PBS’ “America Outdoors with Bartunde Thurston” spends an hour in Utah on Wednesday, sharing stories from the Beehive State with the nation. And more than a few spectacular bits of scenery.
The episode opens with the host paragliding at Point of the Mountain, and he’s very excited. “Oh, wow!” Thurston yells, laughing with joy. “Up here, you feel the wind. The exhilaration of floating on currents of air. What an amazing way to encounter Utah.” Although, he readily admits, it “pushed my comfort level. … I’m just not in the habit of walking off of cliffs.”
And yet he’s a good sport about it. Thurston — a “writer, activist and sometimes comedian” — is sort of an Everyman representing the viewer, and his considerable charm makes that work. Even when he pontificates.
“For centuries, Utah has been a land of pilgrimage attracting people in search of transformation — spiritual, mental, or physical,” he says. “Like the Mormons who crossed the country to settle here almost 200 years ago; the Diné, who arrived centuries before; and the many adventurous souls who flock here today, they were drawn by something special about this land. I’m here to find out exactly what that is.”
(”America Outdoors” airs Wednesday at 7 p.m. on PBS Utah-Channel 7.)
Not your typical outdoor show
“America Outdoors” is indeed about the outdoors, but it is far from your typical camping/hunting/fishing show.
“We could have done a whole show just about leisure time and outdoors and lawn chairs and barbecue and all that,” Thurston said in a teleconference with journalists. “And that’s fun, but that’s not the whole story. What makes me the proudest of this show is that we are showcasing people who have a relationship with nature, who normally aren’t positioned as such.”
There’s no camping, hunting or fishing in Wednesday’s Utah episode. But it’s filled with people who have some sort of love for and relationship with the state’s outdoor grandeur.
“This is a show about people and their connection to the outdoors, to nature, and through that to each other,” Thurston told TV critics.
The Not-So-Great Salt Lake
Thurston visits the Great Salt Lake, where “the view is gorgeous, but the reality is sobering” because the lake “has been steadily shrinking for the last 40 years.”
He meets Ben Abbott, professor of environmental science, who’s not identified as a member of the Brigham Young University faculty, although he does say he’s a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“His devotion to restoring the Great Salt Lake isn’t just about ecology, it’s personal,” Thurston said. “That’s because he sees a powerful connection between his scientific work and his religious faith.”
Thurston is startled when Abbott tells him that the lake has lost 75% of its water, exposing 800 square miles of former lakebed. “It’s eerie to be cycling on ground that used to be under water. But here’s something eerier — if the lake recedes further, exposing a lakebed filled with toxins like mercury and arsenic, the air around us could become dangerous to breathe.”
He points to the Utah State Legislature allocating $500 million for water conservation efforts. “But looking at the lake now,” Abbott says, “I wonder if it’s too little too late.”
The rest of the story
That’s just the first of an eclectic mix of segments that fill out the hour:
• He travels to the Bonneville Salt Flats with Navajo photographer Euge Tapahe, who shoots an installment of his jingle dress project. The photographer’s two daughters and two of their friends dance in jingle dresses, representing the four worlds of the Navajo creation story “to foster healing in native communities,” Tapahe says.
• He goes biking in Corner Canyon with journalist/photographer Louis Arevola, who was left paralyzed from the chest down after a 2020 skiing accident, and Stacy Bare, an Iraq War veteran and fellow outdoor adventurer, who — suffering from PTSD — admits he contemplated ending his own life until he was healed by spending time in the great outdoors.
(There’s a warning at the beginning of the hour that this episode includes “discussions of suicide,” and that “viewer discretion is advised.”)
• He wanders through Red Butte Garden wearing “a sci-fi swimming cap” on his head — a cap that holds electrodes measuring his brain activity. It’s part of a study by University of Utah researcher Amy McDonald, who studies the effect of nature on the brain.
“Can nature help repair your mind and body? ... I’ve been wondering about this a lot since I got to Utah, Thurston said. “And that’s how I came to find myself in a beautiful garden with electrodes pasted all over my head.”
• He goes rock climbing in Big Cottonwood Canyon with Utah native Nikki Smith, a “photographer, writer and rock-climbing legend.” She teaches Thurston to climb — and tells him how difficult it is to be transgender in Utah. “I grew up Mormon here in Utah, and [being transgender] was evil.” She, too, says she contemplated suicide. “I don’t think I would be alive if it wasn’t for the outdoors.”
(Thurston told TV critics he counted rock climbing as among the “more treacherous” things he’s done on the show — more than the alligators in Florida; less than climbing an 80-foot tree in Oregon. “It’s a very, very physical show,” he said.)
• He meets with the Polynesian members of the Utah Warriors professional rugby team. It’s an interesting segment, although it doesn’t really seem to fit the show — even though Thurston says the game “is something they do in the outdoors.” But it is distinctly Utah: “Many of the Utah warriors are of Pacific Islander descent, and many Pacific Islanders are Mormon,” he says. “Their religion brought them to Utah.”
All of the segments are part of his search for “a deeper connection” with the outdoors, Thurston said in the conference call. “You got to have fun, right?”
Right. Mission accomplished on both fronts.
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