Desert Trip

Students reflect on opportunities for growth, interaction and bonding in Joshua Tree



Looking back on the Desert Trip, I am confronted with the realization that this experience, shared with 51 of my peers and 12 adult leaders, is the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for myself as a human being in my entire life.

The public education system in Carmel does a great job of teaching us facts or means of interpreting facts to draw conclusions, but never, outside of a few rare lessons, have we spent any time on how to be a better and more fulfilled person. The collective exercises, conversations and interactions have forged connections, friendships and truly real relationships that couldn’t have ever existed without the Desert Trip.

With a more complete knowledge of the trip, I now understand that it is entirely designed around connection: with oneself, with others and with the Earth. These connections are most readily created through two essential Desert Trip practices working in tandem: the level-three conversation and the contract circle.

The most central concepts explored on the trip are the three levels of conversations: the first is a baseline, purely superficial conversations about something like the weather, schoolwork or one’s very interesting prom dress; the second level includes more complex conversations about harder-to-grasp ideas, such as discussing the merit of a certain philosophical point or what the value of eating cereal with a fork is to society; the third level, and the most important to the Desert Trip, are conversations about the truly real things in our lives—the way we perceive ourselves and those around us, what issues and problems we’re struggling with and the inner thoughts and feelings of our minds. On the trip I was able to have those third-level conversations and speak about my own issues and concerns about my life in ways that hadn’t ever been possible before.

The second essential piece of the Desert Trip is the contract circle, a nightly gathering where students share a goal or issue they are currently seeking to improve and then make a request for the group to aid them in some way. The strength of the contract circle lies in the way that people can connect over shared struggles or experiences that would have otherwise remained hidden or unsaid. Suddenly, where before they’d been completely alone, these individuals now might have an entire support network of friends and acquaintances that can help with and relate to that specific issue or problem.

The fundamental truth I’ve learned from Desert Trip is simple: No one is ever alone in their struggles. Already I’ve seen this knowledge affect and change the lives of my friends and classmates for the better as they’ve been able to help and support one another through their shared trials and challenges. I’m grateful for this trip because it’s been able to help them in ways I couldn’t ever hope to provide.

Another invaluable lesson I’ve learned is to disregard the labels that we manage to slap onto everybody around us, especially in high school. Students I considered stereotypical jocks before the trip revealed a depth of character that I had been completely closed off to experiencing because of the labels I’d applied to everyone around me.

The truly great thing about Desert Trip is that the ideals and goals that we work toward—of connection, friendship and personal betterment—don’t need to end once we leave the sands and wildflowers of Joshua Tree. Our contracts remain and so do the people with whom we connected.


Perched atop a rocky outcropping in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park, I watch as the sun rises over the red rock hills to the east, the rays of light casting everything in a soft orange glow. This is our penultimate morning on the Desert Trip, the annual week-long journey into Joshua Tree led by CHS science teachers Brian Granbery, Joe Mello and Jason Maas-Baldwin.

With a total of 52 students and at least a dozen adult guides, the Desert Trip is more than just hiking, bouldering and rock climbing. The Desert Trip is really about people. With a number of workshops led by CHS alum and former desert trippers, students in Joshua Tree delve into guided exercises in facilitating meaningful conversation, finding confidence within and increasing awareness of the world around us. It is a trip to facilitate connection with others and connection with self.

The Desert Trip is both physically and emotionally challenging, students encouraged (though not required) to step out of their comfort zones both on hikes and during Evening Program, the nightly circle where they are given the opportunity to share their contracts, or in the goals students set for themselves at the beginning of the trip, generally involving something about themselves that they want to change or work on.

Not only do activities like Evening Program encourage connection with others, but the Desert Trip facilitates introspection and self-reflection that is often not emphasized in day-to-day high school life. Students are prompted to spend time thinking about themselves, what makes them happy, something they want to improve about themselves or how others see them in the world. Since the pressures of typical routine and school work are removed on Desert Trip, students are free to think deeply about what may get pushed to the back burner during the chaos of high school.

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