“Heaven is not a place you have to die to get to… you just need good hiking boots!” The packed room erupted with laughter and applause at Shelton Johnson’s brilliant statement yesterday. Johnson, a novelist, poet and ranger in Yosemite National Park, who is also known for his role in Ken Burns’ movie on National Parks, spoke at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast – a yearly highlight of the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. Drawing from his experience growing up in Detroit with Native American and African American roots, Johnson spoke about the need to better connect youth and minorities to our public lands.
“When you’re a child growing up in the inner city, you don’t hear, you don’t see, you don’t feel what everyone in this room sees, hears and feels about the wild, ” he said. “Inner city kids don’t grow up dreaming of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. No one talked to me as a child and said, ‘We need to go to the Grand Canyon.’ …But, where else do you feel that sense of deep time, that sense of cosmic time that happens in wilderness? And, if you’re not raised to value it, you won’t claim the right to it. It bothers me today that there are so many kids who do not have that experience.”
Johnson explained that sharing stories and our own passion for the outdoors through books, magazines, photography and film could shift this trend and bring more diverse groups of people into wild places. “Art has the power to reach into your soul, grab onto it and never let go,” he said. “If you can’t get to the rim of the Grand Canyon, find a great book, find a great film,—find anything about it and you can still experience it.”
Individuals and the outdoor industry as a collective can have an impact by sharing what we know and love through media, industry platforms and our own stories to “invite” minorities and youth to take advantage of our wild lands. Public lands, specifically our National Parks, are our collective inheritance and Johnson wants to see more people laying claim to this inheritance. He emphasized the importance of getting people into nature because of its transcendent qualities; its ability to inspire awe, “put humans in touch with the sublime” and change people. “You can accomplish a lot by just walking – whether it be from Selma to Montgomery or walking the Kaibab Trail. I don’t know anyone who has walked and not been transformed by their journey.”