When someone asks a question like, “What is Cottonwood Gulch?” or “What is it that you do over there at the Gulch?” those of us who know and love the place are often at a loss for words. The central problem is that life at the gulch encompasses an enormous variety of activities and challenges: over the course of six weeks, a group like the Mountain Desert Trek will complete 3 backpacks, learn firsthand about a new culture on the Navajo Reservation, create silver jewelry and ceramic pottery, hear firsthand about the complex relationships between race and wilderness in New Mexico, hike to astonishing ruins and ghost towns with an archaeologist, investigate jaw-dropping rock formations with a geologist, dig through a recently burned forest, work with National Forest Rangers to plant trees that restore a degraded river system, play music, cook food, tend to our gardens, and sleep under the stars. To experience the Gulch is to experience the entire Southwest-it is a holistic experience, and one that will force you to return home with more questions than answers. This is intentional, and we believe it is an incredibly powerful and eye-opening way to spend a summer.
When we look down from above, the Gulch is ostensibly about backpacking, science, art, food, and archaeology (and more). However, when you pore over end-of-summer trekker evaluations, or listen to what trekkers have to say when they return home, you begin to realize that backpacking up a mountain and catching those wily horned toads are small features of a deeper experience. For most trekkers (and, I dare say, most staff), the true benefits of the Gulch are more intangible, but they can be boiled down to a word with an appropriately broad and eyebrow-raising undertone: Discovery.
Discovery takes many forms, of course, but it always involves a change in how we see the world. Take a few examples from trekkers, in their own words.
“I learned that creativity is not something to fear, but rather something to embrace and unleash.”–Art and Music Trek 2013
“All I know is I’ve changed as a person because I feel different (in a good way)”–Outfit Expedition 2013
“I learned to never give up, thinking about my future and health, I realized I want to do so much more with my life and the Gulch made me look at the world differently.”–Art and Music Trek 2013
“Being part of the TT has really just exposed the independent woman inside of me. From the TT I learned I could be or do whatever I wanted, whether it be fighting fires or teaching in a classroom.”–Turquoise Trail 2013
“I’m taking home with me a sense of independence, ruggedness, and tolerance for dirt. I’m leaving behind any inhibitions I felt before coming here.”–Mountain Desert Trek 2012
“As parents, we were truly moved by the effect of the trip on our son. He just seemed happier and more open on his return. We were very impressed with everything about how the Gulch is run and in particular with the values which seem to be an inherent part of the place.”–Wild Country Trek Parent 2011
The changes in trekkers are profound, not only because they learn new artistic, scientific, and wilderness skills, but because they return home more confident, energetic, and capable of changing the world around them for the better.
The Gulch is a far-reaching, holistic program, and this model fosters discovery. It also means we have trouble telling our friends about the Gulch in fewer than 30 minutes. The ethos of the Gulch boils down to a feeling, and a set of beliefs. We believe that young adults need more eye-opening experiences, where they discover how invigorating it feels to catch a lizard with your own hands, or create your own piece of silver jewelry, or hike for 3 days to get to the top of a distant mountain. We believe the best education is one that combines depth with new, unexpected experiences. At the Gulch, we encourage trekkers who love pottery or lizards to, by all means, make pottery and catch lizards-but that’s only the beginning. We believe that the deeper change comes when you discover how the making of pottery has changed over the last 1,000 years-our archaeologist can help you do that. Or when you discover how different the world of horned toads looks from the top of a mountain-our backcountry experts can help you do that. You might love paleontology, but never knew that you loved cooking dessert after a long day of bone hunting. And among these bits of discovery, you begin to reexamine the world, and, in time, to reexamine yourself. What you find will often surprise you, in a beautiful and profound way.
In learning how to articulate those intangible benefits of trekking through the Southwest, those of us who live and breathe the Gulch are finding the words to explain our love of this place. Discovering new skills, new friends, and new interests are important life-altering-more than a few trekkers have used their Gulch experience to inspire a new career, or to inspire them to live in the Southwest. But the deeper discovery is one that is harder to articulate. It’s an intangible change that occurs slowly but profoundly. It’s the difference between a trekker on day 1 and day 36. It’s how you discover… you.