Two artists road trip through Utah’s national parks

Text and photographs by Katie Hargrave and Meredith Lynn
Captions by Birch Malotky

As tent campers and national parks enthusiasts, we spend a lot of time in the company of Airstreams, Winnebagos, and Jaycos, and have come to appreciate that for many, the RV makes a kind of relationship to nature possible. RVs can re-create the comfort and access of home in the middle of spaces the federal government has set aside to be preserved as wild. We have seen our fellow campers set up potted plants, satellite dishes, and full multi-course meals in the middle of what we hope to be wilderness.

A small teardrop trailer parked in front of a red sandstone butte
Throughout their road trip, Meredith and Katie blocked out the windows of their camper and let light in through only a small hole. This large camera obscura reproduced the scene outside onto surfaces within the trailer, but upside down and flipped side-to-side. The teardrop-camper-turned-camera-obscura enacts projection, inversion, and reversal. What ideas do we project on the landscapes we visit and what values onto the method of visitation? How does bringing the comforts of home into the great outdoors facilitate and inhibit connection? How do expectations shape and distort our outdoor experiences? The camera obscura indulges the omnipresent desire to document, while exaggerating the imperfect translation of place, moment, and experience to image.

This comfort and accessibility is in opposition to romantic visions of national parks and some approaches to conservation. Nature writer Edward Abbey famously wrote in Desert Solitaire, “You can’t see anything from a car.” There is a value judgement implicit in this statement. Abbey and others equate a certain connection to nature with spirituality, purity, and a unique kind of enlightenment, but that sort of experience in the outdoors deliberately excludes most park goers.

Using all five Utah national parks as a springboard, we took a rented van and teardrop trailer on the road to consider the complexities of a relationship to land that is heavily mediated by vehicles, cameras, and our own nostalgia. Through Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks, we enact and document the tourist experience, asking how our portrayals of public land and outdoor recreation differ from the actual experience, and whether an unmitigated relationship to nature is possible, or even desirable.

A tent with scenes of Arches National Park is set up in a gallery in front of a photo of the tent set up in Arche.
Tourism makes a mark—through roads, trails, and the “footprints” of buildings, tents, and people. But infrastructure can also expand access while mitigating the impacts of growing crowds. In Arches National Park, visitors had to bring all their own water until a few years ago, when managers installed a bathroom with running water and flush toilets to better accommodate the influx of tourists. Such pedestrian concerns are rarely part of the narrative of blue skies and red rock that’s sold to prospective visitors and re-created during visits. To bring these ideas in conversation, Katie and Meredith sewed a tent printed with creative commons photos from tourists at Arches—featuring classic vistas like Delicate Arch and the lines of people waiting to photograph them—and set it up in front of the new bathroom at Devil’s Garden, the only developed campground in the park.
An old postcard of Arches National Park that shows a number of vintage cars parked outside a tunnel through canyon walls.
After Zion became Utah’s first national park in 1919, the park service, the state of Utah, and the Union Pacific Railroad worked to create and promote a “Grand Loop” of southwestern parks as the center of American tourism. To reach Zion, they spent three years and $2 million building 25 miles of switchbacks and a 1.1 mile tunnel through the canyon walls. Now with more than 4.6 million visitors a year, the park is the third most popular in the country and first to implement a mandatory shuttle system, which brings visitors in and out of the narrow Zion canyon most of the year. Before their trip, Katie and Meredith collected vintage postcards of Zion, many of which depicted the famous Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Using the glass beads that are mixed into road paint to make it reflective, they highlighted the roads that historically enabled access and growth in visitation to Zion, and are now strained by the load of millions of park goers.
An screen shows an upside down image of a road with an informational road sign.
In a thickly textured landscape of canyons and spires, most of which is accessible only on foot or by raft, the National Park Service has established seven scenic overlooks along a paved road. Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park stop only at these vistas, so the same scenes are reproduced again and again in personal and promotional photography. Meredith and Katie parked their camper at each one and photographed, using the camera obscura, the views that so many motorists and passengers stop to see. The camper cannot walk to the overlook, so instead it turns its eye to the way that signage and infrastructure direct and frame the park experience.

Katie Hargrave and Meredith Lynn are artists and educators who work collaboratively to explore the historic, cultural, and environmental impacts of so-called public land. They met at the University of Iowa, where they both earned MFAs and began to understand art-making as a form of real discourse. Find the rest of Over Look / Under Foot at and

Katie and Meredith wish to acknowledge the land where this work was made, as the management of these places has happened from time immemorial by the Ute, Southern Paiute, and the Ancestral Pueblo peoples. While these sites are under the control of the National Parks System, it is Indigenous peoples who continue to put necessary pressure on the US government to preserve these spaces.


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