the good citizens of Monticello, Blanding and the other communities of San Juan care for this land,” say Handley and Trimble, “San Juan County numbers only 14,000 people… while Utah is rapidly approaching three million… more than 80 percent of whom live on the Wasatch Front and rely on such wilderness areas TO TAKE THEIR FAMILIES BACKPACKING. The wild lands of Utah are too precious to allow a small number of people to settle their future.”

Well, my response to this drivel is that these 230 “enlightened” spiritualists on the Wasatch Front, and many other self-anointed saviors of our ancestral lands in San Juan ought to try more tact and less condescension before they publicly announce what ought to be done to our little corner of the world.

Why is it that environmentalists insist that the only way to save the world is to put it off limits to everyone but those in their physical prime and with bank accounts such that they have days and weeks to spend walking through it?

In a perfect world, where people didn’t get older or physically unable to take long hikes with heavy back packs, that philosophy might fly, but 95 percent of the “owners” of America’s public lands will never be able to see the magnificent places in question if a selfish few like Handley and Trimble work to assure only the young, healthy and wealthy can gain access.

While jeeping and backpacking was my favorite recreational activity as a youth, I am getting to the age where lugging life’s necessities on my back through 100 miles of the White Canyon Wilderness is a bit more than I want to tackle at age 66.

Sensible and responsible riders on ATV’s are not going to damage San Juan County. Heavens, if you have ever seen what happens in the bottom of White Canyon every time it rains, you would know that whatever disturbance a pony or an ATV makes is no match for the flood that takes all evidence of mankind into Lake Powell.

It makes my blood boil that so many outsiders want to keep locals from riding through it on a horse or an ATV, even if Mother Nature does the housecleaning every few weeks.

My forebears came into San Juan 130 years ago and battled the Indians, cattle barons, floods, drought, disease and total isolation. On top of all that, the United States Government almost gave all of San Juan County to the Southern Ute Tribe after the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers had sacrificed everything to tame this wild land.

Let us pray that the current generation will be as successful in winning our battles with those bent on changing our way of life in San Juan as were our tenacious ancestors.

San Juan County already has more land set aside for wilderness, national parks, national monuments, state parks, national recreation areas, wild rivers, along with BLM and Forest Service set asides than 99 percent of all the counties in the United States.

And still the visionaries on the Wasatch Front and all kinds of politicians who have never been here want more…much more. And of course they all think they know better what is best for San Juan than those of us who have built it into the wonderful place it is today. Carpetbaggers, interlopers, spirtualists and politicians be advised: It isn’t going to happen without a fight.

My advice to the Handleys and the Trimbles of the world would be to go back for further discussion with the source of your spiritual “inspiration”. See how your conclusion jibes with “doing unto others as you would be done by”.

Finally, try to fathom the magnitude of your own selfishness in trying to put OUR county off limits to all but a tiny fraction of the 14,000 people who live here and the hundreds of millions of owners of public lands in this nation who do not share your elitist proclivities.


Buckley Jensen is right to point out that not everyone can backpack.  George and I neglected to describe the myriads of other ways to experience wilderness.  Anyone can ride the rivers through wilderness, as the stellar organization Splore proves every year with river trips for people with disabilities.

Even more pertinent—we did not describe the primary way that my family has used to visit wilderness over the last couple of decades.

My children were born in 1988 and 1991.  For years, we relied on wilderness hiking guidebooks to take us to the brink of designated wilderness or wilderness study areas.  We drove our truck to the edges of those wild places, and set up a family camp—kids, dog, and all.   We then took small hikes from the camp, returning to revel in the luxuries of wilderness car-camping:  multi-course dinners cooked on our propane stove, Sun Showers warmed by the afternoon blast of solar radiation, the astonishment of gazing up at stars that fill skies far from the glare of cities, and the elemental pleasure of sleeping together in a big comfy dome tent.  When our kids were very small, we called any walk beyond sight of the truck a “hike.”  As the kids grew older, we took longer and longer walks.

No matter how short the walk, we were in the wilderness.  We gloried in that wildness.  And absolutely anyone can have these same experiences, which require no special knowledge, skill, or strength.

And, yes, George and I should have told this story.