Westminster Expedition Students in the Open American West

During the 2017 Fall Semester, 14 students, two professors, and a program coordinator will load books, camping gear, and themselves into a couple of vans and hit the road for a semester-long tour of the American West.

The trip is designed as an exploration into the issues at the heart of the contemporary West. Students will earn 16 credits in environmental studies and history as they study Environmental Cooperation and Conflict, Landscape and Meaning, the History of Public Lands, and the Native West.

This prolonged journey into the field will allow us to learn directly from landscapes and ecosystems, as well as from people who live, work, and study in those places. Together, we expect to build a cohort of impassioned scholars with a particular breadth and depth of experiential knowledge who are equipped to build a better future for the West.

We will visit iconic, protected sites like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, contentious places like the Little Bighorn and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, working landscapes like the Butte Copper Mines, and communities from present-day Native nations to "New West" towns like Bend, Twisp, and Moab.

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Winthrop, Washington

September 19, 2017

Jeffrey Milligan

So there I was in Winthrop, Washington. It was a warm midday, and I was enjoying some time the professors had given us to explore the town on our own. My plan was to pop into some local bookstores and restaurants.

I did a few laps up and down to the main street to get my bearings before I stepped into Glassworks Winthrop, a colorful shop that at first seemed out of place in a town dominated by rustic browns. Inside, bright vases, bowls and ornaments of every color lined the walls. Mrs. Barri Bernier, the wife of the glass artist, greeted me as I entered. Knowing I didn’t have the funds or space in my bags to be buying anything but still wanting to take away something from this shop, I asked Barri about the history of the shop. She told me that the building had previously been a blacksmith’s workshop and some of his trinkets were still being sold at the counter and across the street at another store. Barri asked me about where I was from and how I had made my way into Winthrop.

By now, every member of the Expedition has become adept at putting our semester of travel in concise terms. We are a group of college students from Salt Lake City on a semester-long, academic road trip that focuses on the environment and landscapes of the American West. Or something along those lines. Barri seemed impressed, but the conversation quickly tapered off. I went back to inspecting the glass before she exclaimed, “I know someone you should talk to!”. Before I could give any real reply, she had already taken out her phone and was playing the Six Degrees of Separation trying to find the number of person I should be interested in hearing from. After a few calls, she hands me her phone which currently trying to connect a call and explained that a local botanist and writer was going to be on the other end. His name is Dana Visali.

Dana answered the phone and he sounded like he had just woken up. I introduced myself and explained the circumstances of the call, that I was in the Glassworks, that I was an environmental studies student. He was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time. We talked about his philosophies, his environmental concerns, and his writings. He believes that most if not all of our environmental problems stem from overpopulation, but his writings in a quarterly periodical called The Naturalist don’t reflect that belief; in fact, The Naturalist, he says, contains almost no mention of human history or influence. It is entirely about the natural past and the big picture of life, of which humans are just a tiny portion. Dana favors what he calls big history, which is history told in grand scales and sweeping timelines. At this point, I was wanting to sit down with a copy of Naturalist, so I asked Dana where I could find one.

“So where would I be able to find a copy of The Naturalist?”

“Are you still in the glass shop?"

"Yes."

“Look out the window across the street. You should be looking right at a bookstore. It’ll be on a shelf in front of you when you walk in.”

I gave Barri her phone, said goodbye to her, and made my way across the street. Unfortunately, Dana’s instructions were not as clear as I had thought. After fumbling around the shelves for a few minutes, I walked up to the front counter. I handed a slip of paper with Dana Visali’s name to the cashier and said, “I’m looking for this man’s book”. She led me to what was probably the one shelf I hadn’t scoured and presented me with the newest edition of The Naturalist, printed just a few days prior. She rang me up and asked what had made me so passionate about Visali and his Naturalist. I replied in the expected fashion and told her about the Expedition. Without missing a beat, she told me that I should find the time to visit the Methow Conservancy. She didn’t elaborate or give any hint about its function, just that it was down the road an unspecified distance. With The Naturalist in hand, I set out.

I found the Methow Conservancy fairly quickly, which put a damper on the sense of adventure that had been swelling up inside me as I walked farther from town. I expected a perilous trek over hills and through rivers, but instead I found a pleasant building sitting by the bank a creek. I walked in.

I stood in the doorway for maybe a minute. There was no one at the front desk; there was, however, a dead bird bundled in a paper towel sitting on the desk near older editions of The Naturalist. I was about to walk out when I heard footsteps shuffling around in a nearby office. “Wait, don’t go! I’ll be right there!” someone called. A woman scooted through a doorway and shook my hand and welcomed me to the Conservancy. I wasn’t sure how to explain how I had made my way to the Conservancy, so I instead gave the rundown on the Expedition for maybe the fourth time that day and jumped into some questions. I got a crash course in conservation easements, water, mineral, and development rights, and how local tribes influence conservation efforts in the Methow community.

I left with more contacts that I was, unfortunately, unable to follow up on. But I’ve done few things more exciting on this Expedition than what I did today; scavenger hunt local ecology experts in a strange town and follow the threads from one to the other. I think I’ve found a new hobby.

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Expedition in the News

Two people on a canoe
Group of Students around Campfire

The Route

Our proposed route is an enormous figure eight, heading northwest first (because of potential early winter weather) and including Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Course-related sites include sites of environmental/cultural conflict or cooperation (e.g., Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; East Tavaputs Plateau tar sands; Klamath River dams; the Berkeley Pit, the Nevada Test Site, Owens Lake); National Parks (e.g., Yellowstone, North Cascades, Olympic, Redwood, Grand Canyon, Great Basin); wilderness areas (e.g., Bob Marshall, Glacier Peak); Native nations and sites (e.g., Burns Paiute, Coast Salish, Miwok, the Nez Perce trail, Colville, Pyramid Lake, Hopi); dam sites (e.g., Teton, Grand Coulee, Hoover, Hetch Hetchy, Snake River); and relevant towns/cities (e.g., Bozeman, Bend, Cody, Moab, Winthrop, Page).

Expedition Route

Course Descriptions


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