March 10, 2009
by Melinda Swenson
This weekend a group of Colorado State students will leave for the heart of Appalachia on an alternative break. They will work on environmental, cultural, and social issues with the Snowbird Cherokee community. During their leisure time, they will explore caves surrounding the nation's largest underground lake, attend a hootenanny, and enjoy the hospitality and homecooking of their alt-break hosts.
Late this week, Abby Larsen, a Colorado State University senior and music major, and five other CSU students will leave Fort Collins for spring break. They’ll pile into a van and head east on I-70. Umpteen hours later, they’ll be in eastern Tennessee.
As they near their destination, they’ll take Old Railroad Bed Road until it turns to gravel, then turn right at a sign that reads, “Once Upon a Time in Appalachia.”
As the students climb out of the van into the cool of the woods, they may be able to hear the sigh of the Little Tennessee River through the trees. Rustic buildings are tucked here and there in the woods, and a huge vegetable garden is visible in the distance.
Larsen - who has worked as a site leader for numerous CSU-sponsored alternative breaks - and the other students have arrived at the wilderness retreat in the Great Smoky Mountains where they will be spending their alt-break (short for alternative break). The compound sits across the river from Chota, the original capital of the Cherokee Nation.
As the students unload their luggage from the van, their hosts, Arleen and Ed Decker, will likely come out of the bunk house to greet them and encourage them to settle in. There is a full kitchen in the bunk house, and dinner is likely in the oven. The menu often includes traditional Appalachian foods like venison stew and blackberry cobbler.
During the coming days, Abby and the others will work hard and play hard. They’ll perform a service project in a Cherokee community, do some trail building in the Cherokee National Forest, and spend a day working on a project in the Sequoyah Museum.
During the students’ full day of leisure on Thursday, they plan to go spelunking in the caves surrounding the Lost Sea, the largest underground lake in the United States that sits under Sweetwater, Tenn. “The last evening we’re there, we’re going to a hootenanny,” said Larsen. "I’m sure it will be one of those ‘Can you believe this is happening?’ moments!”
“We started meeting in October to plan for this spring alt-break,” Larsen said. “The couple that runs the facility does an amazing job of sponsoring alt-breaks.
“They sent us a video about the Cherokee Nation and the specific tribe that lives here.They provided info about environmental issues in this area, and they even sent recipes from the tribe. I’ve been told that Ed Decker is quite the story teller. Someone told me to ask him about Big Foot!”
When it comes to alt-breaks, Larsen is something of an old hand.
“I first heard about alt-breaks from a Student FYI e-mail that I received when I was a freshman in the residence hall,” she said. “It sounded cool to me, doing something useful and meaningful in partnership with a community.
(Photo at right: Larsen, far left, with friends on alt-break in New York City)
“In alt-breaks, you are side-by-side with people who are living with various issues. I’ve been to New York City to work with the organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis. They were the first agency in the fight against HIV and AIDS. We helped this agency get ready for AIDS Walk, New York.
“The alt-break program is great because it’s not something you do for a week that has nothing to do with the rest of your life. It’s not like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’ and then you never do anything like that again.”
One of Larsen’s favorite alt-breaks was to the Catalina Island camps off the coast of California. “We spent a week there building a terrace garden and a trail into the mountains, planting native plants, and removing invasive plants.
(Photo at right: Larsen, far left, and alt-break group at Catalina Island)
“I’m a music major - and here I was learning how to rotate crops in a terrace garden, something the Mayans did! I don’t study this kind of thing. I was with 10 other women and we were doing physical labor together.That was an empowering dynamic.
“The last day we were there, we took a kayak trip around the island and set up camp on the sand. We cooked burritos over the fire and then went to sleep on the beach under the stars. None of us wanted the experience to end. We rushed back to the camp the next morning so we could finish up the project we were working on.”
“If there’s anything you’re passionate about, chances are there’s an alt-break that will allow you to work with that issue,” Larsen said. “It’s a phenomenal program. There are a lot of people who, as soon as you tell them about alt-break, decide they want to go. They say, ‘What? You’re kidding - that sounds fantastic!’”
If students want to get plugged into an alt-break right away, there are summer break 2009 trips coming up. Summer break 2009 trips. For more information, contact the Office of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Community Engagement at (970) 491-1682.
Contact: Jen Johnson
Phone: (970) 491-1682