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.

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