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How the Life of One Utah State Park Ranger Reveals the Healing Power of Nature

After years of protecting the Utah landscape and the people who flock to it, Brody Young found strength from the river and the red rock to recover from what should have been a fatal incident.

Written by Brett Prettyman

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Moab   |  Whit Richardson

Brody Young has found peace, wonder and conviction in the outdoors throughout his life. 

The Utah State Park ranger drew upon that inspiration, as well as the fierce love from, and for, his family, to overcome a violent attack during a night patrol that nearly claimed his life.

Long before meeting his wife on the river or teaching his kids the magic of sunrise in the desert, Young was building his own character in the Utah outdoors.

As a teenager growing up in Provo, he experienced the thrill of solo overnight winter camping trips in Rock Canyon. Later, Young enjoyed sharing the outdoors with others while working for an adventure camp in Moab. While guiding a raft trip on the Colorado River’s Moab Daily section in 1998, Young met another guide who loved outdoor adventures as much as he did. 

“I fell in love with Wendy on a guiding trip,” Young said. “With that connection of loving the river and the desert, we really grew close. I kept pursuing and pursuing her. It took many months to convince her we could make our future work together.”

They were married in the fall of 1999, and both ended up working for Western River Expeditions guiding whitewater rafting excursions.

As a law enforcement river ranger, Young patrols the Colorado River by boat.

Photo: Whit Richardson

Finding Work That Matters

The Youngs spent their summers based in Moab guiding trips — sometimes together, but most often not — on the likes of Desolation Canyon on the Green River, Cataract and Westwater canyons on the Colorado, and even floating the Grand Canyon. The couple spent the next few winters in Salt Lake City, where they attended and graduated from the University of Utah. 

The red rock desert and big rivers continued their siren call to the Youngs. Brody Young’s wonder for the outdoors, and a chance to be surrounded by beautiful landscape while getting paid for it, motivated him to apply for a job with Utah State Parks.

“I had a buddy who was a river ranger, and he told me if he ever left, he would let me know,” Young said. “I was the only one to show up for the interview. It may have been fate; I’m not sure.”

He attributes landing the job — not from being the only candidate — but from the skill set he developed in all those years as a whitewater guide. After 14 weeks participating in Peace Officer Standards and Training, an education he says eventually helped save his life, Young started working as a law enforcement river ranger in 2006 based out of Moab.

A large part of his time was spent patrolling the Colorado River by boat. But Young also spent time on a motorcycle, riding motorized vehicle trails around Moab enforcing license and registration laws, and handing out tickets to those who fail to follow the rules.

“I love the river and the land I work on,” Young said. “I’m there to protect the resource. We deal mostly with people on vacation —  people out to have fun — and sometimes some of them forget to do things they should or do things they shouldn’t. My job is to remind them, educate them, about the right ways to enjoy the Utah landscape. It’s my backyard and I don’t want to see trash in my backyard. Education is the most important part of my job, but sometimes a citation is necessary.”

The majority of Young’s encounters with people in the remote corners of wild lands are civilized. Travelers want to know if they are where they think they are, if they have enough water for their hike, and if there will be cell coverage in the slot canyon. 

“Mostly, people just want to share with me how amazing the place we are sharing is and how they can’t believe how beautiful it is,” Young said. “Every encounter is like a wakeup call; a nice reminder from others about how cool of a place Utah is. To get that reminder so often helps me appreciate my job even more.”

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Photo: Whit Richardson

The Night that Changed Everything

On November 19, 2010, Young was on a night patrol and came across a lone car parked in the Poison Spider Mesa Trailhead, 10 miles outside of Moab along the Colorado River. He was just 15 minutes from his home, from Wendy and their three children.

It was love for his family and a chance to continue their lives of being together in the special places they cherished that Young says helped him survive the events that unfolded that evening.

After a casual conversation with the man in the vehicle explaining he couldn’t sleep in the parking lot, Young, then 34, walked back to his truck. That’s when the sound of gunfire rang through the night.

Young made it to the back of the truck for cover and prepared to fire back in defense, but couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t able to grab his gun. A quick glance down at his limp and bloodied left arm, and Young knew he was in real trouble. His training kicked in and Young was able to return fire with his right hand. The shots finally stopped coming at him and Young heard the man say: “You got me.”

The surreal feeling of nine bullets hitting his body sunk in, and then Young fell to the ground, unconscious. He isn’t sure how long he was on the ground, but all was quiet when he awoke. The shooter was gone. “I think he thought I was dead, so he left,” Young said. “I realized no one knew I was there.” 

The soothing sounds of the Colorado River might have been within hearing distance, but the only thing Young could hear was his truck running. His adrenaline burst from the shootout was gone.

“My body was heavy; it felt like someone had poured concrete in it,” he said. “I started seeing pictures of Wendy and the kids. I wanted to be a part of their lives. I wanted to keep going. Death was not an option if I knew I could go back to doing what I was before this happened.”

Back to floating the mighty Colorado with the love of his life. Back to watching her teach the boys how to row the raft. Back to watching the sunrise through Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park

When Surviving Takes Everything

Young wasn’t ready to let the possibilities of his life and those he loved expire in the parking lot. The ranger started to roll and crawl his way to the driver’s side door, which he had left open when he first arrived as he learned in officer training classes.

He radioed for help and waited, hoping he had enough blood to survive until reinforcements arrived.

One of the first to hear about the incident was Tim Smith. As Young’s supervisor, he wanted to break the news to Wendy Young. “It was one of those moments in life you will never forget,” Smith said. “She knew something was up when I arrived. I’m sure she could see it on my face. We went to the hospital and it was a nightmarish thing to think about what he had been through out there alone.”

But Smith knew if Young had made it long enough to get to the hospital, there was a good chance he would survive. “He wasn’t going to leave Wendy and the kids without giving it all he had,” Smith said. “All of us knew that.”

And surviving took all Young had. Bullet fragments were lodged in his shoulder, back, hip, groin, lung and heart. He was in a medically induced coma for a month at a hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he underwent numerous surgeries. 

Young spent another two weeks healing and admits he probably left the hospital a little too soon. But it was Christmas Eve and the doctors felt like it would be better for him to be home.

Finding the Way Back

Young had been given strong pain medication for what was sure to be an uncomfortable two-hour trip back to Moab, but he remembers the peace he found while looking out the window.

“I was kind of a zombie and everything was going by so fast, but it was such a comfort when we started seeing the red rock rising out of the desert,” he said. “Looking back at it, Christmas Eve was probably one of the worst days to be released, but it was our best Christmas in Moab. I was home and we picked that home for a reason.”

There was never any doubt, at least from Young, that he would return to his job. Some were surprised to hear he not only wanted to go back to Utah State Parks, but that it was his intention to return as a law enforcement ranger.

“We wanted to make it clear he had options for other positions with the agency,” Smith said. “Brody was pretty adamant he wanted the same job. There was a question if he would be able to do it physically, but it was his goal and it is a credit to him that he made it.”

It took Young a year to return to work, and longer still to wear a badge on his chest again. But with tremendous support from family and friends in Moab and across the world, he did recover. 

Photo: Whit Richardson

Back on the River Again

It was no surprise Young, Wendy and the kids were back on the river as soon as he was strong enough — strong enough, that is, to stay in the raft.

It was early spring 2011, and the Youngs had returned to the Moab Daily section of the Colorado. Wendy was on the oars, and the river was cold and rushing with snowpack melt. 

“I jumped in. I had to. You feel that current and you can feel the power from the Rocky Mountains as it pushes you downstream,” he said. 

Young realized he had been aching for, and dreaming of, floating in the Colorado again. Things just felt right, even though he was cold and wondered how he would get back in the raft. He knew Wendy would figure that out.

“The river is our river,” he said. “It’s why we live here. I’m not sure what Moab would be; I’m not sure what my family would be without this river.”

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The Colorado River runs through the red cliffs in Moab.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Case Closed

Five years after the shooting at Poison Spider Mesa Trailhead, the body of Lance Arellano, the man who shot Young, was found by two young Moab residents in a cave roughly 10 miles from where the encounter took place.

Shortly after the body was discovered, Young told reporters:  “Everyone deserves to live, no matter what they do, so I'm sad that someone had to die, but I'm also glad that I'm still alive,” he said. “I did the right thing that night just defending myself.”

You can hear Young tell his story on NPR’s Snap Judgment podcast, hosted by Glynn Washington, produced by Joe Rosenberg.

Brody Young’s Outdoor Adventure Tips

  • Make sure you are physically fit enough for the activity. Nothing is less fun, and possibly more dangerous, than not being able to take care of yourself while miles from help. Pace yourself and always carry food and water. A gallon per person per day in the desert.
  • Check weather conditions well ahead of your outing and several more times leading up to the trip. Take a look at the skies before heading into the backcountry whether in a vehicle, a raft or on foot. Keep alert for possible changes in the weather and be prepared to react in any circumstance.
  • Always tell someone back at home where you plan to go, who you will be with and when you expect to return. Give them a time to call authorities should you fail to contact them and let them know you have returned safely. Don’t forget to let them know if your plans change. And remember to contact them before they feel the need to report you as missing.
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