About one year ago, Emily Henkel experienced tragedy when her partner passed away from an accident in Death Valley National Park. This blog is Emily's own words, recounting the events that occurred since she met Alexander Lofgren.
It has been a year and a half since April 2021 when I saw the world shatter before my eyes, and I said my last “I love you’s” to my best friend. No part of me wanted to accept the possibility of losing the love of my life. I ran my fingers across his forehead and through his dark curly head of hair as he took his last breaths, succumbing to the injuries he sustained falling from a 70’ cliff into an impassable canyon. We were two needles in a desolate 3.4 million acre haystack, and my future looked no less grim than the horrors I had already experienced during the last couple of hours in Death Valley National Park.
A year and a half with an emptiness in my soul the size of the universe unknown.
A year and a half of an inconceivable battle I never expected to have to fight alone.
An entire year and a half later, I continue to find new ways to survive with every passing day.
When I spent those harrowing six days lying in a bed of sharp granite rocks on a desolate cliffside in Death Valley National Park with Alex by my side, I could have never even imagined what might be in store for me if, and when, I was rescued. I found it impossible to imagine anything but misery, despair, and unfathomable sadness. I still have many days where I feel all those things because complex emotions are the quintessence of human existence. But one of the most insane and unexpected things I’ve learned so far is that our minds and bodies are capable of such amazing things even when we don’t think we can take another breath, walk another step, or wake up one more day. We all have a place in this world, even when it doesn’t feel that way; we all have an underlying purpose that motivates us each day. In fact, Alex taught me that.
I moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 2018 after spending the first 24 years of my life in the comfortable hometown confines of Cincinnati, Ohio, for a one-year volunteer commitment through the AmeriCorps VISTA program. I was placed with a nonprofit organization that worked to provide education and resources to employers across the state of Arizona to better serve our nation’s Veterans.
Through this organization, I met Alex. He was a case worker on a crisis line helping Veterans in immediate need at the time. He grew up as an “Army brat” (his dad, Joe, is a retired Colonel in the Army), served as a Combat Engineer in the Army, deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 for a year, and was medically discharged after four years of honorable service.
Alex was incredibly passionate about everything he did, especially when it came to helping Veterans on a local, state, and eventually federal level. Our next move was supposed to be to Washington, D.C., so he could live out his dreams and make some big moves while I found my niche continuing nonprofit work. I always thought he was precisely the missing piece they needed to get things done among the decision makers, with his stubborn and strong-willed attitude ready to tackle any challenge presented before him. He had a flight scheduled to D.C. two weeks after our Death Valley trip for that exact reason - to meet those that would mentor him; the world his oyster. Not being able to see what accomplishments he would have made will forever remain on my extensive list of “what if’s.”
Alex’s livelihood was making sure every Veteran lived the life they deserve by whatever means he could provide. I feel an overwhelming calling to make sure his efforts never end, though I will never be able to match the passion and purpose he held in his heart. He gathered much of his motivation by traveling and going on adventures with our little family of five - the two of us and our three amazing dogs - seeing firsthand what kind of surreal healing powers nature holds deep in its roots. I will always see the way Alex’s eyes lit up when we got to stamp our touristy passport books indicating another National Park checked off our list; The awe we experienced together witnessing a prairie flatland open up to an unexpected hundreds-foot deep canyon carved by the river running through it in Colorado; The admiration in his eyes watching me experience Yosemite’s Tunnel View lookout for the first time where El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall rises from Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome in the background. The euphoria I could feel exhuming out of my best friend was enough to give anyone hope that there’s something better and greater out there worth looking for.
Alex was living proof that embodiment creates change, and embodiment.
Nature is healing. The outdoors are home.
The craziest and best part about being individual humans with unique personalities, unique surroundings, and unique abilities is we all have the capacity to create the life we desire most. We have the ability to overcome the hardest circumstances we don’t ever think we can come out of alone. Our bodies have this innate ability to do what they need to get us through hardships, tragedies, and disasters. Maybe not unscathed, but we get through.
Living through something I shouldn’t have has brought on a type of introspection I never knew was possible. I might have thought life would be downright impossible once I got out of that canyon without Alex. Still, as it turns out, the power of community and the power of resilience can do some incredible things to ensure I take that much needed breath, walk that labored step, and fight hard for another day - even through the excruciating pain and heartbreak that comes along with it.
Latching on to purpose and hope is a vital component to fueling the continued survival. It is an overtly conscious decision to wake up every day and choose to find joy and happiness when it all had been seemingly stolen from me.
Not long after April 4, 2021, I learned of the efforts from the office of Congressman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona’s third district, where Alex was employed as a Wounded Warrior Fellow advocating for Veterans, that the Alexander Lofgren Veterans in Parks (VIP) Act was in the works. If signed into law, this act would allow all service members, Veterans, and Gold Star families into our National Parks and lands for free, for life with their own America the Beautiful pass. After many anxious months of waiting, the VIP Act went from a standalone bill to an amendment of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. It was officially signed into law on December 27, 2021 - only eight months after his tragic passing.
I might never fully know why I made it out alive, but Alex’s Act and the Veterans in Parks initiative is the best I’ve got. I continually dig deep into my soul and the universe around me to find my purpose, but knowing I have the mental fortitude and encouragement from my guardian angel to keep me going makes it a little bit easier. Things have, in a very strange way, come full circle in the last few years of my life. Purpose has come out of the darkest and loneliest of places.
If he can’t be here with us, this is the next best thing: for his name to always and forever be associated with giving Veterans and their families free access to the very thing that helped him most and that he loved most in the world: traveling. The outdoors. Nature. National Parks and lands.
Telling my and Alex’s story brings me closer to finding the purpose I need to live in such a way that continues to bring me joy without ever forgetting the impact that Alex made on not only my life, but hundreds of others. Life is far too fragile and meant to be lived to the fullest. That’s what Alex and I did together, and that’s what I will continue to do for the both of us.
Nothing about my life makes sense. I just know that after what I have experienced in the last year and a half, I’ve got this. As a collective community that relies on one another to survive, we’ve got this.
I've got a place in the world
And I found my way
Out in the night all alone
Send me to the mountains
Let me go free forever
I'll be running through the forest
Dancing in the fields like this forever