“It’s the most physically beautiful place I’ve ever been,” Jason Perine said.
Perine was one of 19 Augustana College students who spent most of winter term in picturesque Holden Village. The Lutheran retreat is nestled in a valley of the Northern Cascade Mountains in the northwest corner of Washington state. It was home to the Augie students and three professors for seven weeks in January and February.
“It’s kind of shocking when you arrive by boat,” said Jessica Merchant, an Augie student. “An entire village of strangers welcomed us with open arms.”
Part of Holden Village’s appeal is its remoteness. To get there, the students, along with history professor Lendol Calder, English professor Jan Keessen and biology professor Dara Wegman-Geedey, took a 42-hour train ride to Wenatchee, Wash. From there, they rode a bus 35 miles to Chelan and then crossed Lake Chelan by boat. Village representatives took them the rest of the 11 snowy miles on all-terrain vehicles.
Holden Village is a former copper mining town that is now a formal Lutheran retreat center. About 60 people live there year-round in the 12 or so buildings. Those who come to visit are only asked to attend morning Matins and nightly Vesper services, which last 20 minutes. It’s appreciated, though, if the visitors chip in with the chores.
Augustana’s Holden Village term, initiated by Keessen, was focused on community and consumerism. Courses included “Perspectives on Health,” a literature course called “The American West” and Calder’s “Why Consumerism? I.”
The students learned, not only through their classes, but through the jobs they took on in the Holden community. Several of the male students were “mavericks,” performing physical labor like shoveling snow. That time of year, with six feet of snow everywhere, they carved out narrow paths. Other students worked as cooks or stoked boilers with wood.
As for the teaching and learning, it was different, too.
“Have you seen a teen’s handwriting since PC’s were invented?” asked Calder.
Holden is so isolated there’s no Internet or cell phone signal or television (there are satellite phones for emergencies).
“Research was out of the question,” Calder said. “We were limited to the books we carried in.”
Calder said he conducted classes in the manner of Socrates or Aristotle.
“I went on walks with my students and examined and talked to them,” he said.
Those walks included back country skiing expeditions, though he said the long, intense conversations were more exhausting than the physical activity. In another departure from typical campus-based classes, Calder ended the term with oral exams.
“The students exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Test averages were way above average. They ended up talking more with each other and learning more.”
He and his wife, Kathy, said that without the distractions of city life, everyone immediately sees the fruits of their labor, and even ate three full meals a day. In fact, everyone in town sits down to the three family-style meals, plus a mid-morning community coffee break. Many also learned some new skills, like knitting and making pottery.
They also learned a lot about themselves.
Rachel Lewis wanted to experience a place without embedded technology. She learned she could be independent, but really enjoyed the community meals and by the end knew everyone’s name.
“I loved it. Every day was a postcard view, and there was lots of interaction when they only use about four buildings in the winter,” she said. Now back at Augie, she’s kept the Holden habit of composting.
Merchant said she, too, learned to depend on herself.
“I learned how to interact again without the cell phone and computer,” she said. “I know my fellow students much better. You get to the core of people faster with this closer society — there’s no veil.”
Returning to the pressures of the real world, she appreciates even more the required Christian meditations of Holden, which she said brings people together.
Perine also slowed down and now looks at life differently.
“I feel more liberated, gaining a better appreciation for the outdoors and even the Midwest. I don’t take normal things for granted anymore,” he said.
Kathy Calder, a busy at-home mother of two, went through her own changes. She worked in the bookstore and, encouraged by other musicians, brought out her guitar for the first time in years.
“It’s an all for one, one for all attitude there,” she said, “You’re missed if you not there.”
The Calder children, who went to the one Holden Village school, had their own perspective on the experience. Andy, 12, thought there was “more of a true community than where we live now.” Abigail, 14, remembering how clean and neat the Village was said, “Dad, the thing about Holden is, it makes you realize how messed up the rest of the world is.”
Augustana has been invited to return next year. Calder said while other colleges have brought students for extended stays, the Augie students were the first to work in the village.
“They liked us because our students worked,” he said.
To learn more about Holden Village, visit Holdenvillage.org.