In the summer of 1972, when I was 16, my father put me on the Greyhound bus that would take me from Lewiston, Idaho to Cimarron, New Mexico, home of Philmont Scout Ranch, a place about which I knew almost nothing, my attendance owing only to an unclaimed scholarship offered by our local Scout council. I didn't really want to go. I was traveling by myself, dressed in the full Scout uniform my father insisted that I wear for the duration of the bus trip. In 1972 the Vietnam War was still raging, and my generation, or part of it, was still raging against authority. Anyone in a uniform was suspect, and dressed as I was, I could only be taken as someone whose allegiance was to The Man. Talk about being self conscious. The bus trip was to take almost three days, with stops at almost every wide spot in the road. Forward progress was hard to discern, and at some point I began to feel, as one sometimes does on long unpleasant trips, that my entire life had been spent on this interminable voyage.
When I finally did arrive at Philmont, any embarrassment about being seen in a Scout uniform was quickly dispelled. Everyone, and there were a lot of people milling about camp headquarters, was in uniform, all wearing neckerchiefs and patches that advertised their home council. It was a flurry of activity and color, and above this scene were the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the Tooth of Time. I met my Ranger and the rest of my crew. The scholarship I had claimed was for a program called Kit Carson Men, a precursor to the current Rayado program. We would trek for sixteen days and cover Philmont south to north. The highlight would be a side trip into the Latirs where we would climb Wheeler Peak, and try, unsuccessfully, to signal to the Scouts we imagined to be on the summit of Mt. Baldy, the high point on the Ranch. In all we hiked about 135 miles, a modest trek by KCM standards. However, to that point in my life it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I was always hungry, my equipment was inadequate, and I was, at times, almost overcome by self doubt. Completing my trek and successfully shouldering my share of our crew's responsibilities were among the proudest moments of my young life, and in time I came to realize that those brief weeks were as important a formative experience as I have had.
I arrived without a backpack, but did bring a kapok sleeping bag from the Lewiston Army Navy store, a heavy Scout issue jacket in bright red wool, a pair of department store "wafflestompers," a plastic poncho, and a steel GI mess kit. I also brought one of my prized possessions, a Buck knife, the Folding Hunter, in a black leather sheath. At my father's insistence, I wore a Scout issue campaign hat in dark green felt, like the one Smokey The Bear wears. I suppose that such a ridiculous thing may find a place in a Scout's ceremonial wardrobe, but it proved wholly unsuitable as a backpacking hat. It was unwearable while carrying a pack, owing to the fact that the flat circumferential brim continuously bumped into the back of my pack, forcing my head down, and denying me a view of the terrain ahead. In the end I carried the thing in my hands most of the length of our trek. At the trading post I purchased a Philmont belt, along with the iconic bronze Philmont buckle. At that time, there was a tradition that you were supposed to wear the belt and buckle upside down until you had climbed the Tooth of Time. I bought a belt that was a little too long, but that was a choice that proved foresighted in the long run since I can still (barely) wear it today.
There was other paraphernalia, but that's what jumps out at me these many years later. I had as yet no notion that backpacking could be anything but uncomfortable. I had never used a hip belt or a Nalgene bottle, steel canteens being de rigueur in my experience. I was vaguely aware of a book called The Complete Walker, written by a man named Colin Fletcher, which advocated Kelty Packs, and walking sticks that would "convert an insecure biped into a confident triped." But for that, the backpacking revolution in my neck of the woods had gotten no further than the Lewiston public library.
My Ranger chose for me a canvas Camp Trails frame pack from camp stores and advised me to outfit it with a hip belt, an unpadded version of which was available for purchase at the Philmont trading post. For his part, my Ranger was equipped with a dark green Kelty D4, a nylon mummy bag stuffed with goose down, and a pair of svelte Pivetta hiking shoes. Even now, it is hard to call them boots. They reminded me of nothing so much as hiking slippers. Instead of a water bottle he favored a leather bota bag. His name was Jeff Dias, and I suppose he was then in his early twenties.
I had never used a backpacking stove, and, indeed, during that portion of our trek which was on Ranch property we cooked over open fires, after first rubbing down the outside of our pots with a paste made from powdered soap and water to prevent soot from sticking. I believe the brand of soap used for this and all other cleaning purposes was "Tetrox," and there was a running (pardon me) joke about the "Tetrox trots," which you would contract if you did not rinse your cookware thoroughly enough. (Although Tetrox appears to be long gone, the condition it sometimes caused yet abides, now known to one Philmont Ranger as the "butt pees." Our Scouts loved this expression. Excretory humor is never wasted on a 15-year-old. ) However, when we ventured into the Latirs, my crew used what was then called a "bluet" stove, later rebranded as "gaz." I had never seen anything like it and was amazed that a heat source so small and light could accommodate a crew of seven people.
After returning from Philmont, I was anxious to apply all I had learned about backpacking and to equip myself in a fashion that would allow me to travel comfortably in the wild. Among my first purchases was a red Kelty B4 pack, a purchase which I have never regretted. Thirty-eight years later, I am still carrying that red pack, although the packsack is now so sun rotted as to make me reluctant to pack it too tightly. Backpacking became a passion and ultimately came to include a summer hiking the Washington and Oregon sections of the PCT.
However, marriage, small children and the demands of my profession caused me to take a break from backpacking until my son, now 15, joined Scouts. I, in turn, joined the Troop committee and participated in planning activities for the boys including backpacking trips into the Sawtooths and Owyhees. I began to sense that during my hiatus from backpacking, things had again changed. I didn't pay much attention to the lightweight movement, still satisfied with my Kelty and an MSR Hubba, which I had acquired for Scout outings. As an aside, I found that as I reached middle age, I no longer desired to have a tent mate, particularly one of the same gender. My sleep was much more restful if I slept in a solo tent, using earplugs to drown out the snoring neighbors situated around me.
About a year ago, a fellow Scouter suggested that the Troop apply for a Philmont trek. She had staffed at Philmont in the 80s and had the same halcyon memories of her time there as I did. We applied for a trek and were told by those in the know that it might take as long as three years to get a slot. However, the Great Recession evidently tempered demand, and in the fall of 2009 we were contacted by Philmont and asked if we would be interested in a trek for 6/12/10 - 6/25/10. We accepted and began planning. Our roster filled quickly, our crew consisting of three adult Scouters - Todd Swanstrom, Joe Williams and myself - and nine Scouts. I accepted the responsibility to be adult advisor for our crew and began to obsess about how to make this as great an experience for our Scouts as my Philmont trek had been for me.
Where to start? My cursory searches on the internet about Philmont suggested something rather ominous, later confirmed by the first mailings we received from the Ranch in the fall of 2009; Philmont has become a place of rules, adherence to which is not optional. I know my temperament, and I recognized that it might prove difficult for me to accede to regulations that ran counter to my own experience. The best advice I received about returning to Philmont was from one of Doug Prosser's articles. He advocated going with the flow, even though the rule in question might seem arbitrary, or even slightly ridiculous. Months in advance, I got my mind right and resolved that I would flow like water. (After arriving at our first campsite, and after our Ranger had watched me erect the thing, I was asked to move my tent eight (eight!) paces so that all crew tents would fit within some radius visible only to him. I smiled and did as I was asked.) To anyone contemplating a Philmont trip, especially experienced backpackers who think they know a thing or two, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Doug's advice. You will have a lot more fun if you knuckle under and do it their way, because there really isn't any other way. By the way, their way works!
Early in my preparations I stumbled on the Backpacking Light website and discovered that a number of Scouters have given a good deal of thought to how to do Philmont in a lightweight style that accommodates the constraints of established trek architecture. I am particularly indebted to Doug Prosser and Al Geist for their tested insights on gear and practices that made our Philmont trek more enjoyable. After reviewing these and other materials, I personally resolved to go as light as possible and to craft gear lists that would lighten the packs of all our Scouts. Particular attention was devoted to selecting crew gear.
- A long time ago, at a Scout ranch far far away...
- Troop Gear
- My Gear
- Crew Gear
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