Almost two weeks worth of food and gear descend onto my shoulders in what I know is the largest backpack I have ever carried. I turn around and blindly splash into the water, quickly sinking over my ankles in mud. “Yeehaw!” I hear from behind and grinning wildly, I slosh forward.
The Dirty Devil River carves its way through southern Utah between Wayne and Garfield Counties. Aptly named for its turbid color, it’s not the first thing to go in a travel guide. Among WRFI students and instructors, it has a mysteriously rugged reputation. Nonetheless, it would prove to be the perfect place for our group to test our physical, intellectual and emotional limits between ancient walls of the Colorado Plateau.
Hours later, songs and laughter echo around us and I’m wondering how much this towering backpack really weighs. My conclusion: enough to make me sink deeper into the quicksand. Putting weight on my opposite leg and now bent hiking pole, I ever so slowly pull my foot, now in a mud boot, out of the depths of the Devil.
The seven of us were truly adventuring now, with map, compass and the instructors’ knowledge as our guides, we charged forward into the unique conditions of the canyon. Despite the bush swimming, mud walking and screedling across slickrock, our group moved with the energy of some highly caffeinated turtles.
Walking in the water gave me a lot of time to process previous adventures, readings and guest speakers. Just a few days earlier, we visited Randy Ramsley, owner and operator of Mesa Farm Market. For hours he and the farm flooded us with stories, advice, coffee, bread and cheese. By the end I thought I might burst. But walking through the river reminded me of the “one last thing” he told us: that there are five centers of energy that are important to keep balanced, the emotional, physical, intellectual, creative and instinctive. It’s easier said than done. Randy said that’s because each draws energy from the others and an imbalance yields dissatisfaction. One of the reasons I am so passionate about outdoor education, is that it has the capacity to incorporate all of the strengths and energies that make up an individual.
The contrast of “zoom university” to the Wild Rockies Field Institute is something I needed more than I knew. WRFI’s educational model is something I feel so fortunate to be a part of. Instead of my eyes burning at the whiteness of my computer, they burn from the stimulation of wilderness. In the company of others who share a passion for the outdoors, theories I’ve only heard lectures about have gained physical and personal context, allowing me to more easily conceptualize them. We have read articles and chapters discussing a wide range of issues, from land management to climate change to the history of vigilantes. From each dimension I have gained a new appreciation for the complex systems that make up the Colorado Plateau.
“Woah! What is that?!” is a phrase often heard from our group of six, whether sighting a new plant, geologic layer, or lizard scurrying by. We talk a lot about the practice of Natural History. By observing, asking questions and interpreting the environments around me, I recognize that there is so much value in curiosity. That by forming connections with landscape and following my own interests, I am more motivated to learn.
This is what learning should be like. It should focus on the diverse interests of students, promote curiosity and push people to think outside the box, away from the “right way” to learn and standardized tests. WRFI has expanded my ability to think critically, speculate and to definitely rely less on the powers of Google.
Thomas Flieschner, author, teacher and naturalist extraordinaire, writes in one of his essays about students’ reactions to their developing practice of natural history, “Their response have included such things as: what it means to be patient; how to open my mind; how to trust myself; a reawakening of my senses; a sense of the larger-than-life slow movement of time.” Ultimately I think natural history is a connection of the intellectual and emotional aspects of life. It celebrates the individual and their relationships to their surroundings.
Almost half way through our time in “the Dirty D”, as we often referred to it, we had a solo day– chance to experience and process things on our own. I had wandered up a side canyon just south from our camp, hoping to find some shelter should the threatening clouds start spitting rain again. I scrambled over the remains of a massive rock fall and had my eye on some caves at the head of the canyon. Getting closer, I stopped in my tracks. An owl had silently coasted in front of me, landing just 50 meters ahead in the center of the middle cave. I couldn’t believe it. Taking this as a sign from nature. I decided that I was to go no further. This was not my home. I was merely a guest.
It stared at me as I sat down, its eyes severe and unwavering. Suddenly it took off to another nook in the cave, and then to another, much higher up. I took the opportunity to take a deep breath and notice my other surroundings, still acknowledging its presence. The clouds floated quietly above, the only sound was the light wind in the rabbitbrush. Out of nowhere, emotions flooded me. I was so happy, so overwhelmed by my love for this place, these people, the world itself!
Letting myself feel these emotions throughout the course has given me the inspiration to learn more about who I am, what my values are and how I am going to proceed into my next semesters of college and into my professional life. I can fully express myself through my interests, my enthusiasm and opinions that are constantly forming and reforming. In preparing for WRFI, I only had one expectation, that I would be stretched emotionally, intellectually and physically. The serendipity of Randy’s advice with these expectations resonated so strongly that throughout our travels in the Dirty Devil I felt even more passionate about outdoor education and the opportunities it provides.
The energy of the Colorado Plateau is driven by the geologic and fluvial activity that has affected and formed these canyons. Potential energy with an unknown expiration date holds precarious boulders in place, clouds with the promise of flash floods cycle overhead, despite these threats of disturbance, the system has retained its resilience. Now, with the effects of climate change, it is at risk of changing to a place less familiar and even less accommodating to the human species. Constantly on the edge of change, the Colorado Plateau reminds me how small we are and that, like I was in the side canyon in the presence of an owl, are in the patient mercy and grace of planet Earth.