Why did you pick this program?
Tom: It began with a course I took entitled “Native American Art, Film, and Literature” which first opened my eyes to the often harsh reality of reservation and non-reservation life for Natives in the southwest U.S. Through channels I’m not fully aware of, the professor of that course received an e-mail from Amanda Rader, the executive director of Carpe Diem, regarding the Indigenous Americas program and the professor forwarded the e-mail to a couple of people in the class who she thought might be really interested in it, me being one of them.
After doing significant research on all aspects of the program, I realized that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which I could not pass up. I saw the chance to travel well beyond anywhere I’d ever been before into a world vastly different from my norm
You could say that it was akin to standing in the door of a plane right before you skydive where one part of your brain is telling you that what you’re intending to do is absolutely crazy while another part is telling you that you’ll regret it if you turn back. Thankfully, I jumped. And I have no regrets about doing so.
What do you wish someone had told you before you went?
Tom: I wish that I had been more directly warned about how cold the desert gets after the sun sets. While I anticipated the heat and appropriately prepared for it, I was not so well prepared for the nighttime chill which often warrants long underwear, wool socks, the works. Thankfully, the packing list we were sent called for thermal gear so I had the aforementioned clothing and a few other such items available but I did not expect to need more than a hoodie and a thermal shirt to get by. That was a mistake as I quickly found out.
When the sun sets, the temperature drops by about thirty degrees within ten minutes and continues dropping for a good portion of the night. I was lucky enough to find a very fine coat at a flea market which improved my experience tremendously. My advice to anyone joining up with this program or going into the desert anywhere is to be equally prepared for the cold as well as the heat. It’s better to have a few clothes you may not need, rather than to need them and not have them.
What is the most important thing you learned?
Tom: The most important thing I learned during my journey was to see the luxuries in my life which I never realized were luxuries prior to my departure. Given that this is the 21st century, I had taken such basic amenities as electricity and plumbing as available everywhere in the U.S. I came to realize while I was on the reservations that there are a lot of people in that region who to this day have to haul their daily water sometimes miles back home and who have to be very careful about their usage lest they quite literally run out.
There are also people who have no power in their homes and are subsequently required to tend to wood fires, candles, and to utilize every hour of the day when there is sunlight in order to go about their daily business. It’s easy to take it for granted when most of the time, one can walk into a room and flip a switch to gain light, turn a knob to get water, etc. This trip gave me the opportunity to achieve a greater understanding of and respect for individuals who in a first world country must still live so basically.
Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.
Tom: We spent a day hiking through a canyon sacred to the Apache. The terrain was rough and involved a good deal of climbing up and down rock faces and overcoming other physical obstacles. We reached our halfway point, a series of deep, dark pools of water which flow from one into the next, after approximately three hours. At this time, we reduced our gear to only the necessities, strapped on rappelling belts, ropes, and helmets, and proceeded to jump clothed and carrying the aforementioned necessities twenty to thirty feet into the water below.
The temperature could not have exceeded thirty-five to forty degrees and veritably sapped whatever energy and heat were not already exhausted from the items we were carrying out of our bodies. We swam across the first pool to the next staging area and repeated this process twice more until we arrived at the fourth pool, one-hundred or so feet below our staging area. We rappelled down to the water, swam across, ascended the cliff on the other side, and proceeded to reverse all processes up to this point. And, though exhausting, there was definitely a strong spiritual component in the canyon. It’s no doubt a sacred place.
What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions or future path?
Tom: My life as a timeline has since been viewed as what came before, during, and after my journey to the southwest. Ever since my time there, I have felt much more spiritual, much more curious about the world in general, and much more concerned about the environmental and political wars currently taking place in and around Arizona and New Mexico. Living in Massachusetts, a lot of the issues in that area are often viewed as things happening “down there.” In other words, things which don’t affect other regions of the country.
My time in the southwest, though, taught me just how strongly and directly the problems being encountered (i.e., drought, the inherent flaws and corruptions of the border wall, and poverty) affect the health of the entire nation at its core. I now hope to be able to return to the region and to work with some of the humanitarian and environmental groups in that area in order to lend a hand in whatever capacity I can.