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Guestwords: The Yalie on the Bus

Wed, 03/20/2024 - 16:50
John Avlon backpacking in the Superstition Mountains in 1992.
Walt Linck

Imagine — or dream — this. You're riding the bus to school, but suddenly . . . rub your eyes . . . that bus becomes your "classroom" of an unusual sort (texts and library books reside on shelves in the far back, above a musical instrument bin and across from jangling pots and pans), and outside you see the scenery has been transformed into the whole Four Corners region of the American Southwest: now your "school."     

For the fullest college term imaginable, you find yourself beginning your studies with about 15 other ambitious students and a couple of faculty (who drive the bus), learning about the region's environment and environmental issues, its history and the different cultures there, all while you're on the road and determining much of the shape of your semester's unique educational route with your fellow students via consensus decision-making. You travel via the bus on the roads, of course, but also by hiking boots on rugged foot trails and by canoe on the water, and you sleep only on the ground in tents or under the tarp you've learned to cleverly string between trees, shrubs, and cacti. (You learn the name of those cacti and become very proficient in tying monkey-fist knots.)     

You are often tired and a bit dirty — taking showers being a wonderful luxury whenever you find yourself staying at, say, a Forest Service campground. But each school day usually doesn't end until it's dark and you're sitting in a circle with everyone else, and you've finished processing the day's experiences together — having discussed what you did and learned, and often also what you thought and felt about that learning. You come to discover that what you pick up from this nightly exercise adds tremendously to what you'd have picked up just on your own, without the benefit of having heard so much from the others about it.     

A few decades ago, all of this was not some startling dream, though; it was real for some students. I know because I was a faculty member on "The Bus." For four years in the early 1990s, I taught for the Audubon Expedition Institute's unique, experiential program in environmental studies. And I would bet the ranch that in the 30 years the A.E.I. program operated across the continent, with many of its students taking a term away from some other college or university (other than A.E.I.'s accreditor, Lesley College), the number of Yalies who opted to leave their comfortable, ivied campus haven in Connecticut and hop up onto The Bus for this type of educational adventure was exactly one: John Avlon.     

The 12-week spring term when John joined us was unique in its interdisciplinary details, but typical of A.E.I.'s program in broad sweep: We hiked a desert loop in the Superstition Mountains and paddled the Green River through Canyonlands National Park, lived with and learned from a traditional Diné (Navajo) family for nearly a week, practice-taught in one school, and examined a handful of pressing Southwestern environmental issues.     

How we went about examining environmental issues is what was especially important, though. Students were pushed to not just read about an issue, then discuss and debate it among themselves, but to really dive into it; they were made responsible for reaching out to and actually meeting the players (who became our "resource people") and for leading us to places of relevance whenever such trips could be helpful. I doubt the A.E.I. students who had this experience will ever forget their minute or two way high up in the control cockpit of one of those immense, cable-powered coal excavators on Black Mesa while a Diné man was operating it with video game-like control sticks, his thumbs moving so fast they were a blur . . . a second Diné man standing right next to him to be ready to quickly hop down into that seat in the event the current operator needed to go to the bathroom. Our evening processing became very interesting.     

Yes, it's fine and good to arrive in the Southwest with good environmentalist leanings and simply wanting to see the heavily polluting, coal-fired Navajo Generating Station shut down immediately. It's a tad tougher to hold steadfast to that view after seeing, up close, something of the difficult life on the Res, both away from and near the mine: getting a picture of one of the good jobs . . . witnessing the bed of a destitute Diné family's old pickup truck getting loaded with free heating coal, as one of two such free loads given by the company annually to each area family.     

You find yourself thinking a lot harder after experiences like that. You're willing to listen to everybody who might have some valuable input, because now it's more than some intellectual exercise; you've found yourself deeply invested in trying to come up with the best all-around solution to a truly difficult problem.     

John was one of the five or six students I advised on The Bus that spring. (The guy could write!) Much of the reason I remember him so well, though, is that, while he was clearly coming from a different place than the other students, he was truly one of our most resilient ones. He ate things up — alertly and joyfully — and aspects of those tougher experiences typical of our bus life seemed to roll off him like water off a duck's back.     

Which reminds me of the day he and I were conversing at some length as we backpacked closely together in the Superstition Mountains. Those are dry and hot desert mountains not far from Phoenix, and we'd of course become tired, and sweaty, when suddenly a rare rainfall swept in and caught us unprepared. We dropped our packs to the wet ground, took out and threw on our rain gear, and in the fun of it just started laughing.     

I seem to have only one photo of John from that semester, and thankfully it's a photo of him from that moment, hands on his hips and grinning. Which basically speaks to how I remember the young Mr. Avlon: kinda like a fun, surprise rain in the desert.     

"Manhattan elitist"?     

Nah. Thirty-two years have passed, but I know the fellow. Voters of Suffolk County need not worry about that nonsense.

Walt Linck lives in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

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