A teenager fell off a Utah cliff to his death. His sister found a unique way to keep his memory alive

The memory of 19-year-old Jonathan Fielding lives on in messages written to him by strangers visiting the Utah landscape he loved.

The memory of 19-year-old Jonathan Fielding lives on in messages written to him by strangers visiting the Utah landscape he loved. (Jonathan Fielding via CNN)

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CAPITOL REEF — Two days after Jonathan Fielding fell to his death while taking photos from a scenic overlook in southern Utah, his older sister Rebecca found herself sitting on the same ledge where he had lost his footing.

It was Jan. 29. She had driven some 15 hours from her home in Missouri, where they had grown up.

Wracked with grief, Rebecca Fielding said she was in a "really dark place." Jonathan was her best friend, and while she sometimes doubted others' love for her, she never questioned his. She said she'd journeyed to Utah to take her own life.

Rebecca said she was planning to leave a journal at the site with her last words when the clouds parted and sunlight embraced her.

"I felt the sun on my back, and it felt like someone was giving me a hug," Rebecca said. "And in that moment, things just felt the teeniest bit better, and it didn't feel as much like the end of the world."

So, Rebecca left the leather-bound journal and a pen with a note about her brother explaining "what the world lost" with him gone. She also left a bag of Takis chips, a Spiderman plushie she had bought at a gas station and some tiny plastic babies — an inside joke between her and her family.

She then drove back to Missouri — with no expectations for what was to come.

"My goal was just to tell people what happened … It bothered me that my entire world had imploded at that spot and no one visiting would have any idea," she told CNN. "I never expected strangers to feel so connected to a dead person they never heard of."

A 'Grand Canyon sized mark on the world'

Jonathan Fielding had moved to Orem, Utah, about six months before his death. Originally from Blue Springs, Missouri, he loved photography and exploring nature. So the red-rock landscape of southern Utah was an ideal place for him to spend time while on breaks from his sales job.

On Jan. 27, Jonathan and several friends were visiting Moonscape Overlook, a remote ridge east of Capitol Reef National Park that offers panoramic views of the surrounding desert. Jonathan was taking photos when a cliff he stepped on crumbled and he fell more than 200 feet to his death.

He was 19.

Rebecca said that while Jonathan was passionate about photography, he didn't share his photos much with her. She didn't discover his new photography website until after his death. Parts of the site remain unfinished.

After his death Rebecca looked through her brother's cameras and found photos Jonathan had taken the day he fell. They include striking images from the Moonscape Overlook, its otherworldly vistas illuminated by the afternoon sun.

"Jonathan saw beauty everywhere he went," she wrote in a TikTok post. "While he might not be the subject of the photos he took just moments before his death, he is in every one of them."

Rebecca said she grew up gay in a religious environment and lives with autism and depression. For her, Jonathan was the only person she was comfortable letting see her at her "absolute worst," and that "he never once judged me for it."

In her grief, Rebecca left a note in the journal she left at the site of her brother's fall:

"Jonathan Fielding 5/5/2004 - 1/27/24, a soul too pure for this world, a kid too fearless for his own good, a friend whose kindness knew no bounds," she wrote on the first page, "A son who could never disappoint, a brother whose love knew no limit. A person who left a Grand Canyon sized mark on this world."

The journal received a few entries from strangers, but it soon became too weathered to survive the desert elements.

So Rebecca returned to Utah in April and replaced the journal with a sturdier and "more waterproof" one, along with an account of what had happened to her brother and a new pen. This time she added, "I love you Bro. And thank you for loving me."

Tammy Mayo Fielding, Rebecca and Jonathan's mother, also left a note in the journal.

Two months later, on June 12, hiker Sherrie Joyce Miller was taking a drive along Utah's Highway 24 with her close friend Kelli Hansen when they pulled over at their favorite swimming hole by the Dirty Devil River.

Miller, who prefers to be known as Sherr Joy, told CNN that after she got out of the car with her dog Bandit, she noticed a black notebook under a rock near a tree.

It turned out to be the journal Rebecca had left in April. Sherr Joy recognized the name and the description from having read the news about Jonathan's death. "I realized it was something precious, "she said.

Captivated, she put the journal in a gallon bag and tucked it back under a rock, then left a note of her own, signed with her nickname, "Sharki."

Rebecca Fielding had also visited Utah again in June but had not been able to locate the journal or read any of the new entries in it. On that trip she had even left a third journal in a waterproof container with a photo album near the spot of Jonathan's death, thinking the previous one had been lost.

It turns out the April journal had been picked up from Jonathan's resting place at the end of Moon Overlook Road and left near Highway 24 by someone who identified themselves only as "a nomad" who believed it to be a "random notebook left by a tourist."

"It was only after reaching this spot did I carefully read its pages," the nomad wrote in the journal on June 1. "Perhaps Jonathan wanted to have one last adventure. What a most magical spot he chose."

By then, other strangers had already left notes in the journal. One entry was from someone visiting from The Netherlands.

After messaging Rebecca through Facebook, Sherr Joy and Hansen helped her devise a plan to make the journal a place where Jonathan's memory could live on.

"I reached out to Rebecca as one human being to another, I thought the family might want the journal returned to where it started," Sherr Joy said. "I believe grief manifests into love when we as human beings embrace each other with kindness whether we personally knew someone or not."

Strangers began leaving messages to honor Jonathan

A public Facebook group, "Jonathan Fielding's Journal Journey" was born two days later. The page asks travelers to update the journal before passing it along to the next person who finds it.

Joy went back to Highway 24 and left a photo of Jonathan, along with a description of the journal project on the back, so future passersby would have context.

"If you find this book, please take it to a new location and leave it for the next traveler," she wrote on a laminated piece of paper. "His sister, Rebecca Fielding started a Facebook page to track his journal. Please post a picture so his family may track the journey."

Rebecca also made a TikTok video on June 14 to share the entries made in the journal before Sherr Joy's discovery. She set the TikTok to the song "Not Dead Yet," by Lord Huron, Jonathan's favorite band, and added a message in the last slide: "As long as one person remembers who he was, he will never fully die."

The video shows some of the comments left in the journal.

"Jonathan, we did not know you…" wrote two travelers who identified themselves as David W. and James H. "We do know this: you took your last breaths at this sublime, heavenly place. And that, like your life, has to mean something."

Another entry, signed by the nomad, read: "Jonathan … may you enjoy some time here listening to the water and resting under this tree."

Others left items in the journal, like feathers and leaves.

Rebecca said that she left the journal for Jonathan — but also for a small part of herself. It was a cry for help, she said.

"I wanted to be seen, pretty much. I wanted my grief and pain to be seen because I have a big family. It felt like people were looking at me, but they weren't seeing me and seeing what I was going through," she said. "(I was) just feeling like an outsider and just feeling so alone because Jonathan was my person… I just didn't want to be alone anymore."

The power of human connection in the face of tragedy

For Rebecca Fielding, the journal project happened somewhat by accident. But the love she felt from her brother, she says, was nothing but intentional. He was a "ball of light."

She said she feels like "nothing I do will ever be good enough to make up for what happened … It's super cliche, but grief is just love with nowhere to go … This love I have for him; I don't really have anywhere else to put it."

Even so, she's been deeply moved by how the journal idea has grown into "this huge, amazing thing" that has affected others who have heard Jonathan's story.

"And I think that's just so fitting for who Jonathan was and is such a good way to remember him, because it was just the little things he did in life that made a huge impact on people."

According to Rebecca, Jonathan once spent 30 minutes disassembling a lamp in a stranger's yard to free a bird trapped inside. Another time, he and Rebecca were exploring the Utah desert together when Rebecca started having anxiety about whether Jonathan was enjoying himself.

"The entire time, I kept asking him, 'Hey, is this something you like doing? Do you want to do this instead?'" she recalled. "Eventually, he was just like, 'Rebecca, I don't care what I'm doing. I'm just happy to be spending time with you.'"

Rebecca said receiving the journal entries from Sherr Joy was "incredible" and lifted her spirits.

"When (she) sent those messages, I was just blown away by the things that people had written in them because they were absolutely beautiful and just so touching," she said. "I'll never meet these people (and) I'll never know a lot of their names, but they just really left a mark on my soul."

For Sherr Joy, finding Rebecca's journal gave her hope for "how we can make this world a better place." She believes "it only takes one gesture or act of kindness to create a ripple of good energy."

Now the public group has over 900 members, and anyone can use it to track the journal's progress and location. Rebecca says she's keeping her "fingers crossed" that the journal receives more entries soon.

Rebecca said Jonathan also wrote in journals. After he died she and their mother found a passage in one of them, which Rebecca read to CNN.

"Why am I proud of myself? I don't quit. I'm focused on getting better every day," Jonathan had written. "I take care of others around me. I motivate everyone around me. What does growth require? Patience and forgiveness."

Jonathan would have turned 20 last month.

Now, his spirit lives on in the desert landscape that he loved so much, thanks to strangers who are touched and inspired by his story — and to his devoted sister, who wants him never to be forgotten.

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