By Erick Valencia
I grew up in a small town in Southwest Colorado surrounded by public land. Every year I’d hunt, fish, and camp with my dad, but I never truly appreciated these experiences had to offer me. I would have much rather gone to the nearby larger town with my three or four closest friends to cause mischief. I always spent a significant amount of time in public lands, but rarely was it a very meaningful experience. I dreamed that I would one day move to a big city where I would be happily surrounded by art, culture, and endless amounts of entertainment.
Since my eighteenth birthday, I’ve wandered from city to city and town to town in search of education, jobs, recreation, and that elusive happiness of city life. I never felt a strong connection to any particular place, and I always felt lost in the seas of people. I found myself seeking out public lands to engage in those outdoor activities I learned from my dad. I’ve come to find that these natural places have always been a refuge for me. As an introvert, the solitude and quiet that public lands provide are essential. These places give me a sense of clarity and focus that often get lost in daily life as I’m bombarded with sensory stimuli that I must sift through and organize. They provide a place where I can be entirely selfish and self-indulgent without feeling as though I’m letting someone down or putting off something important. As I hike into the mountains or through the desert, I feel the uneven surface of the rocky, sandy trail underfoot. The cool wind and bright sun battle for control of my body temperature as they somehow manage to make me feel hot and cold at the same time. I can focus on the sound of my own breathing and the tensing of my muscles as I climb in elevation. I make constant adjustments to my gait and pace in response to changing terrain. And the feeling I get when I arrive at another beautiful destination or the thrill of seeing another new animal are just icing on the cake. There’s nowhere else that I can think of where I am so in tune with myself and my surroundings as when I am immersed in all the wonders of our public lands.
Beyond the benefits of self-reflection and self-awareness that public lands have offered me, many of my closest friendships have been forged on a trail. Whether I’m wandering through the desert in New Mexico, the endless ocean of sandstone in Canyonlands National Park, or gazing upon one of the last glaciers in Montana, some of the best times I can remember were spent with people I care about surrounded by the wide-open spaces of our natural inheritance. While memories of old jobs and objects and pains will eventually fade away, I’ll never forget those seemingly untouched places I’ve visited or their natural inhabitants. I’ll always remember resting atop a steaming volcano near the Southern border of Mexico after one of the hardest hikes of my life. I’ll remember the feeling of utter insignificance as I scurried among the giants of Sequoia National Park or peered down into the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. And how could I forget my first roadrunner, or the quetzals in Costa Rica, or the bear that got a little too close?
I’ve always sought out public lands for recreation, reflection, and as a temporary reprieve from life, and I always will. I haven’t yet found that location where I feel like I truly belong, but as long as the search keeps taking me to such amazing places with such wonderful sights, I’ll happily keep looking my entire life.