Ranger Kathryn's Arches

October 17, 2011

“Just… wow.”

Visitor reactions to the spectacular views in Canyonlands National Park keep me grounded. They remind me of what wilderness does to a person. Many comments are purely visceral, as the individual often lacks words to describe what is happening within them. Those are my favorites: the unfiltered, ineloquent, deepest-gut-level responses to seeing a landscape that is so Other.

Atop the switchbacks, looking at the 1300-foot descent and the canyons ahead.

I had spent a sweaty hour trudging up the Murphy switchbacks. When I arrived on top, a man standing there greeted me and introduced himself as a visitor from Switzerland. He was staring down at the view in the photograph and kept repeating two words: “Just… wow.” Despite his excellent command of English, the immensity of the expanse momentarily robbed him of articulate speech.

Over the next half hour I heard him tell of his stressful work as an architect, and how in his country efficiency and productivity and hard work are valued but things of the heart are not prioritized. People tend toward robotic rather than passionate. Stepping into the wilderness of the American West, he’s begun connecting with that long-ignored side of himself, and he hardly knows what to do with the emotions being stirred.

Candlestick Tower and Soda Springs Basin at sunrise. Healing indeed. (Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park.)

Even though I was off duty, I couldn’t help myself; facilitating intellectual and emotional connections with this park is what interpretive rangers do. I invited him to let the landscape breathe life into his heart. “Spend the next hours as you hike imagining the person you’d really like to be, if there were no obligation to perform and produce. It is difficult to arrive at fresh ideas in your everyday environment, so let the canyons and mountains and desert air clear your thinking. You’ll go home a more alive person…”

Walking the remaining mile to the trailhead, I chewed on what I already knew: syllables aren’t necessary for truth to be communicated to our innermost beings. Words may be stumbling blocks. Wilderness speaks, just by our being in it.

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