Backstory: Roads Scholars

A program at Whitman College sends students on the road for three months to learn about issues in the American West.

While home for the holidays, millions of college students regaled their parents about the state of enlightenment in Ivory Tower America. Kate Greenberg, a sophomore from Minneapolis, did something more basic – tried to reacclimate herself to taking hot showers and sleeping indoors without the shrill serenade of coyotes.

Ms. Greenberg, an environmental studies major at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., is recently back from an epic 100-day trip across the American West that was part of an unusual experiment in higher education.

She and 20 other students ventured forth from their manicured campus in southeastern Washington to encounter snakes, snowstorms, and insouciant flash floods in their journey from the Mexican border up through Oregon. This wasn't a semester abroad. It was a semester alfresco. Call them Roads Scholars.

The group dodged smoke clouds to better understand federal wildfire policy. They sat beneath salmon sandstone cliffs where Anasazi artisans made petroglyphs centuries ago. They plied the same paths that illegal immigrants from Mexico take to find a new life today in the US.

More important than what they learned about the American West, however, may be what they learned about themselves. By being thrust into some of the most contentious cultural and environmental issues this side of the Mississippi, the students ended up challenging – even overturning – some of their most cherished notions about the politics of the region. "You can't go where we've been and not be changed," says Greenberg.

***

The program is called, appropriately enough, "Semester in the West." It may not be the equivalent of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," but there is a bit of Ken Kesey present in the class.

The program has its own fleet of vehicles – a trailer and passenger vans equipped with walkie-talkie-style radios. These enable group conversations and lectures to take place as the students whiz by notable landmarks in the region.

Dubbed "Furthur II" in homage to the bus made legendary by Kesey, the main trailer has a satellite Internet connection that allows students to do online research and prepare for their next guest speaker. It is also equipped with a 150-book library – tomes on Western history, literature, and environmental policy.

For their three-month odyssey, the students earn a full semester of credits: four each in politics, environmental studies, biology, and writing & rhetoric. They write several papers during the trip, and one final piece – a "capstone epiphany" – is delivered with slides to a campus-wide audience.

The Semester in the West's chief tour guide and provocateur is Phil Brick – a fleece-wearing professor with wire-rim glasses who looks as if he could be a cross-country runner. He sees the program providing students with an unvarnished and often unpredictable view of regional issues.

"Semester in the West is all about rocking students off balance a bit with their preconceived notions of what the West is," he says, during a stopover in dusty Wells, Nev. "So often the cast of characters out here is divided into two groups: heroes and villains, friends and foes."

Although Whitman is a small liberal arts college, Mr. Brick and colleagues were careful to not devise a curriculum that might be mistaken as a boot camp for aspiring environmentalists. Issues were examined through the lens of many different characters – ranchers, miners, native Americans, tourism promoters. "If anything, we went in the opposite direction," Brick says.

Similarly, any students who thought they were signing up for a three-month course in backpacking, sleeping late, and sloughing off were in for a wiff of smelling salts. "One of the things I won't miss are the days where we had to rise at 4 a.m. and travel hundreds of miles to reach our next destination," says Ginny Robbins of Bend, Ore.

Matt Cameron, a biology major from Anchorage, Alaska, says there were no all-nighters spent cramming for exams, but many an evening of debate around campfires. The group threw Robert's Rules of Order to the chinook winds. Shaggy-haired and bearded from the trip, Mr. Cameron gleaned insights into civics and even the importance of the Constitution.

"The one issue that stands out most for me is water," says the student attired in Carhartt trousers, the group's unofficial grunge uniform. "Living in the desert for the past three months, it became so evident why the limited availability of water has defined conflict in the past, and it represents huge problems for the future."

Many students were seeing the complexities of the region close-up for the first time. While in Mexico, they surveyed the proposed route of a 700-mile fence along the US border. Later, they met with border patrol agents and saw illegal immigrants who had been placed in detention.

In New Mexico, they learned about nature's capacity to recover, focusing on plants returning to blighted landscapes. On the Navajo Reservation, they lunched with tribal elders and came to understand why some Navajos reject the trappings of the material world. In Jackson Hole, Wyo., in contrast, they got a glimpse of the gilded world of the rich.

"I thought I knew the West from watching Hollywood movies and taking hiking trips to Montana and Wyoming," says Greenberg. "But as a region it's far more complicated and confusing than I ever imagined."

***

Many of the students, who grew up in liberal urban communities, were venturing into some of the most politically conservative terrain in the country. They ended up being rocked. In Idaho, the group rendezvoused with Jon Marvel, a crusader for having all private cattle booted off public Western rangeland. He convinced many students of the harm the cattle do to the fragile environment. Then they traveled down the road and met with Steve and Robin Boies, two ranchers.

"You could see the students warming up to the Boieses and turning sympathetic about their desire to make a living," says Brick.

At the mammoth Cortez gold mine in Nevada, where cyanide is used to bind together gold flakes, the students witnessed hundreds of tons of earth being bulldozed just to create a single ingot. Many were dumbstruck. Their instinct was to condemn mining. Then they met the engineers and were invited to watch a raw ingot being poured. They saw the issue wasn't so black and gold. Brick heightened the moral tension. "Where do you think the gold around your neck and the jewelry on your fingers comes from?" he asked. "If not here, then from some other place like it."

On the last night at the Boies ranch in rural Nevada, snow flurries and freezing temperatures sent the students scurrying for cover in a barn. Ms. Robbins camped out in a bivouac sack, taking in the elements one final time.

Coyotes howled. The wind roared. It was a fitting end to the trip – a last dose of the hard realities of a region she found more complicated than anything portrayed in a Clint Eastwood movie.

"I'll never be able to think about the West the same way again," she says. "It's not nearly as romantic as it used to be."

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