Philmont is much more than hiking in New Mexico. There are months of prep meetings, practice hikes, and shopping sprees. Commemorative shirts have to be designed and ordered and new equipment purchased. There is often an exciting cross county trip by train, plane, or automobile and groups stop at popular attractions along the way. Nearby cities like Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos are teeming with eager Scouts (in uniform) during the summer months. Afterwards, reunion parties, slide shows, and campfire discussions keep the Philmont experience alive for a long time.
My first trip to Philmont was a disaster. We trained hard for a difficult backpacking trip and that is not what we got at all. A forest fire broke out before our arrival and a large part of the Ranch was closed to hikers. Everyone got crowded into the southern section of the Ranch, where campsites, Red Roof Inns, and trails were overflowing with Scouts. Programs were impacted and long wait times or even oversubscribed activities were daily occurrences. A lingering drought meant no swimming or showers for the entire trek. (Ten days on the trail days without anyone bathing even once!) Our difficult 80 mile planned backpacking trip turned into a 35 mile romp with nothing to do most afternoons. The Scouts got bored and turned on each other and then on the adults. Eventually, the adults started taking out their frustrations on the Scouts. It was, by all measures, a miserable trip.
Almost a decade passed before my new Troop became serious about backpacking and started talking about Philmont. So, it was with mixed feelings that I was swept up in their collective enthusiasm and put my name on a list to go again. The goal was to make my second trip a different experience altogether.
This time we focused on the overall Philmont experience and not just the backpacking. Practice hikes were important of course, but the hikes were filled with stories about Philmont history, camps, activities, and potential service projects. Along the way everyone learned the Philmont grace and Philmont Hymn, which we all sang with increasing fervor every day we were on the trail together. The song became a unifying force of surprising power. (Even now, almost two years later, they sing the Philmont Hymn at the drop of a hat!)
Arriving at Philmont base camp in the middle of the night, we tried to slip quietly into our tents so as not to wake the campers in our assigned area. Morning soon arrived, with the staff welcome at breakfast, paperwork processing, review of the routes, and introduction to our Ranger – who would be with us for a couple of days. The boys swarmed into the Philmont Trading Post and to stock up on candy, belts, hats, shirts, and assorted mementos, some of which might be valuable on the trail. We finished the pack check, stored our extra stuff in the lockers, attended an inspirational Scout’s Own, and were ready to leave the next morning.
The first morning on the trail, our Ranger woke us up before dawn, and in the dark, we scrambled to the top of a mountain to experience the sunrise. Sitting together in the gathering light, we watched the valley come into focus under an azure sky. When he had our attention, the Ranger said, “Before you is a unique opportunity to have an incredible experience. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do things you don’t think are possible. Create memories for your lifetime. No one can do it but you.”
For the next ten days our hike was punctuated by burrow racing, lumber jacking, black bears, beautiful sunrises & sunsets, cantinas, campfires, horseback riding, singing songs, petroglyphs, porch talks, rock climbing, shotgun shooting, card games, storytelling, challenge courses, and; of course, backpacking. Everyone had a fantastic time.
Some Philmont trips are good and some are not so good, but every visit to Philmont is transformative in its own way. Boys become men and men become better. For that reason, every serious Scout and Adult Leader should hike there at least once.