Traveling by Van Through Colorado: Reflections on a Week Long Field Trip

By Heather Rolph

The first thing we see when we step out of the van in the San Luis Valley is a middle aged man standing, facing us, outside the car adjacent to us. He is very obviously not wearing any clothing.

Photo by Bibi Powers

We’d just arrived at the Valley View Hot Springs, a clothing optional nature retreat complete with camping, private cabins, and even a designated “smoke hut.” It wasn’t our final destination — we were in the area to watch the massive Orient Mine bat colony spiral out into the valley at dusk — but both the hot springs and the mine are overseen by the Orient Land Trust, and make up part of the naturalist retreat.

As we hiked into the hills, we were the most clothed people by far, with binoculars, cameras, field notebooks, and field guides all dangling from backpack straps or belt loops.

“Remember, gang, we’re not here to watch the human wildlife,” our professor said.  

Everyone’s told, before they even arrive at CC, that one of the greatest benefits of the block plan is the immense possibility containaed within those three and a half weeks. If professors think it will lead to a greater understanding of the subject matter, they’re free to travel with their class for all or part of the block. Field trips during the day are a relatively common occurrence, and full blocks abroad get their fair share of advertisement. But what actually happens on those upper level field courses that spend a significant amount of their time off campus?

Photo by Bibi Powers

First of all, it’s not all nudist hot springs. Depending on where you’re heading, the trip could entail a good amount of van time. This field trip, an annual occurrence in Animal Ecology, travels to the San Luis Valley before heading back north to Dinosaur National Monument — and then backtracks again, to finish out for a few nights in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Van time, of course, brings to mind snacks, naps, and some epic playlists. But when your classroom is on wheels, van time also means one of your only good opportunities to get some homework done. If you can read in a car, that is. If not, you’re looking at doing homework in a tent, and doing homework in a tent always feels a bit bizarre.

This is not to say that long field trips are unpleasant or to be avoided. On the contrary, they are probably one of the most rewarding experiences at CC, and provide a unique opportunity to develop field skills and interact closely with both professors and classmates. And if you’re in Animal Ecology, week long field trips also provide a unique opportunity to be woken up every morning by your professor making owl calls right outside your tent. It’s obviously not something you want to miss out on.

Nor do you want to miss out on the pre-trip Costco madness; just imagine how much food 15-plus people will consume in a week, and then add a couple extra sleeves of bagels, a few dozen jars of hummus and salsa, and several Costco-sized bricks of cream cheese, just in case. Let’s just say you’re not likely to starve.

Out most importantly, what could be better than daily nature walks that count as class, lectures on the banks of rivers, or watching tens of thousands of bats flood out of their Orient Mine roost at dusk?

Photo by Bibi Powers

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