CAN HE HIKE SLOW? - 6/26/2022
After working 30 days straight to get my team established and aimed towards success at the beginning of yet another Philmont summer, I had earned some time off. What better way to destress than walking around the woods by yourself? So began a weekend of exploration, both inside and out.
In his book I Wanna Go Back writer and former Philmont staff member Warren Cole Smith famously asked the question of Rangers, “Sure, he might be able to walk fast. But can he walk slowly, too?” I’ve spent many hours racing the clock to get from one side of Philmont to the other. Once in a while I force myself to heed Smith’s advice.
My position in Philmont management has come with a variety of new perspectives, perspectives most will never be able to comprehend, but necessary for the Ranch to exist. Our job is to make the tough decisions and do the work that no one else wants to do so that the magic of the backcountry can continue to come to life. To continue to feel that magic takes enormous effort. It requires separating business and pleasure in a place famous for combining the two. That is exactly what my “bopping around” the woods was all about. Continuing to separate the two extremes in my life and to help them better coexist.
Setting off from Cito reservoir, the first thing I noticed was a small bundle of quaking aspens fluttering in the breeze. Their small round leaves like an elaborate wind chime in the summer air. It was irritatingly hot as the temperature began to climb into the 90’s baking an already dry backcountry. As I started up the trail to Window Rock, an area of the ranch that now rests in the 2018 Ute Park Fire burn scar, I continued to notice further signs of a land in drought. Notably, long grasses that crunched beneath my feet and ponderosa pines that didn’t quite smell as fruitful as normal.
The soft buzz of Philmont’s single channel radio offered entertainment in the background. My true purpose, however, was in listening for any news of smoke sightings from recent lightning activity.
Realizing my trail runners were a bit loose, I bent down to tighten my plush footwear and noticed tight hamstrings and glutes from my workout the day before. Much like an old man, and leaning into the stereotype that I am my department’s dad, I thought to myself, “I should have stretched.”
Up the hill I went. Mountain lion scat was caked onto a rock in my path, hardened by the beating sun. The ultraviolet light tingled on the tops of my ears through 50 SPF sunscreen.
Four years later, the burn scar, while incredibly damaged, is still very much alive. Gamble oak dots the hillside and small red flowers push through charred soil. Elk tracks were even visible on the trail that had managed to not yet erode away. The 2018 fire, which consumed nearly all of Philmont’s central country, was a turning point for the ranch. It also represented a major milestone in my own transition from adolescence to adulthood.
My intent that summer was to continue to do the job that I loved, being a Philmont Ranger, and to further deepen relationships I had established in 2017 as a first-year staff member. As the fire quickly derailed and canceled the summer season, the priorities that had driven me during a 9-month wait suddenly fell away and I was forced to reckon with immediate presence and change. As my friends and I spent the first half of the summer completing forestry and conservation work, I reevaluated my motivations while carrying heavy branches and logs for hours on end. When I returned to college in August, the summer acted as an uncomfortable catalyst for what would be a wildly successful year.
After about 30 minutes of my muscles straining against the gentle, uphill grade, but exacerbated by the intense heat, I reached the summit of the rock. Window Rock is a sweeping 200-foot fin protruding out of the earth. The view from the top offers visitors a unique perspective on the valley that extends beyond Base Camp and meets a rising landscape. A small boulder close to the edge offered reprieve from the sun. It was hard to imagine that the entire rock was almost on fire at one point.
Opening my sack of snacks I had brought for fuel, I grabbed a package of animal crackers. As I downed a hippo, a chimp eating a banana and what looked like a lion, I reveled in the nostalgia of a childhood taste.
Flies continue to buzz. I heard a long “woo” from a conservation crew miles below. My phone vibrated having been renewed with cell service. I forced myself to leave it in my pocket.
The burden of moving up in management has forced my relationship with Philmont to evolve dramatically over the last year. An evolution that my 19-year-old self would have never expected. The weight I carry now has continued to push my emotional and psychological limits further than even the 2018 Ute Park Fire did.
The challenges have shifted from my desires being just out of reach to an overload of pressures from above and below to support, provide and lead for a ranch that is still rebuilding. My position as Marketing Manager is in many people’s eyes, a dream job. The reality has been having to let go of many fond memories as a Ranger in exchange for playing an intricate game of management politics. The games, often unnecessary, make it hard for me to see the impact of my work. It prompts a hard discussion with myself about what I want my legacy to be and how I want this journey as a Philmont staff member to end.
There are a plethora of things I’d like to do and accomplish in my 20’s. This past winter I was sure I had my plan figured out but as the last 30 days of work have shown the gift of presence cannot be taken for granted. Philmont, despite the odds, has continued to come back to life. The future will come soon enough and I will never be here in this place, with these people, ever again.
As I again slung my pack over my shoulder ready to depart, the thought crossed my mind that this could be the last time I ever sat and embraced the view from Window Rock. It’s a good thing I enjoyed it. The path I had taken to get to this view has been the one less traveled. The one that has made me who I am. The one that will continue to change how I see myself.
Sipping nectar from small red flowers, a butterfly caught my eye as I began my descent. It coasted down the hillside, now out of the harsh sun with the waning day, with surprising elegance. The small insect was not unlike the raptor sailing on a draft of air high above us.
Approaching Cimarroncito is always a comforting site. The rock climbing camp has been home to many fond memories of mine over the years, be that with participants or other staff members. The people change, but the spirit stays the same. In my approach I came up behind a crew just arriving to camp rather late in the day at 6 p.m. As staff like to say, “Crews be Crewing.”
As the sun began to set, I was invited to give “The Boss,” a nearby boulder problem graded at V3, a try. Despite a drop in climbing fitness the last couple months, I managed to top out before the daylight had officially disappeared.
I crammed my feet into a pair of borrowed shoes a size too small, smashing my toes against the rubber. The holds were a series of small pockets, some better than others, with the greatest strain in my right ring and middle fingers. On my dozenth try or so, I stuck both crux pockets after stretching the full length of my rather long wingspan. I adjusted my feet delicately so that my balance was correct and engaged my back in a splayed position. Cursing under my breath, with one final effort, I launched my hand to the final edge on the top of the boulder. My left foot swung out to the side, and I was now inching my way over the ledge. Spreading my fingers out I gripped the rock like Spiderman, hugging it so as to not fall back down upwards of 10 feet.
Later that evening, I joined several other staff members in their evening ritual on the rocks that offered the only cell service in the valley. While my backcountry escapade was to be outside cell service as much as possible, theirs was to retrieve and communicate with the outside world for an hour. We stayed up late enjoying a near full moon talking about pancakes, waffle stomps and shared some heartfelt stories about one of my current roommates. He has been a mentor to some of them, all still early in their Philmont career.
Settling in for a restful night, I climbed into my sleeping bag on a DIY couch made from two metal bed frames. A hot breeze blew across the porch as the moon continued to illuminate the valley.
Waking up, my hamstrings and glutes were tight again. I stretched on the porch as staff stirred in their canvas tents behind the cabin.
I set out shortly thereafter on a climb up to the top of Cimarroncito peak. The trail is only half constructed, so I knew I’d pass through terrain very few others dare to venture into. Almost the entire east side of the peak was also still scarred by the 2018 Ute Park Fire. It was a day I knew would be full of Type-Two fun: elective discomfort that I knew I could look back on and smile at the completion of the experience.
Once on the summit of the peak, I had cell service again and thought about posting an Instagram story but ultimately decided to keep the moment for myself.
Cito peak is a view few people get to experience. A Philmont inspired band, the Tobasco Donkeys, write about it in their song, “I Don’t Mind.” They echo the line “You don’t need to pray, when you wake up every day to the sunrise over Cito Peak.” I’ve always felt that line wasn’t about a lack of gratitude for potential greater forces at work in your life. Rather, a hyperfocus on the gift of presence and no need for any external validation other than your own.
As I sat in my Crazy Creek chair, I took my sweat-soaked shirt off and felt the cool breeze against my bare skin. I knew I’d have the whole peak to myself for a while.
I pulled my copy of the Ranger Fieldbook out from the top of my pack. A pack that still sports the Ranger patch, a reminder of my roots and the community that raised me at Philmont. I felt a lump form in the back of my throat as I silently read what is in my opinion the best piece of Philmont writing, Warren Cole Smith’s “What is a Ranger,” for the hundredth time.
The final line reads, “Isn’t it great to be at Philmont? It certainly is.”
The last four hours of my hike were riddled with massive trees toppled across the trail from an early winter storm. They had yet to be cleared by conservation crew because they had spent the month of May building fire breaks to Philmont’s south.
A quick stop at Cyphers Mine to say hello to its newly arrived staff reinforced the good-natured reputation of the marketing department I had the privilege to lead. Mac and cheese with added broccoli was happily consumed before I began walking again.
With the North Fork trail currently impassable, I descended down the middle fork. I felt a stream of blood begin to flow from my left nostril as a result of the dry air. With no bandana or paper towel, I let the blood flow onto my fingers as I pinched my nose. After watching a small snake slithering away from my foot path, I washed my hands in a creek while appreciating the little water that was flowing. My feet ached as I at last approached the reservoir where I had begun.
My expedition had covered about 25 kilometers over the course of 24 hours. All that time spent not entirely alone, but without the direct presence of other people, was nourishing for my soul. It is a weekend like this that is not a battle against the elements but an embrace of my body and my thoughts, letting them flow freely with my heartbeat and breath.
I don’t perceive Philmont as the “Heaven on Earth” I once did. Wildfires, COVID-19 and a transition to a challenging leadership role have seen to that. Yet despite all the triumph and anguish I’ve experienced, the relationships forged and lapsed, and a metamorphosis of my own identity in this place, just as Warren Smith has said, it still really is great to be at Philmont.