High Desert Center

Gap year programs in Colorado for young adults seeking adventure, leadership skills, community, and a sense of purpose.

Activism 101 from Ed Marston

Today we met with Ed Marston, former editor of High Country News (HCN) and current President of the board for Solar Energy International (SEI).  Ed took us out of town to a place below the Ragged Mountains where we could look over Bill Koch’s ranch (of the famous, wealthy Koch brothers) and his private western town.  Ed successful led an activism effort to halt a legislative bill that would have allowed Bill Koch to close a public access road and privatize 1840 acres of current public BLM land in exchange for land elsewhere.   You can read about it in the Sept 10, 2012 New Yorker.  IMG_0413

Later Ed took us on tours of SEI and HCN, where we found out not only about these organizations but how one might get an internship there.

What all of us found inspiring and amazing was how much Ed (who is in his seventies) and the rest of us (mostly teenagers) have in common.  Nobody wanted to stop talking.  To quote one participant, “Meeting Ed helped me to realize that I often don’t reach out to older people because I assume they won’t understand me or have different politics than I do, but today opened my eyes to how many inspiring resources, options and people are out there in the world.”  Somebody else said, “It was cool to realize that we younger people have the opportunity to join and contribute to movements that have been ongoing for a long time, and that we can learn a lot from older generations about how to best contribute to these movements.”

Ed Marston wrote follow up e-mails in which he said, “I was amazed at how this group of high school graduates, home-schooled and unschooled students from around the country got it. They understood the Koch fight, and they were strongly attracted to SEI and HCN. What a wonderful group.” and “Despite myself, sometimes I get hopeful about the future. Meeting your people was one of those times.”

Canyon Country Backpacking

IMG_0387We left on a rainy day and drove up high onto the Umcompahgre Plateau.  The original plan was to hike into the top of the canyons, but muddy roads and a low gas tank dissuaded us, and we drove around to the bottom of the canyon.  We started late, but a short hike later we were camping under sandstone cliffs under clearing skies eating meals cooked over our homemade tuna can stoves.

Next came four days of canyon adventure and fun.  We swam and perched on high rocks to dry.  We climbed out of one canyon and down into the next, getting caught in the dark and descending a steep slot canyon in the dark.  We navigated using topographic maps and practiced leadership skills; played games and worked on bow drill fires; watched hoodoosIMG_0379 and desert bighorns.


Picking Peppers


Today we went to work at Thistle Whistle Farm.

The first thing we did when we arrived was to milk goats.  Next we toured the farm and saw bees, strange plants that made your mouth numb, and over 60 species of hot pepper.  Next we helped harvest.  Some of the group picked tomatoes, long rows of diverse kinds of tomatoes with numerous heritage varieties.  Other people picked peppers and others dug potatoes.  Mark makes his living from his farming.  Here’s a newspaper article about him that Dev wrote a few years ago.


Mountain Backpack

 I woke up early on Tuesday, the day we were leaving for the backpacking trip. I watched the sun rise over the huge crumbling shoulders of Gunnison. The other sleepers woke slowly, grudgingly around me. They rose, drifting thickly out of the building we slept in, like the heavy clouds off Mount Lamborn, whose steep face hung over the lush orchards in this small valley, Paonia.

I was the first to swing my pack off the dusty ground outside our hodgepodge house. Part of it was a mud daubed straw-bale building, the other was unfinished and barely insulated. I dragged it laboriously up the silver-gray side of Critter, and secured it by strapping it around the rack that was fixed to the top of the old, decrepit van. Critter was of indeterminate age and health, but it always got us where we needed to go, even if it’s top speed uphill was twenty miles an hour. Our only other mode of transportation was a brown pickup truck that had to be at least a hundred years old.

The outdoor kitchen was bustling with activity by eight o’clock. We made a delicious meal of Focaccia, and scrambled eggs, then Dev, the director, harangued us into piling aboard the creaking vehicles. Thirty minutes later I was watching scrub sage roll by, occasionally broken by a ranch house or miniature canyon that held a now dry stream. I was in Critter, as the truck was mostly made up of people who were in the other hiking group. We had 2 groups, I was in the flow group, a combination of fast and slow hikers, the other group was medium speed. Both groups were starting from different places and intended to meet at a lake in the middle of the West Elk Wilderness: a huge tract of land that stretched out to the east of Paonia. The reason we had the slow and fast hikers together was because we could all move at our own pace, independently. we would camp together, but any of the faster hikers who wanted to could streak off and hike a mountain on the way. We left the other group at a junction between two road and pealed off to the left, towards our start point.

I was watching the mountains draw closer out the left side window when we pulled out of a dirt road corridored by Oakbrush, into a small parking area. The oak leaves were just turning, and as I tossed packs down from the top of Critter I couldn’t help but stare out over the fiery tips of them from my vantage

“Got everything?” asked Julie, one of the staff. At my confirmation she exclaimed “rad, lets get going homeslice!” She used very stereotypical Cali lingo.

I Jumped down with a laugh and hoisted my pack. Suddenly gravity felt like it doubled. My usual springy physicality slumped slightly, straining under the weight. It was going to be a long day. My peers did the same, hefting their packs. As soon as Dev gave the word, I shot off down the road. We followed it for a few minutes, staying mostly in a group, until we veered off into the trees, at Dev’s direction, and traversed our way across a small stream. only minimal boot wetting. Here, after a quick debrief of the route, we were given free reign and all set out at different place. A few miles later Dev’s wife Marion, Ben, Oscar, and I were far ahead of the rest. We walked past beaver dams and mountain streams, under tall aspen forests that burned with heavy, golden light in the afternoon haze, wove through the tall spruces and firs, which cast a dark green shadows on our backs.

I was sweating in the heat and with the weight of the pack, every step an effort by the time we stopped for a break. I ate copious amounts of my precious trail mix, a crisp apple that I had stowed in the front of the pack, and some slices of cheese with summer sausage on a tortilla. My water was fresh and cool, sliding down my throat like a sigh.We waited for fifteen minutes to digest, while the entirety of the fast group caught up to us, plus another ten for them to rest, then we continued on. It grew colder as we climbed higher in elevation. A few patches of snow started to appear, and the light grew brighter and brighter as the air thinned. We crossed our first talus field, deposited by the ancient glaciers that draped the shoulders of the peaks above. There was a solid path through it, where we could see the imprints of horse hooves in gray clay. It wasn’t nearly as treacherous as the slopes of East Beckwith, which we climbed the Wednesday before.

IMG_0296We finally broke out of the trees, and strode out into a tundra filled with high altitude grasses, and gooseberries. I snagged a few as I was walking. They were sour, but refreshing. The path was now a narrow track of dirt mostly traveled by horses and cows. There were often paths that led off in different directions, but it was usually easy to tell which was the main trail. So when we got to a section where the path forked into two nearly identical trails, leading off in different directions up the valley, we had to stop. Dev had told us that the campsite was only a quarter mile up the path from the start of the meadow but he never told us which path it went on.

“I’ll go on the left.” I said to Ben.

We both dropped our packs and jogged in opposite directions up the paths. I was about to reenter the trees on the other side of the valley when I heard Ben cry “I found it!”

I walked into clearing in a grove of spruces surrounding and covering abundant amounts of flat ground. There was even a fire pit dug and surrounded by stones. All of this sat on the top of a ridge, which gently fell away on the other side, and the dark green of evergreens morphed into the soft butter of the Pople.

People soon blossomed out of the distance and walked up through the alpine meadow. We set up camp, made a fire, and celebrated our first day of backpacking by making sweet peanut noodles over our cat-can stoves. By the time the dishes were washed everyone was yawning around the fire. The sun had long since set over the end of the valley. The burnt rose light in the west had faded to a dark blue. In the cool shade of the spruces I watched as the light slowly of the flame slowly faded and the stars began to twinkle into existence. I drifted from the fire towards my nest, brushed my teeth, and slipped into my warm bag.

I fell asleep to the chorus of my three tarp-mate’s breaths, and the gentle whisper of aspen leaves.

By Willy Clemetson




Today we went to a farm called Delicious Orchards and met with Jeff Schwarz who says his farm his an organic, biodyIMG_0322namic farm that is used by the community.  They grow lots of fruit, varieties of apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums and cherries.  Jeff is a “doer” who says “yes” to most things and likes the depth and richness that results.  One of the more powerful moments was when Jeff shared his biodynamic preparations and compost and his passion for taking care of the soil and the community.  We picked apples and tomatoes and made sure to swing on the rope swings.  We took apples home for crisp and tomatoes for canning.


The First Days by Milla Von Tauber

Journey, Hero, Chris, Lainey and I in front of our cabin outside of Denver

Journey, Hero, Chris, Lainey and I in front of our cabin outside of Denver

The first few weeks on a trip like this are always hectic. There is so much going on and we are all learning how to live and cope with each other in a communal space, which is never an easy feat. By the time week 3 rolled around though things were starting to settle down and I found myself so excited for the weeks to come. A little group of us (Lainey, Chris, Journey, Hero and I) were heading out to Denver to see Tegan and Sara in concert and were all giddy with anticipation at the thought of being in civilization again, even if it were only for a night. We left after breakfast, packed the car to the brim with snacks and treats, and jammed out for the 5 hour ride to the city. 

It was pretty weird to be in a city after two weeks of back country living. The first thing on all of our agendas was a flushing toilet and when we sat down at an Asian restaurant to eat dinner, I swear we all visited the restroom at least 4 times each. By the time we finished our lovely, mouth watering cuisine, the opening act had already started so we rushed back to the venue. I got a giant “X” on my hand at the door and headed into the heat of people to be enveloped by a heady rush of excitement.  Disclaimer: before this concert, I’d only ever heard of the band once. I mostly came along to see Denver, as my dad and I 14795788_1167543616645131_746866699_oskipped it on our drive in. The energy of the room was massive though, and looking around at everyone’s

We were obviously very excited about those donuts

We were obviously very excited about those donuts

excitement made me excited too. It helped that Tegan and Sara were actually wonderful, at performing and at engaging the audience. By the end I was converted into a groupie and so genuinely thankful for the experience. We made a stop at the ever famous Voodoo Doughnuts on our way out of town and I’ve got to say, by far the best doughnuts of my life.

That next weekend was Marian and Dev’s wedding. It was a magical event, filled with love from every direction and so much joy.  You can read about it here, along with a bunch of photos I took throughout the day.

The next highlight was our 5 day backpacking trip through the wilderness of the West Elks. It was a crazy experience as a whole but one that I will never forget. You can read more about it here.

Below are some additional photos from the trip that aren’t in my personal blog post:


Cori was hungry. Cori also wanted to climb the Aspens.



Cori and Journey dancing in the wilderness



First Three Weeks’ Photos

Everybody arrived at the High Desert Center on September 7th. In the next three weeks we visited farms, climbed some mountains, danced a lot, celebrated a marriage, experienced some ups and downs of group living, and went on a five day backpack trip. Thanks to Journey Temple for the photos.


A farm Visit


Picking Apples


The High Desert Center Dorm


Climbing Beckwith


High Lakes

Dreamy Paonia By Mary Grace Campbell

My first two and a half weeks in Paonia, Colorado have been a beautiful whirlwind.

My first days were filled with group conversations about the nature of living in community, picking ripe fruits from the side of the road, jumping into the icy irrigation ditch, and simply being in awe of this amazing place.

14355641_2001707410055638_7195928012616614891_nExactly one week after arriving we embarked on our first big adventure: summiting East Beckwith. We woke before the sun rose and loaded onto Critter (our funky fifteen passenger van). I snoozed for most of the hour drive to our destination. When about to begin our trek, I felt nervous about my first attempt at climbing a mountain and unsure about my own ability to summit. The first part of the hike was the toughest. As we got higher and the terrain changed from green forest to seemingly treacherous jagged rock, I felt surprisingly energized. Climbing up the rocks was a fun and difficult challenge. Each step was a bit precarious, not knowing if a rock may be loose and potentially cause a rock slide. But I did indeed make it to the top! As I approached the top, I was met with cheers of encouragement from all the crew who had already made it to the top. Making it to the summit was so amazing! I felt such a sense of accomplishment reaching an elevation of 12,441 feet and summiting my first ever mountain.

The following Friday morning I participated in the butchering of chickens. It was completely emotionally draining, while at the same time a major spiritual and educational experience. I participated in each part of the process, from calming the chickens beforehand to packaging after. I learned more about anatomy from butchering a chicken than I did from a whole semester of high school anatomy class.

In just over two weeks I have become a much more competent kitchen companion. I’ve helped in the process of canning plum jam, trying out various salsas, crafting mozzarella cheese, and my knife skills are on a whole new level considering there was absolutely no skill before! But there are delicious foods everywhere and I am loving being nourished by the hands of friends with the goods from nearby farmers.

Yesterday was a day filled with immense love. I felt so fortunate to be present for Dev and Marian’s wedding celebration. There was so much beauty and joy all around me. Delicious foods, engaging conversation, with the backdrop of snow tipped mountains, followed by contra dancing the night away…dare I say, a perfect night?

There is so much more that has filled my days in Paonia, I’ve given just a taste!

In two days we are setting out on a five day backpacking trip in the West Elk Wildernes, so more posts to come!

First Week of GDL trip By Trenton Maki

My trip to Guadalajara had a bumpy start, but this first week has been excellent! A,so, all pictures are attached to the end of the post!

I started off forgetting my passport. As we were rushing out the door, I made copies of my passport, ID, and debit card and slipped them into my bag. When we got to the airport I realized that I had left my passport in the photocopier. I had to reschedule the flight (thank you U.S. Airways for not charging me!) and I had to deal with not having any sleep that night because we had to leave for the airport at 2:00am. Thankfully, everything worked out and I arrived in GDL with myself and my bags intact. Even finding a taxi was easy, I just went to a desk at the front of the airport and gave them the address and my money. Guadalajara by night (and with little sleep) seemed scary. No one was out, everything was covered in graffiti, and I couldn’t talk to my cab driver. I think I hit the peak where strange is the new normal when I got to my room. It was a tiny room, just a bit larger than the bed, in the back of a building which looked it had been grown rather than been built. There where all sorts of steep stairs with tight corners, an open air roof where more rooms where, and the floor was littered with random steps up and down. I’ve since learned that many buildings in Guadalajara look like this, even the well kept ones.

I loved it, it was charming and just big enough for me. I want to live like that for a few months (or more!). maybe a little bigger if I’m with someone. There’s something about having your own room, that you bought and paid for, and (at some point at least) had a hand in reserving. I can’t describe it but it’s an amazing feeling.

I woke up about 6 hours later to get ready for my first Spanish lessons. By day Guadalajara is much more friendly. The sun is bright, the spray-painted shop security doors have been lifted, and there’s always between five and two hundred people on any street at any given moment. Even better, the IMAC Spanish language institution, my school, is literally around the corner from my hotel. The only problem is that I didn’t know which corner. I wandered around for a few minutes and finally spotted a sign with a map on it. As I rushed over to it I saw an American woman going the opposite direction. We caught each other’s eye. With a sinking feeling I examined the map. Yep. I had to turn 180° right after we glanced at each other and go along the same route as her to IMAC. I felt like an enormous creep but I didn’t know what else to do. I made sure not to follow too closely and I was enormously relived when I got to IMAC. The people manning the desks there are extremely nice and helpful. Mario, who had helped me several times while I tried to sign up for it, even offered to take my backpacking pack and store it in his office while I went to class! Also, IMAC has these wierd faucets that are turned on by a switch in the faucet head. Here are pictures:

Classes at IMAC are long, but rewarding. If you go I suggest you take an empty notebook and several pens. The teachers speak in Spanish the entire time, only resorting to english if, like me, you couldn’t understand them. We went through a whirlwind of topics this first week, verb conjugations, infinitives, ‘gusta’, numbers, colors, and much more! I had a hard time paying attention because I wasn’t used to the language or the heat. I sometimes felt like I was going to keel over or fall asleep in class! I keep a water bottle with me at all times now (even more than the gap year!) and I haven’t had trouble since. For the first few days my class was in flux, some people where there, some people left, but it finally settled on five people:

  • Sandy and her husband Douglas – an elderly couple from Canada, nice but I didn’t interact with them outside of class
  • Gregory – an old man from the navy who didn’t serve in any wars, he’s been traveling around Mexico for a year but is somehow still in the beginner class.
  • Austin – 17, more about him in a minute.
  • Me!

Our teacher, Tania, was helpful, everyone except me knew a little Spanish but I never really felt like I was holding up the class with my questions.

After class, IMAC organized a taxi for me and I went with my bags to my homestay family. Bernardo and Toni are the couple that took me in. They’re quite sweet, Toni will make you more frijoles than you could ever eat and Bernardo is a jolly man with a sharp sense of humor. My homestay family had also taken in two other homestay students and had a teacher from England living with them, also on a homestay program. The teacher barely spoke a word of Spanish but was getting international English teaching experience. The other homestay students where Austin, from my class, and Tom who had told me about how cheap the lunches at IMAC are. Where we all pleasantly surprised. Here’s a picture of them:

Tom and Austin where fun to be around. They’re both geeky like me, and the close quarters and our mutual exhaustion; me from the flight, them just in general; led to several nights spent hanging out in our room just talking. Thankfully, Tom is a linguaphile and he had spent the last few months rigorously learning Spanish. With him, Austin and I could interact with the lovely people of GDL.

On Tuesday, I went out with all of Austin and Tom’s class and two Mexican guys for lunch. It ends up that they’re part of a high school and any students in a special Spanish class could come to Guadalajara and learn Spanish there with IMAC. I met Austin/Tom’s three classmates: Adrianna, Laura, and Theresa. The meal was a bit strange because we, me and the 3 girls, ignored each other the entire day. I think I said two words to one of them during the entire lunch. The other two Mexicans, Jose and Mario, where outgoing and I talked with them almost as much as I talked to Austin/Tom. The meal was amazing. Me and Austin had an enormous plate of the best meat, cheese, and smattering of vegetables I have ever tasted. To give you sense of scale, the girls and Jose’s plates where at least half as small and Tom and Mario couldn’t finish a plate between them. Sadly, neither could me or Austin. We got damn close though, if I had just pushed through… Maybe rationed my palette cleansing water….

On Wednesday I went to the cultural exchange program from 1pm-2pm. This is a regularly scheduled event where any student who wants can come into a small theater, watch a short presentation on Mexican culture, and then talk with one of the English students about it. Every discussion has been completely unintelligible but this time I was sitting across from the girl I had accidentally followed that first day. Her name is Claudia, she’s been speaking Spanish since kindergarten and she said that she liked how I handled the first day. She said that I hadn’t made her that nervous because I kept the distance between us, if I had closed the gap between us she would have been upset. She also warned me not to wave around my can of mace, she has one to but apparently they’re legally a weapon or something of the sort. All in all an interesting person. I’ve wanted to talk to her more but chance keeps getting in the way.

Thursday was spent looking for a tourist-y shirt for Tom. As we were walking there we met a friend of Tom’s called Efran. He’s from Canada and has been an English teacher at IMAC for almost a year. To find a shirt, we all went deeper into the city, just past the shiny veneer around major roads (like all cities have) and into an insane, yet completely normal for Mexico, market. There was room for about one and a half to three shoulder widths between stalls (depending on where you where) and the stalls where lined from floor to ceiling in merchandise. Stands with hundreds iSomething cases all shoved into a 10′ by 5′ box butted up against elaborate stacks of wallets and hanging t-shirts. Even the butchers joined in, their section was covered in hanging ropes of sausage, thick animal thighs, and glistening livers all put on display. We found a t-shirt eventfully and Tom even bought a baseball cap to give to a friend. I went out after this on my own and found a museum with some creepy, but awesome, chair statues around it.

Friday was Tom and Austin’s last full day in Guadalajara. I think they where anxious about it because they did almost nothing that day except take some salsa lessons. Tom even took an hour nap in the afternoon! I went out instead, intending to go that museum, but one delay led to another and I got a bit lost in Guadalajara. I made it back to IMAC safely though and I even had spare time before the Salsa lessons!

I can tell salsa is a fun dance. Unlike swing, where the lead and follow roles are locked in, Salsa plays with them, leaving me (a lead) to do the occasional move and to trust my partner to catch me, rather than me doing all the catching. Claudia was also there with her friend Tracy. Tracy danced with Tom and I danced with Claudia for the lesson. The lesson was difficult for me because I haven’t danced much in the last few weeks, my legs where off and my ears couldn’t find the beat in the mariachi music. Another problem is that the basic step is different from swing. It took half of the night for me to reprogram my brain to go ‘rock step forward, pause, rock step back, pause’ instead of ‘rock step back, triple step, rock step back, triple step’. I was able to learn a spin though, thankfully Claudia isn’t the type who gets dizzy. After the lesson Tom and I where thinking of going to a Salsa club, but I couldn’t leave Austin (who is underage) alone when they’re both leaving. We stayed up and chatted about Austin’s past relationships until almost midnight.

Saturday, Tom and Austin packed up and left today and I went. Out. I had met a nice girl at the salsa dancing and she showed me around the city and helped me practice my Spanish. Then we went to another salsa lesson, this time I learned a move where the you trade places with your partner, before losing contact with her. I don’t what happened, but she disappeared right after the lesson. Strange. Either way it was a fun Saturday and I managed to procrastinate just long enough that I couldn’t finish this blog post!

Which is great! It means I’ll get to tell you about my adventures on Sunday! Remember that third homestay participant? Her name’s Christine and she’s going to be in Guadalajara for another week. She was raised in Hungary but now lives in England and teaches English. She’s in Guadalajara for work so that she’ll have ‘overseas experience’ on her résumé. She’s also been traveling in the area, as she’s not planning on coming back anytime soon, and she hadn’t gone to Chapala yet! This morning at 8:00am, we left for a tour of the Chapala area. Sadly I hadn’t gotten much sleep that night so I fell asleep every time we where driving to a new destination. Our first stop was at a ranch. It had lots of horses and even a guitar shaped pool!

After admiring the horses and wandering around the ranch for a little while we all went to a gift shop and I almost bought a drinking horn. Then we piled back into the van and headed for Chapala. Chapala is Guadalajara’s weekend get away town. Everyone goes there on the weekends and enjoys the beaches, sun, and water. My only problem is that I’m terrified of being on open water. I tried to go on a small boat tour of the edge of the lake but I had to have the boat driver turn us around when we were only twenty feet out. Not my finest hour. After that I calmed down by exploring the beach front area and running through a skate park. I love running up and down sheer ramps and hills (particularly ski hills…) so I had a great time. At 2:00pm we got back into the tour van and drove to a town that is almost entirely made up of old, rich, Americans and Canadians. All of the signs are in English and Spanish, there’s a definite American vibe, and there were tons of $400,000 to $1,000,000 houses! After the tour, the tour leaders left us at an excellent restaurant right by the ocean. None of us knew each other so we all got seperate tables except for me and Christine. It was a bit awkward between us the whole day, we literally had nothing in common and could barely talk about any subject. Most of the meal was sitting in silence, eating. I enjoyed it though. The food was delicious and I had my first full beer with a meal! After that they dropped us off back in Guadalajara and we made our way back to the house.

When I got home, I had to do laundry. Not a big problem except that the laundromat only aceppts cards. I pulled out my wallet and discovered I had lost my only dempbit card. Everything’s sorted out now, have a new one being mailed here and I have more than enough money to live on but it was a surprisingly awful end to an otherwise excellent week!

Oh yeah! I almost forgot! I’m a victim of the infamous crime in Mexico; a bus driver didn’t give me back my two pesos.











A Lovely Day in Nara, Japan

On January 5th 2015,  I went to the ancient city of Nara, Japan along with a bunch of people I met at a local deaf cafe here in Osaka. We visited Katsuga-taisha Shrine and the well-known Todaiji-Temple. Deers are considered scared to Katsuga-taisha Shrine, hence the deers roaming freely all over the place.

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