I recently returned from a VISION trip to the middle of the southern California desert. With a group of 11 other St. Thomas students, I traveled to a place of pure magic called Quail Springs, a permaculture farm snuggled into what seemed like an endless national forest.

Without going into a big ol’ spiel about what VISION is and how important it has been to my personhood, life, goals and time at St. Thomas, I will tell you this: VISION is a service-immersion program that offers international and domestic J-Term and spring break trips led by students to cultivate community, social justice, spirituality, cultural exchange, simplicity and service.

Meredith Heneghan ’16 sits next to the bench that she helped to build with the cob she mixed.

Meredith Heneghan ’16 sits next to the bench that she helped to build with the cob she mixed.

Our time at Quail Springs was inspiring in all six of those categories, one of which stands out as I consider the trip as a whole: cultural exchange.

Many people, especially carefree and gutsy college students with an overdose of wanderlust, might think that traveling within the United States is unattractive, unexciting or lacking in “real” cultural diversity. However, Quail Springs confirmed for me the importance of domestic travel after nearly 21 years of family road trips, solo plane rides, sister adventures and saying “yes” to exploring this country.

When our group arrived at Quail Springs, we were not put to work right away. Even though we were ready and wired to do some butt-kickin’ farm labor, animal caretaking and natural building, we were tasked with a different type of work: arriving.

It is clear that community members at Quail Springs understand their landscape and lifestyle is unique and that, yes, we might be experiencing culture shock (especially in contrast to the Minnesota tundra and whirlwind student life we left behind). The respect, admiration and wonder with which they consider their surroundings rubbed off on us instantly; every moment introduced a new sight, smell, sound, feeling or emotion. Paying full attention to those moments was, in a word, overwhelming. (We had left all technological distractions in Minnesota, so there were no SnapChats, Instagrams or quick peeks at Facebook.) Sure, we had arrived physically, but mentally? Emotionally? Soulfully? No way. That was a much longer process.

Each night at Quail Springs before anyone eats dinner, there is a Gratitude Circle. It is a simple and beautiful practice: Each person says something he or she is grateful for that day. During our first Gratitude Circle, I remember saying I was grateful for the feeling of being somewhere that felt like coming home to a place I’d never been. “Home” is a strong feeling, and I meant it. But arriving at that home took all 10 days of our trip.

Meredith Heneghan ’16, left, and Alyssa Adkins ’15 mix cob, the material used to construct buildings and other structures at Quail Springs. Cob is a mixture of sand, clay, hay and water.

Meredith Heneghan ’16, left, and Alyssa Adkins ’15 mix cob, the material used to construct buildings and other structures at Quail Springs. Cob is a mixture of sand, clay, hay and water.

Slowly but surely, the arriving built up. I saw participants learning to cook, collecting eggs, milking goats, pulling weeds, chit-chatting, wandering the land, refilling the soap for the bathroom, journaling in the sun, learning, singing and laughing. The feeling of being new and visible was waning, and the feeling of being comfortable and useful was budding. Our cultures were combining.

The language and sentiment of arriving dwindled after a couple days, and the focus turned more to the intellectual and physical ins and outs of permaculture farming, natural building, sustainable living and the watershed that allows Quail Springs to exist. It was up to us, then, to be present to each other, the land and our hosts as we got busier. I’m not sure we ever were finished being overwhelmed, but at the time of our departure we had arrived enough to feel like we were being torn away too early, that our roots had settled into the ground at Quail Springs and that we would have to practice arriving once again – this time at home in Minnesota.

As we returned – picked up our phones, climbed into our beds and began to share our stories with others who wanted to hear about our adventure – it became apparent that it was going to be hard work to arrive back home.

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