Friday, September 05, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Chronologically

One of the things I don't like about Blogger is that everything is sorted latest-first.  This works for the general "read something new each day" format of a blog, but once that everyday stuff becomes history, especially when a topic spans multiple days, it is awkward to read it in reverse order.

So, here, I present to you, my Philmont Scout Ranch journal, in chronological order:
By clicking on the links above, and the judicious use of your "Back" button, you should be able to read each entry in order, as a journal was meant to be read.

I hope you enjoy.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Eleven - Chase Turnaround and Base Camp

Our last day on the trail.  Reflecting back on this trip, we had done a lot.  We hiked through desert.  We hiked through aspen and conifer forests, summited rocky shale peaks, and hiked through dry lakes and high mountain meadows.  But, we had not yet hiked through Dean Canyon.

Some of our crew lamented that the trip was over so quickly, but I secretly was glad to be winding up. I was ready to go home!  It had been two weeks since I'd had any kind of contact with Becky, Hannah or Greg at the distillery, and I was anxious as hell to find out if everything was OK.  My anxiety built throughout the day.  I had to force myself multiple times to squash it down and continue on with my hike.

We hiked through six miles of the most awful God-forsaken canyon on the planet.  Things were hot again, desert-like.  And thinking we'd left the mosquitoes at Dean Cow behind forever, we set out, only to be besieged by swarms of the nasty insects through the entirety of our six mile journey.  Hot sun baking down on us, no shade whatsoever, and mosquitoes everywhere.  Clouds of the insects swarmed each hiker.  They bit our faces, bit our arms, bit our hands and knuckles.  They even bit us through our shirts.  How could this be?! There was no standing water anywhere!  And yet they persisted.

I honestly prayed for deliverance.  I prayed to God.   I prayed to Jesus.  I prayed to Yahweh, and I prayed to Allah.  None of them would heed my prayer, and we continued to be bit by mosquitoes right up until we finally reached the Chase Ranch.  The unfortunate thing was that it was 10am, and we didn't have a bus appointment until 4pm.  I most certainly did not want to spend six hours at Chase Ranch.  And even there, as we waited for a base-camp bus, we were bit by mosquitoes.

Some of our crew went in to tour the ranch, but I wanted that bus.  So I stalked the highway for any sign of a vehicle, ready to pounce and flag it down to rescue me from this horrible mosquito infested hell-hole.  I seriously considered offering any passing motorist $100 to drive me six miles to base camp.  I was done.  But traffic was few and far between and we continued to wait.  And for two hours, we waited, until...

Finally, a bus came, but the driver was headed to Ponil, and wouldn't be back for 45 minutes.  Damn.  I didn't want to wait, but he said there were no other buses in front of him.  Wait we must.

Then, fifteen minutes later, a lady drove by with an empty bus and pulled in to pick us up.  We were saved!!  Hallelujah!

We made our way back to base camp, where we had the promise of showers, a hot dinner in the dining hall, and the luxuries of the snack bar and trading post.

I used Max's phone to call home, unable to contain my anxiety about my business and my family.  When Becky told me everything was fine, and I could hear her voice, I broke down sobbing like a five year old.  I was so overwhelmed, so homesick and so, so tired.  "Please don't ever make me go back there," I begged her.  I was a wreck, and had to walk off to regain my composure away from the scouts.  Regain it I did, and after a meal, a new pair of warm socks at the trading post, a hamburger, and an ice cream, and a relaxing church service, I felt restored and ready to go home.

That night, as we attended the final Philmont closing campfire, something truly special happened.  It was dark, well after nine pm.  All week, the moon had been full, obliterating the night sky.  Because of the moon and lots of clouds, we had been unable to see the sky that we knew was so visible out west.

But on this particular night, the waning moon had not yet risen and there were no clouds.

We could see the STARS!

(Image: Kaitlyn Chaballa)

The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, bold and white with its beautiful band of stars wrapping the indigo sky.  All the constellations were bright and visible like I've so rarely seen.  All of the boys, and even Max, had never seen the Milky Way before.  Never.  The light pollution in Virginia was too bright.  And the entire crew stayed up late looking at the sky in awe.

This was like one last gift from Philmont:  "Here you go, boys.  Here are the stars."

Our trip was complete.  And it was totally worth it.

It was time to go home.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Ten - Dean Cow and the Mosquito Canyon of Death

Rising early the next morning, Ponil had one more treat in store for us:  a chuckwagon breakfast.  The camp staff had asked for two adult volunteers from each crew to come down and help cook breakfast, and Max and I jumped at the chance.  We were expected at the chuckwagon kitchen at 6am sharp, which meant we had to get up at 5am and pack up all our stuff in the dark, so the boys could meet us for breakfast at 7am.

We had a little miscommunication, so we didn't awaken the boys until 5:50am or so, and realized by then they would not have the 60-90 minutes required to break up camp.  This meant we'd have to go back to camp after breakfast, and waste more time before getting on the trail.  That sucked, but oh well.

Max and I were so happy to have hot coffee and make pancakes, we were like two fry cooks in fry cook heaven.  I'd pour 'em, and Max would flip 'em.  I'd remove them to the dutch oven warmers, scrape the grill clean, and Max would spray it with grease and we'd start all over again.  Meanwhile, to my right, other crew parents were cooking up sausage patties that smelled divine.

We worked like this for thirty minutes, when the boys rolled into breakfast.  And they had their backpacks on!  Max and I couldn't believe our eyes. John informed us that the boys were so gung-ho to get breakfast, they packed up the entire camp, tents, bear bags and all, in thirty minutes!  Once again, Max and I were so proud.  These guys were really becoming great hikers.

We enjoyed that wonderful breakfast, with seconds, and thirds, and once everyone had their fill, we loaded up one last time at the commissary, donned our packs and hit the trail for Dean Cow.

Our last bit of trail would have us doing one last 800 ft elevation change, and then it was reportedly down from there on an easy eight mile downslope.   This last climb was tough, but since we knew it was the last one, we buckled down and knocked it out.  The summit of the ridge seemed to go on forever.  Every time we'd hit what we thought was the peak, we'd round a corner and another peak would be before us.  Finally, we crested the peak, and entered into the Dean Canyon.

Dean Canyon looked like prime mountain lion country, and I let my mind daydream about what would happen if a cougar attacked, just to pass the time.  I thought, if one attacked, it'd most likely go for one of the little guys, like Mitchell or Luke.  And I would run up, despite my bandaged sore feet, and begin thrusting my hiking pole into the lion, stabbing it multiple times, hitting it with my fists and kicking it in the face, saving my son from certain death.  Everyone would pick me up on their shoulders, and carry me out of the canyon, chanting my name and talking about me in the annals of Philmont history...

I went on a while like this until we finally did arrive at our camp, Dean Cow, which should have been renamed mosquito camp.  Here the camp activity was rock climbing, but only officially.  The unofficial camp activity was dodging mosquitoes.  Now, here's the deal:  All the books said there are no problems with mosquitoes at Philmont in August, and so Deet isn't required.  So we didn't bring any.  Hmmph!  Thanks a lot.  Not so!

As it turned out, one of the donkey troughs had standing water in it, and a veritable Chicago-sized mosquito factory in production... right next to our camp.  While the boys were climbing the rocks, we adults were under constant siege from the flying, biting pests.  We burned sage on the fire to try to smoke them away, so much sage, in fact, that an adult staffer had to come and "diminish" the size of our fire.  (Apparently, it wasn't very Leave No Trace worthy.)  We didn't care.  We had to get relief from these insects.

Finally, after wolfing down some beef chili and beans, we all sought refuge in our tents and slept through the night in the safety of our netting, while the little insects buzzed angrily inches from our ears.

At his point, let me offer you a brief word about donkeys:  You will occasionally see crews with a donkey at Philmont.  You see, Philmont will loan you a donkey as a member of your crew.  This sounds ideal, because everyone's first thought is, "Let the donkey carry my pack!"  Ha ha!  Do not be fooled!  Philmont puts an arbitrarily low weight limit (according to the cowboys) on the donkey of forty pounds, and you must carry forty-five pounds of donkey-chow with you.  So by taking a donkey with you, you are essentially adding a cantankerous, slow moving, hairy individual to your crew who stops every twenty meters to take a break, and bitches when it's time to start up again.  In other words, like having an extra adult.   Don't do it!

Tomorrow, we wrap up our hike by heading six or so miles to the Chase Turnaround.  Honestly, I can't wait for the trip to end!

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Nine - Ponil

Early the next morning, we struck camp to make our 8am appointment with the Pueblano boys.  We were going to learn how to climb logging poles.  In the center of camp, four fifty-foot tall poles stood like monuments to some long ago logging god.  We sat in the morning sun, and listened as Shane and "Boss" explained to us the proper safety procedures for climbing these poles.

The first step was donning the equipment.  To each leg, we strapped a pair of gaffs, which is basically a three inch knife protruding from your instep.  Then, a harness, which cinches around your crotch like a rappelling harness might.  Finally, a helmet and the safety rope.

To climb the pole required the assistance of a "donkey".  The donkey was the counterweight to each boy climbing the pole, run through a three-point pulley friction block, so that a donkey weighing 100 lbs (i.e. Luke) could keep a climber weighing 210 lbs (i.e. me) from falling to his death.  (Pulleys are such cool machines.)

Everyone took turns climbing and playing donkey for the other climbers.  Donkeys are apparently bad listeners, and get distracted easily, so the climbers were instructed to shower their donkeys with compliments to keep them compliant and aware.

The kids and we adults quickly learned how to climb the poles.  You'd step up about 10 inches, plant your foot, as they said, into a basket of kittens, and then raise the next foot and plant it next to the first on the pole.  Then you'd raise your belt, and do it again.  Pretty soon, you'd get good at getting up the pole, and once at the top, we were required to let out a manly yawp.  This was perhaps the unanimous highlight of the entire trip for the crew. The boys really loved this camp, and the staff here were simply amazing.

Leaving Pueblano, we set out for Ponil.  Ponil turned out to be about four miles away, which was supposed to be an easy hike, but we lost the trail (which was shaded and in the woods), and had to hike the entire day in the hot, baking sun on the access road.  Meanwhile, on the road, Luke accidentally placed his hiking pole on the back of Ethan's foot, and Ethan's foot popped his pole up and hit Luke right in the nose.  It was a fluke accident, and nosebleed number two on the trail.

We were getting tired and sloppy.  It was pretty miserable, walking that road in the hot desert sun all day, but we finally rolled into town dusty, sweaty, cranky and overheated.

Ponil was an entire complex of buildings, like a small town.  Having once been the main base camp for Philmont in the 1930's, Ponil had commissaries, dining halls, showers, and a store, and all kinds of activities. 

The kids immediately hooked up with the cowboys and set out on their horseback rides through Ponil Canyon, while we five adults stayed behind and had blessed, wonderful, Oh-God-it-can't-be-this-good, showers!  And after showers, we did laundry!  My God it felt good to be clean again.  And once clean, we were suitable to now enter the Cantina, where a lovely girl in a gingham dress served draft root beer.  $1 for the first cup, and 50 cents for each refill.  I drank three in the span of ten minutes, they were so good!



After the boys got back from their horse rides, I made them all wash their hands (so I didn't come into contact with the horse dander), and we set off for the shooting range.  We received a brief safety lecture, whereby the boys were instructed in the use of a Colt 45 Peacemaker pistol, a 38 special Winchester rifle, and a 12 gauge double-barrel shotgun.  We each got five shots with the pistol, five shots with the rifle, and two with the shotgun.  I was pleased that I hit all the targets except the first, although later someone remarked that the targets were awfully close.  Hmmph, what a killjoy.

Dinner at Ponil did not disappoint, either.  We were invited to abandon our dehydrated meals for the night and enjoy a chuckwagon dinner of beef stew and fresh made biscuits.  They even had Cholula hot sauce on the tables.  That stew was so delicious, I had two helpings.

I had to hit the first aid station after supper.  My feet had had enough, and I feared I might have to abort the rest of the trip.  Luckily, the good cowboy doctors were able to lance and treat my blisters sufficiently that moleskin and more Vitamin I could get me to the next two camps.

Once dinner was complete and my feet were treated, we set up camp and sent the kids to the showers.  These kids stunk! Most of us had been taking bandanna baths all week, but the kids were largely unwashed and absolutely foul.  Getting them cleaned up was really important!

After the showers, Ponil had a Cantina show, with live performances by the camp staff of piano and fiddle playing and dancing.  I went to bed early, but the kids rolled in later content and laughing with stories of the night.

Tomorrow we'd be heading to our last camp, Dean Cow, and it'd be nearing the end of our trip.  Funny to think how quickly it all went by.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Eight - French Henry and Pueblano Camps

On our eighth day, we struck camp at Copper Canyon and headed blessedly downhill to French Henry camp, destined for Pueblano camp.  This would be another approximately eight mile day, but it was a steady descent from 10,000 feet to 8,000 feet.  A nice stroll.

Our early morning hike took us immediately into the Copper Canyon Meadow, which was indescribably beautiful.  We paused for a moment, long enough to snap some photos, and headed on down the trail.

French Henry lay just about halfway along our journey, and was a mining and blacksmithing station.  Since the boys had done blacksmithing at Lenhock'sin, we decided to focus on the mine with our limited time.

The Aztec Mine (so named for all the gold it contained), was a real functioning mine from the 1880's (or so) until 1941, when World War II made it impossible to run for lack of men and supplies.  Our guide, a girl-staffer from French Henry, told us all about the mine, and taught us that there are a million ways to die in a mine.

First and foremost, steel rails that head into the mine are a perfect conduit for lightning, and many people died in this way.  She then invited us to climb into the mine, where the ceiling was so low, I had to crouch and crawl through mucky water as we went deeper.  I fought hard against the panic of claustrophobia, not wanting to miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the mine with the boys.

Once inside, the ceiling raised a bit and we could stand up, and our guide showed us the old drilling bits that were used to bore holes into the rock.  One person would hold the bit while another would strike it with a hammer.  One missed blow, and you'd have a busted thumb for sure.  Nasty stuff.

The purpose of drilling the holes was to have a place to put the dynamite.  This was a job usually reserved for children, because dynamite was dangerous business, and dynamite would go off unexpectedly, and children (sadly) were considered expendable.

After the blasts would occur, "muckers" would have the job of shoveling all the stone out of the newly opened channel.  This too was dangerous business, because if their steel shovels hit an unexploded bit of dynamite, well, that was the end of them too.  The muckers were usually Irish immigrants, and sadly again, also considered expendable.

Once all the stone was loaded into the cart, a donkey would haul it up to the surface where they'd dump it into a grinding mill, mixing it with mercury and cyanide to extract the gold, silver, and copper ores.  Again, nasty stuff.  People died.

Mining, we learned, is dangerous business, and once you were employed by the mine, you were indebted to the companies for food and lodging, and literally made slaves of the mining corporations.  Most would die before they turned 30.  Very rarely did any one individual, with lustful dreams of gold, ever get rich.  Quite the opposite.

We walked further into the mine, and at the end of a long shaft, our guide had us all turn out the lights, where it was so black you could see absolutely nothing.

She began telling us a ghost story.  She spoke of a long, lost miner, whose lust for gold brought him to the mine, but who never fit in with the other crews in the mine.  He was always the odd man out, and most of the other miners thought he was crazy.  Setting off alone one night, in a remote and lonely passage, he hit a weak spot in the shaft, and was trapped in the mine.  They said that if you listened closely, you could still hear him tapping for help with his hammer.

Still in the total darkness, our guide then struck a metal pail hard with her axe, sending shivers through us all.


Quietly then, in a low whisper, Luke sang out, in "Stephen King-esque" way:

"One, two.  Buckle my shoe."

CLANG!! She hit it again.

"Three, four, lock the door."


"Five, six, pick up sticks."


It was eerie.  I thought Luke had been enlisted to do this as part of the show, but it turned out he did this of his own inspiration, and it was creepy as hell.

Show over, I beat cheeks to get the hell out of that mine, stepping in watery puddles and stooping to keep from baning my head.  I breathed deeply when I was out back in the open once again.

From French Henry, we headed down the trail again into our camp for the night, Pueblano.  The Pueblano camp was a faithful reproduction of a logging camp, in which the Pueblano boys, as they came to be known, showed the boys how to do logging with two person saws, and how to use other various woodcutting tools.

We set up camp early, and made dinner, for this camp offered lots of entertainment around the staff cabin.  While making dinner, tragedy befell our camp once more when my coffee cup got stepped on and broken.  Oh, Lord, what would I do?! Luckily for me, Luke's coffee habit had not yet set in, so I was able to requisition his coffee cup for the remainder of the trip.

After supper, we played checkers and cards around the cabin.  Then, later, the Pueblano boys challenged the scouts to a game of loggerball, which oddly resembled baseball, except that the staff team had the advantage of changing the rules when it suited them.  As such, the staff apparently had an undefeated record against the scouts all year.

One of the highlights of this camp was a staffer named Shane, who wrote ransom notes for anyone requesting it, and sent those notes back home to our beloved (our "kissy-faces" as he called them) as a means of extracting cookies from the distraught missuses back home.  Unfortunately for Shane, our letter arrive a week and a half after my return home!  The letter is amusing as hell, so click on it below to read it in full.

Stamped:  Pueblano, Elevation 8,060 feet, Philmont Scout Ranch, August 13, 2014.  Dear Becky, We are writing in order to inform you that your husband has been found living amongst the woodland creatures near the Philmont camp of Pueblano.  He has managed to saddle a majestic elk bull and is using it to ride throughout the hills trumpeting his own name and wrangling all of the scouts' donkeys.  He calls himself 'Chief Elksnout.'  He has actually become a storied hero amongst the locals and we would have no problem alloweing him to continue his fabled exploits; however, the scouts here have begun to follow his example.  Instead of harmlessly hiking, they have begun attempting to saddle elk on their own in order to prove their own masculinity against that of your husband's.  As a result, we have been forced to tie him to a tree.  He will remain in such a state until we receive payment for his passage home in the form of two (2) bottles of your whiskey.  Actually, we work for the BSA and would get fired, so we'll accept (1) one container of baked goods instead.  Please send them quickly to the Pueblano Boys, 47 Caballo Rd, Cimarron, NM 87714. Hurry! --The Pueblano Boys

After loggerball and adult coffee at 7pm, the camp staffers brought out banjos and fiddles and played for the camp residents until well after 9pm.  Then, once again, it was time to turn in, and get ready for a new day.

Tomorrow, our trip would take us to Ponil, Philmont's historic base camp from the 1930's, and now a cowboy camp with lots of great surprises in store.

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