Running the National Monuments: Behind the Scenes in This Land Documentary

Photos by Michael A. Estrada
“Right around the time that I found myself digging a multitool out of my hydration pack to pull cacti needles out of my ankle while swatting away relentless mosquitoes, I started to doubt the overall point of my adventure.” Faith Briggs

There’s a reason why I was lost near the Escalante River in Escalante, Utah. I was originally supposed to be quite a few miles west, closer to Grosvenor’s Arch, a previously protected area of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. However, flash floods had meant the road was washed out, cars were stuck in the mud and, after consulting with the local outdoor store owners, the idea of overnighting alone in the monument had been scrapped. Despite the rains, I was told about a sixteen-mile trail near the river that should be ‘totally doable’ to start at 3pm and be done running by dark.

Three hours, multiple river crossings, and a few swift water areas later, I had lost the trail and needed to bail as rain and darkness approached. I found myself crawling on my hands and knees in the wet grass under sagebrush while following the sound of the river. I talked to myself out loud to calm down. I counted my breath and followed the canyon wall back to a clearing in the brush and found the river again. I used my Garmin Inreach to tell my camera crew, Chelsea Jolly and Whit Hassett, that I wasn’t going to be meeting them at the pickup point in an hour. I headed back to the trailhead.

How did I get here? I had the same question at that very moment.

Eighteen months earlier, Addie Thompson, my friend and the associate producer on This Land — a documentary film about running, inclusivity and public lands — hatched a project to road trip and trail run through parts of National Monuments that had been threatened to lose protections because of the Trump Administration’s apparent campaign against public land protections. By the time we started running together in the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, Grand Staircase- Escalante had already been reduced in monument status protections by 85%. By that time, the project had also shifted to focus on me, the only one who could dedicate three weeks to being on the road.

Trying to adventure and run 340 miles on foot while balancing day jobs is a monumental task on its own. It’s also a privilege and a delight.

The first stop was Cascade-Siskiyou. Then my all-female film team of Whit Hassett and Chelsea Jolly said our goodbyes to Jen Castillo and Addie, who had joined me for the first 40 miles in Oregon and headed in our borrowed van down to Utah. I would run alone for 60 miles in Utah. The last stop would be Organ-Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico, 40 miles — with Dustin Martin and Jose Gonzales each joining me for a 20-mile day. We had chosen three Monuments under threat of reduction that represented the beauty of our country and different reasons for protection: biodiversity, science and paleontology, and historic cultural artifacts.

How did I get here? I had the same question at that moment too.

I moved from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon in November 2016 and — against all odds — I still live in Portland. My life has moved from an intense focus on road and track running within the city, to trail running and outdoor adventure around the Pacific Northwest. Spending so much time outside with amazing people and sharing their passions is incredible. It also forces me to see not only who is outside playing but also, who is not. As a black woman from New York, it’s strange and often uncomfortable and distressing to not see other black and indigenous people of color on the trails and rivers where I find myself.

On the trail, I have a lot of time to think. I think about representation a lot.

Black women’s representation in media and Caribbean cinema was a focus of my undergraduate double major in Film and African American Studies at Yale. In the time between now and then, I went to journalism school, worked at the Discovery Channel in the documentary department, and moved to Portland to work in marketing. I’ve subsequently worked at two non-profits devoted to diversifying the conservation movement and increasing access to service-oriented travel.

When I asked myself what tools I had at my disposal to forward this conversation in my own way, the answer was: storytelling and my own two feet.

This journey became my response to everything I was learning about public lands. It started out being about miles and ended up being about how to be the invitation for others. This is an ongoing question and goal. I invited people to run with me who have inspired me to share my voice. They are people whose voices and perspectives I admire and learn from constantly. Also, I wanted to see our public lands. I wanted to experience them firsthand and clearly know their importance.

I wanted to see these places myself. I wanted to be responsible for the places that I can be a steward of because I am technically a public landowner.

So, in May 2019, I averaged 20 miles a day and spent each day digging into questions around inclusivity in conservation. It was humbling and stunning. It was hard. Most often it was exhilarating. Sometimes, it was lonely. Regardless of how I was feeling, looking around at the vastness of the landscapes around me was always awe-inspiring. When I wasn’t running, I was carb-loading, planning, and re-planning routes — or sleeping. Over the course of 3 weeks, we kept the budget down by never hitting a hotel and cooking most of our own food. Thankfully, we had NEMO tents and sleeping bags to help with that task. NEMO kits of Hornet™, Astro™ Lite, Azura™ 35°, and Fillo™ were a perfect ultralight setup that held strong over many miles on the trail.

It took us almost two years to make the connections and carve out the time to make the film. I think we were able to do it because we believe so much in the importance of access to public lands and looking at conservation through an equitable and inclusive lens.

The film is eleven minutes long. It’s the beginning of a conversation. I hope it’s one you’ll join us in having.

View THIS LAND documentary.


Faith E. Briggs is a documentary film producer and outdoor enthusiast with a focus on diversity and representation. Both behind and in front of the camera, she works with brands, non-profit organizations, institutions, and individual creatives to create media that is representative of the world we live in — and the better one we are working together to create.