Students survive 'Desert Week'

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Over the four days, we climbed up to see the double Druid Arch, slipped through the half-mile-long slot canyon on Notch Trail and scrambled over rounded rocks in the Devil's Kitchen. In a world so dominated by imagery, where I mostly rely on vision, this place was tactile. The rock we moved over was dimpled or swirled like batter; in other places it was solid, others gritty, others flaky. We climbed up and down fixed metal ladders, hefted ourselves up ledges, hopped across small fissures, circumscribed amphitheaters, and teetered along tilted planes of rock. This was trail hiking, marked regularly by cairns, but it felt as though we were moving through a grown-up's playground.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS Lowell Whiteman intern Bryan Foster's journal entry, written sporadically during rare free time over the course of a six-day backpacking trip through the Canyonlands in Utah, encapsulates the philosophy behind the 20-year-old "Desert Week" tradition at the private school.

"It's about bringing youth and nature together," director of experiential education Margi Missling-Root said.

"They find reserves and strengths they didn't know they had on trips like these," second-generation teacher and Steamboat native Trenia Sanford said.

Officially since 1980, and unofficially since 1972, teachers and staff at Lowell Whiteman have been sending their lucky students out into the desert for a week during a time of year when sunshine and warmth are beginning to fade from their facility nestled in the Rockies just beneath the Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Steamboat.

"People think what we're doing is so weird, and they wonder how we can find a balance between academics, travel and recreation," Sanford said. "But we do."

Just less than 100 students biked, kayaked, hiked, canoed, rafted or horsebacked through the Utah desert country last week, and most seem fairly appreciative of the balance Whiteman provides among various educational milieu.

"It's a vacation," Schippmann said.

"It's not a vacation!" student Piper Reed countered.

"It's an educational vacation," junior Britt McLaughlin resolved. "You learn so much on these trips; it's just amazing."

In spite of the welcomed escape from academics, students are also somewhat relieved to make it back to their warm, dry boarding rooms and for nearly half the students to their permanent homes in Steamboat.

"It's really hard," student and Steamboat resident Ethan Johnson said of the toughest biking day he experienced on the Kokopelli Trail. "We left around 9 a.m. It was supposed to be our longest day of the trip over 20 miles and 6,000 vertical feet of gain. We were supposed to meet the van at the end, but it was raining, and because of all the mud, the van couldn't get to us."

Teacher and group leader Brick Root replied: "We had to go six to eight additional miles on top of the tough day we'd planned. We came up against things we weren't expecting. It took us about 10 hours to finish and then we had to clean and repair the bikes, because they were totally unridable by the end.

"Everybody persevered. And that's the day the kids remember," he said.

"Sometimes I think we're just supposed to make them so tired they don't complain about the homework and academics," Sanford said. "At the beginning of their time at Whiteman, a lot of these kids think they're not interested in the outdoors or trips like these. But by the end of the year, they can't get enough. And they're passing us up and leading trips."

Of course, there's more to Desert Week than just recreation.

"For any good, strong relationship, it takes shared experience," said teacher Joe Roberts, who's been at Whiteman since 1968. "So when I'm looking at a student in my class, with whom I've spent five days in the desert fighting the winds and sleeping in the rain, I can better relate to them. And them to me. If they've got sand in their food, I've got sand in my food. If they're wet, dirty and tired, I'm wet, dirty and tired. I'm a teacher, but I'm human, too."

Getting to know students on such personal level can be challenging, Roberts admitted.

"It's a more difficult course to follow; you have to be able to be disciplinary, too."

In addition to building relationships with each other, something the students themselves admit can be a challenge when you spend 24 hours a day in the company of four or five peers, students and teachers are deepening their relationship with natural history and the desert environment.

Contrary to local belief, not all the students at Whiteman are Olympic skiers, although some certainly are. For many, Sanford said, Whiteman offers students their first chance to travel and to learn to survive outside of what may have been a rather protected lives.

Students are provided the opportunity and experience of appreciating the natural, changing world not just around them, but also from whence they've come.

"It prepares you for life," senior Alex Schippmann said.

"Most striking about the desert was its fragility," Foster wrote. "Cryptobiotic soil, formed by a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that builds upon itself and forms black towers, will crack apart with a step. Small pieces of sandstone can be crushed to dirt with a bare hand. Larger sandstone pieces can be rubbed round. There's not the resistance of granite here, or the resilience of spongy soil built from layers of vegetation. Even junipers, which seemed so solid, were transient: the rock under them could break, their thin sand bed could wash or blow away, the meniscus of water they rely upon could dry. We all began, in this landscape of worn rock and shifting sand, to admire life."

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