Greg Duckworth | The Art of Finding the Longest Distance Between Two Points
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01 Nov The Art of Finding the Longest Distance Between Two Points

Philmont 2012This is the story of our 2012 Philmont Trek. It’s more a story about the journey than the destination.

As time passes us by in life, days can become hours, weeks shrink into days, and months feel like weeks – the years sneak by in the blink of an eye and before we know it, we find ourselves doing the things our parents did – working hard to raise a family and seeing our own children growing older. Along the way, the ordinary details of our days tend to fade less vivid while those extraordinary moments remain clear in our psyche. Extraordinary sights, sounds, and smells of those moments – smells sometimes the most for some reason, but remaining vivid they do.

It’s been said that maybe life should not be measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away. That the most important thing we can all do for our children and ourselves is to seek out the extra-ordinary and find a way to fit those life experiences into our everyday ordinary lives.

After deplaning at Denver International Airport, this summer’s New Mexico adventure started with a visit to the Denver Zoo, having the distinction of being the first zoo in the United States to use naturalistic enclosures rather than cages with bars. Bear Mountain, built in 1918, was constructed of artificial rockwork and resembled the bear’s natural habitat. It was cutting-edge for its time and earned the zoo worldwide recognition.

Traveling southward, we began to see the effects from the summer’s wildfires in the Colorado Springs area. The fire’s devastating impacts to this region and the outpouring of community support for those affected and those on the frontlines battling the blazes were everywhere to be seen and smelled. The spirit of the pioneer and the heartiness of folks out West who endure this environment year-round is genuine and far from being just a show for visitors.

Getting here a few days early gives our Crew the opportunity to experience new sights, sounds, and smells, but the real reason for getting here early is to allow our bodies to acclimate to the change in altitude from sea level to those elevations of the Rocky Mountains. Acute Mountain Sickness is a very real threat to your safety if you’re not properly prepared and one of the first things that our friend, Christine Emrick of Leading The Way Tours, does is present each member of our Crew with a Nalgene bottle full of water and reminds us that even though we may not feel it, the arid climate is draining our bodies dry – it’s a dry heat, so we drank lots of water!

Sadly, one of the things that was scrubbed from our itinerary was a stop at the famous Flying W Ranch in Colorado Springs – the Waldo Canyon Fire saw to it as most everything but the outdoor picnic tables were burnt to the ground in the blaze. Heavy smoke and the threat of fire had put a damper on many of our planned stops this year, but then, as fast as the fires had descended the canyon walls, an isolated weather pattern took up residence over “the Springs” and proceeded to douse the greater part of the fires, leaving behind much needed rain, renewed hope for the firefighters, and one of the most beautiful rainbows any of us had ever seen! This reopened the doors for visits to the United States Olympic Training Center, the Garden of the Gods, the US Air Force Academy, and a ride up the Cog Railway to visit the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak.

Arriving in base camp at Philmont Scout Ranch is a time of excitement. There’s so much that must be done before we hit the backcountry trail. Processing includes our assignment for the overnight stay in tent city, medical reviews, bear and wilderness first aid procedures, receiving our rations of trail meals for the first few days on the trail, getting some crew gear – including a dining fly, pots, scrubbing pads, sump strainer (a Frisbee with holes punched in it), bear bags and ropes, as well as toilet paper and water purification tablets for emergency purposes only, of course.

Processing is always a time of anxiety and of promises of things to come, and it’s always done with the help of a Philmont Ranger, who takes us through this well choreographed routine which allows the Ranch to comfortably welcome nearly 25,000 visitors annually into the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rockies. Much to our surprise we were greeted by a familiar face as our Ranger, the Crew’s very own Brandon Duckworth, met up with us at the Welcome Center to take us through Camp Headquarters.

That evening, after supper in the dining hall, we were treated to an opening campfire next to wagon tracks of the Santa Fe Trail still carved into the soil, and where we were indoctrinated into the storied history of this land’s rich past and its famous characters including Carlos Beaubien, Lucien Maxwell, Jesus Gil Abreu, and Waite Phillips who have each added their own mark to the unforgiving lands near Cimarron, New Mexico.

The next few days in the backcountry were some of the best, with Brandon as our Ranger, we were instructed in Leave No Trace principles, and bear bag procedures, as well as treated to some fantastic adventures like getting to see the world’s only T-Rex track, viewing Native American petro glyphs at Indian Writings Trail Camp where we also tested our hunting skills with the atlatl (think throwing a spear with a handheld catapult), and numerous side hikes for epic views of the surrounding canyons and mountains. Not to mention the pound cake, yum! Speaking of side hikes, our itinerary was rugged, but we had several extras we wanted to see and do, so we ended up hiking over 90 miles in total – hey, it was worth it to see Ponil Camp and taste their root beer and there’s nothing quite like the smell of fresh leather meeting the red hot end of a branding iron. The brands at Ponil are unique to all others found on the 137,000-acre ranch.

There were other memorable stops along our way, like the challenge course at Dan Beard Camp – where we bid farewell to the best Ranger ever; Rich Cabins – where we grabbed more trail meals, then learned a thing or two about homesteading and were entertained later that night by a very talented and rambunctious group of backcountry staffers who could sing and also play a mean fiddle, banjo, and cello. Hiking back to your tent in the darkness of a Philmont canyon’s star-filled sky (without your headlamp turned on) is sublime. Not much to worry about either other than the occasional mountain lion or bear – yes, a real possibility!

Hiking over Wilson Mesa on our way Pueblano Ruins gave us our first good views of Baldy Mountain. Pueblano is home to the Continental Tie and Lumber Company where we all were challenged to climb the 40-plus foot tall spar pole and feel like a real lumberjack. From there, we were climbing ever higher in elevation, stopping off for a lunch break and to try our skills at gold panning in French Henry before climbing to the Aztec Ponil Mine – the site of some very prosperous gold mining activity in years past. After our tour of the mine, we donned full packs again to climb “the wall” as the remaining trail to Copper Park is so fondly known and what was to be a very cold, very wet ascent to an elevation of 10,480 feet.

The next morning, bright and early, we found ourselves ascending the backside of Baldy Mountain with mixed clouds and sunshine. Hiking ever upward, we saw lots of fog and endured strong winds blowing the mist into our clothing and gear. As the Crew made the 12,441-foot summit, clouds gave way to glimpses of delightful blue skies and the splendor of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Range with the canyons and mountains that make up the rest of the 214 square mile Ranch. Hiking down into Baldy Town took less than half of the time it took to climb – here we enjoyed fresh fruit and sweeping vistas as we reloaded with more trail meals. That evening, we were serenaded by a pair of mountain men and of tales of prospecting from years gone by.

Hiking out of Copper Park the next morning, we were given another treat as Mother Nature bestowed upon us the perfect rainbow stretching across the mountain range before us on the trail to Santa Claus Camp. This hike was an all day trek, with a brief stop at Head of Dean Camp for lunch. There were a few other crews in camp as we arrived in Santa Claus that evening and our Crew “schooled” them in Ultimate Frisbee before working on their hacky-sac game; then they prepared another dinner before a much needed night of rest – for tomorrow morning promised to be another full day of hiking.

Hiking throughout the day gave us long vistas of where we’d been and hinted at the challenges that lie before us. Devil’s Wash Basin is a dry camp located on the Deer Lake Mesa, so we ate dinner at a nearby water source before hiking all the way into camp that evening. There were plenty of deer to greet us as we arrived at our campsite and we were surprised by the bonus pound cake strategically placed on the trail into camp by our stalwart Ranger, Brandon. The stars on the horizon that night were so perfectly cut into a circle from the trees ringing the dry lake bed, that it felt as though we were sitting in a planetarium, only this was the real thing. The next morning we hiked down into Ute Gulch for another food resupply before climbing up into Cimarroncito for a day of rock climbing and rappelling. The hummingbirds who lived nearby were so accustomed to hikers passing thru, that they’d even rest upon your finger to drink out of the feeders hanging from the cabin’s front porch.

There’s another front porch about 30 minutes down the trail from Cimarroncito at the confluence of trails to Cyphers Mine, Hidden Valley, Cathedral Rock, and Clark’s Fork. Here sits Waite Phillips’ original Hunting Lodge, which hosted family and friends, including Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post. A tour of the Hunting Lodge gave us a glimpse into the rugged lifestyle and Phillips’ ingenuity in making his lodge not only hospitable and comfortable, but also safe, in this inaccessible location. Further along on our journey, we enjoyed a break from the trail at Clark’s Fork, a horse camp with a large front porch, which kept us dry during the midday’s storm. We prepared a hot meal there, our last of the trek, before setting off for a grueling climb up to the Tooth Ridge – another dry camp awaited us on top, which meant slogging two days worth of water up and over Tooth Ridge.

Sunrise breakfast atop the “Tooth” meant rising in the wee-hours of the morning and hiking to the base of the Tooth of Time under the glow of a Western moon with an unusually high quantity of bats circling us overhead along the trail. After a scramble up the granite boulders – some the size of houses – we made ourselves comfortable atop the world to wait for the show. The subtle transition from darkness to twilight, as azure sky slowly and imperceptibly gave way to another burning orb rising over the plains below us, as the twinkles of civilization in darkness yielded to pastel palettes that stretched on for hundreds of miles before us and lakes were set afire with the stroke of the sun’s brush. Philmont Grace was said once more, its words more meaningful than ever before, as our Crew shared its final meal in friendship and fellowship in the backcountry.

We’ve made it! Base Camp was but a few hours away now and as we descended along the final switchbacks of the Tooth Ridge, each of us now reflecting on our trek – a journey of countless extraordinary sights, sounds, and smells – a journey of extraordinary moments that remain as vivid now as the moment they were experienced.

As you read this story, the Troop is readying the bus for another adventure. Troop 888 is a boy-led Troop that meets on Thursday evenings, from 6:00 to 7:30 PM at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in North Myrtle Beach. We are advocates of the traditional Scout pioneering and outdoor skill methods. The Troop is very active, not only in membership but also in activities. We go on monthly camping trips and other high adventure outings, participate in a weeklong summer camp, spring and fall Camporees, as well as community service projects. The Scouts plan the places and activities in advance. For more information, please visit our website at: www.troop888nmb.org

By: Gregory Duckworth, Crew Advisor

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