Article by Keith Johnston

               The overall Philmont experience can be only described as amazing. Even though I had heard many stories from the previous crew about various places and events throughout Philmont, everything I saw went well beyond I had expected. Also, there were many places that one could consider to be unique. While a full list of everything crew 722-G would be much longer, here are some of the highlights of the trip that I can remember.

            The flight in was interesting in and of itself, with both the individual TV’s and the very flat, square landscape outside. The entire crew was excited, and ready to go. Once we had landed, the very dry air and the constant urging of our guide to keep drinking water (we had to or we would drop) just added to feeling of a very different place than Long Island.

            The couple of days prior to us traveling to Philmont were memorable, with the crew visiting the Garden Of Gods. The odd shaped rock formations and a certain someone catching a cactus (pricklers included) made the visit very interesting. The trip up Pikes Peak on the tram was fun, with its amazing views of the surrounding country. I remember hearing stories about how at the top, you got lightheaded and short of breath, which I didn't believe the first time I heard it. However, I realized how wrong I was when I got off the tram and starting walking towards the gift shop. The Flying ‘W’ Ranch was also something different, with its recreations, gift shops, and interesting cuisine. Also, the local entertainment was different, and somewhat enjoyable. (Still not a country music fan). It was also fun staying at the hotel, wallowing in relative luxury compared to the coming two weeks.

            Once we arrived at Philmont, I was impressed by the overall size of Base Camp. I had underestimated the size of “Tent City”. The first days were spent checking in, getting settled, exploring the gift shop and attached food court. I was also struck by the extent of their bear problem, seeing the precautions taken throughout Base Camp. The cuisine was a bit bland, and the environment almost surreal, being surrounded by massive rock formations. This was when I went over to logistics to learn the nuts and bolts of our trek, as well as the locations of key elements such as showers, food pickups and where we were not given the whole truth. We also proceeded to pick up our gear, and our food.

The shakedown and the first days on the trail showed us that even those who had been backpacking for five years still had much to learn, such as proper procedures to avoid a terrifying encounter with Mr. Bear. This was also the beginning of the “Spork Challenge”, where every crew member who could complete the trek by using a Taco Bell “Spork” at every meal would win a “mystery prize” described by our ranger as “awesome”. We also discovered, to our good luck, that the food issued to the crews had been upgraded from the Army-style freeze-dried rations to more common food such as crackers, Oreos, beans and rice, chicken, and chocolate pudding.

The first few days on the trail were relatively easy and straightforward, to the point where our ranger was impressed with the speed by which we covered each day’s trek. Uracca camp stands out in my mind, where the crew conquered many Challenge Course obstacles, including stacking up human bodies to reach a 25 foot marker. Its also where I learned that I had a very bad sense of balance, and had to walk on a 4 inch wide board while blind, mute, and unable to use my arms-and fell multiple times. I also remember the campfire with a particularly blood-curdling scream from a staff member.

The next location that I remember was Zastrow camp, where there were many surprises. First, we learned that they had showers, which Logistics had not told us. We also had a wonderful campsite, in the shade, next to a cold stream. While there we participated in their baking program, and their GPS navigation program. It seemed that we could have found the points with a compass much faster than with the GPS, effectively wrecking my faith in GPS technology.

I also remember the long, arduous hike we made to Aqua Fria camp, and then the side hike I made with several others to pick up food for the next several days. We arrived at the pickup point to find fresh fruit, and that there was an option for us to spread out our food pickups. Once again, Logistics fooled us. However, the reduced food option, and the Hunting Cabin we stopped at proved to be interesting.

Besides these specific camps, I remember certain events at various camps. The crew enjoyed the homesteading camp, where some of the crew helped to build a log cabin. We selected a tree, brought it down, with myself delivering the final blows, then de-limbing and de-barking the tree before sawing and placing the log on the cabin. Also, I remember going into a mine, watching & helping a blacksmith pound out a screwdriver out of raw steel. The crew also enjoyed firing a blackpowder rifle, blowing Mike Buono’s shirt to bits. Throughout this entire time, the crew continued the “Spork Challenge”. We also experienced many things unique to Philmont, such as the thunderstorms that would roll in and roll out five minutes later. The crew also took time to enjoy the majestic beauty that is Philmont, with stunning views of the sky and landscape.

The day before we were due to hike into base camp was very interesting. The crew spent the day playing horseshoes, sitting under a huge porch, getting our boots branded like cattle. Our crew shared a large field with over a dozen other crews, creating a disorganized looking Tent City. Everybody was a bit anxious, as we would be hiking back into Base Camp. The next day, we packed up in darkness, and headed out on the trail. The day that followed was very long, and filled with amazing views as we marched on towards base camp. After what felt like the longest day in history, Base Camp was in sight, and I assumed the position of point man to lead our crew home. However, we would see Base Camp for the next few hours, as we hiked through numerous switchbacks, and we seemed to being walking in circles. However, we eventually reached the gate that said it all in three words –“You Made It”.

The next twenty four hours seems to me as a blur, with the crew going through the process of unpacking, getting our gear checked, and finally getting our tents for the night. Everybody enjoyed hot showers and real porcelain toilets, and not having to use a Pilot/Co-Pilot in the middle of a field. We proceeded to make up for the last two-weeks of (seemingly) near-starvation, by ordering specialty pizzas, myself consuming half of a Bacon Cheeseburger pizza that tasted like the best thing in the world. We received the prizes for completing the Spork challenge-another Spork, which we all accepted with grins all around.  That night we attended a closing campfire, where there were many laughs and cheers.

The next day we piled on to a coach bus for our ride back to the airport and home. I don’t remember much except being acknowledged over the loudspeaker by the plane’s captain, and arriving in New York where the air seemed as thick as soup. Looking back, I was proud to have served as Crew Chief to a great group of men and to have finally experienced Philmont for myself.

- Keith Johnston


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