There and back again: A trail from boyhood to manhood

By Kevin O’Brien

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“Silver on the Sage, starlit skies above, aspen covered hills, country that I love…”, thus the stage was set for one of the greatest adventures in a young man’s life. These few words, from the opening line of the Philmont Hymn, say it all. In Scouts, attending Philmont National Scout Ranch is considered the pinnacle of experiences in Scouting. For a Scout, it is like going to the Olympic Games.

Philmont began in 1938 as the Philturn Rocky Mountain Scout Camp, and was later renamed, Philmont National Scout Ranch. It covers 140,000 acres of rugged mountain wilderness in the Sangre De Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern New Mexico. Worth noting – the only documented Tyrannosaurus rex footprint in the world is found on the property of Philmont- it was discovered within the camp’s boundaries in 1993 and was formally identified and recognized in 1994.

These are the things dreams are made of, and for 8 young men of French Camp’s local BSA Troop 109, this dream became a reality this recent summer. Thanks to the generosity of faithful friends and the fund-raising efforts of the participants, the crew recently embarked on a memorable adventure to the Philmont National Scout Ranch.

The crew consisted of eight FCA students. They were led by Crew Chief Julian Kay, Wilderness Guide Ian Carmichael and spiritual leadership by Chaplain’s Assistant Cody McGary. The crew was rounded out by scouts Eli Arrowood, Bradley McCoy, Eric McKinney, Toby Perkins, Anderson Ulerich, and adult leadership, Steve Arrowood, Michael McCoy, Stephen Ulerich and Scoutmaster Kevin O’Brien. They embarked on this epic journey on July 13, 2019 and headed west for two weeks.

The trip was divided into the Pre-Trip and the Hike which consisted of a 42-mile hike over 7 days and elevation changes from 6000 feet to 11,000 feet. The pre-trip was designed to allow the young men the opportunity to acclimate to the difference in altitude between French Camp, MS (Elevation 441 feet) and Cimarron, NM (Elevation 6,500 feet), and then on to their final destination, the surrounding mountains which exceed 12,000 feet in height. The first few stops included camping in Oklahoma, Amarillo, TX and a visit to the Cadillac Ranch. This stop had the added adventure of dinner at the Big Texan Steak House where one of the scouts attempted the 72-ounce steak challenge with all the trimmings.

Their final stop before heading to Philmont, was a few days in Colorado Springs for altitude adjustment and sightseeing. The boys began with a horseback ride though the Garden of the Gods, a red rock sandstone formation created during a geological upheaval along a natural fault line which occurred before recorded history. We got the pleasure of reuniting with Troop 109 Alumni, Eagle Scout, and FCA Graduate (2011), James Senyard who resides in Colorado Springs and joined us for the adventure. This was followed the next day by a visit to the United States Air Force Academy. On average, ten percent of the cadets of the Air Force Academy are Eagle Scouts.
Another side adventure for the crew was whitewater rafting and zip-lining on the Royal Gorge, followed by a train ride up the same gorge a few days later. And last, but not least in this pre trip agenda, was a tour to the top of Pike’s Peak (Elevation 14,440 feet). After a busy week in Colorado Springs our crew headed to Cimarron for The Hike!

It takes planning and training before you can hike 42 miles with 40 lbs. pack on your back. They did work-up hikes to prepare themselves, which included a twenty-mile round trip hike to Jeff Busby  and a 15-mile Hike at Savage Gulf National Park, outside of Chattanooga TN, all with the intention of preparing for the big hike at Philmont. They also planned hikes and worked out independently to get into shape.
Once at Philmont, the hiking started, with the young men taking control of the orienteering and meals. Crew Chief Julian Kay guided the group to our first campsite at the base of Arrowhead Mountain and acclimated to the weight on our backs at this altitude. One of the first things the guys had to learn was how to secure our food and “smellables” each night in a bear bag since we were in bear country. Each day of hiking was accompanied by reminders from Ian Carmichael of our civic duty to keep the areas we hiked and camped in pristine condition and unmarked for generations to come. Additionally, our Chaplain’s Aide, Cody McGary led devotions of thankfulness each day to remind us about the gift of God’s creation that we were getting the privilege to enjoy.
Each night found us in a canopy of trees surrounded by a sea of stars as we camped in God’s outdoor cathedral. Each day gave us new opportunities to witness God’s creation up close and personal. Every new day tested our endurance and ability to work as a team relying on God to see us through the difficult hikes.

Our Campsites included Cimarroncito (Elevation 8156 feet) where we participated in Rock Climbing (and cribbage), Cypher’s Mine (Elevation 9367 feet; circa 1936) and introduced the crew to primitive mining techniques and blacksmithing. We then went to Black Mountain Camp (Elevation 10,889 feet; circa 1866), a post civil war encampment teaching black powder rifle shooting and the art of espionage while recovering important papers! Hiking up Black Mountain was one of our biggest challenges. The trails up the mountain were 30-40-degree grades and the switchbacks were so numerous that we thought we’d never reach the top. When we finally hiked down from Black Mountain to the Tooth of Time (Elevation 9003 feet) we breathed a sigh of relief as we camped our last night on the trail at Tooth of Time Ridge. From there it was a leisure hike back into the base camp on the following Friday.

Looking back over the two-week adventure, I watched boys who doubted their ability to hike any further dig deep and find the strength to persevere. No one endures hiking this trail without being changed. We returned to French Camp better men. The troop walked away with a tremendous feeling of gratefulness for what we had been given. We experienced God’s creation in a whole new way and were able to see the awesomeness of His power as the storms swept across the plains below us as we hiked the ridgeline of the mountains. We experienced a hailstorm at 11,000 feet and forged rivers as we made our way along our chartered path. We had the pleasure of witnessing long horn sheep, deer and wild turkeys running through our campsites as we prepared our evening meals. We left French Camp as 12 individuals and we returned as a tight-knit band of brothers! This trip created memories we will never forget.

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