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A Welcome Note From Your Instructor

Dear Fellow Traveler,

Imagine yourself sitting on the banks of a mighty and muddy river, your toes dipped into the cold water. Upstream loom the sheer rocky peaks of the high Rockies, the last of their glaciers melting into the river. Downstream past concrete dams, winding red rock canyons, fields of lettuce, and a dry delta, lies the Pacific Ocean. Over the past thousand years, these waters have known the feet of fisherfolk and traders, the roots of desert corn and beans, the boots of Spanish military invaders, and the rubber rafts of river runners. This river has seen cities in the desert rise and fall in the cycles of floods and drought. As disparate groups of people fight for their own visions of the desert in the southwestern United States, the river has always been at the center, flowing through its canyons.

My name is Jeff, and I’m honored to be your instructor on our journey through the Colorado River Basin this semester. Many of my friends and students know me as a “world traveler,” and indeed, I’ve spent many years outside of North America. When I began traveling outside the United States ten years ago, it was the Himalaya and Southeast Asia that captured my heart. As I explored them, I began to meet activists, villagers, spiritual teachers, artists, and all kinds of other people who claim unique places in our global community. That first year, I lived in a high mountain valley that held a lake like a bright blue jewel in the middle. Every morning across the lake, the Muslim call to prayer from the masjid echoed through the continual ringing of bells from little Hindu mandirs and chanting from beneath the prayer flags of the Tibetan Buddhist gompa. As I stepped outside of the world that I knew, I found not just another world, but dozens of unique and complementary worlds living side-by-side, each of which held a reality that was vibrant, full of life, and far more complex and interesting than I thought was possible. As I abandoned the well-trod tourist paths, I began to meet people who were eager to share their homes, their cultures, their languages, and their stories with me.

And every year, I found myself again on the banks of the Colorado River. I could just never get out of my head images of colorful canyon walls reflected in the river at sunset. As I began to see deeper and deeper into the many layers of our world’s interwoven cultures and histories, I began to see those same layers present here in the canyons and mountains of the arid American West. In a way, it’s like standing at the Bears Ears, an important rock formation at the heart of Cedar Mesa, Utah. From the Bears Ears, you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction: to the Navajo Nation in the south, the San Juan mountains in Colorado, to Navajo Mountain and Shiprock and Monument Valley. To the untrained eye, the landscape around Bears Ears appears just as the American West did in my childhood: a pretty desert, mostly flat and featureless.

When you begin to walk across that landscape though, you find that it’s not at all what it appeared. Even a hundred feet away, you sometimes cannot detect the canyons cut through layers of red and purple and orange stone. Azure streams pour out of dry canyon walls, forests of willow and cottonwood grow in the shade, and plants hang upside down from the roofs of stone amphitheaters, drinking water from dripping springs.

From a distance, most people are trained to see the surface of the American West: sunny skies, pretty mountains, cactuses, camping, rafting, skiing. It’s like walking on top of a mesa on the Colorado Plateau. You see a single landscape. The history and culture of the Colorado River Basin is like the layers of sandstone on the Colorado Plateau though, and on this course, I’m excited to journey into the canyons of that landscape with you, where every layer is exposed into a complex, beautiful, and harsh landscape. There is not one story of the Colorado River.

I’ve been a nomad for the past ten years; as the seasons changed, I’ve often found a way to pack up and move. During the winters, I’ve helped to run in a small community of educators and activists at a wolf sanctuary in southern Colorado. There, I lived in tipis, built solar-heated and solar-powered buildings, and enjoyed a simple, communal life in the mountains. We took care of captive wolves that hadn’t worked out as pets and educated people about sustainable living, ecology, and why wolves should not be in cages. Leaving the wolf sanctuary, I began big journeys as a Dragons instructor, embarking on semesters in the Himalayas, the Andes, the Amazon, and the Mekong River Basin. The past nine years I’ve spent my summers leading backpacking trips for NOLS in the big wilderness of the American West. This will be my eleventh course with Dragons, and I’m happy to have you along for the journey.

Right now, I’m sitting next to my garden in Boulder, Colorado, trying to live a slow and simple life in our busy world. This week, as I was harvesting seeds that I’m breeding to grow in this harsh climate, I was talking with a friend about the concept of home in our modern world and what we learn from leaving home. It’s a big step, and my heart always feels some sadness in leaving. But then there’s the excitement of packing: the realization that life will become simpler when I’m living out of my tiny backpack. How little can I bring? What is truly essential for my happiness? Why do I even own anything more? There’s the new landscapes and new people. There’s the explosion of new thoughts and ideas, of optimism for the future, of seeing truly what this world is, where it is going, and what my place in it might be tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

I’ve spent my life trying to answer some of those big questions: How can we best live in the world? How can we help to build a future that is good for generations to come? What does a truly happy society look like? What does it mean to be alive at a time when so much is changing? For years, I’ve worked with amazing Dragons instructors in Asia and Latin America to find answers in the remote mountains of the world and on the banks of the great rivers: Mekong, Ganges, Amazon. I’m so excited to begin the work of finding answers that are closer to home. 

I heard once that the best journeys answer questions which at the beginning, we didn’t even think to ask. I hope the Colorado River can offer us all something wonderful, whether or not we know we’re looking for it. The world offers itself to those who seek to know it.

Until we meet, I’ll leave you with a poem:


Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End? by Mary Oliver


Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.

It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.


The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.

The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.

But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white

feet of the trees

whose mouths open.

Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?

Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly, across Asia, then Europe,

until at last, now, they shine

in your own yard?

Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.

When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking

outward, to the mountains so solidly there

in a white-capped ring, or was he looking

to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea

that was also there,

beautiful as a thumb

curved and touching the finger, tenderly,

little love-ring,

as he whirled,

oh jug of breath,

in the garden of dust?


Looking forward so much to meeting you all.