By Lyman Hafen
“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
When I was growing up in St. George, Utah, in the 1960s, our town park was just three blocks up the street from my house. We called it The City Park. And that’s exactly what it was. Although we weren’t exactly a city at the time. It was a full square block of open space covered by a bright green carpet of grass and shaded by a canopy of countless towering trees. On that block was the municipal swimming pool, tennis courts, an artfully designed barbecue area, swing sets, slides, a merry-go-round and teeter-totters. It was a kids’ paradise and you could play there on a summer day from sun-up to sun-down, breathing in the magical moistness of that cool green carpet at your feet, running and rolling and yelling and shading up for a rest with a sharp blade of grass between your chapped lips — until your mom drove up and called out from the car window, reminding you of your chores still unfinished at home.
As a kid, you had no idea of the financing, the politics or the foresight that went into preserving and maintaining that special place in the middle of town.
It was just there. Yours for the taking. A kind of birthright.
I remember our family driving through Zion National Park when I was very young. Dad would have been behind the wheel of our turquoise Ford Fairlane. Mom in the front seat with him. And my little sister and I would have been up on our knees (in the days before seat belts), wide-eyed, in the back seat taking it all in. As we passed through Springdale I remember watching the buildings pass by, the houses, the motels, the curio shops and the service stations. And I remember the feel of my father’s fingers under my chin as he reached his arm back over the seat and lifted my point of view from ground level up and up to the towering sandstone ledges of the canyon and even further up to where the high horizon broke against the purple sky. Along that stark skyline I saw for the first time the turrets, towers and spires of those magnificent castles in the clouds.
Even today, a half-century later, I still feel my little-boy heart swelling in my chest.
“Whose place is this?” I asked my dad as we drove up the switchbacks in the canyon.
“It’s yours and it’s mine,” he answered. “It belongs to every American.”
Though I didn’t understand it then, that was my introduction to the concept of public space. To the idea of parks set aside for the benefit of all. I took that concept for granted much of my life.
Perhaps when it finally hit home for me was the day I rode an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. From the viewing deck near the top of that amazing building, I looked up and down Manhattan Island and saw perhaps the greatest concentration of human activity on earth. I was overwhelmed by the mass of humanity in such tight quarters. And then my eyes settled on the giant rectangle of green in the middle of that island – Central Park. A sigh escaped from deep inside me as I considered the beauty and tranquility of that awesome open space smack in the middle of such a gray and dense metropolis.
I smiled at the thought of the foresight of whoever it was who proposed such a place, and winced at the thought of how hard it must have been to pull off such a feat. Somewhere along the way, someone, or a group of someones, had to stick their necks out, risk their reputations, and fight the battles, to make sure someday, when that island was completely covered with multi-storied buildings, there would still remain an open section of land in the middle of it — a park — that would heighten the quality of life and contribute to the sanity of everyone who lived or worked in the city.
What a concept.
Here in southwestern Utah we’re blessed that so many of our citizens, leaders and elected officials have understood this concept over the years. They’ve been willing to stick their necks out, put their reputations on the line, and fight for the kinds of parks and open space we enjoy today. From that old City Park in my boyhood neighborhood, to Zion National Park, we are the beneficiaries of scores of public spaces, including municipal, state and national parks. From ballfields to hiking parks, from desert reserves to petroglyph sites. From pickle ball courts to horseshoe pits to river walks and picnic spots. From Zion to Parashant to Pipe Spring and Cedar Breaks. From Snow Canyon to Sand Hollow to the trail heads in Pine Valley. You’d be hard pressed to find a greater or more diverse number of developed, maintained and well managed parks and open spaces anywhere on earth.
It’s the same across the Colorado Plateau. In fact, the whole world is coming here to experience the public places in our backyard. Since Presidents’ Day Weekend this year, Zion National Park and the entire Colorado Plateau region have been flooded by visitors. On any given day since March, the visitor traffic in the Zion Canyon gateway community of Springdale, has been nonstop from daylight until well after dark. For years the state travel office and the county convention bureau have been promoting St. George, Springdale and Zion as a destination, and this spring and summer it appears as if the world has truly gotten the memo.
For those of us who live here, it’s getting a little more difficult all the time to share our backyard with the world. Yet we depend dearly on visitors from across the country and around the globe to fuel our economy and make it possible for us to live here.
So how do we share it without losing the quality of life we treasure? The French writer Marcel Proust might have answered that question when he said, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Perhaps the answer is to look through new eyes at all the other wonderful public places in our midst besides the icons the world is coming to see. Our list of best kept secrets is long. One of them, little more than an hour from St. George, is Pipe Spring National Monument. If you’ve never been there, it’s high time you go. You’re almost guaranteed a parking spot. And you’ll enjoy a renewal of spirit in that unique setting. Same with Cedar Breaks National Monument. It’s not much more than an hour-and-half from St. George. I can’t imagine a more wonderful summer destination. Just like that you’re at 10,000 feet, looking down into one of the most impressive gorges on Earth – not to mention the energizing quality of the pine-scented air.
The list goes on, all across the Plateau. From Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah to Montezuma Castle National Monument in Central Arizona. From Hovenweep to Wupatki. From Aztec Ruins to Chaco. From Canyon de Chelly, to Walnut Canyon. In 2016, the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial. The theme for that celebration is: “Find Your Park.” You might think the iconic national parks are the only places to go – the places you have to go — yet here on the Colorado Plateau there are countless wonderful public spaces you can and should connect with. The secret is to look about you with new eyes.