Finding Strength and Inspiration Deep in the Utah Desert
What Utah's wilderness taught photographer Elisabeth Brentano about joy, freedom and herself.
I struggled to catch my breath as I made my way up a seemingly endless slope of sandstone, embarrassed about my lack of cardiovascular fitness. But as the late afternoon sun cast a bronze glow on the rock formations around me, it seemed like an invitation to pause. I was hundreds of miles from the familiarity and comforts of city life, but rather than feeling lost or displaced, I felt like I had stumbled onto a path that promised a brighter future. Every single one of my senses was engaged, and for the first time in months, I felt alive.
Just five months earlier I went through a painful breakup, and a few weeks after moving out of the home I shared with my ex, I made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize my cat. Monday through Friday I went through the motions at an unfulfilling office job in Los Angeles, and though I was in therapy and exercising regularly, I didn’t seem to be making any progress. At the end of summer, I reconnected with a childhood friend who suggested I visit her in Utah for a road trip to the desert. I was desperate for a distraction, and even though I didn’t consider myself to be particularly outdoorsy, an adventure in nature seemed like the perfect escape.
"But something about the red rocks and pastel skies made my heart sing, and at that moment I realized there was a whole other world out there for me. This was progress, and this was beautiful."
My plane landed in Salt Lake City just before noon, and by 4 p.m. we were already turning down state Route 313 to Dead Horse Point State Park. I had never heard of it, but the drive was gorgeous and the practically empty parking lot was another good sign. We took a leisurely stroll along the rim of the canyon, and I was blown away by the layers of earth carved by the Colorado River. Eventually the path opened up and I took a seat, marveling at the scene below. Just eight weeks earlier I might have considered jumping; that’s how depressed I was. But something about the red rocks and pastel skies made my heart sing, and at that moment I realized there was a whole other world out there for me. This was progress, and this was beautiful.
It had been two decades since I last visited Arches National Park, and while I remembered the vibrant orange hue of the dirt, the details from my childhood vacation were a blur. Driving through Arches the next day was a completely new experience, and while the hike to Delicate Arch was humbling, it was also very rewarding. Up until that point, photography had been an occasional hobby, but this trip reignited a creative spark I hadn’t felt since college. From the glow of the arch at sunset to the silhouette of a tree against the evening sky, I couldn’t seem to put my camera down during the hike. When I arrived back at home, I tried to relive each memory as I sorted through my photos, and I was eager to plan my next adventure.
In the spring I returned to Utah to hike the Narrows in Zion National Park with my childhood best friend, and after our 16-mile journey down the north fork of the Virgin River, I went camping for the first time on the shore of Lake Powell. As the sun kissed the face of Lone Rock goodnight, we cooked burgers and beans and watched a storm pass in the distance. When we finally rinsed the crusty sweat and desert dirt from our bodies at an outdoor shower the following day, it felt like a rite of passage. I was 30 and experiencing a completely new way of life, and these experiences in Utah fed a part of my soul I didn’t even realize existed. If someone had asked me just a year before if I’d ever consider hiking through a gorge, sleeping in the sand and not bathing several days, I’d have laughed. I wouldn’t say I was prissy, but living in Los Angeles for nearly a decade had made it easy to forget about the places that existed beyond the city.
"When we finally rinsed the crusty sweat and desert dirt from our bodies at an outdoor shower the following day, it felt like a rite of passage. I was 30... and these experiences in Utah fed a part of my soul I didn’t even realize existed."
Over the next two years I discovered that the more time I spent in the wilderness, the happier I was. After my first solo hike, I realized that being alone in the woods wasn’t so scary after all, and I gained even more confidence on my first backpacking trip. Every block of free time on my schedule was spent camping and hiking with friends and fellow photographers, and I started picking up freelance travel assignments. I had never worked harder in my life, but my tenacity eventually paid off. By the spring of 2016 I quit my office job, sold everything I owned and transitioned to life on the road full time.
However, I didn’t trade my high heels for hiking boots overnight. Not only was I cautious as I shifted from a stable job to freelance photography, but there was a major learning curve with outdoor pursuits. My first overnight in the backcountry was a disaster thanks to a grossly overweight pack and cotton shirts, and from finding the right gear to recognizing what I could truly live without, the process was mostly trial and error. But as I learned about Leave No Trace principles and logged more miles on trails, I found folks in the outdoor community to be accepting and helpful, and very rarely was I judged for my lack of experience. If I was honest about my limitations, I was comfortable trying new things, and having a good attitude went a long way as well.
"Combine a remote location with electric sunrises and evening serenades from coyotes, and it’s the perfect way to escape crowds and chaos."
Perfecting a safety routine for solo adventures took some time, too. I always told at least one other person where I was going and when to expect me back, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I invested in paper maps and a satellite communication device. Relying on your phone is fine in many situations, but when you’re off the grid, a lot more is at stake. Before hitting the road, I note the locations of the closest hospitals and gas stations, plus areas where I have guaranteed cell service. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” is an age old quote that applies to any number of situations, and I always remind myself of this when gearing up for an adventure, no matter how large or small. (Read: How to Stay Safe and Stoked as a Solo Woman Traveler)
The more I travel, the more I treasure moments of uninterrupted bliss, and the Utah desert never fails to deliver. Though it’s still possible to find solitude in the more popular national and state parks, camping and hiking on Utah’s vast expanses of BLM land often makes me feel like I’m the last human on the planet. Combine a remote location with electric sunrises and evening serenades from coyotes, and it’s the perfect way to escape crowds and chaos. You could spend weeks exploring an area like Bears Ears National Monument and barely scratch the surface of stunning scenery, and during that time you might only cross paths with a few other fellow tourists (Watch: The Voices of Bears Ears).
The first time I ventured into Valley of the Gods, I was blown away by the late afternoon light on the towering buttes — and the fact that I found a large campsite offering both privacy and distance from the road. A curious cow wandered by after I made dinner, and I spent the rest of the evening sitting in my camp chair, soaking up everything around me. I’ve returned to the same spot three times since then, and beyond incredible 360-degree views, it’s somewhere I feel completely safe and free. The last time I went, I remember staring at pink clouds in every direction and feeling relief from the summer heat as the breeze picked up. When the stars came out, I danced to Fleetwood Mac and laughed aloud, because I knew no one could see or hear me, and I had this moment — and this wild land — all to myself.
For every favorite spot I look forward to revisiting, Utah is also home to an endless amount of incredible new landscapes to explore. I only recently made it to Goblin Valley State Park for my first-ever canyoneering experience, and it was everything I hoped it would be, thanks to the amazing guides at Get in the Wild Adventures (Watch: Canyoneering in Robbers Roost). While the concept of rappelling 90 feet into a dark cavern initially seemed daunting, as soon as I hit the canyon floor I wanted more. And I suppose the thrill after my first big rappel was much like the epiphany I had during my 2013 trip to Utah, when I realized anything is possible, and breaking out of an immutable comfort zone can lead to growth and opportunities.
I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t stared deep into the canyon at Dead Horse Point and instantly felt a desire to experience more moments like that. I had no idea how life-changing that trip would be, and at a time when I was questioning everything, Utah gave me the answers and inspiration I so desperately needed. I truly found myself, my strength and my love for the outdoors in Utah, and it’s one of the reasons I return every year, because I see what I’m capable of — and how far I’ve come.