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Transference on the Rio Grande Gorge

The sun is setting over the snow-capped peaks of northern New Mexico and a dry wind is blowing across our campsite in the sagebrush. This is our last stop, last home of this journey. The last place we will set up our tents and our outdoor stove and come together to break bread on the edge of the Rio Grande, this time not too far south from where the river begins its journey high in the San Juan mountains. More than a thousand miles away from where we ran into the surf where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico more than a month ago.

As an instructor, there is always too much to say in these final days and also not enough. In the past week, we have broken apart dry and hardened dirt to create new beds to bring life to seeds with a generational legacy longer than our own. Seeds almost lost to monocropping in the colonization of this land. Land almost lost to the cattle that eat the ground bare. We met a goat and watched its life end so that we could be fed, could share a meal with our hosts at a small farm outside of Mancos, CO. We were challenged on our position of privilege in ways perhaps many of us had not been before. Asked the question: Is this just an experience to add to the long list of experiences many of us have had in our position of access? Or is this an invitation to truly live differently? What does it mean to be gifted with indigenous wisdom our ancestors tried to eliminate? What is our responsibility going forward?

With the kinds of experiences we have on these courses, the people we encounter, it should come as no surprise that we as instructors learn so much through these semesters, too. As I have shared with the students many times, I returned to the US in December 2019 for what was supposed to be six months. When Covid-19 arrived, it turned into more than a year and counting. I came to the southwest last March for a six-week hiking trip…and never left. I have been learning too much to turn away.

I am a person that believes that our lives are defined by the moments that come most unexpectedly and set us on a new course. That accident is often the catalyst for opportunity if we allow it to be. Last March, as I hunkered down in Flagstaff, I was aware that this moment would likely end up being life-defining in some way and was somewhat impatient to determine just how this might be. It took time, as these things usually do, but looking out across the sea of tents and the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, I can see it now.

On Dragons courses, we often do “life maps.” Each student and instructor will share the story of their life in whatever way they choose. Often this “map” is defined by turning points that, in one way or another, changed everything. I, like many of the students, feel like I am in the middle of an important turning point on a map that is always growing, adding new chapters, landscapes, and waypoints. When we are in the middle of one of these turning points, it is sometimes hard to see or explain exactly what it is or where it’s going, because we don’t yet know. I am starting to see it now, although it’s too early to truly articulate. For now, I can share some of the most important things I have learned from this course. Things I hope the students have learned as well, although what we each take away from these moments is necessarily, and importantly, different.

  1.  Traveling in our own country is far more complex than traveling abroad. We are part of the social fabric of this space in more visible and nuanced ways. The systems we talk about and encounter are our own. We share in the history of this place much more directly. We share in its future. We cannot plead ignorance so easily. We are far more accountable. We can turn away if we want, but we can never truly walk away.
  2. Water is everything. The snow that I’m looking at in the mountains right now will make its way to the Rio Grande in a month or two. Every drop will be used many times over by industry and private citizens. Almost none of it will reach the ocean. This resource is finite. Most of us have no idea where our water comes from, what is impacted on its convoluted journey to our taps, what is lost. We can learn. Not knowing this might kill us someday.
  3. So many of us have lost the ability to create in the physical world. Like many of us, I grew up in a world that taught me that my mind was far more valuable than my body. This is a privilege. It makes many of us feel smarter, better, and more important than those who work with their hands. Until a wood stove is the only way to stay warm and you realize you have no idea how to split wood. A knowledge economy says we can buy our way out of physical labor, but we lose the deep wisdom and spirituality that comes with making things, growing things, and putting our hands in the earth and our bodies on a distant trail far from the nearest road.
  4. Basically everything we eat, everything we buy, every resource we use, is unethical. Environmentally, socially…usually both. We can forgive ourselves for this and we also must strive to do better.
  5. Most systems survive and thrive by hiding their worst parts in the shadows. We must make our decisions based on the parts of the systems we don’t see more than the parts that are presented to us in familiar, sterile, and comfortable ways.
  6. And, as I am so grateful to Dragons for always reminding me: this world is big. This country is big. We know so little. We should always strive to learn more. What this course taught me most acutely, though, is that maybe striving to learn more is not enough. That what we do with the things we have already learned is also important. That intellectual gathering is important, but means little if it is not a catalyst for change in some way.

At our campground outside of Taos, we will spend the next few days reflecting on these thoughts and all the other wisdoms students have taken away from our time together. It will only be the beginning of this process of transferring, taking this experience and turning it into whatever it will be. A lifelong journey ahead. Although we may not be together after May 10th, I am grateful to be sharing this long road.