July 27th, 2010


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part I

being an account of the

United Methodist Philmont Trek 2010

Over a year ago, the National Association of United Methodist Scouters approached Philmont Scout Ranch about doing a United Methodist Trek. The idea was warmly received. We took counsel with our Catholic Scouter friends, who have done their St. George Trek at Philmont for many years.

In our case, we took Jedediah Smith as our patron and exemplar. Smith was the original Mountain Man. He was a towering figure in the opening of the West, and his life and deeds were so big as to make Smith himself disappear into the iconic Mountain Man of fiction and folklore, leaving his lesser associates (such as Jim Bridger) better known than he. Smith was also a Methodist, whose character was formed in the Methodist Societies of his youth, and who in his letters to his family spoke of his spiritual life and his desire to be upheld by the prayers of those back home. So our UM trekkers would be “The Children of Jedediah Smith.”

We launched a national call for trek participants. We had some nibbles from here and there, but nobody signed up by the deadline we set. Perhaps the Jamboree was absorbing all the attention; perhaps the price tag (organizing a Philmont trek is expensive) was too steep in these difficult times; then, too, the ability of NAUMS to reach its intended audience may be less than we hoped. The NAUMS Board would have to deal with these questions; in the meantime, we had a reservation for Philmont and no trekkers.

As Trek Advisor, I was hoping to find space for one or two members of our church’s new Venturing Crew that was just then a-borning. In the end, I turned to them and asked them if they would like to pioneer this new program, and they all said Yes. And so Crew 119, chartered to Ellettsville First United Methodist Church, set out to prepare themselves for a Philmont Trek under the auspices of NAUMS.

We had eight crew members, five youth and three adults. Makayla, the only girl going, was our Crew Leader. The four boys were Connor, Kaleb, Ben, and Jordan. The three adults were Scott (Connor’s father), Melodie (Makayla’s mother), and myself, Dr. Arthur Collins, President of NAUMS as well as pastor of EFUMC. All the crew members but myself were going on their first Philmont trek (this would be my fourth).

Getting there is half the fun

We left Ellettsville, Indiana, the morning of Monday, July 5, 2010, and headed west toward St. Louis. We intended to drive to Philmont and back, camping along the way and seeing the sights. Our first stop was the Gateway Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial beneath it. Afterward, we camped at Babler State Park just west of the city.

The Venturers had planned an excellent menu for the trip out and back. Our first night in camp, we had watermelon for dessert. I can’t remember when I have enjoyed a melon as much as that one. It was sweet, clear essence of refreshment!

The next morning, we were up early and heading down the road, right into the middle of St. Louis morning rush hour. Eek! Still, we got through it and made our way west down I-70 toward Kansas City. On the Kansas side of KC, there is a giant Cabela’s – the mother ship of the outdoorsman’s chain. We stopped to gawk and shop for last minute necessities. We ended the day at Wilson Lake State Park in the middle of Kansas.

The next morning, the wake-up call I sang to the trekkers was from the Wizard of Oz: “Come out, come out, wherever you are, and meet the lady who fell from a star. She fell very fast, she fell very far, and Kansas is the name of the star.” Bleary-eyed Venturers emerged from their tents and began the processes of cooking breakfast, personal grooming, and breaking camp.

It was sprinkling rain as we drove down to Fort Larned, the old Buffalo Soldier fort along the Pawnee Fork in Central Kansas. Fort Larned was built to protect the Santa Fe Trail, which we would be following all the way to Philmont. After touring the fort, we set out for points west. We passed through the southeast corner of Colorado, and entered New Mexico by Raton Pass in a driving rain.

When we finally arrived at Cimarron Canyon State Park outside of Philmont, the boys were positively giddy. None of them had ever been to the mountains before. Their giddiness and excitement bordered on seeming drunkenness, and I was reminded of the impression upon the crowd made by the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Faith had turned to Sight, and their dreams were becoming real.

Other imagined possibilities were becoming real as well. We awoke in Cimarron Canyon to find that a bear had upended the supposedly bear-proof garbage container just two campsites down from us. Bears would never be far from our thoughts throughout our trek.

Each night, as we did our evening devotions, I shared stories and thoughts from the life of Jedediah Smith with the crew.

Go West, Young Lady Go West, Young Lady
Makayla at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis
Admiring the View Admiring the View
Melodie and Venturers atop the Gateway Arch
The Mother Ship The Mother Ship
Cabela's mega-store in Kansas City, KS
She waded in the water and she got her toesies wet She waded in the water and she got her toesies wet
Wilson Lake State Park, KS
Gun Crew Gun Crew
Venturers at Fort Larned, KS
Almost There! Almost There!
Setting up camp in Cimarron Canyon State Park, NM

junior woodchuck guidebook

The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part II

It’s a dry heat

We arrived at Philmont early on the morning of July 8. There was much to do. We had brought our own gear, thinking that that would make the check-in process go faster. It did, but the first day at Philmont always leaves one a little breathless. Besides the rushing around, the climate and altitude also leave one a little breathless. When we left Indiana, the temperature and the humidity were both in the 90s; while it was hot in New Mexico (80 degrees or so), the humidity was only 2-5%. “Drink more water” is the first answer to every complaint. Both Scott and Melodie also had a bit of trouble adjusting to the altitude. Tent City (Base Camp) is at 6,696’ above sea level; most of Indiana is about 600’.

We met our Ranger, Allison, who took charge of us. The Philmont Rangers check gear and preparedness and complete the training of every Philmont Crew. In addition to seeing us through the rigors of check-in, our Ranger would stay the first two nights on the trail with us before turning us loose in the backcountry. Previous to this experience, I had been the ultimate authority on all things backpacking for our crew; now, I took a backseat and let Allison establish her bona fides and demonstrate her expertise.

Philmont makes no effort to match the sex of Ranger with the sex of crew members, but I was pleased that we had drawn a female Ranger. She would make a good role model for Makayla as Crew Leader, I thought, and in this I was not disappointed.

Makayla appointed Connor to be our Chaplain’s Aide, an important position at Philmont, especially for a church trek. He would lead us in daily devotions using the Eagles Flying High booklet given to everyone at Philmont. Ben was appointed our Wilderness Guia, a new crew position. He would lead us in regular times of reflection on the principles of Leave No Trace camping.

We went through our medical re-checks, a matter of some concern for both Scott and me, since we had been dieting in order to make the required weight. The good news was that Scott made weight by three pounds, and myself by five. Now, we could eat anything we wanted!

We attended chapel services together. There are several chapels at Philmont, and services are held every night for those in Base Camp. Every day, 450 people are arriving and 450 other people are preparing to depart, and the spiritual needs of those 900 people must be met. Chapel was well done, if a little talky. We attended the Opening Campfire, and then it was time for bed.

Meeting our Ranger Meeting our Ranger
Allison takes us in hand
Dinner Bell Dinner Bell
The Rangers always start off dinner with The Ranger Song ("I! Wanna Go Back! To PHILMONT!")
Chapel Chapel
Chaplains of various faith groups lead nightly services in Base Camp


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part III

Hitting the trail

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 5. 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.

Gearing Up Gearing Up
Gird your loins for the path ahead
Philmont is a working cattle ranch Philmont is a working cattle ranch
Zastrow Turnaround
Thataway! Thataway!
Setting out on the trail into the mountains
Pilot-to-Bombardier (P2B) Latrine Pilot-to-Bombardier (P2B) Latrine
The bathrooms are as big as all outdoors
Bridge Over Peaceful Waters Bridge Over Peaceful Waters
Our route took us up Rayado Canyon, through which the Rayado River and its tributaries flow
Teachable Moment Teachable Moment
Allison gathers the crew to review important backcountry skills
Hanging Bear Bags Hanging Bear Bags
An every-night chore
Milking it for all it's worth Milking it for all it's worth
Makayla tries her hand at milking a goat at Abreu
Tooth of Time from Carson Meadows' porch Tooth of Time from Carson Meadows' porch
Awesome view
I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK
Scott works to fell a tree at Carson Meadows
Looking up Rayado Canyon Looking up Rayado Canyon
Crater Peak on the right
Yo-de-lay-de-hoo Yo-de-lay-de-hoo
Mountain goats -- er, Venturers -- looking out over Rayado Canyon
Fish Camp Fish Camp
Connors sees some trout!
Rayado Lodge Rayado Lodge
Waite Phillips's original cabin at Fish Camp
Pooped Pooped
Advisors snooze while Venturers explore
There Ain't No Flies On Us There Ain't No Flies On Us
The Crew prepares to go fly-fishing


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part IV

Up the Creek

The next day, we got into some hard hiking, covering almost three and a half miles and gaining over 1,000’ in altitude as we went from Fish Camp to Apache Springs. Melodie’s altitude sickness was worse than ever. Even Scott and I were a bit dizzy. In the end, we took everything off of Melodie, even lashing her empty pack to Scott’s. By the time we reached Apache Springs, we were pretty beat.

Melodie stayed in camp to rest. Scott stayed behind to watch over her. I accompanied the youth to their conservation project. Every Philmont crew is required to do three hours of conservation work (often trail building) as part of their trek. Our task was to pull stumps with a grip hoist and some mattocks. The youth took after this task with a vengeance. We managed to break the grip hoist (the Cons staff, Sam and Clay, eventually got it repaired), but we did pull a stump or two.

We returned to find that Melodie had been having adventures in our absence. She had been lying on her sleeping mat, with her head on Jordan’s rolled-up jacket. Jordan had an open granola bar in the pocket. A chipmunk (locally referred to as a “mini-bear”) ran underneath her neck to try to get at it. Scott said she came rocketing up off the sleeping pad, flailing at her hair, while the mini-bear shot off her neck like it had been launched from a slingshot. “And when you go back to Innishowen, you’ll have a sthory to tell,” I responded. We had several other encounters with mini-bears in this camp. Makayla even had one run under her legs while squatting in the woods. All this made controlling smellables a critical issue. The crew was having trouble getting bear bags properly hung. “The Keystone Kops go Kamping,” I thought at one point. Still, it was early days.

Apache Springs has a large, open meadow made boggy by the two springs there. California Corn Lily – a toxic plant – grows widely in the wet ground. One of their programs at Apache Springs is 3-D Archery, which our youth enjoyed greatly. They also enjoyed stargazing with me that first night, as I named the constellations for them. We saw several shooting stars. At night, Scott and Melodie both heard a mountain lion.

The next day was a layover day, which meant we were staying a second night. We took the opportunity to do some laundry. I washed my hair and shaved. We participated in a sweat lodge session, which felt great and went far to making up for the lack of showers on the trek so far. There were hummingbirds at a feeder on the porch, as well as abundant fresh fruit on offer. I was particularly taken by some small, yellow pears of a sort I had never seen before (yum!). All in all, it was a pleasant rest day.

Having said that, things were not all hunky-dory in the land of Philmont. Our crew was getting a little testy with each other. I pointed out to them that this was normal. We had been on the road, and then the trail, for over a week together, and nobody can keep their OK-mask on for that long. Sooner or later, everybody shows who they really are. We need to deal with this with grace, I said – and also get our rest.

Now, all groups go through a time of testing like this, and usually about the same time, so I wasn’t surprised. Yet I was disturbed toward the end of our layover day to find that the dissension among the crew was worse than I had thought. The youth were doing their best to handle the issues among themselves without troubling the adults. But sooner or later, some things must be brought out into the open. Things must be said, actions taken. We had a couple of very blunt encounters that burst the pustule and cleaned out the social poison, and things began to work much better.

Apache Springs Apache Springs
Rocky Mountain High, indeed
Mountain bluebird Mountain bluebird
Apache Springs
Bustin' Trail Bustin' Trail
Venturers refuse to be stumped by the challenges facing them
The Most Dangerous Nuisance at Philmont The Most Dangerous Nuisance at Philmont
The ubiquitous mini-bear
One Dead Fox One Dead Fox
3-D Archery at Apache Springs
Laundry Day Laundry Day
Layovers provide time for many essential activities
Drowned rats Drowned rats
After the sweat lodge comes the cold bucket of water -- ah!


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part V

Le jour de gloire est arrivé

The next day was Bastille Day. I awoke the crew by singing what I remembered of The Marseillaise. When some of our crew took exception, I replied by saying that France was our oldest ally, so we had to say nice things about the French once a year. Marchon!

We got on the trail by 7:30 and made good time, despite my throwing up my morning coffee. Don’t know why – maybe a touch of altitude or dehydration. I was fine the rest of the day. We had a very long day ahead of us: over eleven miles, first down to Phillips Junction to get more supplies, then up to Crooked Creek for program, finally ending the day at Wild Horse, a trail (unstaffed) camp a thousand feet higher in elevation than when we started.

We reached PJ at eleven a.m., and left by noon. We cooked dinner for lunch at Porcupine camp, then scooted on up to Crooked Creek, a homesteading camp, where we encountered rain. We toured the cabin – a typical homesteaders’ place of the early post-Civil War era. The youth petted the baby chickens. It was very lovely, but we still had a ways to go. We left about quarter to five and slogged our way uphill to Wild Horse. At times, the trail was as steep as a staircase, and we finally found the need to caterpillar our way up it.

Caterpillaring is a group hiking technique for tackling steep trails. The group halts along the trail, each person standing about ten feet from the other. The rearmost person starts up the trail and as he or she passes the second person before one, calls out something or other to let the person behind know that it is his or her turn to start up the trail. Many of the things we called out had to do with food, since by this time we were very tired of freeze-dried dinners and dry everything else. Once the one ascending reaches the head of the line, he or she stops and rests until it is his or her turn again. In this way, the group as a whole rolls itself up the trail at a steady pace, while each individual rests as much as one climbs.

We finally reached Wild Horse after twelve and a half hours on the trail from Apache Springs. Dusk was gathering. Kaleb and I went to find the spring at the other end of the camp. I used my water filter to get a couple of liters of pure water immediately, while Kaleb filled several bottles with spring water to be purified with Micro-Pure tablets when we got back to camp. Meanwhile, other crew members got tents up and bear bags hung. We ate our lunch for dinner.

As we shared our Thorns and Roses that night, I told the crew that I have seen other, very experienced crews break down under the stress of a day like the one we’d just had: but not this one! I was very proud of them.

The road goes ever on and on The road goes ever on and on
Leaving Apache Springs
Supplies Supplies
The Homesteader from Crooked Creek leads Abe the burro up the hill from Phillips Junction
Come up and set a spell Come up and set a spell
Crooked Creek porch talk


The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part VI

The Big One

The next day was going to be another long, hard slog. I reckoned it at nine kilometers (over five and a half miles), but we were going over Mt. Phillips, at 11,736’ the second-highest peak at Philmont. That would be a total gain in altitude of over 1,300’. Then, we would be staying overnight on Mt. Phillips itself at a dry camp, which meant bringing all our water with us. To top it off, I had a headache to start the day.

Our whole day was spent over 10,000’, which requires heavy exertion. There was little or no talk amongst the crew on the trail this morning. We left camp at 7:45 and dropped by the spring to fill our water bottles and purify the water; my filter was clogged from the grit and was of little use. By 8:30 we were on our way toward Clear Creek camp, which we reached at 10:35 a.m.

Clear Creek is the home of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and the staff welcomed us to the Republic of Mexico! In other words, the staff here portrayed fur trappers from the 1840s. The youth immediately joined in with a staffer who was casting rifle bullets, and they got to cast some for themselves, though we would not have time to shoot the black powder rifles at the Clear Creek range.

To save water, we again cooked our dinner for lunch at a campsite where my wife Deanne and I camped twelve years ago. We were entering parts of the ranch I had hiked over from previous treks, and I found Deanne was very much with me at Crooked Creek and Clear Creek and Phillips. I missed her very much. Our trek in ’98 was a very stressful one. We had a difficult crew and at least one significant health crisis among them. But the stresses of that time are of no importance now; all that remains is the memory of a shared adventure – one shared with my best beloved.

By 1:25, we were packed up and headed up the trail to the summit of Mt. Phillips. The northside trail goes outside the Philmont boundary and loops around in a great arc from west to east and then straight for the summit. It is a very steep and difficult trail, especially when loaded up with gear and food. We had to caterpillar in many places. Though Baldy Mountain is taller than Phillips, the ascent of Phillips is to my mind much more difficult.

To make matters worse, it started to rain. Then lightning hit nearby, and we had to scatter and go through the proper lightning drill before continuing. The rain increased, the wind started to blow, and people began to get cold and wet. At 4:45, we stopped so that Scott could loan Melodie some rain paints. At that point, Makayla began to go down with hypothermia, and soon several others began to suffer from cold. I immediately called for the dining fly and began to rig an emergency shelter. We unlimbered a stove and made some hot, double-strength Gatorade. Hand warmers were fetched from the first aid kit. Scott and Kaleb and I (the ones with the –ahem – most advantageous surface-to-mass ratio) tended to the needs of the others until everyone was warm and functional again.

Our emergency stop took an hour, and when we started up again, we still had a couple of groggy crew members. Ben kept insisting that he was fine. I pressed gloves and other things on him, since he still seemed a little blank. But Connor was the hardest hit of all. He was very unsteady on his feet, even after warming up. Perhaps a bit of shock was afflicting him in the aftermath of the emergency; certainly, the altitude was also getting to him, and he was, of course, near exhaustion. He was giddy and grinning even as he stumbled. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was acting drunk – even without consuming any alcohol. Still, he was a happy drunk, and that helped. We watched him very closely as we slowly made our way to the top.

We summitted at 6:15, and the whole country – all the way to Colorado – opened up all around us. We sat in a circle and piled stones, it being a custom to make stone circles of remembrance upon summitting. We took pictures. We had to hold Ben and Connor’s hands at times to keep them from stumbling. As I stood on the very summit, I called out,
Explorer Post 697!
Venturing Crew 699!
Venturing Crew 119!
Rougher! Tougher! Buffer!

Tears were in my eyes as I stepped down. Those were/are the groups I’ve led to Philmont. There were so many memories of trek companions that were crowding in on me at that moment. Once all the pix were snapped, we ambled into Phillips camp, at 11,640’ the highest overnight camp at Philmont.

Phillips is a dry camp, so we were being careful with our water. We prepared to eat our lunch for dinner. Jordan tangled the bear rope trying to hang bags, so I tied a bowline-on-a-bight for Makayla to sit in, then tied her into a chest hitch. We hoisted her up with the other rope some thirty feet in the air to disentangle the knot in the first. Life is full of all kinds of adventures, and we were just glad that Makayla is so petite.

We built a campfire to stay warm and celebrate our triumph. I had bought some chocolates at the PJ commissary, which I now took out to share around. Connor was still being goofy, but Ben was now fully recovered and and grateful to have been so cared for by the crew.

Spring forth, O well Spring forth, O well
Just try not to get too many chunkies in there
Hot Lead Hot Lead
The crew casts some rifle bullets
Rocky Mountain Fur Company Rocky Mountain Fur Company
Clear Creek
Onward and Upward! Onward and Upward!
The trail to Mt. Phillips is very steep
The Summit is in Sight The Summit is in Sight
Mt. Phillips
Summiteers Summiteers
Victory at last!
Rougher Tougher Buffer Duffer Rougher Tougher Buffer Duffer
Yours Truly atop Mt. Phillips
The Bearer of the Very Important Papers The Bearer of the Very Important Papers
Scott finds a new way to make sure T.P. is always available
Just Hanging Around Just Hanging Around
Makayla is hoisted up to untangle a bear rope

compass rose

The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part VII

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to Cyphers Mine we go

From Phillips to Cyphers Mine it’s all downhill after Comanche Peak. We had another crew take a picture of us on Phillips’s brow before beginning an easy descent to Cyphers Mine down on the Cimarroncito Creek. Along the way, it started to rain lightly. "Wouldn't it suck if it started to hail," said Jordan. It started to hail. But it soon passed. We rolled into camp at 1:30 p.m., out of water.

At Cyphers Mine – a real gold mine once owned by one, Charlie Cyphers – the ground is so stony that there’s nowhere to stake out a tent. So crews stay in three-sided muckshacks, rather like one sees in the Adirondacks. There were eight of us, so we had more room in our muckshack than some crews do, though some of our more active sleepers made it an eventful night for everybody.

At Cyphers Mine, the youth panned for gold. We toured the Contention mine and the crew got to do some smithwork at the forge. Scott and I took an ice cold shower. (Nobody had fired up the water heater, but we were filthy and hadn’t had a real shower since starting on the trail eight days before, so we roughed it.) After our exertions on Phillips, the crew was a bit disgruntled and disorganized. And perhaps they were feeling a bit homesick, as was I. I told them that as the trip neared its conclusion, you still have to keep up your bear procedures and your proper gear handling and chores: the real test of character comes now.

All less than wonderful feelings, however, dissipated in the face of the Cyphers Mine Stomp, surely the best campfire program at any staffed camp at Philmont! We gathered in the Stomp Cabin, and staffers armed with guitars, banjo, fiddle, washtub, and other assorted noisemakers had us rocking. Several Philmont staffers from other parts of the Ranch had driven up from Base Camp on their day off to attend the Stomp. At the end of the program, all the staffers, past and present, were invited up front to lead the Philmont Hymn. I hesitated a bit. I’ve never served on the camping side of the ranch, but I was a faculty member at the Philmont Training Center once, and I’m a member therefore of the Philmont Staff Association. Finally, I went forward to claim a spot on stage. One of the Cyphers staff said, “Wow! When were you on staff?” I replied that I was a faculty member at PTC in ’96. His response moved me deeply. “Welcome home!” he said.

Making tracks

Except for those rare occasions when time was of the essence, we made no special attempt to get up at any given time. I usually awoke at birdsong and got up to visit the Red Roof Inn (latrine). Scott got up because I did, and usually had the coffee going by the time I came back with the T.P.. By first light, there was coffee (Praise God from whom all coffee flows), and by dawn, others were emerging from their tents for breakfast.

On the morning of the 17th of July, we got up and got moving down the Cimarroncito toward the camp of that name. It was a lovely morning walk down a fresh and dewy creek valley. As we went along, I sang aloud, as I often do on the trail. This morning, I was singing an old German folksong, “Ein Jäger aus Kurpfalz.” After singing all three verses, I thought perhaps I could translate it for the others. Since Kurpfalz is no longer a recognizable territory, I translated the title as “An Upland Hunter.” But no sooner than I had done that than I realized I had a really great hiking tune here, and new lyrics began to bubble up, in the spirit of the original but pegged to the Philmont experience. And here they are.
A Philmont hiker, I,
who roams the mountains and the hills,
a cousin to the bear, the lion, and the elk.

“Away! Away!”
I hear the trail a-calling me
back to the wilderness,
back to the wilderness.

By burro, horse, and foot
I’ll follow every forest trail
and drink from every stream
throughout the backcountry.

“Away! Away!”
I hear the trail a-calling me
back to the wilderness,
back to the wilderness.

I cannot rest at home
since first I saw an eagle soar
above the Tooth of time,
out here in God’s country.

“Away! Away!”
I hear the trail a-calling me
back to the wilderness,
back to the wilderness.

As we passed Waite Phillips’s Hunting Lodge and turned north toward Cimarroncito camp, the trail came out into the open. It was stony and began to climb. The sun was broiling overhead. Melodie began to falter again. My impatience warred with my compassion. We had a lot to do when we got there, but we wouldn’t get there any faster chivvying people along.

Once we finally arrived, Melodie was pretty spent. We were immediately faced with a clash of schedules. It was 12:30 and we needed to eat lunch. That would use up all our supplies. We needed to boogie north to Ute Gulch Commissary (two and a half miles through the mountains) to get more supplies. The Commmissary closed at five o’clock. Meanwhile, most of the crew wanted to go rock climbing and rappelling.

In the end, we left Melodie to supervise Connor, Kaleb, and Ben as they climbed; meanwhile, Scott, Jordan, and I emptied our packs for the run to Ute Gulch. Makayla had to go and sign for our supplies as Crew Leader, but we figured we’d go faster if she only carried her water and rain gear. Right after lunch, the four of us hustled off toward Ute Gulch.

I was very tired and drowsy, and feared that this was going to be a bad experience, but no such thing occurred. Power filled me and we bounded off down the trail. A stag in velvet at Aspen Springs was a bonus. We got to Ute Gulch in 70 minutes, which amazed us all. We filled up on supplies, visited the Trading Post, jawed with other crews there, then were on our way back. We covered the way back, loaded down and going uphill, in barely an hour. Truly, I can still do all things through Christ who strengthens me!

After our return, Scott and I went to find the men’s shower and had a real, hot, wonderful shower. At last!

Hail, hail, the gang's all here! Hail, hail, the gang's all here!
Starting the descent from Phillips Camp
On a clear day, you can see forever On a clear day, you can see forever
View from Mt. Phillips
Panhandlers Panhandlers
Panning for gold at Cyphers Mine
Muckshack, sweet muckshack Muckshack, sweet muckshack
No setting up tents at Cyphers Mine
In a cavern, in a canyon In a cavern, in a canyon
The Contention Mine
In the Deep Places of the Earth In the Deep Places of the Earth
"They're gaining, Gandalf!"
Forging Ahead Forging Ahead
The Crew learns smithcraft at Cyphers Mine
Thinking Spot Thinking Spot
Cimarroncito Creek, Cyphers Mine
The Stomp The Stomp
Without a doubt, Cyphers Mine has the best campfire program at Philmont
Stag Party Stag Party
Mule deer stag in velvet, Aspen Springs
Overhang Overhang
Trail from Ute Gulch to Cimarroncito

roadkill soup

The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part VIII

Horsin’ around

The next day, we got up when the stars were still out and were on the trail shortly after six. Scott noted some fresh bear tracks as we left, but we saw no bears. We ate breakfast at the Hunting Lodge, then crossed the valley through a new demonstration forest to Clark’s Fork, one of Philmont’s several cowboy camps. I noticed that while we were out on the western border of Philmont, we didn’t meet so many other crews, but ever since Crooked Creek, the traffic had been steadily increasing. We were now in the midst of many itineraries, and among the many crews intending to finish the trek by hiking in over the Tooth of Time. Clark’s Fork was crowded.

We were up early because we had a 9:00 a.m. appointment for horse rides at Clark’s Fork. We made it there by eight. Melodie, Makayla, Ben, and Jordan went for a morning ride while Scott, Kaleb, Connor, and I set up camp. Then it was Nap Time!

In addition to horse rides, the program at Clark’s Fork included roping and branding (boots, hats, etc. – not live cows). And in the evening, there was a Chuckwagon Dinner, which means we got to eat Real Food ™ -- that we didn’t have to cook! The menu was beef stew (very good), home-made biscuit, and peach cobbler: all you could eat, and that was a lot for a bunch of hungry teenagers and their advisors!

After the dinner came a great campfire. The oldest staff member wore a Hawaiian shirt under his western vest. He was playing a washtub bass. Someone said he looked cool. He replied, “Cool follows me like a stray dog.”

It was Sunday again, a very full day, as all the days at Philmont are. We hadn’t had a chance to do church yet. So here, on our last night on the trail, we gathered in the dark and did our devotions. I told them once again that the only two things I can guarantee will happen when you go to the wilderness is that somewhere out there you will meet God, and you will meet yourself. I asked them where they had done so, and they each said something about what they’d experienced and what they’d made of those encounters. It filled me with a quiet joy to hear them talk about God – as I had heard them talk to God over this trek. Surely, he has them each in his hands, and has laid the trail at their feet that each should walk. We celebrated holy communion once again. And then it was time for bed.

The way home is over that ridge

Our last day on the trail also started in the wee hours. By my reckoning, we had nine and a half miles to go. Others said it was at least fourteen miles back to Base Camp. Whoever was right about the mileage, I had done this schlep twice before, and I knew that it would be grueling.

As we were packing up to go, Kaleb, who had refused all offers of help prior to this, asked me to fix his feet, where he had a fine crop of blisters. I’ve become the foot doc by default over the years, and I’ve padded and patched quite a number of owies. As I dressed Kaleb’s sores, it suddenly came to me that fixing blisters is like washing feet, and that it is a very Jesus-like thing to do.

We left camp at 6:15 a.m. and climbed steadily up to Shaeffer’s Pass, some thirteen hundred feet above us. We got there at 8:30, utterly spent. We had breakfast and some slept. Scott, Connor, and I went to find the spring in the Pass – our last source of water before Base Camp. We topped everything off and purified it. Then we started up around Shaeffer’s Peak to get onto Tooth Ridge.

Tooth Ridge is a very tough trail, not only physically but mentally. People start to give up because they’re anticipating getting in off the trail. It makes the ups and downs of actually hiking the trail more difficult than it should be. As the Emmaus people say, “Don’t anticipate!” I gave a pep talk on this at one point where crew members were beginning to whine because the trail was difficult and the Tooth didn’t appear just when they were ready to climb it.

We finally did reach the trail at the base of the Tooth of Time. There was a bear cable there, and we hung our smellables and covered our packs before ascending. One of those on his way down said that he had seen a little cinnamon cub nearby just an hour before, so we were being wise. This was our third or fourth almost-encounter of the trek.

The Tooth of Time is so called because it emerges from a long hogback of a ridge like a single tooth from a gumline. The Santa Fe trail coming across the plains hits the mountains right at that point. In wagon train days, once people saw the Tooth of Time they knew they were seven days from Santa Fe; hence its name. The top looks solid from below but in fact is formed from lots of large boulders with some big, ol’ ankle-breaking cracks between them. The ascent involves a fair amount of scrambling using all fours – what the mountaineers call “bouldering.”

Melodie gave up halfway to the top, too tired and unsure of herself to continue. Makayla stayed with her. The other six of us all made it to the top, where I broke out the remaining chocolates from our ascent of Phillips. We didn’t stay long, because rain was coming in. The first drops teased us even as we climbed down. I said to myself on the way down, “I may be an old goat, but I’m an old Mountain Goat.” Halfway down, though, Scott slipped and fell and scraped himself up pretty good. He was fine and functional, but didn’t want to stand around, lest he stiffen up. We got ourselves packed up and made our way down the trail. By 2:30, we were heading for home.

That said, it’s a long, long way to Tipperary, and Base Camp isn’t just around the corner, either. It’s very disheartening to walk Tooth Ridge. It’s very dusty, it’s so steeply downhill in places that your toes can bloody themselves beating against the front of your boots, and it goes on for ever. Even after you pass Tooth Ridge Camp and emerge from the tree cover, spying Base Camp means you’re really only about halfway there. And there are lots of switchbacks that lengthen the trail.

One thing to be thankful for was that we didn’t broil in the hot sun the way so many crews do. The threatened rain never quite reached us, and a cooling breeze blew over us most of the way in. A final kiss from God, it seemed to me. Makayla led us the last step in. We walked proudly down off Tooth Ridge (stopping to fill some water bottles at the back gate – God bless whoever put the spigots there!) and into Tent City. It was 5:30 p.m. We walked straight to the Visitors Center to report our return, where I dropped to the cement and did five pushups with full pack on, just for bravado.

There is a scale at the Visitors Center where you can weigh your pack. Mine weighed 48 lb. (including 3 liters of water) when I left; returning with no food and only half a liter of water on me, it still weighed 40 lb. No wonder I was beat.

The last serving of dinner in the cafeteria had already started, so we came in all filthy and ravenous. Mystery meat never tasted so good! Afterwards, there was time for a good shower, a clean shave, and the doing of laundry. We got gear sorted out for the morning. And I made sure the kids knew how proud I was of them all.

Leaving Cito Leaving Cito
Heading for Clark's Fork
Hunting Lodge Hunting Lodge
Waite Phillips built the Hunting Lodge for his own use
High Stile High Stile
Clark's Fork
Red Roof Inn Red Roof Inn
Philmont's comfort stations are in most camps
Tuning Up Tuning Up
Getting ready for the Campfire at Clark's Fork
Leavin' at daybreak Leavin' at daybreak
Departing Clark's Fork
The Grizzly Tooth The Grizzly Tooth
Rock formation on the OTHER side of the mountains, visible from Shaeffer's Peak
Urraca Mesa Urraca Mesa
Seen from Tooth Ridge
Sittin' on top of the world Sittin' on top of the world
Venturers atop the Tooth of Time, Philmont's iconic landmark
Getting down is even harder Getting down is even harder
Descending the Tooth of Time
But it's just over there! But it's just over there!
Base camp as seen from Tooth Ridge is still several hours' hiking away
At last! At last!
Crossing the finish line
Tooth of Time Tooth of Time
Seen from Base Camp
Cleaning Up Cleaning Up
Doing Laundry in Tent City

speed limit

The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Part IX

Home again, home again, jiggety jog

On our last day at Philmont, there was much to do, at least for me and Makayla. Check-out isn’t as stressful as check-in, but you have to go to each station (Camping, Logistics, Services, etc.) and get signed out. She and I took care of the bureaucracy while the others ate ice cream and played cards at the Tooth of Time Traders. We joined them when everything was taken care of, with time to spare for some last minute shopping.

We left Base Camp about ten o’clock. I felt like a man on the moon, like I only weighed one-sixth my earthbound weight. Not having a pack on was an amazing experience!

We drove down to the little village of Rayado to visit Kit Carson’s home and the old inn there. Bought some souvenirs. Then it was back to Cimarron for a big lunch at Heck’s Diner, after which it was time to shop for the homebound trip and head out of town.

Our first day back was to be an easy one. We went no farther than Clayton Lake State Park, NM, barely a hundred miles from Philmont. There’s a nice lake there, and some interesting dinosaur tracks down by the dam. We relaxed. Our first supper on the road home was corn on the cob and boiled potatoes (with lots of real butter), cottage cheese and fresh tomatoes – and bacon. Bacon makes everything better.

The next day was a long, long drive across Oklahoma. We stopped for lunch at a roadside picnic table outside Slapout, OK. It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. My A/C was acting up, so we stopped in Woodward, OK, and got a new doohickey for it that restored it, more or less. After eleven hours’ travel, we pulled in just at dusk to Twin Bridges State Park between Tulsa and Joplin. Cicadas were humming in the trees, and the humidity would have taken the starch out of a fireplace poker. A gibbous moon with a halo sailed overhead next to a twinkling Antares. It looked like rain, but it was just Midwest humidity.

We spent a restless, hot night, but got up and out of camp in good order. As we went through Springfield, MO, we stopped to tour the big Bass Pro Shop there. They had a champion stuffed alligator gar over eight feet long. As we passed through Missouri, the kids began pointing out all the “Adult Superstore” billboards, just like when we passed through on our way west. Poor Missouri: their new motto must be The Porn State.

As we got close to Indiana, we called ahead to tell people we were coming. I put Carmina Burana into my CD player and cranked it up loud. We made our last stop in Terre Haute, and cruised (quietly now) over familiar country, arriving home at 7:30 p.m. We set up the tents to air out, got everybody’s gear sorted out, had a prayer and went home to sleep in our own beds once again.

Looking ahead

This year’s United Methodist Trek is now history. I will report to the NAUMS Board and the Scouting Ministry Committee at Nashville on how it went this fall. But the question remains, what now?

I’m sure that NAUMS wants to do this again. We’d like to have a regularly occurring UM Trek at Philmont. Once a quadrennium, every other year, who knows? That’s still to decide.

Also still to decide is the mode of our offering. We tried to do a national call and put together a scratch Trek with youth from all over, and it didn’t work. Maybe if we advertised it differently or something, it would work. Maybe now that we’ve done it, it’ll work better next time. But maybe we need to do as Councils do, and whenever it comes time to do a UM Trek, pick crew advisors, train them to do a program that embodies our values as UM Scouters, and let them take people from their locales. Or, maybe we need to offer a weeklong UM Mountain Man/Woman Trek during Relationships Week. All these options will be on the table this fall as we critique the past and plan the future. If anybody out there’s got an idea on how we ought to go about doing a UM Trek at Philmont, let me know.
The Rev. Arthur W. Collins, Ph.D.
President of NAUMS
Pastor, Ellettsville First UMC
Venturing Crew 119 Advisor
Rougher Tougher Buffer Duffer

Rayado Rayado
Kit Carson's home and trading post are still there, along the Santa Fe Trail