Photographs by Natalie Sommerville, '17, and Todd Lookingbill

Oct. 10
We awake in Las Vegas [1]. Beyond the hotels and casinos, mountains remind us of our purpose. Today’s mission: Death Valley.

The flat landscape stretches for miles to the base of rugged mountains. Although the overall tones are dusty browns and greens, there are layers of deep red and lighter tan. I sketch a Joshua tree in my notebook.

Peering over the edge of Zambriskie Point [2] into the folds and peaks of dusty land formations, we note the intense consequences of moisture deprivation. In Badwater Basin, we see a space so dehydrated that all that remains are piles of salt and extremophile bacteria.

Later, we rest on the Mesquite Dunes with fine, soft sand between our toes and watch the sun set over the Sierras.

MapOct. 11
After breakfast at Panamint Springs [3], we travel to Owens Valley. With both the moon and sun above the rocky hills, the scene mimics a desolate, untouched planet. The land feels absolutely limitless.

Atop a high hill in Big Pine Indian Reservation [4], we sit on an unimpressive pile of dusty boulders in the hot sun as Harry, a Paiute Tribe leader, tells us about growing up among these mountains and his tribe’s battles with California over water rights.

He tells us that our seats had once been under a waterfall, the centerpiece of a previously lush landscape. His final words to us: “Life is about balance.”

Oct. 12
Back on the road, we began to see vertical streaks of golden Aspens down green mountain sides, indicating the area’s riparian zones.

I am thankful for the more colorful palette and begin collecting samples for my notebook. The first is a fascicle of two lodgepole needles. I add brushgrass, lichen, fir, cedar, and dogwood throughout the day.

We enter Yosemite National Park [5] and begin our hike to Lembert Dome. Although the altitude makes breathing difficult, we are committed to reaching its highest peak, 9,455 feet above sea level.

After spider-crawling up the dome’s steep ledge, we are rewarded with a majestic 360-degree view. Squinting against the wind, I survey the land before me, noticing the sweet-smelling bark of the Jeffrey pine, the smoke of a small forest fire, and the white snow of a glacier in the distance.

On another hike, in Toulumne Grove, we walk among sequoias thousands of years old.

Oct. 13
I tape two aspen leaves and what I believe is a columbine blossom in my notebook as we drive to Mono Lake, where the water is very alkaline because of its location in an endorheic basin surrounded by mountains. No fish live here, only flies, shrimp, snails, and such.

Above 10,000 feet in Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, we learn to read the signs of stress and adaptation in the rings of trees.

Back in Vegas. As much fun as it is to watch the Bellagio’s fountain show, I recall Harry’s words. Las Vegas is out of balance. The casino lights are alluring, but are they superior to the clear view of Orion’s Belt we saw in Panamint Springs?

Want more? Check out maps, photos, descriptions, and even the class's group capstone papers on the website the students built to recap their experience.