Since its inception in 2002, Semester in the West has camped on Comb Ridge outside of Bluff, UT. The ridge, an upthrust of Navajo Sandstone, extends from the Abajo Mountains in Utah in the north to Kayenta, Arizona in the south. Each generation of Westies has spent a week exploring the ridge, attending a writing workshop with local authors and many consider the camp and the ridge that envelops it to be the spiritual center of the program. On October 19, 2016, Utah's State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) held an auction for a 320 acre parcel on the Comb that contains Semester in the West's camp, cutting off public access.. In this post, multiple generations of Semester in the West students share writing, poetry and photography inspired by their time on Comb Ridge in remembrance of a place rooted in all our hearts.
Thomas Meinzen, SITW '16, excerpt from Closing Circles
Comb Ridge has eyes.
Eyes for seeing the sea that no human was alive to see,
eyes to continue the age-old dance of water and light and life,
eyes to reflect me into this place.
Water-filled pits of stone to the skimming glance, a long stare into the tenahas of southern Utah opens a window into living memory. For millions of years, an ocean tickled the shores of this cracked land with tendrils of blue and green. Now only the tenahas remain, a vestige of the sea’s vast diversity of color and movement and creation, aquatic soliloquies to the silence of aridity.
Gaea Campe, SITW '10, excerpt from Dwelling in the Desert
….Comb Ridge stretches like the spinal vertebrae of a colossal beast across 120 miles of Utah and Arizona desert. As we hiked out onto the Comb, the escarpment appeared inhospitable to little more than sagebrush lizards and rattlesnakes. Barren aside from a few dwarfed pinyons braving the thin soils, it’s hard to grasp that the Anasazi people inhabited this bone of desert for hundreds of generations. I look at the rock for a long time before I notice shapes carved by a force more deft than the grind of the wind and the reckless tumult of geology. A kiva balances beneath a rock ledge such that it barely deviates from the contour of the surrounding bluffs. Born from the same palette of beige and umber, the manmade structure is almost indiscernible from the natural rock formation. Its continuity with the sandstone is so seamless, a hiker momentarily distracted by conversation, might miss it all together.
Gabrielle Boisrame, SITW '08, Comb Ridge as an Old Woman
Plastic, molten stone buckles and warps below,
Its motions have affected mine.
Layers of sand lain flat by ancient oceans
Which I’d kept hidden beneath my lush green flesh
Rose from dark depths in isostatic struggles
And over many lifetimes eroded, eroded
Washed away by waters which once formed me
But now so quickly seem to drag me always down.
This continues still as I stand, what’s left of me
Softness stolen and replaced with harsh but commanding lines
Cross-bedding and eclectic clasts
Unveiled for all the world to see.
And you wonder at my hanging valleys
Carved by streams whose cool beginnings now
Can barely be but guessed at
By those few who know me best.
Griffin Cronk, SITW '16, excerpt from The Sound of a Water Past
…The pounding, rushing, falling, flowing, slowing, trickling sounds reverberate across the landscape even after the rainwater has rushed away. These sounds pulse from within the rocks. I know because I’ve listened. The rocks told me as I lay pressed against them, whispering knowledge of this place, whispering its memory through my bare gooseflesh.
If you find yourself wandering tortuously through the desert look no further than the nearest wash. Sit in the sandstone shade. Press your hands or your cheek into the moon chilled ground. Wait for a lizard to scurry by and perform a set of pushups for you. In water’s negative space, you will learn something. There is much for a river to teach you, even if the river is waterless.
Sarah McConnell-Perkins SITW '04, excerpt from A Soul in Sandstone: Field Notes from Comb Ridge
The pool reminds me of a fountain that belonged to my grandmother: a ceramic bowl that held three angular rocks stacked on a bed of smaller round stones, water flowing from above and pooling at the base of the bowl. She has been in my thoughts since a visit to the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Bluff. The museum's basket display was reminiscent of my grandparents' home on the Oregon coast where a corridor stretched from entryway to living space, lined with shelves enclosed in glass. Each shelf held boldly patterned pots and baskets, created in the southwestern United States and in Mexico, with dozens of shapes and sizes represented. Among the baskets was my grandmother's own work, mingled with that of artists she admired as well as her mentors and friends. Now, in this distant corner of the southwest, I find her pots in these potholes, her fountain in these pools, the colors of her creation in this landscape.
Nina Finley, SITW '16, excerpt from An Imagination
“They walked to the top of the slick-rock hump. The dorsal fin of a stone whale, they called it.
“Do you remember when we pretended to ride the whale and held our breath?” she asked.
She loved his imagination. No matter where they went, he found magic lurking just beneath the sandstone, between the points of yucca leaves, hovering over one-seed junipers. His mind spun worlds.
The top of the whale-fin rock wasn’t really the top; it just looked that way from the bottom. The first time they had climbed there together, she has been devastated to find that their sweaty hike had yielded nothing but a taller peak in the distance. She was out of breath and thirsty. She has always assumed the top of things was objective.”
Collin Smith, SITW '12, excerpt from 13 ways of seeing a Yucca
Why, when all the grasses can
Be soft must the Yucca be
A great, post-modern
Cathedral to the ant
Searching for a way in.
A Yucca is more proud than
A cactus which squats
Low to the ground, trying
To be unnoticed
Gardner Dee, SITW '16, excerpt from For Sale
This place is decidedly Western and somehow transcends that historical narrative. It evokes small fields of summer corn and scorching air standing still, secret alcoves of stained red rock, cliffside granaries and the endless paths of red ants scurrying with purpose over stone. Walking in quiet alcoves and storm-carved amphitheaters in the late-afternoon puts one in the company of Hayduke and other desert wanderers.
This sloping stretch of petrified windblown dunes has been sold to benefit the underfunded school halls and scratched wooden desks that are a part of my journey to this place. The Utah public schools of my not so distant youth need this funding. And yet I struggle to translate this landscape into school board budgets. I don’t know what the buyers of the Comb Ridge access parcel plan for the land, but a great loss for the public interest has been sustained with the private purchase of this place.
Hunter Dunn, SITW '16, excerpt from Atop Comb Ridge
… It’s been written the desert will seduce your soul and leave you wandering in longing, and even as someone whose heart of hearts will always belong to snowy peaks and evergreen forests, I can feel the tug. The emotions swirling inside me are as varied as the vista that inspires them, yet impossible to pin down when I search within for some concrete, definable reaction. The only thing my probing reveals, after a time, is a dull sadness at the knowledge that I must inevitably descend once more.
A glance at my wrist confirms this will come sooner rather than later, but in that moment my decision is made: even though I expended the sweat to carry my writing materials up here, for the brief time remaining I’m just going to sit and look, because I may never come back, and if I do, this place will not be the same.