The week waned and finally Camp Director training came to a close, its sparse but impactful lessons far too fresh in our naïve brains. Looking to celebrate on our last full free-day for several weeks, we hastily threw on civvies, piled into the minivan, and barreled down highway 64 towards ever-popular Taos. The twisting mountain road snaked ahead of and behind me for miles. We rounded a corner and a sweeping view of Mt. Baldy reveals a fresh coat of snow from last night's storm atop its usually stark 12,441' peak; an unfamiliar sight. Our gasoline-powered DJ booth sped onward. The traffic sign seems to be more omen than warning.
Exiting the winding mountainous road from Angel Fire, we descend into Taos valley, stopping at everyone's favorite pizza joint for some much needed lunch. We chatter and joke, anxious for our Program Counselors who will be arriving tomorrow en masse, bringing with them the start of a second full week of training. First aid training, astronomy training, ATV training, our waitress asks for my order and I am pulled back into the conversation. A warm and quenching summer breeze floats lazily through the cottonwoods, cooling my damp forehead. Our afternoon's grub arrives – pizza, pesto, porter – perfection.
With a forceful yank, I relieve my sweaty skull from the confines of my glossy black full-face helmet. Our first four hours of ATV training is proving exceptionally challenging and the unyielding sun's rays are not making our lessons any easier. Lunch break arrives and we start the long retreat back to the Dining Hall. My breathable pants *zip-zip* against my ankles while my camera collides with my kidney in-step. A small scurrying raisin/creature grabs my attention. I stooped down to discover this little guy trying to seek refuge from my lumbering shadow. He crawled into the dense grass and proceeded emulate “pebble” with great results. Gingerly with a twig, I coaxed him from his grassy enclosure. Exposed, he froze, most likely admiring his own reflection in my lens two inches away, granting me a few moments for a portrait session. The meatball sub had a hard time matching my level of satisfaction for nailing the shot.
I feel myself start spiraling into a pit of paperwork, angst, and laundry. It is far too late to be awake. The omnipresent sodium vapor lights bathe everything in a sickly shade of orange. Jittery, I decide to check on the stars and go for a walk to calm my nerves. So far, it seems 75% of the time I look up at the sky, there are clouds, tonight being no different. Distant light from the small town of Springer feebly beams back towards the cosmos. I shuffle back towards the confines of my tent and try to forget about the lack of time and the abundance of paperwork which lies ahead of me.
The low, scraping afternoon sun begins to set after our second full day of ATV training; only two more days remain before we earn our instructor status. My staff this year mostly consist of first years, my buddy Jimmy being the exception, who worked with me for a few weeks back in 2011 because of the fire closures. Reunited, we are stoked to spend the summer with each other and deliver awesome program. Having someone who understands you and anticipates your next move is a valuable asset to have. As Jimmy and I walk back to the mess hall, we joke about the coming summer. "We're gonna kill it", he says. I agree. Bring it on.
In a blur, the second training week passes and we find ourselves loading up the suburbans with our worldly possessions en route to Zastrow, our home for this summer. We arrive and I hop out of the vehicle and survey my vast new land; there is much to explore. For now, we must unpack and clean. Everything. After a few hours tackling the kitchen, I take a water-in\water-out break. On my way to find a rock, my eye catches the glimmer of a winged bug. He was sitting nonchalantly in the middle of the path; something didn't feel quite right. I reach for a stick, the tried and true method, and give it the gentlest of pokes. Slowly, he wiggles his limbs. I timidly pick up the stoned bug with the stick and transport him to greener and safer pastures for a little rest. I retreat to do my business and when I return, he is no longer there. Making friends on day one.
I grab one of my staff, Gordon, and we leave on a small two mile hike to set up our Geocaching course. Although several days have passed since our arrival, the newness of camp has yet to wear off. The diversity of the flora at Zastrow is some of the most unique I have seen across the entire Ranch. We finish hiding a cache and our course leads us to a vista overlooking our entire home. We admire the view for a minute and head down the gully into a shaded patch of old pines. The ground is dense and sponge-like with compacted and decaying needles. I see a branch with a rotted out knot and notice a Gambel oak leaf nestled comfortably inside; something about it seems oddly poetic. I set a waypoint in the GPS. I must return.
Break-time ends and we leave the grove of trees. Our GPS units take us back out into the open, back out under the sun. The scenery begins changing again as we find ourselves scrambling up the side of an arid rocky hill. The pines and cottonwoods are gone, replaced by creosote bushes and rocky mountain juniper. The hill is very steep now and I turn my attention to the ground. A cactus! Not just one, but dozens of petite, ankle-sized cacti hide all around. Some species are even flowering. I make a mental note to warn all future Croc-wearers who wish to complete the course. Forests and deserts, what next?
The sun and temperature have both reached their peaks as we finish hiding the tenth and final cache and start our return trip back to the cabin. In a small wash, I notice a bit of blue winking back at me amid the coarse gravel. Crispy like thin jerky, I find an expired Sagebrush lizard who's once brilliant azure stripes have now quickly begun losing their luster under the harsh light. I stand back up and brush the impacted grit from my fleshy kneecaps and jog to catch up with Gordon. A lone cloud lazily drifts by in the late afternoon heat. Hopefully it brings company.
A dark and ominous gray has been swirling above camp for the last few hours. I put a few paces between me and the cabin, drinking in my surroundings. There's a coolness to the air and the wind has started to shift directions, as evidenced by the flagpoles. Down the road I notice a few visiting staff hiking-in to visit. Their timing appeared to be perfect; there's definitely a storm a brewin'. Our warning is over and a few drops begin hitting me on my scalp. The New Mexico rain is cold, bringing with it hailstones which increase in size before our eyes. The thunderous assault on the tin roof is deafening as the hailstones reach the size of Brussels sprouts. Tree limbs crack and fall under the unrelenting force, a river of water is now surging through our road. As suddenly as it came, the skies finally cease and we race out from under the safety of our porch. My province has been covered in stunning white - limited edition. Jessica and I quickly hurry to the bridge, anxious to see what camp looks like on the other side. The Rayado has grown nearly half a foot during the intense 15 minute storm.