Spoiler Alert: This Desert Southwest love story ends in heartache—we don’t end up together, the timing is wrong and tears are shed. But contrary to what I thought at the time, this story is far from being bad. It’s actually quite the opposite. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
My Professional Debut in Outdoor Education
Once upon a time, I got a summer internship with Outward Bound working at the southwest base located within the ancestral lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) nations near Moab, Utah. As a junior in college, this internship was my professional debut in the field of outdoor education. It was my first time transitioning from a student role into an Instructor role—needless to say, I was stoked.
The Desert Southwest and I took like silt to water—we were inseparable. Our love was bold, passionate, heart-achingly beautiful, world-shattering and insufferably HOT. This is the desert in summertime after all. The fragrance of that summer trailed behind me for months, popping up in candles, soaps and kitchens and throwing me into spiraling noodles of nostalgia. The sight of sandstone, the smell of coffee beans, the feeling of sunscreen soaking into my skin and the sounds of a whirring plug-in fan back at basecamp are all sensory reminders of my summer with the beautiful desert.
An Emotional Connection
Of course, it wasn’t just the beauty of the Des’ that had me entranced, though the stark orange cliffs jutting into cathedral cloud blue skies and the forever storm-topped cluster of swooning La Sal mountains are visually stunning to say the least. It was deeper than that. There was an emotional connection. An imagination connection. The desert’s artistry in carving canyons and painting skylines inspired me to write poetry and shape clay. The Desert Southwest and I became great friends over watercolors and riverside picnics, swimming together in the Colorado River and watching the colors of sunset blaze through the surrounding cliffs into darkness.
The Backdrop of My Work
As a field intern, the desert was the backdrop of my work. I learned how to drive a hefty truck over bumpy dirt roads to deliver food rations to a backpacking course. I learned how to slowly back a trailer full of rafting gear down the boat ramp for our rafting expeditions. I learned how to slice a huge block of cheese into smaller blocks for backcountry recipes. And in all these things, I learned that a large amount of effort, time and care goes into the logistics of Outward Bound courses—behind-the-scenes work that I really enjoyed.
In addition to that kind of work, I had several opportunities to instruct courses and be directly in the action. Dylan, Harmony and Mitch were my first Co-Instructors and things could not have been sillier. We giggled over the eight days of a youth rafting course, teaching students how to captain rafts and set up sleeping shelters. To celebrate the end of our student’s Solo, my Co-Instructors and I made a Dutch oven casserole recipe involving corn tortillas and copious amounts of cheese, perhaps one of the cheese blocks I mentioned previously). As we spooned this delicious food into our mouths around the dinner circle, a student said something hilarious and I cried laughing. Thanks to a large collection of goofy new friends, I was learning to take myself less seriously.
A View From the Other Side
The Desert Southwest and I danced our way to August with star-studded moonscapes above our heads and dusty rockscapes beneath our feet. I’d fully embraced the idea of zest, a word that spoke to vibrant colors and the wisdom found in joy. A word that’s engraved into someone with an indefatigable spirit. Students from various courses expressed their own versions of this feeling gleaned from the magic unique to their course area and group. I smiled, remembering my own powerful student experience and realized that I was now in a position to help facilitate those experiences for others.
It was strange to be on the other side of things. Comparing the detailed course itineraries, lesson plans and packing lists I now knew, contrasted with the spontaneous experiences I’d had as a student. I missed the serendipitous magic that occurred outside with a group of humans without a second thought as to how or why the magic happened. Once I realized how many structures were set in place to successfully facilitate a course, my world shifted.
A Bittersweet Goodbye
By mid-August, it was time to return to school. I left the warehouse in tears after hugging my new friends goodbye and placing notes in the rooms of friends out on course. The red rocks, silty waters and prickly plants held on to a piece of my body with a bittersweet wrenching. I sang loudly on the long highway heading north, feeling enormously small and incredibly loved. It was goodbye for now to the beautiful Desert Southwest.
At the end of that first summer with Outward Bound, I was a weathered and glowing version of my earlier hotshot self, humbled by a summer of loving big and leaning forward.
Four years and one pandemic later, I sit in a dark basement in the soggy Pacific Northwest facetiming a dear friend. My hair is shorter, my body fuller, the blissfully ignorant memories of summer internships and lazy river days further away. We are speaking the desert into existence, reminiscing about our favorite places, only to realize they are remarkable moments in time rather than repeatable locations on a map.
Much extends beyond the end of my Desert Southwest love story, similar to the transference a student experiences at the end of a course. At the end of that first summer with Outward Bound, I was a weathered and glowing version of my earlier hotshot self, humbled by a summer of loving big and leaning forward.
About the Author
Sabrina Stein is an Assistant Instructor for the Northwest Outward Bound School and a Logistics Coordinator for the Colorado Outward Bound School Southwest Program. She is drawn to the tenacity of life in Southwestern deserts and the magic of rivers everywhere. Sabrina pursues rafting as a means to both, and for the added benefit of strong arms and a flexible mentality. Other hobbies include writing, reading, drinking coffee, getting haircuts, singing extremely loud in the car and source-to-sea rafting trips. She will bake you cookies if you hang out with her long enough.
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