Photo by Elizabeth Denham
It is 7 A.M., and the familiar yellow NOLS bus pulls into our roadside campsite dominated by an ancient cottonwood tree. As we lash our packs to the roof in the pre-dawn light, there is one thought I cannot get out of my head: I need to come back.
For 26 days, my fall Outdoor Educator semester has been traveling through the desert learning to read sandstone towers and branching canyon systems. We’ve made peace with the silt in our water and the sand snuggling into our sleeping bags with us. We’ve slept under the stars every night it didn’t rain, giving thanks for the wide horizons assuring us of clear skies for a hundred miles. When I woke up to silence and sunshine on my 24-hour solo, I thought to myself, “If I could spend the rest of my life like this, I would be happy.”
Photo by Corinne Kennedy
But this is the fall of my senior year, and there’s a lot waiting for me in the frontcountry after this backcountry semester ends. What looms largest is my final graduation requirement: a senior project I need to complete in the spring. The only project guideline is that a student must dedicate at least 450 hours to a relevant capstone experience. For the past year, I have been somewhat panicked about picking a project. What do I care about enough to spend 450 hours on? I can’t fathom sitting at a desk for that long, so I know I have to get outside and do something for my project. But what could that be?
Inspiration struck as I finished the canyon section of my NOLS semester, and I knew exactly how I wanted to spend 450 hours: backpacking in Utah’s deserts. After a month there, intimately connected to the land, it felt more like home than my hometown or my school does.
After my NOLS semester, I started writing my project proposal. I would read essays, literature, philosophy, and history about the American West, then travel to southern Utah for another month of backpacking before writing my own series of personal essays about the region. My project proposal got approved, and I was over the moon. I was going back!
Photo by Michelle Leonard
While on my trip, I returned to some of the canyons I visited on NOLS, and explored many new ones. Thanks to NOLS, I had the technical skills to plan the expedition of my dreams. I practiced making calls about routes and risk management in the field, and created an experience that was fulfilling for myself and the two friends accompanying me on this trip. I got to learn, first-hand, more about the joys and challenges of the desert, from locating springs to scrambling down steep canyon walls. I learned to put faith in the land and trust that I could find what I needed—water, good camps, and safe passage. I gained confidence in my abilities to navigate and live in the desert.
As I finish my senior project, I will write about the magic unique to this region and the deep sense of place and connection I have found here. I hope that my essays will communicate the necessity of desert wilderness and help dispel the myth that it is nothing but a cruel, barren place. It is so much more than that.
Perhaps most importantly, I get to have fun while finishing my degree. My mom often says about NOLS and my senior project, “You are so smart to get college credit for going on adventures.”
I’m inclined to agree with her.
Jay Clark is from the San Francisco Bay Area and completed a NOLS Outdoor Educator semester in Fall of 2021. They find joy in writing, stargazing, and scrambling through slot canyons. They will graduate from College of the Atlantic with a B.A. in Human Ecology in June 2022.