One more successful astronomy program has just concluded; it's late and cloudless. I can still make out a handful of softly twinkling stars, despite a waxing moon which is due to be full in a few days. Crisp shadows fall from every tree, the intense glow blankets our vast property in brilliant blue and stunning silence. Nearly lost in a sea of trees, our little hut dimly radiates back out into the wilderness. A soft breeze gently rustles my windbreaker; thankfully the crickets have decided to turn in early.
Crews sleeping overnight have already retreated to their respective camps to start cooking dinner, a good indication we should begin as well. Sitting up from the porch, I take my current stack of paperwork and hurl it onto my desk—undoubtedly due for another cleaning. Turning towards the kitchen, I catch a shimmer of color through the trees at the end of our road. As our visitor approaches, he slowly reveals a cloven hiking buddy. A wide-brimmed straw hat and braided goatee protrude underneath a boldly striped poncho. Having worked with Ian for a summer, it's good to see him with his hair down, so to speak.
With only ten days left until the end of the season, most camps are experiencing a decrease in the amount of crews they see. However, as one of the last outposts in the backcountry, we have been utterly swamped and the crew-load forecast shows little mercy. My staff have been working hard, continually putting participant's needs over their own and it has only gotten more challenging. Chuckling to myself, I remember the spurious write-up I received two summers ago for napping—a contemptible offense in my superior's inexperienced eyes. My staff deserve to rest, I know they will finish strong.
Tonight, program delivery for some of my staff was far from ideal. The time for competency has elapsed, I expect more effort—especially this late in the season. As a result of our blunder, not a single member from any crew stayed for an astronomy talk. Sitting down by the horseshoe pits, I stew over tonight's actions in our quiet camp; a perfect container for my turgid thoughts. Negativity nearly consuming me, I stand, turning my attention to the cosmos. Perhaps this energy needs to be redirected, not quelled. I still have plenty of light.
Just as Jimmy and I finish with one of our final ATV sessions, shady, dense clouds drift towards our rescue. This new program has collectively kicked us all in the pants and I know our staff aren't the only ones working hard at keeping things operational. For the last two weeks, we have been operating a five-hour certification course to preselected Rangers who have a 'day off'. Despite calm direction and informative demonstrations, our only injury worth observing was a broken clavicle from an overly-ambitious young man who seemed intent on earning more than his certification that particular day. After retreating to our cabin, one look at Jimmy's dusty, stoic mug tells me volumes.
Twinkling blackness entirely envelopes camp. Last night's radio readout still echoes in my ears, today marks the closure for hiking in the backcountry. Thankfully, both Carter and Jamie have stopped by to celebrate, having already spent most of the day baking. Nearly all of my staff are content with turning in early, but Jimmy decides to join us as we head up to our turnaround for a completely unobstructed view of the Milky Way. Lying underneath the shimmering expanse, we recount summer's highs and lows while satellites blink in and out of visibility. Spinning and spinning, time wanes on, yet I feel more at home than ever before.
We head into our Wood Badge museum to debrief after bidding our crews goodnight. Flickering lamp-light casts creepy shadows over dusty patrol flags and our mounted kudu head. Only two more days with participants lie ahead of us and I remind everyone they deserve equal, if not better, levels of enthusiasm. I swiftly address a few items concerning impending gather before getting to my second big announcement which is of little secret: ATV program has officially ended for the season. Cheerfully, we stand and head to kitchen. Cookies have always been a great way to celebrate.
I take another heaping armload of trash out to our bear box. My, or rather our, lovely chateau will be empty and vacant by tomorrow afternoon, returned to its original condition. Fortunately, we don't have to forcefully remove rat feces from any of our cabins which makes cleanup vastly more pleasant. Filling up my empty water bottle from the spigot, my attention is robbed by a small patch of sunflowers. Having recently bloomed, they serve a vibrant reminder our season must end, fall is on its way. I feel something cold hit my shoe; seems I overfilled.
Exiting the quaint coffee shop with my iced Americano, I wander through a few dilapidated alleyways, scanning over rusted out pickup trucks. My train ride is an hour behind schedule and Raton is not a memorable city. I find myself staring deeply into a bank of vacant windows, less than 24 hours have elapsed since our camp's gather. Taking another swig, I remember waking up out in front of the Backcountry Warehouse surrounded in a mountain of my own luggage to this morning's glorious sunrise. A causal passerby might have noted my bivouac as an excuse for lazy, drunken slumber. However, not once have I heard a declaration for less nights spent under a blanket of stars.
My journey West begins. From nowhere to backwater, from suburbs to cities, over and over again—it begins. Bouncing on bumps and rattling over rails, each knock jars me further into abstraction. Closing my eyes, I try to escape to my safe haven back in the wooded foothills. A stewardess crackles over the intercom. Flagstaff will be a smoking stop. I stare down at the blinking cursor on my laptop, my report is still unfinished. Shifting my attention to the window, I watch power lines scallop in and out of frame while the sun begins to set. Tipping back the rest of my beverage, I shut down my computer and put up my feet. And so, my wait begins.