Finding truth in the desert

My semester learning and living on the Colorado Plateau

Cake for breakfast, five espresso shots, Ira Glass’ voice and midday naps.

This is what I craved upon emergence from the backcountry after two months. After tending to these adventitious desires, I gathered my rather satiated self and began to reflect on the events of the past nine weeks.  

As fall had settled into my home in the Montana Rockies, I chased the waning summer south to Green River, Utah, where I began my semester with the Missoula-based Wild Rockies Field Institute. The concept of place-based learning was one that intrigued me, but it would soon become apparent how much my trio of mind, body and soul craved exactly what my WRFI experience provided to me. 

The desert of the American Southwest was always a dear landscape to me; As a child, my parents, driven by their passion for inhabiting wild places, would tow my younger brother and I south on I-15 to interrupt our high-altitude norm with adventures through deep red rock canyons. When I was presented with the opportunity to study this unique setting through the lens of topics such as land management, geography, geology and indigenous studies, I bought a sun shirt and applied. 

Moving from “classroom” to “classroom” on the Green River. The first section of my WRFI semester was spent in Labyrinth Canyon studying water management, botany and biodiversity among other topics. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

WRFI is unique in many ways, one of which being its setting. The classroom changed on a daily basis, as a component of the semester was traveling and living in the backcountry. This began on the Green River, where I eased into a new way of life cruising down slow late season water in tandem canoes. This was a great way to get to know each of my seven other classmates. After a week on the river, we laced up our boots and set out for a more physically demanding approach. 

My WFRI peer, Phia (right) and I enjoying instant coffee before a morning class at the boundary of Dark Canyon Wilderness and BLM land. PHOTO BY ELIZA DONAHUE

Our first day backpacking, we entered into the Dark Canyon Wilderness, a region formerly encapsulated in the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument designated by Obama in 2016 and reduced in size by Trump just shy of a year later. Our packs were 50-plus pounds, and our feet were soft after the plush week on the lazy river. The first stretch was a mere five miles, but our group struggled to find a comfortable rhythm. A few students had never backpacked before, and it took a few tries to adjust packs before they finally joined the rest of us in the conclusion that carrying life on your back is inescapably awkward and sometimes painful. Despite the initial challenges, we fumbled into a reliable groove. By our third day, we moved like a well-oiled machine through our routine of boiling breakfast water, packing, hiking and settling in for the evening at a new camp. Throughout the entire semester, our boots carried us through Dark Canyon, the Dirty Devil River (yes, through the river) and Horseshoe Canyon.

Just as we were not limited to four walls, classes were not limited to a Monday through Friday schedule. Depending on the weather, energy and a number of other factors, our two instructors would gather my peers and I either before or after a day of hiking for a daily discussion-based class informed by reading materials we were individually responsible for covering prior. With a small and enthusiastic group, our discussions were vibrant and constructive. 

Throughout the course, we discussed the importance of observation. On a solo hike up Cherry Canyon, I practiced my naturalist skills. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER
Eliza observes a rare find: a potsherd, possibly a remnant left behind by a group of Ancestral Puebloans. NOTE: This potsherd was left where it was found. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

The beauty of place-based learning is that readings, lessons and classes are immediately applied. One day, after a morning class, we packed up our gear, helped each other hoist packs into position and headed out on the trail. That morning we had discussed the different types of land management and use. Our trail weaved in and out of Wilderness and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, and as we hiked, we made verbal note of the clear and present juxtaposition of the less-disturbed Wilderness side of the fence, which was devoid of the cow patties and hoof prints that littered the BLM side. Classes often informally bled throughout the day, and even most nights as we laid in a row of sleeping bag bundles under the stars, debating, lamenting and celebrating the day’s topics. 

Lucy (left), Eliza (center) and I observe tafoni, a surreal-esque feature often found in Wingate Sandstone. PHOTO BY EVA CHRIST

.In the middle of the semester, we were privileged to have been hosted by members of the Hopi and Diné (Navajo) tribes in their homes on indigenous land. In Montana, I grew up only a few hours from various indigenous nations and regrettably knew very little about them and the ramifications of a history of genocide and systematic racism that embattle Native Americans on a daily basis. During this time, my peers and I were forced to confront alarming and sickening truths, leaving us with a still shallow awareness of major injustices that occur in our country, many that we even play a role in– and awareness I now seek to deepen in my everyday life.

Exploring slot canyons during a lunch break. My semester with WRFI was academically rigorous, but there was plenty of room for fun and exploration. PHOTO BY PHIA SWART

From these indigenous studies to land degradation to climate change, my brief two months studying with WRFI gifted me a perspective that shed new light on much of the life I’ve already lived but more importantly illuminated the life I hope to live yet. 

Siena (left), Eliza (right) and I probe for quicksand while traveling through and along the Dirty Devil River, a salty tributary to the Colorado. This particular section was 12 days in the backcountry studying geology, climate change and policy among other things. PHOTO BY EVA CHRIST
During our frontcountry section, we visited the Black Mesa Water Coalition on the Diné nation. BMWC shared with us their important work on energy and climate justice. Locally, they work to establish sustainable agricultural practices that combine their traditional knowledge with new innovation. PHOTO BY KATIE NELSON
A late afternoon scene from the property of Tommy Rock, a Diné man who kindly hosted our group for a few days. We were privileged to have the opportunity to learn from Tommy, who earned a PhD studying uranium water contamination on indigenous land. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER, SHARED WITH PERMISSION FROM TOMMY ROCK

On our last day in the backcountry, we emerged from a canyon that had been home for two weeks. As we traversed and climbed the crumbly cliffs and slopes that served as our exit ramp, I frequently looked back over my shoulder, begging myself not to forget any detail of the place I was leaving behind. Finally, we reached the top. Joe, one of our instructors for that section, offered us a parting gift; his last nugget of wisdom to echo off of the stoic red sandstone that had come to feel like a friend. He told us we were about to leave behind a place that had both sheltered and challenged us, that had fostered our growth and forged our bonds for two months. Between the daily pursuits of covering miles, studying and taking care of ourselves and others, there had been little time to look backward or forward– life in the backcountry is inarguably lived in each present moment.

The “real world,” where our smartphones, 24-hour news cycles, friends, family and distractions awaited us, existing in the moment was a hard thing to achieve. We had spent a series of weeks submitting ourselves to a process of growth and self-improvement, and what lay beyond the trailhead threatened all of that. Joe challenged us to consciously consider the people we had become, the people we wanted to continue to be; the characteristics we hoped would live on in us and the ones we preferred to leave behind. 

We took a few moments, breathed in a collective breath and called our wandering desert selves back in. 

Life post-WRFI is an unpredictable blend of grounding and chaos, and always nostalgia. The takeaways I carried with me out of the canyon country give me clarity in many ways but also remind me to question my surroundings, to be curious and brave and to challenge the status quo when change is in order. 

A bittersweet moment at the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, where we celebrated and mourned the end of our time in the backcountry. PHOTO BY SIENA HESTER

Nights nowadays, I close my eyes as the heater hums in the corner of my room and place myself back in the desert, where nights were spent buried in synthetic down and fleece layers. I imagine I can still hear the lullaby rhythm of seven sets of lungs breathing in crisp desert air around me and see the soft light of twinkling stars through my closed eyelids. I picture this until I fall asleep to dreams of red dirt and slickrock, and the truths I found in those places and the courage I cultivated that allows me to share the story with others. I know that one day I will return to this magical landscape, but for now I’ll remain in its trance, abiding by its teachings and honoring its gifts through reciprocity and gratitude.

*To conclude my WRFI semester, I wrote a paper that weaved together concepts from the course with my personal experience. Follow this link to read it.

A Semester in Central Asia

Bride-kidnapping, dining on horse meat, bribes, corruption, a city-wide heating failure in January, stray dogs, the worst air quality in the world… all points of interest that were revealed to me as I researched my host country after enrolling in the Russian language and Central Asian studies program for my out-of-classroom experience.

I was first drawn to Kyrgyzstan for its mountainous terrain and beautiful scenery. After Russian influence and Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan is a great place to practice Russian. With a population of 6.2 million, this small Central Asian country holds over 80 different ethnic groups, perfect for my global theme of Politics and Culture, and my challenge: exploring multiculturalism in Kyrgyzstan and how it influences the political and cultural activity of the region.

Identity in Kyrgyzstan is fascinating. In the capital city Bishkek, where I lived, demographics were flipped after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyz people comprised only 12% of the population; 80% were ethnic Russians. After Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, steady gains have made Kyrgyz 66% of the population and Russian less than 20%. Russian remains the lingua franca and dominant in the city.

I had several opportunities to visit rural Kyrgyzstan, significantly less affluent and more conservative than the city. Islam re-emerged as the dominant faith after the Soviet Union repressed religion for most of the 20th century. Kyrgyz people are also incredibly proud of their nomadic heritage. Some of these traditions are in direct conflict with Islamic practices, convoluting the religious aspect of Kyrgyz culture, already balancing Russian influences.

As a new, democratic nation located between two global superpowers (Russia and China) vying for influence in the region, Kyrgyz politics offers a unique vantage point for international relations and foreign policy playing out on an international scale. Ethnic conflicts at borders and recent revolutions to promote democracy are important topics of national politics, revealing the role identity plays in Kyrgyz culture and politics. The SRAS program included a month-long stay with a host family and many opportunities to engage with locals in their language, which created opportunity to understand differences in culture and there were a lot.

Yes, I ate horse (once), and felt lucky to experience Kyrgyz hospitality. No, I was never in danger of being kidnapped to be a bride but several of my teachers shared personal stories of misfortune and dissatisfaction with arranged marriages, prompting discussion of women’s societal expectations. I pitied the “no-touch dogs” locals ignored. I often had to defiantly argue (in poor Russian) my way out of unfair “extra fees” made up by scheming taxi drivers but could appreciate that the fare was already so low.

There was the one time I was memorably stranded visa-less with my fellow students for four hours on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the latter being an authoritarian dictatorship. An oversight between our school and tour company left us without visas, a guide, and a way to contact anyone. After pleading with border guards and friendly locals who were crossing that let us use their cell phones, we got a hold of the right people and were sent safely back to Bishkek.

These experiences had me practicing patience, flexibility, and receptiveness, all necessary for understanding Central Asian cultural dynamics and valuing my own. I’ve returned to the United States with a much broader perspective, very glad I put myself out a little bit further into the world and in a place so incredibly different from my comfort zone.

hiking in Ala Archa National Park

A Semester Across the Pond

I spent last fall semester studying at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England. I study Health and Human Performance with a concentration in Exercise Science so for my global theme I chose to look at the obesity epidemic. In Preston, I was able to take classes to study this further through their school of Sport and Wellbeing. This was an incredible opportunity to see another culture’s approach to health and wellness firsthand. Following graduation, I plan on continuing my education to become a physical therapist. This is a career that involves constant interaction with people and building relationships with them. Study abroad was the perfect opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate with people from all over the world with vastly different backgrounds. Quality health care is important throughout the world and taking time to learn another culture’s approach to global problems will influence the rest of my career. My time abroad helped show me how important globalization and integration between people are, especially in today’s world.

In addition to taking classes, I was also able to play soccer for the University. Being on the team allowed me to gain a different perspective on the culture’s approach to health and wellbeing. I was able to meet many people through this experience, many of whom were also pursuing careers in health care. I learned so much about the culture through the conversations with my teammates which will greatly shape my future career. I was able to travel throughout North England with the team for games which allowed me to see parts of the country which I never would were I there for vacation.

I am incredibly thankful to have had such an amazing opportunity to learn about the culture in England as well as travel throughout Europe. I learned more about myself and how to navigate new situations while gaining experiences that cannot be learned in a classroom. It wasn’t always easy but the people I met along the way and this unique experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.