Who is Ralph Becker When He Isn’t Mr. Mayor?

By Sophia Nicholas

River-runner, desert rat and yoga practitioner: the other side of Ralph.
by Sophia Nicholas
I love the edge you get from going through a rapid," Ralph Becker, the mayor of Salt Lake City, tells me on a recent Saturday, as we enjoy the shady respite of City Creek Canyon. It’s hot and dusty in the sun and the creek is making beckoning sounds from below. The sound is not quite a roaring river rapids, but I can use my imagination. We’re here on a coveted weekend to talk about a different side of Ralph Becker: one beyond the Mr. Rogers parody, behind "Blueprint Man," and before Mr. Mayor. Turns out, this Ralph Becker dislikes red meat, enjoys a good ice cream cone, refrains from using an alarm clock, and yes, loves to run rivers.

"In a rapid, you have to be completely focused and you have to pick a good line. You’ve got to read the river well, and then you have to do it. You have to be able and willing to adapt instantaneously because things may not go the way you expected . . . In a rapid, it’s like taking all of your ability-all of your physical and mental ability, and what you’ve learned over time-and applying it."

It’s the essence of a good metaphor, and Becker knows it. It also just happens to be true.

Most of us know that Becker has a stunning list of achievements under his belt: Graduating from the University of Utah with both legal and planning degrees, co-founding his own company, working for Governor Scott Matheson as the Salt Lake City Planning Commissioner, serving as a state legislator and then as minority leader, and now heading up the People’s Republic of Salt Lake as the mayor with the wonky knowledge and diplomatic skills to match his vision for making this a "great American city."

But he also has an equal passion for the outdoors, the wild lands of the western landscapes, and the hours of solitude he has spent enjoying them. He spent summers working for the National Park Service in college, running rivers and exploring red rock canyons. This time in nature ultimately informed his decision to work for the environment. And it’s that same quality of untrammeled solitude that has allowed him to focus his energy, refine his vision, and maintain relative equanimity amid the challenges of a high-powered career.

When I first met him today, he was standing at the mouth of City Creek Canyon, holding his gray mountain bike by the seat, looking relaxed in his outdoor clothes and water-filled hip pack. A man comes skating down the hill in cross-country training skis: "Hey Ralph!" he says and they exchange pleasantries: "Going up? I’d go with you, but I think you’d beat me back down!" Becker shakes his head, "I wouldn’t be so sure about that!"

Becker’s bike, mind you, is a simple hardtail with no suspension, and as we say goodbye to the skater, Becker secures it to a nearby rack with a thin-cabled combination lock. A few more people recognize him along the trail and he smiles back genuinely. "I’m getting used to that," he says. As for his bike, I offer to let him use my U-Lock. "No one would want to steal this," he jokes, "I usually find my bikes at garage sales and ride them to the ground." And he won’t go near a full-suspension. "I’m afraid I’ll like it too much!"

As a kid growing up in the urban area of Washington, D.C., Becker did not have access to the nature and outdoor activities that have defined his life for the three decades he has lived in the West. "I loved doing outdoor sports activities, but my family didn’t go out camping or backpacking or getting on rivers." Those hobbies, such a part of his life now, he learned on his own and by taking the initiative to be self-sufficient.

"I went on an Outward Bound program when I was a senior in high school and that gave me the confidence-level to be able to do anything outdoors and feel comfortable and capable taking care of myself," Becker says as we sit down on a picnic table next to the creek. "But the shift for me was working in the Grand Canyon with the Park Service. I started hiking down there and enjoying being in these natural landscapes and smaller community."

It was also the time that he first began rafting: "I learned from doing it. My first river trip was in the Grand Canyon, which was kind of a wild way to start river running . . . but I got completely enamored with it.

"Then I remember going back to school [in Philadelphia]. I was hitchhiking back and forth, and I remember getting to St. Louis as the first major urban area and just being, I wouldn’t say completely repulsed, but it was like, ‘What am I doing?’ So really from that point forward, I became focused on moving out here." Getting outside and living close to the landscapes where he could river raft, backpack for days, and cross-country ski then became "a central part of my life."

Who would have imagined? Becker hitchhiking and camping through the Southwest? But his story is not unlike those of other people who visit Utah to ski or hike, fall in love with the outdoor setting, and move here permanently. He admits to that and also believes the natural magnetism of our area promotes an environmental ethic in our communities. It’s one reason he loves Salt Lake City so much and invariably comes back to what great resources we have.

Going into urban planning and law, he says, was one of the best ways he could leverage his skills to protect the places he loves and promote a high quality of life for urban centers. "Integral to having a successful community is to have wild places, which we have in Salt Lake City. And we need to protect and preserve them in order to give people the opportunity to enjoy them. You can’t have a wild place and have, ten feet away, an urban world. You need an area that’s big enough so that when you’re out there, you are away and you can find your piece of solitude.

"For me, being able to find solitude in a natural and untrammeled setting, as the Wilderness Act would say, is a critical part of my quality of life, and I think a lot of people are that way. It’s not something that I consciously talk about in my day-to-day world, but when I’m doing stuff in the outdoors with people, it invariably comes up in discussion-just how lucky we are to be able to live in a place like this."

Becker is quick to point out, however, that not everyone gets the same satisfaction from spending time outdoors. He points to the trees and the water and the hummingbird flying above us. "There are some people [for whom nature] is a foreign and uncomfortable place to be. So for people in an urban environment who haven’t been exposed to or developed a skill set to get comfortable in the natural world, this isn’t an ideal environment. And however they get their sense of solitude, strength, spiritual sustenance and willingness or desire to contribute to our community, that’s good by me."

For Becker, however, getting outside was crucial to his well-being, and he learned that early on in his political career. "In the legislature, it was this really intensive 45-day effort and experience for most people. The first couple years I thought I didn’t have time to go out and go skiing on the weekends, and I just concluded that I needed that. I personally needed that. And so I make a practice, every Sunday if possible, unless I’m traveling somewhere and not able to, I’ll get out and go back-country skiing with friends and do that at least one day a weekend."

Besides the time he spends in nature, Becker is an avid exerciser. He manages not only to hit the gym three days a week for intensive cardio training, but also practices his own style of early-morning yoga and strength-training. "Yoga just feels good," he says. "I decided when I got into politics and my days were getting compressed, that I needed to do something that was shorter in duration but still reviving." He worked with a friend of his who teaches yoga and created his own daily routine.

Yoga, he says, gives him not only a great physical workout, but the opportunity to get grounded for the day ahead. "I have always needed solitary time," he says pulling his legs onto the bench. "I used to get a lot more of that, and I’d hike for two or three days at a time alone, as both a way to clear my head and as a time to think about things and let stuff gestate . . . Politics is not conducive [to taking that much time off]."

Now his morning regimen provides that necessary opportunity: "I feel like I need that time to get centered and get my head screwed on. I’m not going to try and attribute a lot of spiritual significance to [the yoga] that I do, but it certainly gives me time for contemplation."

Becker doesn’t use an alarm clock, but manages to get six to seven hours of sleep a night. In the morning, he will work on whatever speeches need writing or other tasks that require a "clear head." After this, he hops on his bike and pedals in to work.

Breakfast, however, often goes by the wayside. "I don’t know that I eat particularly well," Becker says, somewhat sheepishly. "I’m the kind of person who gets up in the morning and then finds it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t eaten. I just don’t pay that much attention, and fortunately for me, I don’t have a body that goes nuts if I don’t eat every two or three hours."

As we start walking again, I ask Becker if he’ll do a yoga pose by the creek for CATALYST. "No," he declines. "That’s just a little too weird for me!" I grant him that. He is the mayor, after all. I abandon my dream of seeing him posed in Warrior One amid the soaring cliffs of Salt Lake City for the next Utah: Life Elevated brochure. In any case, we find a better photo-op, one perhaps more naturally suited to his sensibilities.

Down to the creek we go, sunlight glinting off the leaves, babbling brook coursing over the rocks. Becker, in river sandals, doesn’t hesitate. He steps right in, moving from one moss-covered rock to the next. Before he turns to pose, I imagine him as a younger version of himself, getting onto the Colorado so many years ago, discovering new treasures and adventures through the Grand Canyon.

"There’s just something about being on a river that isn’t equaled in anything else in my outdoor world," he said. "You’re subject to the river, you’re subject to the river’s pace. It’s ever-changing, it’s ever-moving, and you’re part of this flow . . . I’ve never met a river I didn’t like. You drop all of the mechanized, electronic world behind and it’s just you and the people you’re with, the river you’re on, and the landscapes you’re in."

For someone who built up a whole expanse of experiences in the natural and political worlds to further his early commitment to healthy environments and communities, the challenge of running rivers is a natural metaphor. Becker is someone who knows how to dedicate himself to his work, while still maintaining a commitment to his health. He is someone who adapted to the rigors of politics early on; he sets his morning routine, and gets himself out in nature not only to take on new challenges, but in order to be able to. He learned how to direct the best line through the rapids.

Perhaps that’s also what makes Ralph Becker seem so "stable," so "boring" to a city still catching its breath after the rabble-rousing Rocky Anderson. Ralph, it seems, is a pretty normal guy. One who, granted, also happens to be a high-achieving, knowledgeable, diplomatic politician.

So even though he won’t risk doing a yoga pose for me, he smiles from his perch on the river rock. I take some pictures, still thinking about the fact that he’s rafted down the Grand Canyon five times.

He tells me I need to do it. "Get there! It’s a lifetime experience."

Yes. It seems, all those years ago, on a not-so-distant-river, it really was.

Sophia Nicholas loves running up mountains, flying on the Aikido mat, and helping change the future of Utah energy policy with HEAL-Utah, where she works as the development director.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2008.