Postcards from the West

An expedition unlike any other takes students and faculty out of the classroom, across the states, and into the heart of the West

Earlier this year, 14 students from the Expedition into the Wild: National Parks in the American West course set out with faculty leaders for a trip the first of its kind at Lees-McRae. 
The spring course was an interdisciplinary collaboration between the English, History, and Outdoor Recreation Management (ORM) programs that focused on the literature and history surrounding the national parks in the western U.S. throughout the years.

An outgrowth of preexisting curricular offerings, the Expedition into the Wild course came about after Program Coordinator for ORM Katie Wall searched for ways for students to learn about America’s national parks with an experiential opportunity built in. Both the English and History programs place a large emphasis on environmentalism and the history of conservation—so the course and its accompanying trip was a perfect fit for all programs involved.
As part of the course curriculum, students discussed the origins of the nation’s western parks and the national parks system as a whole, practiced writing poetry, debated current issues and challenges in the park system, and read authors like Edward Abbey.

(From left to right) Program Coordinator for History Scott Huffard, Assistant Professor of English Matthew Wimberley, and Program Coordinator for Outdoor Recreation Management Katie Wall stand together with the Grand Canyon in the backdrop.

“This trip was an extension of the classroom,” Program Coordinator for History Scott Huffard said. “The travel experience was in many ways the culmination of a semester worth of study.”
In addition to Wall and Huffard, leading the pack was also Assistant Professor of English Matthew Wimberley.  

That morning, the group headed out on a two-week-long journey starting at Flagstaff, Arizona, and ending in Salt Lake City, Utah, stopping at several national parks along the way as part of the Expedition into the Wild course curriculum. 

From hiking the Grand Canyon, trekking Zion National Park, mountain biking in Moab, fly-fishing at the Grand Tetons, spending time at Yellowstone, and partaking in an overnight rafting trip on the Colorado River, students and faculty were faced with experiences that opened their eyes to what nature can offer with challenges that shaped their academic experience along the way. 

On the trip, in addition to Wall, Huffard, and Wimberley, were students Ericah Beason, Madison Snotherly, Tom Clement, Haley Fisher, Ryan McSwain, Brett Page, Cody Simmons, Hannah Cargill, Devon Schaffer, Matthew Combs, Elissa Small, Carter Tanney, Avery Lineberger, and Jade Dentzman.

Along the journey, students filled out postcards to send back to their families and friends, each from a different location across the map. Experience as 14 students adventure across the West, and see how learning can come from way beyond the classroom. 


Grand Canyon National Park and the South Rim

“The sun is going down in the Grand Canyon. It is quiet and we are all taken aback by the beauty. Wish everyone at Lees-McRae could see! A good way to end my senior year! –Ericah Beason ’19”

The iconic Grand Canyon National Park, located approximately 40 miles north of Flagstaff, was one of the first major stops on the expedition. A mile deep at its furthest point, travelers from across the globe—nearly 6.8 million visitors in 2018—flock to the canyon to hike, tour by way of mule, and raft. 

For the group, it was the first taste for what was to come. Following a day of hiking the South Rim, the students settled down to camp at the Mather Campground located near Grand Canyon Village. 

Wimberley shared how the first day opened the eyes of his students who, at first, may have been skeptical of combining a trip out West with literature and history. 

“On the first day at the Grand Canyon, I had them read a story from Barry Lopez, trying to get them into the spirit of the landscape,” he said. “Then, we set out for the South Rim. Almost immediately students were coming up to me asking me about the story, recalling images from Lopez that seemed appropriate for the views we had from the high canyon wall. One student shared that he’d written a Haiku inspired by the landscape—a practice he would continue each day for the entirety of our time in the West.”

In fact, Outdoor Recreation Management major Matthew Combs ’20 went on to write thirty haikus as part of a reflection during his time throughout the expedition.

“These haiku are the thirty I felt best represented what I felt during the expedition,” Combs said.

In one of those, he wrote:

Don’t question your route-
Follow the path your heart wants,
Let your mind be clear.

“The wilderness is a place to test things, to gain the knowledge that exists in databases but can only truly be appreciated in person,” Combs said in a later reflection about his work. “The wilderness is beautiful, vast, and has many lessons to teach you, provided that you are able to humble yourself long enough to accept them.”


The next day, the group descended six miles to the valley floor—a grueling hike in the 90 degree heat, Wimberley said. 

“When we arrived at our destination—a rock outcropping overlooking the Colorado river, still a hundred feet below—one of the students pulled out her book of poetry and began reading.” 

Wimberley said the energy from that afternoon carried on for the rest of the trip. 

“One student read from a book of Wendell Berry’s poetry to the group one night after dinner,” he said. “At various other times I would stop the group and read from a book of poems to them, trying to find some language that had moved me, in hopes it would do the same for them.”

Wall said it was refreshing and rewarding to watch the students experience the Grand Canyon National Park and intertwine the beauty of nature with art, history, and poetry. 

“Seeing outdoor recreation management students engage in poetry and reading at such depths on this trip was a true unique experience,” she said. “As a trip leader, with so much to focus on risk management, outdoor living skills, outdoor ethics, logistics, group dynamics, etc. there can sometimes be little room for other important educational experiences.”

Criminal Justice major Madison Snotherly ’19, who had never been out West, shared her experience exploring the Grand Canyon for the first time and diving headfirst into the first major stop on the expedition.

“I thought that I would be prepared for the Canyon—I wasn’t,” she said. “At first sight, it was almost a religious experience for myself, which is saying a lot because I am not a very religious person. But, it felt like I was looking at something precious and holy—something truly bigger than myself and all of us. It was like in that moment, something in me was woken up.”


Bryce Canyon National Park

“Went to Bryce Canyon and it started snowing as soon as we got there so it looked a lot like this post card. We enjoyed a nice little hike into the canyon and got to see all of the hoodoos. –Devon Schaffer ’20

Nearly halfway through the trip, the group had made their way to Bryce Canyon National Park located in southern Utah. There, the students and leaders would take on a few more hikes, including one in nearby Capitol Reef, before camping in Sand Creek. 

At this point, six days into their journey, fatigue and the challenges of an expedition of its kind began to rise to the surface. As they were about to head out for their first adventure, snow began to fall, creating logistical challenges in addition to a harsher environment to explore. 

“Days like [that] can test everyone’s patience and resilience,” Wall said. “This can make for added challenges for a group living in such close quarters with many demanding responsibilities [such as] setting up tents, backcountry cooking, cleaning dishes, and packing.”

However, Wall said that testing and exploring beyond the comfort zone is where students tend to learn and retain the most. 

“We often learn the most from the things that challenge us, the things that are hard, and the things that are outside of our comfort zone,” she added. “As an educator, it’s important that we both support and challenge our students—an expedition like this [was] the perfect place to do [that].” 

Wildlife Biology major Devon Schaffer ’20 said that even though he was comfortable with the outdoors, pulling in elements of writing and poetry with it brought that exact challenge.

“Having the support of my instructors and fellow students, I felt comfortable putting my feelings on paper in a way I had never felt before,” he said. “Poetry was not the only thing I took away from this class by a long shot…but it was truly one of the greatest experiences I have ever had largely due to how it encouraged me to think more thoroughly about what it meant [to take a trip like this.]”

Combs went on to write another haiku focused on the day and the weather that surprisingly came with it.

A sudden wonder
White ice falling from the sky
Strangely warms my heart.

(Left to right) Tom Clement, Devon Schaffer, and Jade Dentzman pose for a photo as the snow begins to move in to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Canyonlands National Park

“Just got off a scenic trail with beautiful views. The camp site was up on a mesa and the full moon was beautiful. –Ellissa Small ’20

The next day, the group traveled to Canyonlands National Park, the largest national park in Utah. There, exactly halfway through the trip, the group would be able to witness The Needles, one of the four districts the park is divided into.  

“For me, the [height of the students’] enthusiasm happened toward the end of the first week as we camped outside of Canyonlands National Park,” Wimberley said. “Our campsite was walled by a towering rock formation that rose 100 feet from the desert floor. Easily scalable, a group of five students set up their campsite on top of the formation. As daylight fell over the horizon one of the students asked if I would join them and recite a few poems. Suddenly, the world was opening up to them in very real ways. The classroom became the moment."

Hannah Cargill ’20 reads a book of poetry along the banks of the Colorado River.

Outdoor Recreation Management major Tom Clement ’21 said that even though he never really wrote poetry, the night they spent in Canyonlands National Park he began to feel inspired and decided to do something about it.

“The moon was incredible that night, so bright that we hardly needed our headlamps to find our way up the steep canyon walls to the place we had chosen to call home for that particular night of our trip,” Clement said.

The first stanza of Clement’s poem wrote:

A thousand jewels, scattered
Across a swatch of midnight blue velvet
Centered by a shining
Silver dollar,
Almost and eye,
That stares into mine

Similar to Clement’s experience above, Huffard said one of his highlights of the trip was watching the students engage more and more with writing.

“It was cool to see students sit and write postcards, or jot down lines of poetry that relate to the experience,” he said.

Arches National Park 

“Today, I mountain biked for the first time. I was really nervous, but my group’s moral helped me persevere and push myself. I have fallen in love with the West. –Carter Tanney ’21”

Just north of Moab, Utah lies Arches National Park. The site of more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the Delicate Arch (see photo below).

“Arches was completely wild,” Wildlife Biology major Ericah Beason ’19 said. “Our group got to the campsite right before the sun set and we were able to go exploring right behind the site we were at. There were hidden trails and animal paths which led directly in front of one of the arches. This was probably the best night I had at camp. Being able to just walk around and explore a completely different landscape was insane.” 

Wall said that it was this time in the field that was crucial to the education of the students, regardless of their major.

“Reading things from a book or discussing topics in a classroom may not provide the hands-on learning experience that is required of an outdoor professional [or] many of our students,” she said. “Extended amounts of time in the field allows people to learn perseverance, appreciation of nature, and grit.”

Huffard mirrored Wall’s comments saying that the trip had provided their students with skills that will help them not only in their careers, but also their entire lives.

“The entire group really had to bond and come together, and having the ability to work effectively with a group of diverse people with very different personalities is a great skill,” he said. “Students also learned leadership skills as we had them plan out days and lead activities.”

Snotherly agreed saying, “I learned a lot about myself through searching inward, but I also feel like I learned a lot about working in a group dynamic and how to focus on the importance of the group instead of just myself.”

Adventures can be challenging, but are worth every bit of “ups” and “downs,” Wall shared. “You’ll look back on experiences like this as some of the most rewarding experiences of your life!”

Students gaze in awe at one of the 2,000 natural sandstone arches located in Arches National Park. This arch, called the Delicate Arch, is the most famous arch in the park and is even featured on the State of Utah license plate.

While at Arches National Park, Beason wrote a poem that expressed her gratitude and bitter-sweet goodbye as the group moved on.

Smiling rock—

New faces smile their graces
Of the days spent away

From the turmoil of society
The backlash of pain
O’ happy day

Joyful chatter
New friends create
A blissful getaway

Until the next adventure 

On May 12, 2019, students and faculty left campus to head out west for a two-week expedition exploring several U.S. national parks. In addition to those parks mentioned above, the group also explored Zion, Capitol Reef, Moab, Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone national parks where they mountain biked, rafted, and fly fished in addition to daily camping and hiking adventures.

Learn more about upcoming expeditions and plan for the adventure of a lifetime

By Nina MastandreaOctober 01, 2019