"Enjoy unforgettable adventure and fast-paced fun in the outdoors." What's not to like, I thought as I read the brochure with my son, Rylan, and the other Boy Scouts of Troop 972. We were making plans for a 12-day trek to the Philmont Scout Ranch, the world's largest youth camp spread over 140,000 acres in New Mexico.
What could go wrong? I should have read the fine print: "You will carry your own backpack across miles of rugged, rocky trails and learn basic survival skills."
This summer marks the 5th anniversary of that fateful journey. My feet still break out in blisters anytime I see my hiking boots.
Looking back, I should have listened to that little voice pleading for me to reconsider. But, the stubborn farm boy in me convinced myself there was still plenty of fuel left in the tank to share this experience with my son.
Our crew was 12 strong: seven scouts and five leaders/dads. We arrived at base camp outside of Cimarron on an unseasonably hot and windy July day. "Not to worry," someone said, "it's a dry heat," as I sat in the shade spewing sweat like a sieve.
We met Alex, a Philmont Ranger assigned to train us to endure our 79-mile trek and find our way back. First up, however, was a group photo, a wonderful keepsake to cherish forever, I assumed. Imagine my surprise when I learned the photo is used for identification purposes during search and rescue.
Things only got worse from there. The dry heat turned into a 102°F sauna as we set out on our excursion. We made camp at Hell's Fire Canyon. How appropriate.
Alex instructed the boys on required skills such as map reading, first aid and purifying drinking water. He also demonstrated the proper stance to lessen the odds of being hit by lightning and how to protect yourself from bear attacks.
Apparently, Alex hadn't read the brochure. I felt like a contestant on "Survivor." He then casually announced he would be leaving the next day and we would be on our own. I pulled him aside to ask if he wanted company.
Over the next few days, we hiked in sweltering heat across terrain laid barren by fire several years earlier. No trees. No shade. We were like pack mules, each of us carrying backpacks the size of steamer trunks.
Each day, we would arrive at the designated camp site exhausted. No time to rest; there was work to do. Part of the Philmont experience is to teach Scouts teamwork and responsibility. Dads were supposed to let them do the work. Cooking, pitching tents, preparing bear bags, filling water bottles and such. Most of the Scouts in our crew were 14 years old, the minimum age requirement for Philmont. They were not happy campers.
But, halfway through our trek, the mood lightened. We had left behind the desolate moonscape and had climbed to a higher elevation with trees and a cool breeze. Protests turned to praise, complaints to camaraderie. On the last full day on the trail, we awoke before dawn to climb the Tooth of Time and watch the sun rise over base camp. I sat next to Rylan. Neither of us said a word. We didn't have to.
At the closing ceremony before heading home, anyone who completes the trek receives the coveted Expedition Arrowhead patch. It's a badge of honor and accomplishment. For our crew, it symbolized much more. For those few days, we fathers turned back time to our youth, and our sons took their first steps toward becoming men.
-- Write Gregg Hillyer, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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