This New Mexico adventure

In 1860 Sir Richard Burton, the famed British explorer, departed for Africa to discover the fabled source of the Nile. As a child, I was fascinated by Burton. I read his biography, “The Collector of Worlds.”

Edward the VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, was once asked, “If you can be anything, what would you be?” Edward immediately responded, “I would be Richard Burton.”

Sir Richard spoke to our very core, our need for adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness. This is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of humanity.

Hannibal crossed the Alps. Marco Polo left for China. Magellan sailed west. Amundsen raced for the South Pole while Perry went north. Charles Lindbergh soared across the Atlantic. And, just the other day, my girls left the house for the first time on their own, bicycling to Georgee’s for a slice of pizza. They didn’t understand the root of their excitement. Adventure begins with running away from home.

There are foundational questions that cannot be answered by sitting in front of the television. Who am I? What am I made of? What am I destined for? Adventure defines us. We learn who we are and who we are not.

I write these thoughts traveling in an old Ford van with 11 college kids, heading for the Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah. The white lines of the road disappear beneath us as we cut through the Colorado Plateau. The driver in our support truck, which is laden with equipment, waves out the window, trying to make sure we notice the massive mesas that surround us.

This adventure marks the 30th year that I’ve been taking students on Rocky Mountain adventures, teaching wilderness philosophy, Native American mythology and how to survive on the land. It’s a two-week rugged backpack trip with perilous river crossings, torrential rains, incessant heat and exhausting hikes.

My objectives are few. I goal is to leave my students with a sense of place and adventure. I also hope to bring everyone back intact.

Experiencing open country is hypnotic. The landscape is filled with mythologies and mysteries that tell of our genetic link to hunters, voyagers and explorers. To have a sense of place is to know a place, to sojourn in it, to sail up and down, to paddle a canoe, to meander in the mountains and valleys. To do this well requires time and intimacy with a place. Land is more than geography, geology and biology. It is history. What has happened here throughout the ages? Answer that question and you begin to discover.

Adventure is its own aphrodisiac. Many things are known and many things are unknown; and in between the known and unknown, there are doors. The journey gives us the adventure. Lewis and Clark set out to find the Northwest Passage and in their search, explored and mapped the West.

That evening we made camp between the mesas in the Valley of the Gods. Millions of stars blazed and engulfed us in a shroud of isolation. The constellations stood motionless, yet acted out their roles given by the Greeks.

My thoughts turned to the prose of Rachel Carson: “If this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century, this valley would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, so people give little thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they never will.”

The embers of the fire are burning out and so am I. I’ll come back next week for part two of this New Mexico adventure.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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