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A Good “End” Feeds into a New Beginning

By: Camey VanSant

By Ellie

November 21: it was the last day my High Desert Center (HDC) family was together. I use the word “family” purposefully as that is what we were (more on that later).

I spent the morning watching the sunrise on the roof of our cool, painted, mini-school bus with my friend Amy, both of us still tucked in our sleeping bags. A few hours later we would be at the Phoenix Airport saying our last goodbyes. It was so hard to say goodbye to everyone, but I guess that’s a good sign. It shows how incredible my last 6 weeks with them on the road were. We grew so tight, people are already planning a reunion!

So, about the last 6 weeks… We left Paonia, CO – which had been our basecamp for the first seven weeks – and headed down through Utah, Arizona, and then into Mexico. No hotels or Air BnB’s for us.  Instead, we stayed on Native American reservations, in state and national parks, in locals’ backyards at times, and with families in Mexico, mostly camping under the stars.

At the beginning of the road trip, I made it my goal to try and find 50 different species of animals (mainly birds). Going in, I knew very little about birds and their different general groupings, how to identify them, etc… However, I used a pair of binoculars and always referred back to the “Sibley Guide to Birds” (nothing like an old fashioned book sometimes). By the end of the trip, I doubled my goal, getting to 100 different species of animals (some 20 lizards and mammals, the rest birds.)

From the Common Raven, Red-Tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey, Canada Goose, American Kestrel, Northern Flicker, Acorn woodpecker, Mexican Jay, Vermilion Flycatcher, Sandhill Crane, Great Blue Heron, Allen’s Hummingbird, Rutty Duck, and so much more, I was constantly on alert! Seeing birds in the woodsy areas of Colorado, to the hills of Utah, in South rim of the Grand Canyon, then in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, to the palm trees and lagoons of Mexico never got dull. Being able to identify a new species and re-identify a species I had already seen was such a thrill. And, in the last week of our journey in Mexico we went to an ecological site where the biologists caught and banded birds to track their migratory patterns. It was so cool to see the process of recording the birds’ features, banding the birds, and then setting the birds free. Holding the juvenile Cooper’s Hawk and being able to set it free and watch it fly away was magical. Later, Dev (our leader) told me that I could work for biologists banding birds and actually get paid to travel to do so. I can see myself coming back to this part of Mexico, arranging another homestay, and working for these biologists for at least 3 months. I would be learning a ton about birds, getting better at speaking Spanish, and immersing myself in their culture.

Apart from looking for birds, we did so much more! Here are some of my favorite moments… In Utah: waking up early to watch sunrise in the otherworldly Goblin Valley; hiking through and learning about the Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Cedar Mesa; staying on the Navajo Reservation and learning about their customs and culture. In Arizona: hiking from “rim to rim” of the Grand Canyon and swimming the Colorado River at the bottom (19.2 miles in 1 day); hiking about 50 miles of the Arizona Trail; going to a thrift store and buying clothes to dress up and trick-or-treat for Halloween in a small town near the Mexican border called Patagonia; crossing the Mexican border in Nogales and seeing what a border town looks and feels like. And finally, in Mexico: meeting and staying with my homestay family (Roxana, Carlos, Yami, and Christian); making tortillas with my host mom; playing soccer and basketball with the local kids; going swimming in El Gulfo with everyone (freezing); buying fish at a market and cooking them for dinner; going to a neighbor’s birthday party and feasting and dancing all night long, and so much more!

Big moments aside, what of course defined the 3 month experience were the many little moments. And that’s where my HDC family – my fellow 13 participants and five staff members – come into play. From late night poker games played with rocks since we didn’t have any poker chips (each rock was 25 cents), to showering in streams, rivers, and sinks, to watching Sing 2 and cuddling in our sleeping bags in a 6-person tent, to sitting on the roof of the bus and letting the wind blow through our hair during remote rides, to cooking banana pancakes for breakfast, the list goes on and on…

Overall, this program has given me so much. It has taught me new ways to live simply and sustainably. It has shown me the beauty of nature and also its dire need for us to protect and restore it. It has given me life-long friends. It has allowed me to grow my confidence, leadership, communication, and enthusiasm for life. In short, I am changed because of it, meaning it was transformational. Can’t ask for more than that in a gap year program.

And it has prepared me for my next journey, which is more solo (than group) in design. I won’t have the comforts of having 16 others besides me. I will be WOOFing (Working On Organic Farms) on the Big Island of Hawaii picking, growing, and planting fruit and taking care of the goats and chickens during the weekdays, and then exploring the island (hiking, swimming, snorkeling) and hopefully getting a marine conservation oriented internship on the weekends. I believe HDC has given me the confidence to venture off on my own and rely on myself for most everything. Though I will miss all of the memories and people from the last 3 months, I am enthused about what is next. Till my next blog … Aloha

Categories: Ellie