Fall semester at college. A time to dig into studies as leaves and seasons turn. A time to ease into the demands of a fully loaded class schedule, exams to come, late nights in the computer lab, and wandering in the stacks of the library. A time to leave for a three-month road trip. Wait. What?
Fourteen students and two professors from Salt Lake City’s Westminster College just peeled out on a semester-long road trip. No, they’re not playing hooky, and no, this is not the plot of a National Lampoon film (although it very well should be). Students will earn 16 credits in environmental studies and history while traveling around the West in a couple of camping gear- and text book-loaded vans. They’ll visit national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier, public lands under fire like Bears Ears, and wilderness areas, and visit with native nations and apply these experiences to their environmental cooperation and conflict, landscape and meaning, history of public lands, and native west studies. It is one of the first programs of its kind offered in the U.S.
The proposed route is a giant figure eight around the West, although, as with any road trip, locale changes are sure to shift, especially considering wildfire and early season snowfall. The trip will head northwest first and hit stops in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Notable proposed sites include Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, East Tavaputs Plateau Tar Sands, the North Cascades, the Grand Canyon, Glacier Peak, the Nez Perce Trail, Pyramid Lake, and the cities of Bozeman, Bend, Cody, Moab, Winthrop, and Page.
The course came about by chance, or rather by an offhand comment. Westminster associate professor of environmental studies Brent Olson joked with provost Lisa Gentile that he’d love to take a group of students on a road trip. Her response: a very serious “you should do it.”
“I’ve been dreaming of teaching a course like this since I started work on my PhD at Syracuse University,” says Olson. “Before grad school I was a canoe guide, a backpack guide, and a snowboard instructor. I’ve been looking for ways to combine it all.” Olson’s classes at Westminster examine the political economy of natural resources in the American West and how it relates to environmental movements, social impacts of climate change, and other environmental issues. The focus of the road trip expedition is to take conversations about use, management, conflict, and the value of the natural landscapes in which we live from beyond the classroom and get them within the actual subjects and sites of study.
Accompanying Olson is professor of history Jeff Nichols, who along with Olson is the co-director of Westminster’s Institute for Mountain Research. “The goal is to build a community of impassioned learners, whose main texts are some of the extraordinary landscapes of the West and the extraordinary people who live and work here,” Nichols explains. “We’re building on our success with environmental studies field courses, as well as our May Term Study Experiences.” Every May, Westminster offers a handful of three to four-week long experiential courses, in which students and faculty go abroad to examine a specific issue. This road trip is a longer, more in-depth version. And smellier.
Depending on who is asked, the level of dirtbaggery (which was a selling point for those students who are lovable neo-hippie mountain bums in training) is ever-shifting. Nichols reports that the group is “getting dirtbaggier by the day.” The vans are getting that lived in smell. Shirts are making too many back-to-back appearances and future trip reports already have chapter headings like “Farts Smell Like Geysers.”
Olson reports that the road trip is unexpectedly not as dirtbaggy as he’d thought, at least not yet. The group is eating well and staying at surprisingly lush camp locations. “Of course, it has been a week since most of us have showered,” says Olson. “And we’re having competitions about who has the dirtiest feet, so I guess you can make of that what you will.”
Program assistant Brett Carroll rates the road trip low on the dirtbag scale thus far. However, his scale is a bit skewed. Forty of his 50 days prior to the road trip’s departure were spent backpacking and mountaineering as a NOLS instructor. Chances are he’s the stinkiest of the stinky.
Olson and Nichols set out to attract curious, committed, patient students interested in learning about a variety of environmental and historical topics. According to both, that is what they’ve gotten. The trip thus far has gone quite smoothly and their community is bonding well and learning a great deal. Students are hearing a range of voices involved in environmental issues and cultural change related to the contemporary West. The ability to see and examine iconic Western landscapes and link historical change to the current political and environmental debates in person is irreplaceable. “I hope they can learn about a landscape by living in it,” says Olson. “And perhaps most importantly, we want to give students a chance to indulge their curiosity while building a roaming community of young scholars.”
The program goal is simply stated in the course description, and it is a hefty, lofty, and ambitious one: “This prolonged journey into the field will allow us to learn directly from landscapes and ecosystems, as well as from people who live, work, and study in those places. Together, we expect to build a cohort of impassioned scholars with a particular breadth and depth of experiential knowledge who are equipped to build a better future for the West.”
Hell yeah, Westminster, hell yeah.