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The High Desert Center


The current High Desert Center Gap Year Programs represent our best efforts to take the most successful strategies and components and link them together into the kind of long programs that support participants in discovering who they are and what they want and then learning the skills to start living it. Our campus has gotten closer to home to the point where it is now deeply integrated with the local community.



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Transformative Experience

If you’re anything like me and you long to feel free
The hdc is the place to be
You’ll find yourself in an exciting, challenging, loving community
Surrounded by friends, mentors, endless opportunity
You’ll explore your individuality and new ways of living life
By climbing mountains, pooping in canyons, swimming in mud, engaging in intimate conversations, creating stick spoons with your knife
I hope you’ll surrender to the unknown, the mystery of it all
For your soul will nourish seeds of understanding and awareness, that soon will grow tall

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
During the minimalist challenge, we sustained ourselves with chicken soup... which included every part of the chicken, including the intestines!
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Life-changing gap year!

I am not the same person I was when I started at the High Desert Center. None of my friends there are either. I have experienced us all grow together in so many ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and energetically.

Whether it be cuddling in the van late at night, having group check-ins, engaging in vulnerable conversations, working together, or playing games together, this gap year provides an abundance of opportunities to bond and grow with people. This was the first time in my life that I had found so many people that all shared the same interests I did. This made it easy for me to get along and open myself up.

One of my biggest takeaways from the year is having a cultivated mindset of POSSIBILITY. Having gone to the High Desert Center I feel so much more confidence in myself and in my ability to tackle the world.

If you want growth, connection, adventure, and community, then sign up for this amazing gap year. Period.

What would you improve about this program?
One thing I would improve about this program is having a more balanced ratio of male to female participants.
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Best Decision I Ever Made

The High Desert Center regularly opens their arms to young adults, and releases them into the world with both the spirit, curiosity, and unabashed love of a child, as well as the reverence, resilience, and introspection of someone much older. I have never encountered an organization so dedicated to authenticity and creativity, where the teachers respect the students as much as the students respect the teachers, where spontaneity and adventure is met with enthusiasm rather than restriction, and where all opinions and identities are not only welcomed, but cherished. It’s difficult to do this experience justice, but there is one word that comes to mind; delight. At HDC, we learn to delight in the things that had before gone unnoticed, in the company and warmth of other people, in the silence and the sadness, in the pleasure of listening, and in the anger and the joy. I believe this leads all participants to walk away with a rare skill - to create a good life whomever they’re with and wherever they go. It has been the greatest pleasure of my life to spend a year here. I know I’m not the only one.

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The High Desert Center Gap Year Program 2021

This was the best 8 months of my life so far. This program opened up my worldview so much. I learned so much about communication, consent, boundaries, traveling affordably, living sustainably, intention, how to be okay with a little discomfort, and how to let the moments be. I think that this program is so unique in its experience, probably because of the leaders and small town of paonia. This was a life-changing experience for me, and I know that the people I got to know here are ones I will be seeing in the future. This program is real.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
It's hard to choose honestly. We stayed overnight in a small Arizona town called Ajo, and ended up befriending an old hippie who let us stay in his home. He offered us showers and warmth and good company. His stories were so cool to listen to.
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This program will change your life (actually though)

If someone had told me on that first day the sense of achievement I would gain from summiting the peaks towering off in the distance, or the warm fuzzy feeling I would get every time I saw my community all together whether for a meeting or a meal, or how I would look back on who I was then and not feel embarrassed but rather proud of how hard I worked to be who I am now, I would have said “No, that’s impossible.”

With the rock-solid support of the incredible staff, and the love and lessons I received from my peers, I was able to grow into the empowered, inspired, and capable person I am now. The community we built was what made my Gap Year experience what it was—challenging, fulfilling, joyful, and real.

I recommend this Gap Year to any young person with the desire to build strong relationships, grow as a person, and be themselves.


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Willa Bryant

Willa has an insatiable passion for wild places, especially in the American southwest. She is always planning her next big backpacking adventure, river trip, or other wilderness excursion.
Willa Bryant

Why did you choose this program?

I chose the High Desert Center's Expeditionary Semester in Arizona because it seemed curious in its exploration in both the cultural and natural worlds. The program offered hiking through rugged Arizonian desert in the south and gentle evergreen forest in the north while exploring quaint Arizona towns along the way.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The HDC organized so many logistics for the group. Our questions beforehand were answered promptly with clear instruction and advisory.

High Desert Center provided all paperwork for signing up for the course and were very helpful in scheduling FaceTime calls, answering emails, etc. Students were in charge of buying their own airfare and buying incidentals if they needed them (I spent around $100 on the occasional kombucha, showers at a campground, postcards, etc.)

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

You get whatever you put into the trip. For example, if you are in love with learning about plants, there are exceptional resources that can support you in accomplishing that goal. If you love running, there are tons of opportunities for that need to be met.

The one thing that I encourage everyone to remember is that, if you're driven and excited about something, lots of HDC staff and students will support you in doing so. However, to get what you want, you really must communicate your goals to the group. The HDC family always has one's best interest at heart and will do as much as they can to help one achieve their goals.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

  • Day: Wake up with the sun. Kitchen Crew will make breakfast while others get ready for the day by brushing teeth, packing up their sleeping bags, and organizing their day packs. After breakfast, dishes are washed and the tables and stove are put away. After we have cleaned up and people are in the van, we either drive to the next trailhead or if we have camped at the trailhead people will start walking right away. On average, we hike 16 miles a day with the occasional overnight or 30 miler. Around 4 or 5 pm, we get back to the van and drive to our next campsite. We'll have dinner, make a fire, and go to sleep around 8:30.
  • Week: Every 3-5 days we will have a rest day where we usually go into a town and buy groceries, catch up on emails, and maybe take a shower. Depending on our timing and how tired people are feeling, we will have rest days more or less occasionally.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

When I was going to leave on my western adventure, my biggest fear was not fitting into this new community where I really wanted to feel at home. I was so nervous about not finding connection with the people around me. I remember thinking about it on the plane, and even when I first met people in the airport, however, after 3 days of being with the group, I felt as if I had known everyone for years and years.

I would encourage others to just try their best to not worry. The worrying was the hardest part! No matter what, there will be things you don't expect to happen but worrying about what's going to happen in the future and/or how you're going to feel in the future will never do anyone any favors.

Did you change after the trip? If so, in what ways?

I absolutely changed after going to Arizona. I feel so much more open to the world, the people, the places, the feelings. The HDC community gave me the opportunity to feel comfortable with myself by creating a safe, supportive, kind environment. I feel free of things that were once holding me back and able to follow my passions.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Dev Carey

Job Title
Dev’s highest priority is creating and sharing special moments. He wears thrift stores clothes, tries to fix his own old cars, butchers his own meat, and gets excited about bobcat tracks in the mud. He has a Ph.D. in ecology, has started numerous learning programs and communities, and lives with family in Paonia, Colorado.
Dev sitting on the floor and gesturing

What is your favorite travel memory?

A while back a group of gap year students and I decided to travel overland from Guatemala back to Colorado. We wanted to do it using minimal money while maximizing adventure so we took chicken buses north through Guatemala, sitting four people to a bus seat and living off food we bought on the street. We walked into Mexico and made our way to Palenque. From there it was second class buses and conversations with locals all the way to the Sinaloa where we slept on the beach. Finally we made it to the border and walked with our backpacks into the States and slept in a hidden spot in the woods off the highway.

The next stage of our adventure was to hitchhike to Colorado. Each day we would choose our next place to meet and sleep, then we would divide into groups of two and go stand on the highway and have adventures. We met up and slept in Tucson, under a bridge on Roosevelt Lake, on an abandoned hill in Flagstaff, and then back in Paonia. Each time we met up, there were crazy stories to tell and campfires to sit around.

The whole experience was night and day from traveling in an airplane. We met local people, got dirty, experienced the changing landscapes, and felt empowered by our ability to travel using relatively little money and resources.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

Living in community and choosing adventures inevitably means a life full of chaos, surprise and ambiguity. I used to think I could control it, that if I was smart and charismatic enough, I could identify and create the best way. Nowadays I don’t think it matters much what I choose; what matters is who I am as life happens. Regardless of what comes my way, can I love? Can I take responsibility? Can I find that simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity, the simplicity that comes not from ignoring the chaos of life but from embracing it fully.
The young people who come to our program often feel a lot of stress and pressure trying to figure out “what to do” with their lives. By the end of our year together they often feel less pressure because regardless of what they end up doing, they know “a way to be” that feels right.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

I’m reading a 120 page journal by a former student who decided to ride his horse home after completing architecture school in New Mexico. Currently he’s a month into his trip and part way across Colorado. The depth with which he sees the world and reflects on it is wowing me. It’s the kind of thing we do in our programs--come up with a crazy idea and then do it. In the process we get to know ourselves and the world.
One of our goals is actually to unlearn conventional institutional ways of thinking, to recognize and transform the whole staff/student divisions and power hierarchies that we often create by habit, since most of us have grown up surrounded by power hierarchies in school, work or our families. These habits are just obstacles to what we all crave, which is a sense of connection, shared purpose, mutual respect and freedom.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

I would choose the full nine-month gap year, because it’s where people change the most, make life-long friends, and experience the most profound adventures. In the fall, I like being part of a local community here in Colorado and meeting and working beside the inspiring folks that live here. I like preparing peaches and venison for winter, jumping in the ditch after saunas, and dreaming about possible winternships. I like backpacking. In the winter I like going south and seeing the other end of the Colorado River where it no longer reaches the sea. I like being outside for 8 weeks straight, understanding how the country is connected, speaking Spanish and finding petroglyphs hidden under cliffs. Finally, in the spring I like building something out of local or found material and designing a big adventure and doing it. I’m always surprised by what happens.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

We are unique in that we don’t see ourselves as a company. We don’t think and act like a company. Rather, we see ourselves as individuals trying to create a meaningful and interesting life while inviting others to join us for a while on our path.

One of our goals is actually to unlearn conventional institutional ways of thinking, to recognize and transform the whole staff/student divisions and power hierarchies that we often create by habit, since most of us have grown up surrounded by power hierarchies in school, work or our families. These habits are just obstacles to what we all crave, which is a sense of connection, shared purpose, mutual respect and freedom.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

Once when I was hopping freight trains, a hobo told me, “If’n you ain’t having no fun, you ain’t helping nobody.”

People want to have fun in life, and I’m not talking about the kind of fun that comes with escaping our lives but rather about the kind of fun that comes from living with a sense of adventure and curiosity, the kind that comes from continually choosing the courage to be real and vulnerable and go for what matters, the kind that comes from being okay with messing up because you went for it.

Successful communities support this way of living, not by policy but by a culture of individual conversations that are honest, accepting and direct and that have the potential to build inspiration, self-awareness and personal choice and responsibility.