Searching for Transformation in the Desert

by Adam Setmeyer | Apr 09, 2014

By: Kyle Kellam, Assistant Professor of Communications

I went to New Mexico looking for a moment of transformation. As an advisor on the trip, I was desperately searching for a unifying moment where I felt connected with the students, in service to the Navajo, and in communion with the divine all at once. My fiancé Anna also came along the trip as an advisor and if my moment of connection happened standing next to her, then that would only add to its sublime, transformative perfection. I recognize that such grand expectations are a great way to set oneself up for total failure and disappointment. However, I was not going to be deterred from my rejuvenating rupture in the clunky mechanisms of life where suddenly all was harmonious and good. Plus, our long snowy winter had left me needing a little spiritual fire in my life. Where better to look than the desert of the American west?

I thought I found that magic moment many times. The first night we arrived late and all paused together to observe the vast sea of stars in the New Mexico sky. I had never seen more celestial bodies at once, nor had I ever experienced such a deepening quiet. A couple of days into the trip, we spent an afternoon just digging holes, looking for the unknown location of critical water lines under the mission’s grounds. I was amazed at the synergy of teamwork and determination that went into the simple pursuit of digging for water in the high desert. Later, we had one particular evening of group reflection where I saw such vulnerability, compassion, and courage from the students. I was so honored to be one among them. However, none of these moments was quite the transformative moment for which I was pining.

It wasn’t until we took a day trip to Canyon DeChelly, a sacred place on the Navajo reservation, that I was finally able to experience the moment I had been wanting. The canyon itself was breathtaking and its utter beauty was unmatched by anything I had seen before. We hiked to the bottom and, unknowingly, I unfurled my mind, just concentrating on the new precision of my usually careless steps and pausing occasionally to take in the canyon’s expansive sublimity. To my surprise, there were 2,000 year old ruins at the bottom, cliff dwellings built by some of the earliest Navajo people. As we sat down to rest and eat lunch after our somewhat strenuous hike, my very-special-oh-my-gosh-it’s-happening-moment finally came.

We were basking in the awe of the ruins, sitting at the base of what I can only assume was a very old tree, lonely from the recession of the river. We felt accomplished after our hike, but most of all I think we just felt connected. It was hard not to sense an individual oneness with the rich tradition of the Navajo in this place, sitting before the ancient dwellings between the high canyon walls. But I think in this moment we also felt appreciative of each other.

In that moment, something divine happened. We realized that experiencing God sometimes comes in seeing others also experiencing what we are feeling, all at the same time. So Anna and I walked over to the student leaders as they were approaching us and we all just thanked each other for being here and saying “yes” to Alternative Spring Break. The moment of complete awareness and integration came so simply and purely. It was only after it happened that I realized my moment had come and gone. In that little act of appreciation and communion, I finally felt transformed.


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