Desert Writing

By Alexa Hudson

I came to the Solstice MFA Program after years of teaching in the field of experiential education, and with a firm belief in the value of merging experiential and outdoor education with more traditional teaching pedagogies. After beginning the Teaching Pedagogy track, I began to design a course called Desert Writing. The idea was to take students into the mountains and desert to write. I suspected that the backdrop of wilderness, and the community formed in wilderness, would inform students’ writing processes. Already an Adjunct Faculty member at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, UT, I approached my department about adding Desert Writing to the course offerings for the following fall. They agreed.


At the end of September, seven students and I parked on the side of a road that runs between the Henry Mountains, the last range mapped in the lower-48, and an expanse of red rock canyons and sage-covered mesas that stretches east to Canyonlands National Park. We hiked into the sandy wash of Woodruff Canyon. It widened and deepened. The walls of the canyon changed from compressed dirt to two hundred foot high red sandstone, blackened in places from water runoff. We stopped, made camp. The blistering heat disappeared with the sun. Students spread across the sandstone with their notebooks, headlamps flicking on in the darkness. Below us, at the very bottom of the canyon, a spring trickled from the rock. This deep in the desert, movement and sound cease. It is absolutely still and quiet. Yet here, rising from the spring below, crickets and frogs chirped. We wrote beside the only sound for miles.

The following day, we hiked down canyon. We discovered the spring grew into a stream that would spread across the earth and come back together in deep pools. From this water grew tall grasses, twice the size of us, which we slipped through. I asked students to notice the colors of sandstone, the frog sitting still, the feel of weeds. We stopped and made notes. We would use these images in future writing. We hiked up along a sandy bench that met the canyon wall. In our roaming, I found an overhang, an open cave, and we gathered there. I had asked students to research something about the area in which we were walking. We heard about the collared lizard, the Anasazi cliff dwellers, and the exoskeletons of ancient sea creatures compressed into rock. Students recorded the names they heard in these presentations, and these lists we later used in a writing exercise, modified from Brian Kiteley’s The 3A.M. Epiphany. In another prompt, I augmented a John Gardner exercise by asking students to describe the canyon wall from the perspective of a person whose daughter has just died in a car accident. That night, in the darkness and against the backdrop of the crickets and frogs, we read our writing aloud.

In this last month of the semester, we are structuring our generative work into pieces of fiction, non-fiction or poetry (students’ choice) which students will revise into a final project. I do not know what effect the mountains and desert will have on these final pieces, but I have my suspicions. After all, it takes just a few moments of remembering the cool relief of a cave to hear words trickling in from some deep and unmapped place.

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