What’s at Stake: Reflections from a Few Hikes and a Road Trip

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Acting Director of the Hixon Center

I didn’t grow up being a big fan of the outdoors. I never appreciated what the outdoors had to offer, to be honest. As a kid, I spent most of my time in my home, making occasional visits to the neighborhood park. After all, I hated the heat, which was what most of Arizona weather had to offer save for the summer monsoons. To this day, I’ve never been camping, and before 2017, I may have been on maybe three or four hikes my entire life.

Things changed this past year. For many reasons, this year I realized that I could not properly answer a question about what my hobbies were. I was passionate about environmental sustainability, and I liked music, but that was as much as I was able to say. After some thought, it occurred to me that much of that had to do with my reluctance to do things outdoors – even most of my physical activity and exercise took place inside gyms and fitness studios. So, I sought to change that.

This past summer, I hiked Camelback Mountain for the first time in my entire life. As a then 24-year-old, I’d never been on one of Phoenix’s most staple hikes – but it became a marker of personal achievement for me. Since then, hiking has become more regular – including multiple hikes in state parks in or near Orange County and Phoenix. Some reflection on these hikes have led me to believe that these have been instrumental in my growth as a person, especially in finding something to do that was both challenging and fun for me to do in my spare time.

But more has come out of my recent ventures into the outdoors. In late December, I’d taken on my most challenging hike thus far– the Flatiron Trail in the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona. After 5 hours of hiking, scrambling, and climbing up and down an elevation of 3,000+ feet, I could see further out into the Arizona landscape than I’d ever seen in my entire life.

Panoramic view from the top of the Flatiron Trail

Panoramic view from the top of the Flatiron Trail

And just within the last couple of weeks, I went on a road trip with a couple of classmates from my Master’s degree at Oxford who were visiting. Our trip took us across even just merely a third of the great state of California. We first stopped in Yosemite National Park, where we were finally able to see Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and Half Dome for ourselves for the first time.

View of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

View of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

From there, we proceeded west across the state to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where we got to see ourselves some of the oldest and tallest Redwood trees in California, including the proclaimed “Mother” and “Father” of the forest – well over 200 feet tall!

"Father of the Forest" tree in Big Basin Redwood State Park

“Father of the Forest” tree in Big Basin Redwood State Park

From there, we drove to Monterey and down the coast of California to see the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. We didn’t quite make it all the way down to coast due to some of the road closures, but we were treated to a beautiful view for the drive we could make.

I reflected for some time after the conclusion of the trip, and realized I’d spent more time outdoors in three weeks than I could ever recall spending before. I could resonate with much of the romanticism found in written works and memoirs, from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden to John Muir’s The Yosemite. There’s so much beauty out there, and such vast natural landscapes. Even with many human beings on this earth, we are so small compared to what I had seen in the past few weeks alone. And yet, relative to the size of this bright blue marble we live on, in these three weeks I’d barely seen anything at all.

Yet newfound appreciation for nature’s scenery and the outdoors wasn’t the major takeaway for me. Instead, it was realizing just how much is at stake. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen the landscapes in Arizona and California change in stark and terrifying ways – from historically massive wildfires to unusually norm winters. I’ve seen the Arizona monsoons come later and later, and I saw a snow-less Yosemite. We are seeing the natural world and seeing our regional climates shift in increasingly obvious ways – not only threatening the beauty of the natural world that we can so easily take for granted, but also threatening our ways of life and changing the ways through which we experience and engage with the world around us. After all, and as my friends and I discussed often on our road trip, these changes in the landscapes among us don’t happen passively. Our fingerprints and footprints are all over the landscape – from the roads that allowed us to drive into the heart of Yosemite National Park to the haze that clouded cities as we drove through the Central Valley.

It’s true that we do stand at risk of losing so much of it.  I’ve written my share of blog entries about how the administrator of our Environmental Protection Agency seems to care more about protecting corporate and economic interests than the environment, about how our Secretary of the Interior seemed eager to make history by shrinking the size of federally protected lands and national monuments, and how the current administration has made sure the United States remains the only country in the world to not be openly committed to the Paris Agreement and address climate change. But our politics and our policies are still surface-level: our entire way of life stands to inflict great environmental and human harm – from the things we buy to the way we get around town and around the world. We all need to think critically about our relationship with the natural environment and how nature responds to our actions, and how communities around the world might be affected as the world continues to change.

It’s true that we can’t see all of the ways in which our world is changing, especially with our own eyes, but there are some things we can see. We can see the beautiful waterfalls in Yosemite by walking around the valley, and we can see the smog that floats above Los Angeles with a hike up Mt. Baldy. There’s enough in front of us to prompt us to think about our relationship with the environment, as well as to make meaningful changes to our way of life to protect and sustain what we do have. For me, these hikes and this road trip did not just help me find a hobby and find some personal fulfillment, but it also helped reinvigorate my purpose and remind me why I do what I do. With so much at stake, how could I not?

View of Sunset over Pacific Ocean from Highway 1

View of Sunset over Pacific Ocean from Highway 1