A recent opportunity to work temporarily at Deep Springs College as their groundskeeper afforded a closer look at this almost 100 year-old institution of higher learning. You can learn more about the college by clicking this link: Deep Springs College. Since my daughter and son-in-law (who is also an alumnus) both work at the college, I’ve been acquainted with it for four years. It’s been a gift to be able to spend time there on many occasions and be welcomed into their community.
Deep Springs lies in a remote valley sandwiched between the White Mountains. Many turns and dips on the Westgard Pass bring you to a one-lane pass where you may meet a double-trailered diesel truck hauling hay from Nevada to hungry California horses and cows. The road curves before the one-lane portion of the pass so that you cannot see who is coming from the other direction until you’re in the one-lane portion. I met a hay truck in the pass one dark evening while returning to Deep Springs from the Owens Valley; causing a quick back-up as the truck never actually stopped, just slowed down and kept coming. But knowing that these hay trucks have already transversed the Gilbert Pass from Nevada, and are now driving through another pass, gives me courage to drive my little RV through – if they can do it with double trailers and tons of hay, surely I can drive 32′ Harvey with my car attached with no problem! (I’ve driven Harvey through both passes pulling my car, it really is OK.)
I traveled to Deep Springs in August and parked my RV about a mile from the campus on a lovely cement pad which means that I didn’t have to step in and out of the RV on sand, (a big plus in my book). Due to recent promotions and resignations, the college needed some extra help to spiff up the place for a trustees visit and a multi-year alumni visit on two different week-ends. Since the campus is so far from anything, visitors stay on campus either using spare rooms or tents and pop-up campers.
Removing tumbleweeds and volunteer elm saplings, trimming low hanging branches (so as not to get slapped while mowing under trees), cutting out dead sage bushes and cacti resulted in taking loads of brush to the desert dump nearly every day, sometimes three times a day in the college’s trusty old Ford pick-up. Several vehicles live at Deep Springs only, remaining untagged and not allowed on the highway. My son-in-law keeps them all running for campus use while teaching the students how to maintain cars, trucks, tractors and mowers – in addition to his many other duties as Director of Operations.
The elms at Deep Springs are prolific, apparently not affected by Dutch Elm Disease that has decimated the elms in the Eastern and mid-United States. So prolific in fact, that the trusty tree saw and loppers were used daily to remove all volunteer elms ranging in size from 1/16″ to 4″ in diameter. Elms love growing in inappropriate places like under building eaves and porches where mowers don’t cut them down. Anywhere that irrigation hits is a growing bed for them.
In addition to a customized curriculum suggested and agreed upon by the student body, the students also learn practical life lessons ranging from growing their own fruits and vegetables, taught by my daughter (the Garden Manager) from seed to harvest. The students keep chickens for eggs and learn how to slaughter the old chickens. Pigs and piglets eat buckets full of peelings and leftovers for organic pork and bacon. Two milk cows provide milk and cream, students hand-milk them twice daily. Students are taught to ride horses in order to round up cattle and drive them to their summer high-mountain ranges, then drive them to their winter range in the lower part of the valley. Students vie for the honor of being the head cowboy who stays the summer with the herd in the high meadows.
Seeds are started for the garden in the greenhouse.
Deep Springs beef also butchered by the students is a favorite in the BH (bunkhouse) where the Chef teaches them to bake breads, desserts and prepare all kinds of meals ranging from Indian, Korean, Vegan, Italian, and American meals (and after beef slaughter – fresh heart and liver-oh yum). I was not paying attention to the written signs one evening and scooped up what looked like tender beef and onions – not being a liver lover, it took every bit of bravery I had to swallow that liver and not make a spectacle of spitting it out. During Thanksgiving, the students do all of the cooking for their families, giving the chef the day off. Besides my daughter and her family, three daily meals a day NOT prepared by me are what I missed most when I moved out of the valley at the end of the season when the irrigation was turned off for the winter.
Another student job is gophering – setting traps for the hundreds of gophers that love the irrigated fields. The coyotes and raptors also love the gophers.
The campus and staff housing are the only signs of civilization in the valley. There are no stores, no gas stations, no cell phone signals, no TV except via satellite and not many staff sign-up for it, choosing instead to read, study, hike, bike and ride horseback. Lucien L. Nunn chose remoteness as part of the experience for the college and it has stayed like that for 97 years.
The flora and fauna hold a fascination for me, as birds and plants are mostly all different species than those on the East Coast. I walked with Audubon birders a couple years ago during Spring migration bird count and they counted 72 different species dropping in for food and water on their trip north.
Irrigation is a way of life in the desert. The fields surrounding campus are irrigated to produce hay for sale and for winter forage for the beef and dairy cows (and bulls). The students move the irrigation lines twice daily. There are two different types, wheel lines (that are moved using small engines – almost like motorboat engines), and hand lines that lie on the ground.
One of my duties was to mow the grass of the campus and staff housing once a week. Since this was a chore that I’ve done for 40 years either pushing a mower or riding a John Deere riding mower, I wasn’t too worried about it – except – it was a zero-turn mower which I’d never driven. The mowing took about five hours to go completely around campus, so one of the last places I planned on taking the mower the first time I mowed was in front of the main building where the lawn sat above a 3′ stone wall along the driveway. I figured by that time, I’d be proficient enough to know how to keep the mower from falling off the wall. The very last bit of yard was my undoing. I was mowing along the wall, staying fairly close to the wall but not running my wheels on the top, when I was slapped by a yet uncut low hanging branch. By the time I got out of way of the branch, I was too close to a turn and the mower slipped toward the wall when I tried to turn. With my heart in my throat, I quickly put it in park, turned it off and went in search of my son-in-law – feeling like a fool, but thankful I didn’t topple over.
The desert is windy, dusty, expansive and quiet when the wind isn’t blowing. What seems like a short distance turns into miles when you walk, run or bike it. So beautiful. The jagged Sierras in the last photo are approximately 40 miles away and the road shown is the only straight stretch!