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Natalie Gochnour: After all these years, Utah is still the right place

I love July in Utah because of the twin holidays of nationhood and statehood. We celebrate our independence as a country and our pioneering history as a state. The long summer days and two large parades provide a chance to reflect upon what it means to be an American and a Utahn.

I’m a fifth-generation American and Utahn. My great-great-grandfather — Howard Egan — emigrated from Tullamore, Ireland to Canada, became an orphan at age 13, found work in Salem, Massachusetts as a rope maker, converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made the long trek West to help establish the Salt Lake Valley and later planned and rode in the Pony Express.

Many Utahns have a similar immigrant and pioneer heritage. Those who don’t have other rich and meaningful stories about their journey to the interior western United States, which we all call home.

Stories from our past unite us in unique and interesting ways. Nine American presidents trace their ancestry to the Mayflower and a mathematically improbable 25% of Americans claim they descended from the pilgrims. LDS prophets Joseph Smith and Gordon B. Hinckley both have ancestral roots traced to the Mayflower. We share as Americans and Utahns common bonds of ancestry, geography and, to a great extent, core beliefs.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to characterize the essence of an entire nation or state in a few words or a phrase. Our nation’s founders perhaps did it best when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal.” As Americans we revel in freedom, equality, and the pursuit of the good life, even though at times we fall short.

I’m not aware of an equivalent statement for Utah, but I can think of common characteristics and bonds, as well as places where we fall short.

Utahns share an extraordinary heritage of grit, hard work, human kindness and love for life. Our past instills in us many gifts — faith awareness, brotherly love, a can-do spirit, family orientation, a penchant for planning, cooperation, a love for the arts, lifelong learning, an appreciation of nature, global sensibilities and many more. We are a remarkable collection of people with an expansive and self-sacrificing past.

Utah’s natural environment also binds us together as westerners and people who live near our beloved mountains, deserts and red rock. Few landscapes in the world match the majesty and variety found here. The Middle Rocky Mountains of the Wasatch and Uinta feature spectacular forests, mountainous terrain, alluvial basins and glacial lakes and moraines. The Basin and Range region features the West Desert, an inland salty sea, and desert mountain ranges. And then we have the spectacular geological formations of the Colorado Plateau — Utah’s red rock — with its sculpted plateaus, buttes, mesas, river gorges and slot canyons. We are a people tied to a land so stunning, so varied and so close it lives within us all.

Utah’s emerging diversity brings new possibilities and a promising future. We are a new Utah and we embrace the vitality, variety and vigor it brings. Our population is large, growing, diversifying and urbanizing. We love our refugee population and welcome new people (aka The Utah Compact). Approximately 100,000 new Utahns moved here in the past five years. We embrace an exciting future.

Finally, Utah, like our nation, has shortcomings. We fall short of our aspirations. At our worst we can be insular, self-righteous and exclusionary. At our best we are self-aware, open-minded and approach the outside world and the future with a fair dose of humility paired with our confidence and optimism.

It’s Pioneer Day this week. Take time to consider our role as Americans and shared past, core beliefs and common destiny as Utahns. We share the common denominator of choosing Utah as our home. Let’s honor our history, celebrate the present, and build a bright future. Utah is still the right place!