The Service of Nature

12 Jul
Bryce frame 2

The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon greet the dawn.

This blog began as a way of chronicling my 2014 cross-country road trip – a journey devoted to volunteering and interviewing people about their causes. That sojourn of three months and a week became the basis for a book project titled, appropriately enough, “The Whole Service Trip.”

Three years later, I still highly recommend the experience itself – not only seeing so much of the richly varying landscapes and cities of America, but also the kinder side of Americans, giving to something larger than themselves. One of the most affirming phenomena was how those people gave to me – particularly when it came to story ideas for the next day’s journey.

There was just one problem – sometimes all those spontaneous suggestions got in the way of a more selfish, secondary agenda. I promised myself that once I got to the spectacular desert rock formations of northern Arizona and southern Utah, I would give myself over to my inner nature lover.

For 48 fleeting hours, I managed to do just that. I caught a richly colorful sunset from the south rim of the Grand Canyon – followed by a disappointingly gray and cold dawn after a cold front blew through – and made it up to Page for a raft ride through Glen Canyon, where the Colorado River has cut a path so deep, it warps one’s sense of proportion. Only, on that raft ride, I met yet another tourist who told me about another volunteer opportunity a few hours west in Kanab, Utah – Best Friends, the largest no-kill animal shelter in the United States. Duty called. So my days of exploring the Utah national parks became a quick two-hour jaunt up to the edge of Bryce Canyon, where I stared over the edge from a couple of spots for less than two hours … before then heading south to California.

Later it would be one of my journey’s greatest regrets. I told myself I would someday return to Utah. In the meantime, I finally read Edward Abbey’s legendary Desert Solitaire, his account of a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park – as well as two whole Wallace Stegner books and the better part of a third, and David Gessner’s All The Wild That Remains, built around his own road trip, as well as the exploring of, yes, Abbey and Stegner.

So this summer I finally gave myself that present – I wedged a week of Utah rambling between visits to Alabama family and California friends. I finally walked beneath and even behind a waterfall at Zion National Park and beheld the sunrise over the hundreds of hoodoo spires huddled against the edge of Bryce Canyon. I took a windy walk through a petrified forest. I left the sweeping landscapes of reds and oranges, pinks and yellows for a forest, only to emerge from the far side into even more sensational desert. Near Moab, I survived the hike up to Delicate Arch – as featured on so many Utah license plates – and from the Grand View Point at the edge of the Island in The Sky I felt the same panorama-induced awe I felt years ago when beholding the Grand Canyon.

Arch below 2

Delicate Arch dwarfs its admirers.

So, mission accomplished – if the mission had been the pure tourist drinking in of natural wonder. No interviews on site about people’s altruistic endeavors. No long nights of transcription in motel rooms. No lying awake after the lights were out, wondering how all this would fit into a book.

Yet in so many ways, this trip still felt like an outgrowth of that earlier “whole service trip.” For I went into this trip, well, a little more whole. On that trip I was on a search for a new direction in my own communal life; on this one, I felt compelled to send postcard after postcard to Therence, the teenage friend I work with through African Community Education.

On that trip, too, I might’ve blown through Utah’s big country far too quickly – but the seed of this year’s nature-gawking was planted. And the wonder of staring out at all those ancient geological formations – the rocks that will be here long after us and our problems have come and go can actually can empower us for to return to more communal calling. Yes, we live in dark times – even the national parks which I enjoyed so much are threatened by the crass commercial interests of those who now reign in Washington D.C. – yet it somehow helps to remember our smallness against the grand sweep of natural history.

Girl arch 1

Woman contemplates view from base of one of the Windows at Arches.

Consider my return from this latest, non-service trip – the first full day in my own apartment in more than a month. I made good on a promise to myself by gazing at more nature shows. In less than three hours, PBS shows hit on three highlights of that “whole service trip.” There was The Great Yellowstone Thaw, about the national park I passed through, then Big Pacific, a program on the Pacific Ocean that included the central California coast – where I’d interviewed many a volunteers. Then, most amazing, Travelscope took me to Port Aransas, Texas – where the TV show host was doing the same ride-along that I did three years ago with Tony Amos, the Brit-turned-Texan founder of Animal Rescue Keep – as he conducted another of almost 5,000 wildlife counts he’s done of the same three-mile stretch of Port Aransas beach.

After our dawn ride, during a late breakfast at one of his local hangouts, he told me how his volunteer work saves him from environmental pessimism. “I don’t see doom and gloom when I think of the environment. When I get out there, I see the sun rising over the horizon, I see the waves on the ocean, I see this and I see that … and I know that nature has got an ability to survive some of this stuff.”

And for some of us, at least, nature also has the ability to help us survive – or even, for that matter, transcend – ourselves.

Click here for the blog I wrote about Tony during my “whole service trip.”

Tony points Port A

Tony Amos directing me to come inspect the beach he’d driven almost 5,000 times.



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