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.