Friday, July 9, we boarded the bus and were dropped off at Zastrow Turnaround at the south end of the Ranch. I was pleased that our crew had chosen the far south for their trek; it was the only part of Philmont I hadn’t hiked over at all. We would follow the Rayado Canyon up into the high country before turning north and hitting the big mountains.
The first camp we passed through was Zastrow, where the program was GPS. They gave us some training and sent us out to follow the GPS course on the way to Abreu; however, our Venturers could not figure out the system. GPS was brand-new to them, and it was frustrating; nevertheless, we enjoyed the hike up the Rayado. The Rayado River and its tributaries form a wonderful trout stream, and we had some avid fishermen among us who were eyeing it carefully.
We set up camp at Old Abreu, then returned to Abreu Camp to cook dinner, milk goats, and enjoy the Cantina (which sells a very fine root beer). I noted that the staff kept the door to the Cantina open while the crews were inside. Deodorant isn’t allowed in the backcountry, and unwashed campers can get pretty ripe for a closed room, especially after several days on the trail.
We were warned explicitly about bears. A late spring had left the bears with few berries to eat, and they were coming into conflict with campers in their search for food. There were more bear sightings this summer than almost anyone could remember seeing before, and there had already been two bear attacks in the south country. As a sign in another camp later said, it was a Bear-pocalypse.
We later learned that the two bear attacks were the direct result of campers neglecting to follow proper bear procedures and keep smellables out of their tents; nevertheless, the bear stories severely unnerved our crew leader. For the rest of the trek, she directed our tents to be set up in each camp so that hers was in the center of the group. In other respects, however, I saw that Makayla was really laying hold of the crew leader’s position, and we could take her bear-anoia in stride. That evening, I offered the old Cornish prayer after our Thorns and Roses time:
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties
and things that go bump in the night,
good Lord, deliver us.
Over the next several days, we did a lot of re-packing and I spent considerable time fixing people’s packs – mostly adjusting hip belts and shoulder straps. Ben was particularly frustrated on the first day. He had a lot of gear he didn’t know how to pack or use. After a few adjustments and a little advice, though, everything began to fit better and he felt more in control of the pack monster he was wrestling with.
Our second day on the trail, Kaleb took the Mapigator position. He took to map and compass easily. We had a long, uphill walk to Carson Meadows, which has a gorgeous view of the Tooth of Time. The program there was SAR (Search and Rescue), and while the youth did the program, Scott and I contemplated a problem we had discovered: we were running out of coffee.
Coffee is not issued as part of the Philmont menu. You are expected to take your own, and coffee bags are available in Base Camp for advisors to stock up on. We thought we had a better system. Scott had found a French press that held over a quart of water. We were packing ground coffee and making the real stuff every morning. The only problem was, we forgot to pack a new plastic container when we were sorting through our gear, making the transition from touring mode to trekking mode. We knew that begging for coffee would get us nowhere in the backcountry; however, we also knew that every staffed camp had coffee, which they brewed up each night for the Advisors’ Coffee time.
So, I approached the staff at Carson Meadows and made them a proposition. I asked if they could spare us some ground coffee in return for a couple of hours of labor on the part of our adults. They were very surprised at this offer, but thought that would be a good deal. They had an on-going task of clearing the scrub oak that was impinging on their meadow. If we got rid of some of this nuisance, that would be worth some coffee in their eyes.
So Scott, Melodie, and I set to clearing scrub oak with a vengeance. When we were about done with that task, the staff asked if we could fell a big, ol’ scraggly pine tree that was also in the way. Jordan joined me and Scott in playing lumberjack and we made short work of it. Our coffee supply replenished, we were now ready to face the backcountry again.
I noted a sign at Carson Meadows that seemed to read, STAFFAREA. “Sounds contagious,” I said.
As we continued on our way, Melodie continued to have altitude problems, mostly headaches. Finally, we took most of her gear off her, to enable her to continue. We also continued adjusting packs. And Allison continued to refine our skills and impart Philmont lore at every opportunity.
The reaction to Philmont on the park of the Venturers was immediate and overwhelming. Each new sight was a cause for amazement. Each camp we entered was the best camp that ever was, and each crew member immediately decided they wanted to return and work there. This excitement increased day by day for most of the trek.
On Sunday morning, July 11, we said good-bye to our Ranger after breakfast and left Crags camp. Our path took us high up in the canyon wall. I taught the crew the Indian Step, a technique for relaxing each leg’s muscles and releasing its lactic acid as one walked uphill.
High up on some rocks overlooking Crater Peak, we made a long break, and I got my church supplies out of my pack: pilot biscuits and grape juice for communion. Connor read that day’s devotion, and I gave them a brief homily from Matthew 1. I noted that the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s most famous oration, was probably delivered to just twelve people. I talked about Jedediah Smith’s desire for a “society” to “bear him up before a throne of grace,” and how between the levels of congregational worship and personal faith there was a need for a smaller circle of friends who were all on the same pilgrimage, and who would support each other and hold each other accountable. This is the origin of the Methodist Class Meeting, but it isn’t original to Methodism. All spiritual renewal movements, all the way back to Jesus himself, have rediscovered it. And our crew was, in essence, a little church of its own, supporting each other with our prayers in the wilderness.
Afterward, we made steady progress to Fish Camp, where the day’s menu called for tuna. How appropriate. We met some weary cavalcaders on the porch of Rayado Lodge, Waite Phillips’s original fishing camp establishment. A Philmont Cavalcade is an eight-day trek on horseback, as opposed to a ten-day trek by foot. All of our crew members were instantly charmed by this idea.
I told the Venturers that this was shaping up to be my best Philmont trek yet, and they were shaping up to be as good a crew as I had ever worked with.
There was a terrible stench that occasionally wafted its way into our campsite. Our intrepid boys, for whom no disgusting smell should go uninvestigated, soon found the cause. A dead cow, partially decomposed and covered in maggots, was just a wee bit downstream from us. What the cow died of, I don’t know, but a bear had decided to drag it off to a private corner for some quiet snacking at its own convenience. This at least had the advantage of making sure that the bear was more interested in the carcass than in our smellables. Still, as C.S. Lewis (I think) said, the fact that there is a bear in the forest – even if we never encounter it – makes us feel more alive.
Also helping us feel more alive was the illusion of time progressing more slowly. I consistently mistook how long I had been at any given activity. There was more time for everything, it seemed. Perhaps this was because I wasn’t filling my time with empty activities and electronic distractions; I also didn’t have it broken down into artificial time periods. Every moment was lived to the full. So much is experienced in every day; every relationship deepens at a pace unheard of back in the “real world.”
We tied flies and the youth tried their hand at fly-casting, but their tromping through the creek and beating the water scared off all the trout. No fish for us. Still, there were other charms at Fish Camp. There was a cat who enjoyed chasing the abundant chipmunks, and a young mule deer that wandered through camp during Advisors Coffee.