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A Good “End” Feeds into a New Beginning

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

“Yes,” Squirrel Heart is . . . Edible

By Ellie

Today marks my 54th – and last – day in Paonia, Colorado, the home base of my High Desert Center (HDC) Program. Tomorrow the group – me and 11 others – venture off on the road for the 2nd portion of the program.

This next part is road tripping in an old, small, crazy-painted mini school bus for five weeks down into Mexico. Specifically, we first head down to Utah (Goblin Valley slot canyons, Cedar Mesa ruins), then into Arizona (Navajo Reservation, Grand Canyon, Apache Reservation, Arizona Trail, and explore border Issues), and finally down to Ejido, Mexico, where we will be immersing ourselves in Mexican culture, as we try to live authentically with native villagers.

I feel bittersweet: excited to embark on a new adventure, but sad to leave Paonia, a place that has fostered so much community, curiosity, learning, and self growth.

Over the last month so much has happened – too many outstanding memories to be able to share all. However, I will share one key memory. Late September our group went on what we call a “Minimalist Trip” somewhere in the West Elk Mountains of CO. The 12 of us split into two groups, each of which would try to survive 2 days and 1 night on VERY minimal supplies. By this I mean one pot (for boiling water/cooking), three matches for lighting fire, and one knife (for cutting and butchering). Forget sleeping bags, this meant not even a blanket to keep us warm at night, no water (we’d have to find some), and no food (we’d have to forage or hunt). Our group was ambitious and wanted to see how we’d do by purposefully setting ourselves up for lots of discomfort, especially during the long cold night.

While we were driving up before being dropped off in Nowheresville, we passed by a dead squirrel on the side of the road. All of a sudden Dev (one of the counselors) stopped the bus and went out to fetch the squirrel. He told our group that we should take it with us in case we are not able to catch any critters. We put it in a garbage bag and resentfully took it with us, hoping we wouldn’t be having roadkill for dinner.

After parking the bus we all hoped out, said our goodbyes and best wishes to the other group (which was living in relative luxury compared to us: warm clothes, three blankets, and water) and headed off to find a sleep able spot. While hiking up through the brush our eyes were peeled for any edible plants, bugs, and critters. The first thing we spotted were grasshoppers, which I did not partake, as I was not desperately hungry . . . yet. However, I did find some clover flowers, which I ate. Next thing we spotted were chipmunks. Our tactic was to encircle them and for someone to throw their throwing sticks at it.  Bad plan: the chipmunks were way too fast and there was too much brush for them to hide.  So, we decided we would be better off finding a campsite first so that half of the group could set up camp while the other half tried to hunt for food. On the way we passed a stream of water and filled up the pot in case there was no water near camp.

We hiked uphill for about an hour and a half and finally passed by an open prairie which seemed to be a grazing spot for cows or sheep. Half our team of six (plus 2 counselors) grabbed their throwing sticks and went on the hunt for critters, while I and the other three walked into the woods surrounding the prairie and started to set up camp. This entailed clearing sticks and brush off a flat ground area where we’d be sleeping. We collected pine leaves for the bottom and top layer of our forest “bed.” The middle layer was duff which added some cushion to the bed. It was super important for us to make sure the bed was at least a foot off the ground: the farther off the forest floor the warmer we’d stay at night. Remember, we had no warm clothes, tents, or sleeping bags – nothing. The “bed” was just wide and tall enough for all 8 of us to fit. Along the entire base of the bed, we dug a rectangular ditch in the ground for a fire pit. We then stacked a ton of huge rocks along the back of the fire so the warmth would only blow towards us.

By the time we were done setting up camp, the “hunting team” came back empty handed. They’d come across a couple squirrels, but they were just too darn fast. So, we collected enough firewood to last the night and were able to start the fire with just one match – we never ended up using the other two. Once we got the fire going, we put the pot of water on it to boil.

Meanwhile, the roadkill squirrel was all we had for dinner, and at this point of the day, having had no water or food since 8 am, I was actually grateful we had taken it with us. Back at homebase in Paonia, I – a city girl from Chicago who previously had maybe, at most, roasted a hot dog – learned how to kill and butcher meat rabbits (which we ate for dinner). So with that knowledge and hands-on experience, I was semi-confident I’d be able to take on a squirrel. My counselor and I butchered it together. Of course, you can’t eat any animal before inspecting closely for disease.

From the outside the squirrel did not look too injured; however, it did have a lot of internal bleeding, which made it harder and smellier to prepare. In addition to the meat, we kept its heart and liver, as they are both edible.

To state the obvious: never in my life did I think I’d be butchering and eating roadkill squirrel for dinner, but when you’re hungry and without any other source of food, you have to make the most of what ya got. You know, adapt or die, as the saying goes.

Honestly, it didn’t taste bad. If I was blindfolded, I’d think it was . . . chicken.

After dinner, the sun set, and the cold started to come in – fast. After all, this is the mountains, more than 6000 feet elevation, something this Midwesterner was not used to. Thank goodness for the fire – a literal lifesaver – because if we didn’t have it, we would have gotten hypothermia. I was tired and laid down on the bed with the hopes of getting some sleep. Unfortunately, I got all of about 30 minutes of sleep the whole night; the same went for everyone else.

When you laid down, the warmth of the fire was not strong enough, so you couldn’t sleep without freezing your whole body off. Apart from the coldness of laying down, we were surrounded by a hundred or so baa-ing sheep – apparently, we were on their grazing land. Listening to the sounds of the sheep in the dark forest reminded me of a scene from a horror movie. As you can imagine, sleep quickly became less of a priority. Instead, my number one priority changed to staying warm. During the entire night into dawn – as I huddled near the fire – I daydreamed about how comfortable the other group must be with their three blankets. Once the sun finally emerged, however, a huge joy rushed over us. We had survived the night!

No question about it, and no way to sugarcoat it, the trip was miserable at night. But at the same time, it was also crazy exciting. Building our own “bed” and fire ditch, butchering a squirrel, listening to the sheep and their sheep dogs fight off coyotes all night long, and most importantly being surrounded by people who did not complain and instead comforted one another and soaked in all of the experience together was – fortunately – hopefully just a once in a lifetime-type adventure.

A trip that tested my boundaries and limits. A trip I will never forget . . .

5 Day Backpacking Trip

By Ellie

This week has been quite the journey as it marks my first time backpacking ever! Out of the 12 participants in the High Desert Center (HDC), we were randomly split into 3 groups of four. My group was a bit special as we had a special guest counselor leading us (a master minimalist backpacker) named Jeremy, along with his dog Mo!

During the 5 days we hiked through the West Elk Mountains of Colorado, and boy were they beautiful. But before we left basecamp in Paonia, we had to pack. Packing light is key in terms of backpacking so I only brought one set of clothes (day clothes for hiking, and warmer clothes for the night) along with 2 sets of warm wool socks. I had 5 packets of oatmeal for breakfast, trail mix and peanut-butter filled tortillas for lunch, and dinner consisted of either pasta with peanut sauce, curry, beans and rice, or mac-n-cheese. We cooked all of our food in a pot of boiling water over stoves that we made out of soda cans!

We averaged out hiking around 6.5 miles every day. During the hikes we were surrounded by beautiful tall, thin Aspen trees. Jeremy taught us how aspen trees are actually one single organism, meaning the tens of thousands of roots protrude from a single root system! In the fall, you can tell which aspen trees are a part of the same organism because the color of their leaves will change simultaneously. Besides being surrounded by these beautiful trees, along the hilly hikes we passed by lots of bear poop as well tons of berries. I love being able to eat what I can detect along the trail, so with the help of Jeremy, I identified and ate rose hips (not my favorite), thimble berries, raspberries, and (my favorite) huckleberries.

The hardest day was the 4th day as we hiked to the very top of the 12,752 ft tall Mt Gunnison. Though the hike up was very steep and especially challenging with a pack on, it was all worth it once we got to the top and I could see a panoramic view of all of the other Mountains in the region and beyond. My advice for anyone who decides to climb a tall mountain is to take a fat nap at the top, it hits different!

Overall, my first backpacking experience was filled with a lot of special memories, and though it was very challenging physically and mentally, there is something really special about living and existing out of only a backpack. It really made me appreciate all of the things we deem as “necessities” but are actually “luxuries” once getting back to basecamp. Thanks for listening and I can’t wait to share more!