Photo by Piotr Zurek

Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is legendary among Boy Scouts and those who work with them--214 square miles of desert, forest and mountains in New Mexico. A Philmont trek is the highest ambition of many a scout troop. A Philmont "crew" carries their food and shelter on their backs for 50 miles or more over varied train. They sleep in a different place each night, some of which offer activities such as rock climbing or horseback riding, others being nothing more than an X on the map and great scenery.

I don't know who coined the precept Be present, but I heard it first from Leo Babuta. I find it particularly appropriate to the Age of Distraction that we live in. I doubt that medieval peasants needed reminding to "be present"; what else did they have to think about? For me personally, this precept is best embodied in an experience I had at Philmont.

To set the stage both geographically and spiritually, this story takes place on the last day of a six-day trek that I undertook with my sons, both scouts. Most treks are ten days, but our troop favored the short treks that come at the end of the season. Certainly after five days I felt satisfied with the amount of sleeping in the dirt I had done. A shorter trek is not necessarily less strenuous, because one may cover much the same distance in a shorter time period.

The Philmont experience begins at base camp--a huge city of semipermanent tents. I imagine this is how refugees must live. In contrast to most Boy Scout camps, which offer a varied program of sports and naturecraft and sing-alongs and ceremonies, the Philmont program is all about the trek--either preparing for it, or undertaking it, or cleaning up afterward. The first day is spent with an instructor/guide (called a "ranger") who helpfully describes the many ways one is likely to die out there.

Base camp is literally at lower altitude than most of the reservation. A rugged spine of peaks stabs toward base camp and barely misses it. (You can see this on the map below--click for a larger version) The highest peak on this ridge, the Tooth of Time, is suitably imposing (though by no means the highest point in Philmont). Hiking along the Tooth of Time ridge and down into base camp is a popular finale to one's trek.

Water is the critical variable at Philmont. Sources of drinkable water are fairly scarce and far between. Human beings need lots of water, and water is heavy, so carrying more than half a day's supply is not easy. Thus each day's trek is organized around the water sources to be found along the way.

Our crew's itinerary called for us to set out on the next-to-last day from the Clark's Fork camp, climb up to the Tooth of Time ridge, hike along the ridge to the Tooth Ridge camp and spend the night there, and then make the hike down into base camp the next morning. This was a great finale to our trek, but it also meant having to carry all our water for the last two days. There are no springs atop the ridge--consider that water runs downhill below ground as well as above and you'll see why.

So for the final two days even foregoing all cooking and no washing, we would still have extra water weight to carry. We coped with this (as other crews do) by eating up our cookable food on the previous day and planning to subsist on crackers and trail mix, etc. for the final day and a half.

The next-to-last-day's hike up to the Tooth of Time Ridge was naturally strenuous but enjoyable. After five days on the trail you start hurting in places you never noticed before. I had it easier than one of the other adults in our group, who was doggedly marching along on a trick ankle that had locked up, but I was feeling decidely sore all along the soles of my feet. But once atop the ridge we could look out over the landscape for miles in both directions. We tried to triangulate the visible landmarks to fix our location on the map (a pastime of diminishing utility in the age of GPS).

We hit the Tooth of Time peak about half an hour before reaching Tooth Ridge camp where we were to spend the night, making it just in time to seek shelter from one of the common sudden brief torrential storms--half of us under a hastily-erected sheet of plastic, the other half hiding in holes in the gnarly rock formations that dot the camp.

You can imagine the mixture of satisfaction and anticipation we felt as we got up for the last time on the trail. A few more hours of hiking--all downhill--and we would be tasting all the comforts of civilization. Chairs to sit in! All the water you can drink! Toilets that flush!

It was a beautiful clear morning. All we had to do was pack up our gear, wolf down our last few bags of crackers and trail mix, and hit the trail.

And this was the morning I learned that crackers and trail mix can be the best meal of your life, if you pay attention to your surroundings.

All it took was an extra fifteen minutes. Our crew decided to make an event of our crude breakfast by having it atop one of the large rock formations around. The view was unexpected. Looking out over the valley, we found that the sky was clear only from our vantage point--the valley was hidden under a carpet of clouds. As we ate, the sun came up from the other edge of the carpet and illuminated it.

Since then, I try to remember in throwaway moments--standing in line, waiting for a movie to start--to stop and look around. You never know what's there to be seen.

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