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For every crowded trail and fully booked campground, there is place, somewhere out there, where the only footsteps you’ll hear are your own. When you finally find that spot, you’ll plunk down in your camp chair and let out a deeply satisfied sigh as you take in the landscape around you. It may sound like a dream, especially with more and more people eager to get outside these days, but I can assure you, these places exist, because I just spent six weeks hiking, backpacking and car camping in a few of them.

In early May, I kicked off a 41-day road trip with my friend, Merrell ambassador Nicole Brown. After months of planning, we mapped out an itinerary that would have us exploring nearly a dozen national monuments, along with one lesser-known national park and a few national forests in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Half of the national monuments we visited are currently under review by the federal government to be reduced, so there was definitely a sense of urgency. Because they’re not as heavily trafficked as nearby national parks like Zion and the Grand Canyon, Nicole and I felt as though it was especially important to bring awareness to this issue. We wanted to see the beauty of these places for ourselves, but we also wanted to learn more about them so we could tell a story that matters. A story that others will want to pass along, and one that creates a meaningful dialogue. We chatted with everyone from guides to rangers to waiters to foreign tourists, and we discovered what these towering rock formations, verdant gulches and flowing rivers mean to them.

As much as I appreciate popular and accessible tourist destinations, there is really something to be said for getting off the grid and finding your own adventure. Travel isn’t just about mapping distances, hitting as many scenic viewpoints as possible and getting killer photos. It’s not something you’ll always find via social media or top ten lists on travel websites, either. For me, travel has everything to do with forging a connection to both new and familiar places. Whether you fall in love with the jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains or decide you never want to camp at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in June ever again, it’s all part of the journey.

If you’re doing it right, you’re stopping by ranger stations and learning more about flora and fauna in the region, or you’re having a chat with a local asking them about their favorite places to camp, hike and get a good cup of coffee. And sometimes, you’ll toss your plans out the window and blaze down a dirt road, with no idea where you’re headed, and find that the adventure will come to you. Whether it’s incredible light, a perfect campsite or a fleeting moment with wildlife, the best moments are often the ones we never expect.

After an epic backpacking trip in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Nicole and I made our way to Bluff, Utah and visited the Bears Ears Education Center. Though it was still under construction, a few staffers were happy to meet with us to discuss their mission, and what we, as visitors, can do to better protect Bears Ears National Monument. Setting aside the proposed reductions, the influx of tourists over the last few years has hit the area hard.

There are over 100,000 known Native American historical sites within the monument, and many of the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs have been damaged both by vandalism and visitors who didn’t know any better. Visitors should never climb inside the dwellings or remove artifacts, and sometimes something as simple as metal-tipped hiking poles can cause damage to areas. Not only is the education center a great resource for the rich culture in the area, but when we learn more about how to preserve a sacred space and we share that knowledge with others, it’s an incredibly powerful tool.

I showed my mom the trip itinerary before I left, and when she saw we were visiting Canyon De Chelly National Monument, her eyes lit up. “Oh, you absolutely have to go into the canyon with a Navajo guide,” she told me. “It’s the only way to truly get a feel for the place, and it’s the only way to get into the canyon.” Nicole and I booked a site at Spider Rock Campground, and had a pleasant chat with Howard, the owner, before we tucked into our sleeping bags.

Lucky for us, Howard was free the following day, and we loaded up his ancient but well-maintained Jeep and drove deep into the canyon below. He brought us to the patch of land his family has owned for several generations, he told us about Spider Woman of Spider Rock, and we had a solemn moment at Fortress Rock after learning about the standoff that took place there. We got to know Howard quite well in the nearly 8 hours we spent with him, and we felt comfortable enough to ask him questions about things many American history textbooks tend to leave out these days. When we left, I gave Howard a big hug. He was patient, funny and he reminded me a lot of my dad, and I know I’ll be back to see him someday.

Wherever you are in the world, it’s important to remember that you’re almost always within the boundaries of someone’s backyard. Setting aside politics, it’s important to be respectful of the areas we visit, and that starts on a very basic level. Something as simple as picking up litter or making sure you’re informed about fire restrictions can make a huge difference when it comes to preserving these places. And the more we educate ourselves, the better position we’re in to speak about these things, and engage in discussions with others.

Creating your own trail may take a bit more work, but the reward is in the moments you’ll remember for days, weeks and years afterwards. We encountered gusty winds, flat tires and countless other mishaps on this trip, but we got to see shooting stars and sunsets where the sky truly caught on fire. When we finally hit the road back to California, we were exhausted, sunburnt and filthy, but we left with full hearts and a deeper love for the desert, which can be just as inviting as it is desolate. The American southwest is full of both magic and lessons, and it will always leave you thirsty for more — no matter who you are or where you’re from.

It’s on us to protect and preserve these public lands, so future generations can come and experience this same sense of wonder.

To submit comments to the Bureau of Land Management for Bears Ears National Monument, click here. For Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, click here. The comment period closes on November 15, and also be sure you're registered to vote -- and GO VOTE! If you'd like to learn more about how elected candidates have voted on issues pertaining to outdoor recreation and the environment, the Outdoor Industry Association has launched the Vote The Outdoors campaign, which gives you the full scoop.

This project was proudly produced in partnership with Merrell.

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