Deep Springs College has been around for almost a hundred years. In 1917, a crew of about a dozen students, mostly ruddy young things from back east, were brought to a remote desert basin halfway between Yosemite and Death Valley by an entrepreneur and educator named L. L. Nunn. His idea was to form “whole men” — and only men, it being Nunn’s contention that a single-sex institution was the ideal way to achieve his goals — who would be as comfortable at a desk as in the field. He offered the boys two free years of education in exchange for a pledge to devote their lives to serving humanity. The first group built the dormitory by hand.
I’m pretty sure kids built the concrete building where I lived on campus last year, too — a place so cold in the winter that I dragged an oil-filled heater around my apartment like it was an IV pole. Nowadays, though, architects usually draw up the school’s building plans, and professional crews handle the construction. This is but one of the changes to the place over the years. Soon enough will come the biggest one yet: pending a final ruling by the Superior Court of California on a challenge to a decision made by trustees in 2011, Deep Springs College will soon begin admitting women.
There are now seven hundred living alumni of the school, among them aspiring New York congressman and Facebook husband Sean Eldridge, as well as authors William T. Vollmann, Benjamin Kunkel, and, well, me. Last September, I was hired on to teach a semester of creative writing, to live once again in a community of fifty people in a valley the size of Manhattan, at 5,000 feet above sea level. All of the college’s housing is clustered around a main circle, surrounded by mountains that extend another 2,000 feet up. The nearest town lies over a difficult mountain pass. Whether you like the college or not — and I’ve loved it most of my adult life, first as a fresh-faced student from Miami in 1997, less so a few summers ago when I learned the college would go co-ed, and then as much as ever when I returned as a thirty-four-year-old professor — being at Deep Springs has always meant facing a certain level of rugged discomfort. Which: fun, romantic. Which in winter: very cold.
When I’d driven into the valley in the summer, a farm team of half a dozen students was out irrigating some of the college’s 150 acres of alfalfa, which they would then process into large bales for sale. In addition to their studies, pupils here work at least twenty hours a week in the Labor program, which stands with Academics and Self-Governance as the college’s so-called three pillars.
First thing, I sought out Adam, one of my old classmates and the school’s current farm manager. When we were students together, we called him Cyborg. He could do fifty pull-ups with weights strapped to his chest. Now he’s a father, as I am. We took his girls to the swimming hole where he and I had graduated fifteen years earlier, in a small ceremony for which members of a younger class burned an item from each of us on a raft — things that marked who we’d been when we arrived and that we would no longer need. For me, it was the boots I’d worn when I was dairy boy; for a friend, a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions; for another, a well-worn early music CD.
Adam and I swam alongside his girls, the older one cutting through the water like a peach-colored dolphin. Then we walked back to the boarding house just ahead of the dinner bell. I learned that one of my writing students was the school’s butcher. Another was cooking most of the food. We sat down to a meal of pork chops, salad, and applesauce, with milk from the college’s cows. As a student, dairy was my favorite job — I came to love the intimacy of laying my head each morning against a giant mammal’s heaving warmth, and it didn’t hurt that milking made my forearms hard as steel.
Surrounded by young man-boys with ripped T-shirts, dirty hair, and sunburns, I thought about the fact that as students we’d shower together unselfconsciously, that there was a lot of hugging, and that we all achieved a kind of closeness and tenderness that, at the time, felt like a direct and special byproduct of the college being single-sex. Once, we held a wrestling competition in a makeshift ring lit up by the headlights of three pickups. Something like twenty Deep Springers came to my wedding, and I consider at least ten my best friends. I’m protective of what I think I gained. But sitting there at dinner, a father of a daughter, I began to understand the questions — about inequality, purpose, privilege — that came with attending an institution this exclusive and inessential and fragile and ridiculous.
For nearly 100 years, the Deep Springs formula has been simple: students stayed for two years, three at most, and during that time they hired and fired faculty, and constituted a majority of the admissions committee. Faculty typically stayed for a semester or a year, and the cap was seven. A few of the nonacademic staff — there’s typically a ranch manager, a farm manager, a cook, and a mechanic — have lasted a couple of decades, but life here is isolated and repetitive, and the charms of a student-run school wear thin, so most staff log a couple of years and move on. For everything wonderful about Deep Springs, it’s not always easy to live in a place that’s trying to be paradise.
As a student I both dreaded and loved the idea of going into the real world. During a trip to Harvard and other East Coast schools — we needed to transfer to a four-year university in order to complete our bachelor’s degrees — we’d hand-roll cigarettes, strike matches on belt buckles, and ash in our hats, feeling dazzling even as alfalfa fell from our pockets. Now I’d been out for a long time. I’d earned my degree, married, thrived in and then abandoned various jobs in New York. I’d lived in half a dozen cities, including Beirut, Istanbul, and Riyadh. I was a dad.
When the semester got underway, I settled into a routine, drinking coffee at night until I couldn’t see straight, printing out and marking up endless copies of a book manuscript. My wife began a new job in Los Angeles; our daughter started preschool. It pained me that they couldn’t be with me, but they were starting normal lives that didn’t involve social utopias in the middle of the desert. Within weeks, I was going through long stretches of not shaving or changing my clothes. Being alone was wonderful and awful. It afforded me tremendous amounts of time to work. But soon I forgot why and for whom I was working. One night, I spilled beer all over my manuscript. I began to think more and more about isolation, and how males act in the absence of females.
In class, everyone got sick. A tall, reedy guy from Michigan — one of my best students — handed a coughing classmate a lozenge. The cougher, who wore a denim jacket and a natural snarl, ignored the lozenge. His essay that week was called “In Defense of Shitholes.” During the response period, a student from Mali, a former special-forces paratrooper, asked, “What is ‘real America?’ ” We struggled to explain what a shithole was. Later, the butcher told us how, just before class, they’d gone to drop off the guts of a freshly slaughtered cow at the Dead Animal Dump, and the truck nearly fell in. The dump lies in the desert just beyond campus, and at night, coyotes circle the place, howling. When I was a student, I carried a gun and went to class with blood on my hands, too.
What it might mean to become a man at Deep Springs turned into a rather more urgent matter one night, when one of my other students decided to eat a spider. It was a Tuesday night, when the entire community traditionally gathers to hear students give talks, and he walked up to the podium with a hot plate, a cup of oil, and a jar containing a live black widow. When the oil was hot enough, he tipped the jar. There was a sizzle, and then he plucked out the cooked spider. I held my breath, hoping it was dead. Then he ate it (and survived). It was hard to imagine this happening at any other college.
Not long after I’d graduated, a student one year below me died in a tractor accident in the hills above the college. As a result, Deep Springs developed new regulations, covering who could use a power tool, how much instruction was required before a student could drive the backhoe, and the number of students required before a college vehicle could be used for an official trip. The black-widow incident was a rare show of risk. By contrast, in my first few weeks as a student, I was handed a chainsaw and pointed toward a pile of boards. When I hit a nail, the saw kicked back and nearly tore me in half. Whatever we built back then, it was ours. But at least some of what we built could have been better.
On Thanksgiving, I brought out my family for the first time. The meal was astonishing — delicate baked goods, mounds of steaming meat, deep bowls of fresh ice cream. My daughter found a deer’s tooth lying on my porch. She was both terrified and thrilled. “Daddy, is that a dead tooth from a dead animal? And when am I going to die? Daddy?? Tell me!!!” She fell in love with three different students and was overcome with a joy I hadn’t previously seen.
I realized, holding her hand, walking around a campus I’d known and idealized and wanted to protect my entire adult life, that maybe the most basic purpose of Deep Springs was to teach us to welcome challenge, and to do so with grace. Because of how much I’d loved the place, my line had always been this: I don’t want it to change. Deep Springs had been very good to me. I’d learned how to be at home in the field and at a desk. Now, as the father of a little girl, I was ready to see what else it could do.