The Daily Work Roster
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Before a young person can go off and conquer the world, they must be potty trained, learn to walk and talk, and be able to take care of themselves. One of the rites of passage along the way is summer camp. The camp to end all camps, if you are a Boy Scout, is Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.
Philmont is not just any camp. Philmont Scout Ranch consists of 214 square miles of almost pristine wilderness—mountains and ranchland and woods—in the northern New Mexico donated over the period from 1938 to 1942 to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) by oil tycoon Waite Phillips. In the confines of the ranch are authentic gold mines, outlaw hideouts, Apache and Ute Indian heritage sites, a B-24 crash site, dinosaur excavation sites, and hunting lodges previously employed by America’s rich and famous. Wildlife include scorpions, tarantulas, freshwater fish, eagles, rattlesnakes, deer, elk, coyote, antelope, mountain lion, buffalo, beaver, wild turkey, and bear. You get the idea—Philmont is a super camp.
As I was to learn, Philmont tests the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared,” as well as any camp. Gathering firewood by myself one evening, I was reminded why walking alone in the woods was a really bad idea—only about a hundred yards from our campsite I found a deer carcass freshly torn into bloody pieces. During our eleven days at Philmont in July 1968, we had many other challenges. We saddled Harlan’s burros, rode horses, shot skeet, forded the Cimarron River, repelled down Cimarroncito’s rock ledges, contended with midnight bear raids, and walked 500 feet into the Cyphers gold mine (and turned the lights out). We sought to be real men and do manly stuff, and Philmont obliged.
But many times Philmont’s greatest challenges were problems that we brought with us. I should know. As duly elected crew leader, I was responsible for coordinating daily schedules. Tents needed to put up and taken down; firewood needed to be gathered; water acquired and often purified; and meals cooked. We had an experienced group of scouts and these activities went like clockwork during our shakedown backpacking trip near Catoctin Mountain in Maryland. Five days into Philmont and the clockwork started breaking down—volunteers started malingering and open rebellion soon followed. Too late, the crew leader had to draw up a work roster on scarce paper and my leadership credibility crumbled.
Things got worse.
Several years earlier at Ocean City, Maryland I injured my back riding waves with an inner tube mattress on the beach. On a good wave, my mattress got too far in front of a large wave and I plunged head first over the wave. I landed on my face and the wave threw my legs over my back. I was paralyzed for several minutes unable to get up and nearly drowned before slowly crawling out of the water on my stomach. No one saw me; no one came running. This back injury has haunted me ever since.
At Philmont, after several days of backpacking my back gave out and it was all that I could do just to walk. My pain was so intense that the adults debated helicoptering me out. I became a liability for the team and the guys resented having to slow down for me. Worse, we hiked each day with a deadline—afternoon rain was avoidable only once tents were pitched; if we were late in making camp, freezing rain soaked us and our gear. Even though several of the scouts were family friends, the stress of the long days, the rigorous backpacking, and the skimpy trail meals at Philmont brought out the worst in people—for the remainder of the trip I was harshly ridiculed at every turn.
At Philmont, my dreams of western adventure and my concepts of self-sufficiency morphed into a struggle to survive. Nothing about my background and nothing I could do made up for a weakened back and the mundane challenges of eleven days on the trail. My dependence on the team and their respect for me hung on conditions outside my control.
Still, life went on and several highlights of the trip were yet to come.
One such highlight came when we returned to camp headquarters and discovered the Tooth Of Time Traders commissary. There on sale at the commissary we found the belts, belt buckles, jackets, and patches that proved that allowed us to brag about our Philmont experiences when we returned home.
In the commissary, for example, I bought a coveted copy of Robert Baden-Powell’s book, Scouting for Boys (1908), which began the scouting movement in Great Britain. In the military, Powell distinguished himself as a general during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899). When his military days were over, he noticed that young men were growing up undisciplined and unprepared for the vigor of adult life. Powell saw this problem limiting Britain’s military preparedness and he envisioned the Boy Scouts as a solution. Later, I gifted this book to my Scoutmaster (and early mentor) when he retired after many years of scouting service.
Another highlight was our visit on the bus trip home to the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado. The museum featured many Indian handicrafts and, as we were told, the Koshare Indians were, in fact, Boy Scout troop 232 which focuses on studying Indian dances and customs. The troop danced for us in traditional Indian attire and explained to us that Koshare means clown or “delight-maker” in the Hopi Indian language. And delighted we were.