After checking out the South side of camp, we about-face and head back to the cabin. Jessica decides to stay while I continue alone to go check on our water tank. Before I start the small assent up the Northern hill, I look past the pair of Ponderosas which serve as sentinels to one of our smoking areas. The ground is covered in large hailstones, a heavy fog clings to the damp coldness near the surface. I exhale deeply and see the ghost of my breath hang before me. The stillness is deafening, interrupted only by the punctuation of drips falling from distant leaves. An unfamiliar June.
Beetles, moths, wasps, hornets, crickets, spiders, and flies, insects abound at Zastrow. Having electric lights definitely gives away our location, broadcasting beams of false hope to any bugs looking to seek shelter inside our rooms. I quickly learned to leave my lights off and my door closed during dusk, or else suffer through a night of inhaling gnats. Unidentified cicadas can be heard buzzing alongside the river bank during the heat of the day. The large rainstorm which drove back the bugs for a few days has since departed; clear skies are in the forecast.
The sun begins to set, marking the end to our first full nine-day work week in the backcountry. Already, we have begun experiencing what it means to live and and work under the same roof; not the easiest task, especially for such a young staff. My mind wanders as I bus dinner's dishes, thinking about how meal-time is going to work when campers start spending the night. I gaze out the kitchen window and see a gargantuan creature bobbing his head furiously, each stride gaining on the cabin. As the lumbering beast nears, I quickly realize Carter has come to visit for the night, complete with boombox! After a disproportionate high-five, we power through evening chores, put the staff to bed, and start heading up the road. We reach a clearing I remember finding in the daylight and plop down and discuss our summers as they have progressed. We talk about our staff, cute girls, challenges we are scared of, everything while we remain blanketed under our metaphor. Blissfully, we chat away the moonless night. Already so much has happened, yet we have only just begun.
It is extremely convenient and exclusive to be so close to another camp. Abreu is just over a mile away to the West and I decide to take a half-day to walk over and visit our neighboring camp. I have already been at camp for nine days and have another three to go before I can take some days off. I definitely need to give my staff a breather for the evening. The afternoon is cool from last night's heavy rainfall and though I don't require a break during the brief hike, I take one anyways under the shade of a particularly large scrub oak. Like most rocks here, the ones surrounding me are covered in lichen, these being a brilliant shade of chartreuse. I stand up, convincing my inner demons once again my visit is a hangout and not a sabbatical starting after week one.
Completely new program is not a common occurrence on the Ranch, especially one which features motorized vehicles in the outdoors. The ATV program has been extremely controversial both for its perceived “recklessness” and for slightly non-Kosher LNT practices. I take the short hike up to the site, the 2-mile course has already been scouted out and rough-cut in the last few weeks. Currently, a wood chipper team and their beast devour the remains from the demo team's labor, lost beyond the tree line. I arrive at the middle of the meadow and face Northwest, pausing at the proposed location for the training course. Nearly the entire 214 square miles of the Ranch sprawls out in front of me, a complete view obstructed by the stunning Sangre de Cristos. It's hard to believe they conceal 315 miles of trails, double if roads are accounted for. The fervor and sheer volume of hate and outrage the Ranch has been receiving about the program is staggering. How can so many people form such harsh, uninformed opinions? I chuckle to myself, remembering we don't have the quads yet, nor any information on when the first course will be conducted. Some people must be compelled to hear the sound of their own dissenting voice.
Conservation is one of the many departments backcountry staff have the pleasure of working with at Philmont. One of the specialty teams involves a group of guys who are solely dedicated to chipping and mulching, this year; Work Crew Whiskey. Armed with mechanized teeth and elbow grease, our destructive quartet has been preparing the ATV course for the last few days. Up just slightly after dawn, they try to work in the limited cool of the morning, returning only for a brief shade and water break during lunch. In the evenings however, they usually join us for dinner, fajita night being no exception. In they walk, clothes reeking of tree sap which thankfully masks the smell of hard manual labor. We share stories and tortillas, reminiscing about prior summers while winged insects bounce off the screen door late into the evening.
Up until now, we have only had participants pass through our camp during the morning, none have been overnight guests. This is unique to our camp in that we only host campers on their last night in the backcountry. Ten days ago, the first crews hit the trail which means tomorrow our first crews will be asking us where they can set up their tents. I am suddenly reminded of two things. First, I have been at camp entirely too long. Second, I will be leaving my staff, alone, by themselves, for the first time, for three days. I sigh deeply and try not to over-analyze; a walk feels like a great idea. I slip out and slip into my usual rhythm and so does my mind, easing with each step I put between me and the cabin. Another species of cacti appear to be flowering, “escobaria vivipara”, the nature book later reveals, “a wide range of habitats, from Mexico all the way north to Canada“. It is less than two inches wide and sports a brilliant fuchsia flower. If it can thrive, so can I, and so can they.
I am positively wracked with cabin-fever, but finally, my days off have arrived. I start to boil water for my morning carafe of coffee and begin cleaning the cabin with my staff. They seem quieter than usual, perhaps I am broadcasting my apprehensions on my face. I snarf down my usual peanut-buttered white toast with honey and head down to the main cabin to finish packing and go over some final details with Jimmy, who I am leaving in charge for my first three day leave of absence. We raise the flags, New Mexico's red and yellowbrightly glow in the blinding sun. I remind Jimmy about the fickle water pump and listening to the radio with keen vigilance. I couldn't be more confident he will know what to do with our first crews having worked at several other camps before. I retreat to my room, stuff my sleeping bag, wrangle and secure my camera gear, and apply generous amounts of sunscreen to my extremities. I have us all reconvene at the sundial for a 30 second pep rally. With my emotions set to “convincing/empathetic”, I tell them I know they will do a fantastic job upholding my expectations operating camp; William Wallace would have been proud of my delivery. I strap on my pack and loudly announce my departure to the entire camp. Two other Camp Directors have come to rescue me and we quickly disappear into the dense wilderness; freedom has arrived.
The plan is to make an expedient detour through base camp, stopping only for cold beverages and a quick trip to the lockers. Less than 15 minutes later, we are back on the road looking for the rocky and dusty turnoff, our lifeline to escape. Our exit arrives and we veer onto a dirt highway, the vehicle's basic suspension bangs and rattles sickeningly. Thankfully, the road ends and we pile out, strapping on boots and packs, disappearing quickly into the wilderness once again. Up and up, switchback after switchback, we climb. My thighs are screaming and the map confirms today's afternoon hike is nearly all uphill. I stumble over another crest, chest heaving and searching for oxygen. I turn my gaze upon the ground and spot a douglas fir seedling seemingly sprouting out of a rock. I chuckle to myself. A little uphill never killed anyone.
The ascent continues until we triumphantly reach the top of the mesa - a nearly silent victory - our wheezing disturbs the sound of the wind blowing through the grasses. We take a quick breather in the shade to confirm our bearings and ETA for camp this evening; at least another hour of hiking is ahead of us. The grumbling in my stomach reminds me that I need more than only toast for breakfast on hiking days. I take another sip of water and notice a large boulder nestled behind some pines. The smooth yet jutted surface has whorls like truffles, ranging in color from roast chestnut to raw cashew. It dawns on me that I have an “emergency” bag of trail-mix stashed deep in my pack. After a few handfuls we press on, the heat of the day still upon us, thankfully mottled through tall forest limbs. I think about kicking my boots off and lazily swaying on the porch swing and my pace quickens. Or maybe it was the M&M's.