The Antioch Review first ran Bruce Fleming’s essay, “The Deep Springs College Cowboy Lunch” in the spring of 2009, and featured it again in its 70th Year Anniversary Issue in the Fall of 2011. In it, long-time professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Fleming describes his experience while teaching for a term at Deep Springs. Deep Springs is located on a working ranch off State Route 168 in central California just miles from the Nevada border in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Fleming tells how the school was founded in 1917 by a wealthy utilities tycoon, Lucien L. Nunn, who based his educational concept on three pillars: academics, labor and self-governance. Fleming focuses on a number of aspects of the Deep Springs experience and raises questions about the manner in which these specific principles are employed. He describes trying unsuccessfully to get the students to articulate how and why these particular concepts would be the best foundationally viable ones to be considered. For example, he questions the pillar of labor, or more specifically, the amount of labor each student is required to do as a part of the Deep Springs College experience.
. . . So, over the seven weeks, I asked as many of the students as I could about their views of the labor “pillar.” What did they think its purpose was? Why this much labor rather than less? What I was finding was that they dragged into class having read the text once, over 7 a.m. coffee in the BH [Boarding House]. I thought they might be well served by pipes that didn’t break, and work that didn’t leave them drained and sleepy.
In this article, Fleming provides backstory to his essay.
Deep Springs was quite an experience for me and my family, and the institution where I taught had only a small amount to do with that experience. Easterners (I’m a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and have ended up teaching for the last 27 years at the US Naval Academy in our state capital Annapolis, after five years teaching in Europe and Africa, Rwanda before the civil war), we knew only the California that most Easterners—or for that matter Californians—know: the coast. Inyo County, where Deep Springs is located, has as its Web site a moniker aimed at the coastal Californians too: www.theothersideofcalifornia.com. Most Californians don’t know that there is part of California that’s east of the Sierras; neither did we.
Deep Springs valley, and its larger cousin the Owens Valley to the West, are part of the Great Basin that fills the area of the Great Inland Sea of prehistoric times from the Sierras to the Rockies.
The culture isn’t what most people think of as California at all, but the desert of Nevada of which it’s culturally part, albeit high: the elevation of Deep Springs is almost a mile—I had to wear gloves and a knit hat to go running in the morning. To get to Deep Springs, you fly to Vegas, itself in the lower and hotter desert, and then drive up and around Death Valley, entering California at an invisible line in the sand on the two-lane highway going west that is marked only by a sign, pock-marked by bullets, saying “Welcome to California.”
Driving over this arbitrary border (it’s a straight line between California and Nevada) that first time on May 4, 2008, we stopped the rented truck and got out to video my wife singing “California Here I Come” by the sign—something of a joke, as the song speaks of “bowers of flowers” that “bloom in the sun.” Here, there was only desert, a deserted highway, some far-off cattle, the great plains behind us dotted with the rubbery stalks of Joshua Trees, and near the sign the remains of a one of the dozens of ghost towns with which this part of the country is dotted—this one called Palmetto, because the Southerners who came thought the Joshua trees they found were a variety of the South Carolina Palmetto they had left at home, albeit a variety with only a few rubbery leaves as if afflicted with a strange plant mange.
Inyo County, which contains Deep Springs Valley and hence Deep Springs College (actually its official name lacks the “college” part, just Deep Springs—but usually it’s added as an identifier), has both the lowest and the highest points in the continental US: the lowest is in Death Valley, where we went our first weekend in mid-May (and a good thing it was too that we went that early, as the temperatures get up to 130F and beyond in the really hot months), and the highest is Mount Whitney, outside of Lone Pine, where most of the John Wayne Westerns were shot. (The draw for the movies isn’t the chichi small town for movie folks and now tourists, but the strange landscape at the foot of the Sierras outside the town, strewn with huge boulders larger than people: the Alabama Hills, they’re called, named by another group of Southerners who settled here during the Civil War.)
With two small children—Owen was almost 6 and Teddy had turned 4 on the plane to Vegas, so everybody in the plane sang “Happy Birthday” to him—he still remembers this—going too far up the Mount Whitney trail wasn’t feasible, but we did a couple hundred yards to say we had, and took family pictures with the sign. We met a group of hikers going up (signs said, bag your excrement and bring it down, so these were like the suburbanites around us who walk their dogs with a white plastic bag tied to the leash) and I asked when they’d reach the summit. “About tomorrow noon,” said the guide cheerfully. In the East, where you can climb virtually any Adirondack peak near my mother’s vacation house in an afternoon, that seemed incomprehensible to me.
For us Deep Springs—aside from the disappointment of the not-college itself—was the discovery of the West. (It’s hilarious to me that Deep Springs is the left-wing and equally rigid counterpart to my own right-wing and absolutely rigid institution, the Naval Academy, which puts out sweatshirts saying “Not College”: both proclaim their principles at every turn, and neither ever seems to stop to ask whether these principles are at all productive, or for that matter whether they are even being adhered to. Pragmatism and accountability have been abandoned at both.) Ghost towns now seem mundane to me: of course when you exhaust the silver mine that brought you to nowhere to begin with, you walk away from the four walls that have sheltered you, taking only movables on the horse-drawn cart. And in the desert, these four walls stay around for a while. At Bodie, the most famous of the ghost towns in the mountains north of Deep Springs, they maintain the town’s remnants in a state of what they call “arrested decay”: its decrepitude is the point, so they want to preserve it just that way but no more decayed than it is. Elsewhere, the lone and level sands stretch far away. For Easterners, with the notion that towns grow up around natural features or trade routes based on them, the idea of these transitory settlements that are meant to last only for a decade or so and then be abandoned seem odd; here in the endless waste of the Great Basin, they are banal.
Here too I became aware of the related phenomenon that shocks Easterners and fills our museums with great lovingly crafted objects that seem like discarded factory parts: that human beings use machines larger than they, which break and can’t be fixed, and so are abandoned. Right here, where people live. In museums, these pieces are constructed so as to be useless so we appreciate them as objects; in the West, they’ve become useless, but nobody sees them as art because everybody can identify them as a Broken X or the Front Part of a Y. In the desert, there’s no place to cart them to. Every ranch (and a “ranch” isn’t something exotic, out of Bonanza, but merely the Western word for a farm—George W. Bush’s poetic-sounding “ranch” where he invited visiting heads of state to bond with him by “clearing brush” was a pig farm before he bought it) has a dump at its end, full of great abandoned machines and their fragments among which those addicted to decay and destruction can wander at will and, in Keatsian fashion, can glut their sorrow by taking a walk around, here where these incongruous objects get so slowly older they seem arrested in time, without the relentless kudzu and Virginia creeper of the East that smooths out their sharp edges in a seamless green blanket. Only here nobody would be daft enough to go to the dump except to take more junk. It may be out of mind that way, but, unlike the East with its invisible rendering plants and dirt-covered waste disposal locations, it isn’t out of sight. When you’re done with it you just take it to the edge of the property. It’s a more pragmatic world here in the West, and hence one that may not need our strange museums for people who have forgotten that what we build turns useless and so suddenly looks odd. Perhaps it’s a world that is more in tune with the fact of age than the East—like a world of Russian peasants where there is no place to cart Grandma off to, so that it’s accepted that she spends the day sleeping behind the stove. Decrepitude and uselessness are part of life, the West teaches.
So some of our fascination was based on the fundamental newness to us of what, for the locals, was mundane. I found it amazing that I could drive the several miles across dusty flatland to the Deep Springs Lake, home of the Deep Springs Black Toad—mostly sand flats—and find arrowheads in the sand dunes. I found it amazing—something all Israelis who have “made the desert bloom” know, and Central Valley Californians—that if you put water on the dry sand, it turns green with lush vegetation. The Deep Springs ranch had clearly defined right-angle plots of crops that ended with a neat jointure to desert where the irrigation stopped. And what an odd and somewhat guilty pleasure it was to go to the larger pond that was a stopping place for migratory birds in the desert and be surrounded by lush grasses and reeds, chirping and slurping birds, and the buzz of insects—and then walk away and within a few paces be back in the desert. It’s the springs that made the ranch, of course, and when L.L. Nunn bought it, it was at the end of its useful life as a food producer for the very ghost town we stopped at back in Nevada, Palmetto.
So some of this time in the West was only exotic as seen by us outsiders, and it too had begun to fade as a source of interest by the time we left. One grows accustomed soon enough to the desiccation, and to the ranch culture, as well as to the fundamental fact that cowboys are like the tattooed laborers back East, stringy, with a cigarette in their mouth, who move from job to job—not an icon of manhood, sad rather than aspirational.
But some things are exotic even for people who know there is an “other side of California.” A few miles away from our house were and are the oldest living organisms on the planet, the bristlecone pines, that we went to see up on the Westgard Pass into the Owens Valley, in a raging snowstorm—on Memorial Day. They’re scrubby and ugly. But how astonishing to see the cross-section of one that died naturally (you can’t of course cut off souvenirs or touch them): here, at this ring about halfway through the concentric circles, the wise informational arrow informed us, Julius Caesar was assassinated. And here, further toward the center, the Pharaoh Akhenaten died. And here, almost at the outside edge, occurred the American Revolution.
We circled the salt flats of the Owens Valley Dry Lake, as it’s called on maps—the once-lake that the Angelinos desiccated to give water to their city, and tried to find where the ferry service from the days of silver mining up in the hills would have been. I drove the back way into Death Valley, from the north, rather than going over to Nevada and taking the paved roads—the most hair-pinned, built-on-shifting-sands, potentially lethal drive (with my wife and two small boys!) I have ever taken—it’s only because I’d driven a similar twisty-windy down the mountain into the Burundian capital of Bujumbura, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, that I felt even as secure as I did. We discovered Yosemite—and what to do if you meet a mountain lion (I was jogging early in the morning from our place at the Curry Cabins, where months later pieces of Halfdome split off and crushed thankfully empty cabins): you open your arms and make wings with your coat to look larger than you are to scare them. I turned around at the sign and headed back.
So for us it this time meant the discovery of a world, bracketed by the discovery of Vegas, itself a world—neither of them worlds we’d ever known, or to some degree ever known existed. The college was incidental, and a big disappointment. The students (like Naval Academy students) don’t know much, by design rarely get out (like my students at Annapolis), are (like my students “back East”—as everyone says, even those who have never gone East, as if all were living the “go West, young man” culture of a century and more ago) told they’re the cat’s meow and have no sense of insufficiency that would drive them to try and improve, and are so exhausted by their work (as my Annapolis students are by the Mickey-Mouse watch-standing and playing at being military that the Academy fills their time with) that they have a hard time focusing on academics, and, finally, like my own students, are so busy Being At the Strange Institution Where They Are that it’s difficult for them to see the value of the world outside that literature offers to show them. Instead their life is all about their experience as teen-agers here in this spot rather than anywhere else, encouraging the very narcissism of the young college ought to minimize rather than maximize. And they all, whether at Deep Springs or the Naval Academy, say “like” every second word. At least the students at the Naval Academy stand up straight, and have better workout rooms than the litter-strewn dusty collection of a few high school barbells in the basement of the main building at Deep Springs.
So that was the college. Dusty, isolated, self-involved. But what was all that compared to the rattlesnakes, the bobcats, the scrubby desert flora that seems invisible to the Eastern eye until you bend down and it springs to multicolored if miniature life under the gaze, the peaks of the Sierras covered with snow looming over the valley, the descent from the Westgard Pass with the view of the Sierra glacier, where the road gets so narrow you have to go single-file? How to tell a gopher snake from the rattler it mimics? Where to sit in the truck so you don’t have to open the farm gate? What an amazing world.
Bruce Fleming has written books on dance criticism, aesthetics, philosophy, and creative nonfiction, as well as, short fiction and a novel. He’s won an O. Henry short story award and The Antioch Review Award for Distinguished Prose. A graduate of Haverford College, he’s taught at universities in Germany and Rwanda, and for more than two decades at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His most recent book is What Literary Studies Could Be and What It Is.
© 2014 The Antioch Review