Boys of paradise

Deep Springs students slaughter cattle, read Derrida and hire their teachers, but living in utopia ain't easy.

Published April 16, 1999 5:03PM (EDT)

It's been a month since blood was shed at Deep Springs. Students slaughtered
one of the ranch pigs, then feasted on bacon and ham sandwiches for days. A
new arrival moved into the dorm last week, and already the men are
discussing whether to sacrifice it. This 36-inch beast of blazing
technicolor and surround sound has become a fractious intrusion: No matter
that the TV was bought with Sprint long distance points and is mainly used
for "Spartacus" screenings, it still signifies the "Bennington-ization" of
Deep Springs. "Last year we lived in filth and squalor," declares Nathan
Deuel, looping a thumb under the straps of his Carhartt overalls. "But it
was a noble filth and squalor!"

Deuel is one of 26 students at Deep Springs College, a working ranch and enclave of brilliant boys and moon-eyed cows tucked in a high desert valley that straddles the California-Nevada border. It is considered a self-governing community: Along with a handful of trustees and faculty, students determine policy, hire and fire faculty, decide who is admitted and design course offerings. Relations between students and trustees have been historically strained, however. For years, students were bucking to admit women and trustees resisted, and now that pendulum has reversed. "Change is no longer something that has to be fought for because it's happening all around us," Deuel notes. "The struggle to go coed was a seductive fight because it was a fight. Now it could almost be coming from above." Last year, Deuel reveled in the trailer park architecture and carpets stained with cat piss. Then the college became
rather well endowed and trustees pushed for a $2 million dorm and pretty
trash cans. Wealth is insidious to Deep Springs' way of life -- even more insidious than girls.

Rich guilt is on the agenda at Friday night's student body meeting. "SB," as the weekly governing session is called, can crawl past midnight and "tends to get personal." "Don't absolve yourselves," Michael Pihos drops his knitting to chide the others. "We all voted for that television! And if you don't like the opulence of the dorm, don't sleep in it!" The boarding house cafeteria echoes with finger snaps, the SB signal for agreement. Deep Springers will elect a new SB president tonight and Ian Bloom campaigns on a squatter ticket, reminding his peers that he protested the new dorm. "We built a shantytown and camped outside to prove that we didn't need to sleep in the building. We roasted sausages and sang 'Keep on Rocking in the Free World.'" If elected, Bloom promises, he will prevent the "decadence and deterioration of Deep Springs!"

According to Deuel, Deep Springs students are basically "rich white guys."
They've tasted decadence and privilege and chosen to sacrifice wine, women
and Harvard. Besides the prohibition policy, an isolation rule frowns on
students leaving the valley except during school breaks. It's a moot point:
The nearest town is rusted shut by 10 p.m., an hour's drive and 50 years back in
time. When an eccentric industrialist named L.L. Nunn founded Deep Springs
in 1917, he envisioned a cocoon, immune to the material and sensual
decadence that winked in cities' neon lights. "Great leaders in all ages
have sought the desert and heard its voice," Nunn addressed students in
1923. "You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the
midst of uproar and strife for material things."

Nunn's mission was to marry practical and abstract learning while building
character, to educate an elite group of men to lead and serve humanity. The
school is free; an endowment and revenues from the ranch cover tuition, room
and board. After two years at Deep Springs, students transfer into such
colleges as Harvard and Berkeley. The office sends 20,000 brochures a year
to men who rank in the top 5 percent of the PSATs (applicants' average SAT score
is 1500). Of those, 200 seniors wade through seven essay
questions to apply (one answered with a symphony while another sent handmade
sausage). Round two is an hour and a half interview with a committee of nine
students and two faculty members. Interviewees are handed a piece of chalk
or a napkin to fiddle with and thawed with an ice breaker: What do
you think about sumo wrestling?
Curveballs come later:
What is evil? How do you reconcile education and elitism with service to
A dozen men are then invited to attend Deep Springs,
and very rarely do they reject the offer. "I knew that if I didn't come
here," Deuel says, "I'd regret it for the rest of my life."

Deep Springers have been known to meet at midnight in the dairy barn for a
Derrida reading group. Minutes before SB, Nick Gossen perches at the dorm
piano and tickles off a Debussy concerto as if he were flossing his teeth.
They're just as intense during bouts of frivolity. The end of term is
celebrated with a frenetic dance party called a "boojee." When wildflowers
bloom, it's time for nude spring cleaning, and beneath a summer's full moon,
the boys slide bare-butted down Eureka Valley sand dunes. Midway through SB,
someone shouts for entertainment and Bryden Sweeney-Taylor claws off his
shirt as he dashes outside. Under desert stars, two pickup trucks lurch to a
halt, their high beams glowing on Sweeney-Taylor and Thomas Kolb as they
tussle in the dirt. "Pin his arm!" The crowd shouts. "Crush him!" You might
even mistake them for 18-year-old boys, until SB reconvenes and a student
complains about class time being wasted by an "excess of vulgarity." Then
you realize that age may be defined in people years, dog years or Deep
Springs years.

Mornings are occupied with courses that vary from "Sustainable Agriculture"
("the worst smelling class") to "Bloody, Strong and Resolute: Early Modern
Tragedy and the Structure of Violence." Afternoons are blue-collar: Students
brand, castrate and slaughter cattle, collect eggs and milk and make
cheese. They rotate jobs that include cowboy (most coveted) to butcher,
which is taught with an instructional video. "Authentic" is a word that's
often tacked to the labor program. The cattle ranch is a business, but the
labor program was not created for profit. It is designed to teach
self-reliance and responsibility. "There are a lot of city white boys
working on this ranch taking ourselves very seriously," says Michael Thoms.
"We go to lengths to make sure that people know what we're doing is real."

"There's a sense here that whenever you're awake, you should be doing
something, and when you're asleep, you should be awake," a former student
remarked. Students say one reason to keep Deep Springs single-sex is that
libidos get in the way of an education. When asked why an absence of women
precludes libidinous activity, Aaron Jacobson says, "The whole concept of
Deep Springs is homoerotic, and there's a lot of speculation that Nunn was
homosexual. Students are comfortable playing with homoeroticism and dressing
in skirts once in a while, but usually, it doesn't go any further. Even when
there are two gay students, not much happens because intimate relationships
of any kind are discouraged. People resent when a member isn't very present
in the community. There is a lot of pressure on students not to have
exclusive relationships -- even cliques are frowned upon."

Alumni and college guides have accused the college of producing "misfits for life," men who are paralyzed by cocktail parties and stutter through small talk. A few Deep Springers speak with rusted tongues, as if English is not their native language. Your question reels them from a cerebral sea and they fish to string a sentence together, their gaze oblique as they dissect a crusty cuticle. Others are so voluble that if Nunn was correct and the desert does possess a voice, it's long been squelched by their soliloquies.

In a student-made lampoon entitled "How to be a hip Deep Springer," a mock
application asks, Were you pushed into puddles during second-grade
recess? Were you an alienated elitist in high school?
At an earlier SB meeting, one student confessed to flirting with the idea of suicide. "Our response was 'Oh puhleeze,'" Dimitri Masterove jokes, flicking his palm.

"Sure, Deep Springs students develop neuroses and contemplate suicide,"
shrugs Jacobson, sporting the Deep Springs do -- grizzly hair tamed by a John
Deere cap. "But there's a certain predisposition -- we were all kind of gimpy
in high school. I don't know if people come out of Deep Springs any more
screwed up than when they started."

The college's isolation and students' lack of privacy can be maddening enough that one Deep Springer leaves every year. A review committee disinvites certain students, while others hitchhike or hop into pickups and vanish without a word. One student went AWOL after a "Jezebel" seduced him during a train trip back to school. A group of Deep Springers scoured the desert looking for a classmate who didn't want to be found. "I was very happy here," remarked Mikolaj Kocikowski, a former student. "But it was a difficult kind of happiness."

One of the many paradoxes of Deep Springs is how these non-conformists bow
to a collective will and sacrifice personal freedoms to preserve their
community. Following an SB outburst, a note of apology flutters on the dorm
bulletin board: "I have come to the realization that I am a
curmudgeon," it opens, "more than that, I am a tactless curmudgeon." After
repeated violations of the isolation and no-alcohol policies, Graeme Wood
posted pages of Jean Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract" to the bulletin board, asking, "Do we believe in this anymore? If we vote that everyone has to eat a goldfish, we're going to do it, right?"

"It's not true that we have to kill something to graduate," a student says, before you can whisper the word "cult." Nick Jones describes graduates as fallen angels who roam the earth seeking a Deep Springs in society. "This place can form you," John Mangin muses. "It can make you think it's a paradigm, so that anything after this will seem flawed."

Genius has the power to corrode, but Deep Springers haven't become clotted
by cynicism. By definition, utopia is an imaginary place, yet they strive
for an idyllic world. They scrutinize the turpitude of trash cans because
they recognize that any choice leaves a ripple. They dance in skirts and slaughter animals, read Nietzsche and contemplate the edges of their emerging manhood. For every Deep Springer who tiptoes to the road, his thumb stretched to desert stars and twitching for a ride, 25 others tack a letter of self-flagellation, bartering pride for the welfare of an adoptive family. Some are now silver-haired lawyers in Manhattan, who hit speed dial as they sit with legs buckled beneath mahogany desks facing a valley of skyscrapers. Three thousand miles away, Lisa Campodonico, the school's cowboy-booted administrator, answers their call. "Can you look out the window," they will ask, their voices snagging on a sunrise in 1965, "and tell me what the weather is like?"

By Denise Dowling

Denise Dowling is a freelance writer.

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