By Caroline and Nina (S Trek 1)
4 days ago, we were on top of the world. We had scrambled up the side of the mountains ringing our valley campsite, and after 2 hours, had finally crested the last ridge of rock separating us from the open air and the vast expanse of desert laid out before our tired eyes. As we looked down at the mesas, dunes, and sheer cliffs of the Castle Dome mountains, we were stilled into silence, a sense of awe palpable in the air. 10 days into our expedition, it had finally struck us all – the realization that we were well and truly on an adventure, and the harsh, beautiful wilderness of the KOFA Wildlife Refuge had come to be our home. For many of us, summiting that ridge, and seeing the desert plains far below was one of those crystal moments, a memory that simply freezes in your head and is the last puzzle piece needed to answer why we were here.
Each of us came to HMI a little over two weeks ago with a backpack of the essentials we needed to survive, all looking to answer the question of what the less inhabited parts of our world were like and what our place was in them. And while we came eager, many of us arrived with reservations. (I know I did!) As gap year students living through a pandemic, the Arizona desert and the wilds of Utah and Colorado were not where we expected to be– many of us were supposed to be our first year of college. While HMI may not be where we intended to go- we’ve ended up where we are supposed to be.
Our journeys to HMI started all the way last fall, when each of us took the first step of applying, but it wasn’t till we arrived in the parking lot at the Phoenix airport on that first Tuesday that we really understood that we were here and ready to go. On paper, we knew what lay ahead of us: backpacking, rafting the Grand Canyon, telemark skiing, and first–and perhaps most dauntingly–two weeks in the harsh Arizona desert in the KOFA national wildlife refuge. We were here to discover new places and have experiences, and what we realized in those first couple of days was that discovery required us to leave everything we knew behind.
Quickly, we settled into new lives and new routines. In our first few days before leaving for expedition, we were taught how to clean stoves, set up tarps, pack food rations, and read topographic maps. Once we entered the KOFA, each day brought a new challenge. Whether that was cooking our first cheesy pasta, making our first dry camp, finding our first water tank, digging our first poop holes, or navigating with just a map and a willingness to go forward, we lived through a whirlwind of change. Beyond the routine, there was the landscape itself; as our friend Nick described it, “a juxtaposition of nature–harsh and beautiful, rich and barren, challenging and rewarding.” Each day, we were prepared for dust to make its way into our clothes, our packs to grow heavier as we carried our own water, and little cactus barbs to prick us at every opportunity. Even as we dealt with these challenges, we were rewarded with the gorgeous setting and diversity of wildlife that the desert had to offer. We saw big horn sheep and desert lizards; we went from wide-open valleys to sheer cliffs. Trekking in the KOFA was likely one of the most challenging things any of us have ever done, but our time there was among the best.
And while it was hard–a hike to De La Osa well and a heroic 7 mile effort to find water come to mind–the friendships we formed and memories we made along the way have made it all worth it. As a group we have made birthday desserts, celebrated small moments, gone on day adventures, and been there for each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’ve never been part of an environment or a group of people that have grown together this quickly and experienced what we have, and our time in the KOFA national wildlife refuge has set a high bar for the rest of the semester.
Even as we prepare to depart for the Paria Canyon tomorrow, many of us are already missing the desert we have just left behind. I think it says a lot that we are already nostalgic for a place we were in 36 hours ago. And that nostalgia is not just for the gorgeous fields of cactus, the red rock cliffs, and the deep-hued sunsets, but for the sense of adventure and community that permeated all aspects of our life there. Getting to spend any time, much less two weeks, in such a unique place is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and while last month many of us were scared to set foot in the desert, I can confidently say that we have no regrets about our time there.
Mark Twain once said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” More than anything, our expedition in the KOFA showed us that discovery has drawn us here and will continue to inspire us in the weeks to come. As high school graduates and gap year students, we are leaving home for the first time and building lives by ourselves. For the past 18 or 19 years, we’ve been tethered to our homes and our schools, and now, we’re setting sail.
The expeditions to come and the future itself is full of the unknown, but deep down, we all know that we can’t wait to discover new places and new shores without having the courage to say goodbye, even for a time, to what we know. So as we set out for the rest of the semester, we are ready for the challenges that await. Our first expedition was intensely difficult and amazingly rewarding, and we cannot wait to continue our journey of discovery and adventure with HMI. While we miss home, we could not be more excited for the things that are to come, and we are so happy to be spending this time together.