Dr. Joseph Little (wearing yellow hat) and his wife, Samantha, led a group of Niagara University students on a California Wonder Walk this spring.

For seven days in March, Dr. Joseph Little, associate professor of English, and his wife, Samantha, led a group of six Niagara University students on a trip to the West Coast designed to immerse them in the natural beauty and rich cultural contexts of California's southern and central coasts.

Dr. Little had previously offered an adventure-oriented backpacking trip in the highlands of Guatemala in conjunction with his travel writing course. But in the aftermath of COVID, he was inspired to offer something different this year—an experience that would open the participants to a sense of wonder.

“I felt a new trip was in order,” he said, “one that would slow the pace of life, replace the continual distraction of smartphones with natural elements of expanse or grandeur, and encourage students to connect with the sense of peace or groundedness that sometimes emerges in such settings.”

The group left Sunday, March 10, for the beach town of Ventura. After landing in Los Angeles, they drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to their hotel and prepared for the week ahead.

The California Wonder Walk began in earnest the next day with a morning meditation on the beach and a walking tour of downtown Ventura, where they stopped at the Visitor’s Center, San Buenaventura Mission, Serra Cross Park, and Surfer's Point.

The rest of the week included silent hiking on Santa Cruz Island, visits to the Getty Villa Museum and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a hike in Malibu’s Solstice Canyon, and a walk along the boardwalk from the Santa Monica Pier to Venice Beach. It concluded with a trip to the desert, where they took a sound bath at the Integratron, a two-story desert cupola constructed by George van Tassel, who claimed to base its extraordinary design on Moses' Tabernacle, the works of Nikola Tesla, and instructions he received telepathically from extraterrestrials. Each day began with a morning meditation.

While the specific activities facilitated an appreciation for the natural beauty of the area and a slower, more peaceful daily pace, they were also chosen to encourage the students to develop an ability to sit with boredom, Dr. Little said.

“Often times, it seems, we sense a few milliseconds of boredom and reach immediately for our phones, missing an opportunity to pass through that boredom into a richer inner experience where peace and deep connection and imagination can find soil,” he said. “One of the reasons we began each day in mindfulness meditation was to develop a practice for sitting with those transient moments of boredom, to wait them out nonjudgmentally so we can see what’s on the other side. Our other trip activities, especially the silent hiking on Santa Cruz Island and the sound bath in the Mojave desert, provided additional spaces in which to cultivate this mindfulness approach to the richness of the moment. They’re practices we began in California, but the hope is that the students will continue to seek out these moments back home.”

For recent graduate Ava Tischendorf, ’24, an environmental science major from Lockport, N.Y., the sound bath was the most impactful activity of the week.

“It was a mental and physical experience which I hadn't anticipated,” she said. “I found myself fighting to stay awake, but also trying to relax and let the process take me where I needed to go.”

Amber Allen, a rising junior from Depew, N.Y., studying math education, agreed.

“The Integratron helped clear my mind and reminded me that I can relax and don't need to be on the go 24/7,” she said. “I have never felt more relaxed than I did (there).”

The two students noted that their travel companions helped to make the entire experience a memorable one.

“We had a wonderful group of students who were respectful and easy-going, who really embraced the theme of the trip, which was mindfulness and openness to new experiences,” Ava said. “Dr. Little and his wife, Samantha, were excellent guides and awesome people who I respect and admire on a personal level.”

“My wife and I were really impressed by the students’ positive attitude throughout the trip,” Dr. Little said. “We asked them to be open to a variety of new experiences, and without exception they were on board, respectful of each other and of us, and just a joy to be around. It was really their attitude that made the trip a success.”