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Skiing and Snowboarding : Politics

The Sochi Olympics Are a Five-Ring Mess

In 2010, the people of Russia were asked to design an Olympic mascot, and the people responded—creating 24,000 cartoon bears, tigers, saints, snowflakes, witches, and wolves in just three months, a forest of candidates, a seeming triumph of democracy. The upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, in the southerly city of Sochi, had until then been Vladimir Putin’s pet project. The new Russia was to be showcased at the president’s favorite Russian ski area and coastal resort, with facilities in the Caucasus Mountains and along the Black Sea built from scratch by his most favored oligarchs.

“Sochi is a unique place,” Putin had told the International Olympic Committee in 2007, when his personal touch helped Russia beat out Austria and South Korea for the chance to host the Games. “On the seashore, you can enjoy a fine spring day—but up in the mountains, it’s winter.” Putin had flown to the IOC meeting in Guatemala just to deliver his country’s pitch. He’d spoken English, one of the few times he’s done so publicly. Now, to ignite similar Olympic passions in Russia, his government held a mascot contest. Common citizens would submit designs and vote for a winner. Whoever came up with the champ would receive two tickets to the Games.

Forty minutes after it was introduced online, a psychedelic blue frog with a ski pole in its mouth rose to the top of the ranks, and it stayed there until the contest was done. There are a few reasons why. One is that democracy, even carefully managed democracy, is messy. Another, as I witnessed over and over when I visited Sochi last February, is that Putin’s Olympics are Putin’s Russia in microcosm. The frog wore a tsarist crown on its head— a reference to “nationhood and spirituality,” explained its creator, the Moscow cartoonist Egor Zhgun, with faux solemnity. In its eyes, in place of pupils, were rotating Olympic rings: black, yellow, blue, red, and green. The frog was covered in fur—these being the Winter Olympics, after all—and it had no hands, which left many people wondering about the intended metaphor. (Zhgun says he simply neglected to draw them.) Its name was Zoich, a clever use of letters and numerals. To a Russian eye, the 2 in 2014 looks like a Z. The 4 looks like the letter Ч, which is pronounced ch. With a squint, or a bit too much vodka, “2014” reads “Zoich.”

In the YouTube video introducing Zoich’s candidacy, the frog is seen sipping a martini in a disco with the Cookie Monster, paratrooping into a city while attached to a string of balloons, kicking a rival candidate (a freshwater dolphin on skis) into a pit, and having a drink with one of the other subversive mascots, Pila, or “Saw”—a reference to the financial corruption, known as “sawing the budget,” that everyone expected to plague Olympic construction. The video was viewed 700,000 times. Love for Zoich spread to national newspapers and television. While no one knew quite what to make of the frog, its popularity felt dangerous. It was hard to see Zoich as anything but a protest candidate.

I met Zhgun in a Moscow café during a layover on my way to Sochi last winter, almost exactly a year before the Games would begin. Twenty-seven years old, tall and lanky, he was a soccer and hockey fan with no particular interest in the Olympics. “When I was drawing Zoich,” he told me, “I didn’t realize he would become a symbol of the opposition, but I was OK with that.” People started making bootleg Zoich T-shirts and ashtrays. Zhgun began dreaming up games to put on Zoich’s website. “One was like Jenga,” he said. “I wanted a game with the Olympic stadium made out of blocks of money. How much can you steal before it falls down?”

At the time of the contest, Putin, who had taken the lesser position of prime minister after reaching his presidential term limit, was quietly orchestrating a return to the top. The opposition—mostly urbanites like Zhgun— was beginning to mobilize. In a little over a year, there would be 100,000-person protests and counterprotests in Moscow, prompting bloody clashes with police. When Putin successfully reclaimed the presidency in 2012, with 64 percent of the vote, election observers noted that, despite allegations of ballot “irregularities,” fraud wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the government controlled who got to run in the first place. The real opposition wasn’t even on the ballot.

{%{"quote":"“Stalin wouldn’t have let this event happen,” said our guide at the Soviet dictator's old dacha near Sochi, “because it’s just ruining the city.”"}%}And so it went with Zoich. Just before Christmas 2010, a government-appointed jury of experts and celebrities narrowed the 24,000 mascot candidates to 11. The skiing dolphin made the short list. So did two bears, polar and brown. So did a snowboarding snow leopard that Zhgun derided as very badly drawn. Zoich was missing from the list. And after the frog was disqualified, the story got stranger. Zhgun admitted that he had entered the contest only because Russia’s Olympic Committee, hoping to drum up excitement, had paid him. “You can draw anything you want,” they said, “but you can’t tell anyone.” Even the protest candidate was just a piece of guerrilla marketing gone awry, crushed as soon as it began causing trouble.

The final round, a televised poll aired on Russia’s Channel One, attracted more than a million viewers—the highest number for a single broadcast since the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. The polar bear had been far ahead with the public, but on the morning of the vote, Putin, who was visiting with schoolchildren in Sochi, was asked which mascot was his favorite. It happens that there’s a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) leopard-breeding program based inside a national park outside the city. There’s a leopard pen in the park that was built with Olympic money. Putin—who has been photographed flying heroically with storks and shooting tigers with tranquilizer darts—has twice shown up to personally welcome transplanted leopards, still groggy after flights bringing them from Turkmenistan and Iran. By now the leopard mascot had been professionally retouched and given a new name: Barsik. According to his official bio, Barsik is the epitome of an intrepid but solitary leader. He is “a rescuer and mountain-climber who lives in the uppermost branches of a huge tree, on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus. He is always prepared to help those in need.”

“The leopard is a strong, powerful, fast, and beautiful animal,” Putin told the kids. “Leopard species had been destroyed around here, but now they are being regenerated. If the Olympic project, at least in some way, should help the local environment, then it would be symbolic.” After voting ended that night, three official mascots were unveiled: a bunny, a polar bear, and the not-too-surprising winner, Barsik the snowboarding snow leopard.

{"image":"","caption":"Froome as he nears the finish line."}%}

{%{"image":"","caption":"Left: A bridge under construction in Sochi designed to ease access to the 2014 Games' alpine events. Right: Security guards at the snowboarding and freestyle venue last winter."}%}

THE WWF’S LEOPARD enclosure was hidden in the forest to our left as photographer Simon Roberts and I drove up into the Caucasus from Sochi International Airport, but we didn’t have time to stop. A year before the Olympics, Sochi’s newly built mountain facilities were hosting test events: skeleton and luge, skiercross and boardercross, halfpipe skiing and snowboarding. Teams from all over the world were converging on Russia’s only subtropical city, a resort town close to Turkey once known mostly for the sanatoriums where Soviet workers came to recharge. Opening ceremonies and half of the 2014 events—ice skating, hockey, curling, anything requiring a roofed stadium—would be held in what organizers call the Coastal Cluster, which sits beside the Black Sea about 20 miles south of the center of Sochi, an urban sprawl that’s home to nearly 400,000 people. The main 40,000-person stadium, called Fisht, features a translucent egg-shaped shell through which spectators will be able to see the snowy Caucasus. But to get to the slopes and the rest of the events—the Mountain Cluster—they will have to travel (as Simon and I did) an hour or more up the gorge of the Mzymta River, to the village of Krasnaya Polyana, a journey slightly shorter than that between Vancouver and Whistler during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The traffic was so bad when we neared Krasnaya Polyana that we turned onto a side street, and our rental car bounced on to the hotel through cavernous potholes of mud. We arrived just in time for the welcome party: dancing Cossack boys pounding on drums, girls spinning and shouting, and dozens of foreign snowboarders and freeskiers clapping and drinking.

By this time, the world was beginning to worry about Sochi’s proximity to Chechnya; about the pledge by the jihadist Caucasus Emirate to put a stop to the “satanic games”; about the exiled Circassian people, Sochi natives for whom 2014 was the 150th anniversary of a genocide; about Russia’s new laws restricting homosexuality; about Russia’s role in Syria; about graft and the Games’ record-breaking $51 billion price tag—greater by at least $8 billion than the cost of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, the last time an authoritarian country decided to build the Best Games Ever from scratch. Some even worried about who would win and lose. But in Krasnaya Polyana, all this seemed far away. Who would win if the Games came together and were deemed an international success was obvious: Putin. The people on the losing side were everyday Russians, who saw their mountains and coast and city turned into the biggest construction project in Europe— especially the everyday Russians who dared to try and stop it.

It was the middle of winter, but Krasnaya Polyana had no snow. Even in daylight, it had almost no color: a construction site in gray scale. The village’s clamor of jackhammers and dump trucks and worker transports began at dawn, and Simon and I stepped out to follow groups of Uzbek and Kyrgyz guest workers through the side streets. They walked to their job sites with their heads down, smoking, skirting puddles. Others were already scrambling through the half-built shells of buildings that seemed to fill the valley wall-to-wall. I saw sparks from distant welders’ torches and stopped in front of one complex to count its cranes: 13. “It’s like a gold-rush town,” Simon muttered. Banners hung from the sides of many buildings, depicting the ritzy slopeside condos and hotels that would be in place when the Games begin on February 7. February temperatures in Krasnaya Polyana average 34.7 degrees, but the buildings on the banners were covered in snowdrifts. Until the clouds pulled back and I caught a glimpse of the steep peaks above, this was the only winter in sight. I found a pair of rental skis in a tiny shop across from a workers’ canteen adorned with Coca-Cola signs.

{%{"image":"","caption":"The Ponomaryov family, who moved to Sochi looking for work."}%}

A few days before we arrived, 
Putin decided to crack down on 
delays and overruns by making an 
example of one of Russia’s Olympic Committee officials, Akhmed Bilalov. At an unfinished ski jump a few hundred yards from where we stood, Putin had shamed him on national television, strongly hinting that he was corrupt. Twenty-four hours later, Bilalov was out of his post; a few months after that, he surfaced in a German hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for an inexplicable case of mercury poisoning.

The only part of the village that seemed close to completion—two rows of tall hotels and pedestrian walkways flanking the Mzymta River—was where Simon and I went to catch a gondola to the test events. If I ignored the fresh paint and endless construction mess as we approached the modern Doppelmayr gondola station, this could have been Colorado. The impression lasted until I saw Russian soldiers with automatic weapons—a nod to what lay due east of us: restive Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. The soldiers manned a metal detector. They made me scan my boots but not my skis or poles. There were also white-clad snipers hiding on the slopes, athletes said, but I was never able to spot one myself.


Some test events had been canceled for lack of snow, and disappointed competitors were already streaming to the airport. The same thing had happened the previous winter, when World Cup skiing came to Sochi for the first time. But this year there was a halfpipe, a slab of ice and snow formidable enough to have survived two weeks of rain, albeit in imperfect shape. Men’s snowboarding teams were competing as planned. To get to the halfpipe from the midway station, I had to boot-pack around a temporary fence, dodge rocks while going down a groomed run, and hop over a drainage pipe. A hundred-person crowd was assembled below, adjacent to the Olympic mogul field, which was mostly brown slush. I watched a Chinese snowboarder drop in, then a Norwegian. A competitor from the Bahamas was so proud after his last air that he pumped both arms triumphantly as he exited the pipe— and promptly caught an edge, crashing hard enough to knock his helmet off.

“Now the Italian style has arrived in Sochi!” the announcer boomed in English. An Italian boarder raced down, launched too far off the sidewall, and landed on the flat bottom of the pipe with a sickening thud.

I couldn’t understand why Putin loved to ski at Krasnaya Polyana, or why the Games would be held here, until I rode a higher lift to the top, at 7,612 feet. And then I understood very well. I popped through a cloud layer partway up, and an archipelago of peaks stretched to the horizon. Russia has many higher mountains, many mountains farther north, but here the Caucasus were equal in beauty to the Alps. The sharp, mostly treeless Aibga Ridge extended for miles to my right and left. The slopes tipped over and dropped relentlessly down. A downhiller or a sport-loving president-for-life could go fall-line for thousands and thousands of vertical feet, which I did, skiing untracked powder until it thickened into toothpaste and I dropped into the fog.

THE USUAL VICTIMS of the world’s mega-projects—unpaid or grossly underpaid migrant workers, residents forcibly evicted to make way for construction—were featured this year in a major Human Rights Watch report on Sochi alongside an unlikelier group: the 226 members of the local branch of the Russian Geographical Society. The report came out just before I visited, and the people of the RGS, accidental dissidents suddenly cast against the whole of the Russian state, became my guides to understanding what was happening to greater Sochi.

Founded in 1845, the RGS is Russia’s oldest scientific club, historically as respected and apolitical as the National Geographic Society is in the United States. During the Soviet era, branch offices were meeting places for scientists and explorers, launching points for expeditions inside the country and abroad. The club held its national meeting every five years in St. Petersburg, but otherwise each branch operated independently, setting its own agenda and raising its own funds. Though small in terms of population, Sochi was granted a branch in 1957 on the basis of the region’s extraordinary geographical variety. Local RGS members, some of the most active in all of Russia, kept it afloat by contributing dues, charging for lectures and school visits, and selling rock and plant collections as study kits to universities.

The Sochi RGS occupies the former home of a general who had been in charge of guarding Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, whose vacation dacha was hidden in thick forest just up the hill. It overlooks the gentle waves of the Black Sea and a set of train tracks carrying a rush of construction supplies in one direction, rubble in the other. The yellow house was stately and worn, and like many Russian properties, it appeared to have been suspended in amber since at least December 25, 1991, the day the Soviet Union dissolved. When Simon and I arrived from Krasnaya Polyana, however, members were building something new: a government-mandated decorative fence, which they had been ordered to install and pay for themselves. It cost nearly $14,000. The property bordered the main road between downtown Sochi and the Coastal Cluster. Everyone along the route was expected to do their part to help the city shine.

Inside, scientific secretary Maria Reneva, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old geologist and the branch’s day-to-day leader, and Yulia Naberezhnaya, a 37-year-old ecologist who wore hiking boots and a purple Gore-Tex jacket, described how they landed in Putin’s crosshairs. Maria’s husband, father, and mother were geologists, and her mother had preceded her as secretary. Maria joined the RGS in 1989 at age 16, just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. After the fall of communism, the Sochi RGS became legally independent, left to fend for itself. As other local scientific institutes collapsed along with the Soviet state, their archives found a home in the branch’s musty library, making it all the more important that the RGS stay alive. “We did everything to survive,” Maria said. “Environmental-impact assessments, geological work—everything.”

When Putin’s oligarchs began building an $8 billion combined highway and railway to the event sites in Krasnaya Polyana, aiming to cut Olympic travel time in half, the lead construction company ran into extensive limestone caves where it was planning to place a tunnel. Company officials sought out local speleologists and were directed to the RGS branch, which had Soviet-era cave studies in its library and the scientists who wrote them on its membership rolls. In this way, the branch got an early glimpse of what was about to happen to Sochi, and its members decided that they were against the road, against the Games, against all of it.

“We didn’t need to vote on whether we should oppose the Olympics,” Yulia said. “It was obvious to everyone that they were going to ruin everything.” The mountains would get more ski lifts, the river valleys highways, the caves tunnels, the beaches seawalls, and the wetlands stadiums.

Members of the RGS worked with local environmental groups to publicly voice concerns about the Olympics, but the hall they reserved was suddenly made unavailable, supposedly because of an accidental double booking. Another press conference, planned for the seashore adjacent to the new stadiums and disappearing wetland, was blocked by the government construction firm Olympstroy, which soon won a permanent injunction that effectively made certain public beaches private. To get the word out, members published articles in journals and on the club’s website, and they did as many media interviews as they could.

All of which attracted Moscow’s attention. In late 2009, the national leadership of the RGS called an extraordinary meeting: it had been decided that the organization needed a new charter. Under the proposal, branch offices would be stripped of their independent legal status. They would now get funding—and marching orders—from regional offices, which in turn would take orders from a new office of the executive director, based in Moscow. In effect, the RGS would be federalized—and the Sochi branch muzzled. In a separate vote, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of emergencies and a prominent member of Putin’s United Russia party, was elected the new president of the RGS. Until that day, he had not even been a member. Putin himself was given the surprise invitation to chair its board of trustees, which he accepted in a speech before the delegates.

“We are now the last branch that is not part of the new system,” Maria said. Any day now, a lawsuit would come from Moscow—they had been told it was imminent—and local officials were already making vague threats. “If we don’t join, we will have ‘problems,’ ” Maria said. Problems with their papers, problems with their taxes—whatever problems authorities wanted to find. Under the new charter, RGS branches could not own property, and the Sochi branch’s seaside house could be worth millions to the right oligarch. Just up the hill, glass-walled palaces were under construction along the road to Stalin’s dacha; they were rumored to belong to the local governor, another United Russia stalwart, who would use them to host guests during the Olympics. Maria and Yulia were trying to carry on as usual as they awaited the lawsuit. They told Simon and me that the branch’s monthly show-and-tell, which featured slide shows and expedition reports from regular members, would take place the coming Sunday. And if we wanted a reality tour of Olympic venues, they could give us one the day after tomorrow.{%{"quote":"Moonglade is one of 20 palaces and country cottages that Putin has for personal use, along with four yachts, 15 helicopters, and 43 aircraft."}%}

THAT SAME AFTERNOON, before Simon and I retreated to the faux luxury of our Sochi hotel, we went uphill to check out Stalin’s dacha, which you can arrange to tour. Built in 1937, its every detail was focused on keeping the dictator alive and healthy. The exterior was painted forest green, making the compound mostly invisible from above. The keyholes were airtight, so assassins couldn’t pump in poison gas. The couch in the movie room was stuffed with horsehair, which made it practically bulletproof. The steps on the staircase were precisely 13 centimeters apart, a height calibrated to Stalin’s gait, so that the brutal man who killed at least 20 million Russians wouldn’t trip and injure himself.

Every room had open windows and a balcony, a caretaker explained, “so that Stalin would get fresh air and the air would heal his lungs.” Few Russians were aware of Stalin’s poor health, she said, but it was the reason he came to Sochi in the first place. He had bad lungs and a bad back. His left arm was damaged in a childhood accident. When Stalin was born, one of his legs was an inch shorter than the other, so he wore special boots. “The second half of his life was torture,” said our guide, a wry woman who also worked as a bookkeeper. “But this is the place where sea air mixes with coniferous air. It is good for the lungs.” Stalin found his daily saltwater swims rejuvenating, too, and he decided that Sochi would be as much a boon for the average Soviet worker’s health as it was for his. The sanatoriums happened mainly because of him.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Stalin (in wax) at his old dacha in Sochi."}%}

The woman walked us past Stalin’s bedroom. For $250 a night, you could sleep here and be served three meals a day in the dacha’s dining room. She showed us where the five-foot-four dictator posed for official photos— always shot by his personal photographer, who knew how to make him look tall and powerful, sometimes by asking him to sit on a pillow. In a corner room was his billiard table.

“Stalin’s friends were scared to beat him,” she said. “They always let him win. But one of the gardeners here, one year he lost—and the next year he won! After that, Stalin improved his living conditions.”

Stalin seemed to love Sochi as much as Putin does. “What would Stalin think about the Olympics coming to Sochi?” Simon asked.

“Stalin wouldn’t have let this event happen,” she said, “because it’s just ruining the city.”

VLADIMIR PUTIN also has a Sochi dacha— three, in fact, if rumors are to be believed. The rumors are backed up by property records, leaks from whistle-blowers, federal guards at the fence lines, and photos taken by activists and construction workers and posted online. Everyone in Sochi accepted them as settled truth. At least five people—scientists, translators, mountaineers—told me they had seen a secret presidential residence with their own eyes.

One of the dachas, a $350 million Italianate mansion known as Putin’s Palace, was on the Black Sea coast north of Sochi. Another was in the woods behind Krasnaya Polyana, close to the site for the 2014 downhill-skiing events. But the one I wanted to visit was more than 6,000 feet up the snowy flanks of the highest peak in the western Caucasus, 9,363-foot Mount Fisht, the namesake of the main Olympic stadium. The place was called Lunnaya Polyana, or Moonglade, and depending on whose map you believed, it was either inside or on the border of a protected Unesco World Heritage site—“one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impacts,”Unesco pointed out when the western Caucasus were chosen for designation in 1999.

Once construction of a main lodge began in 2002, the site was officially listed as a weather station or a “scientific center” and given the name Biosphere. But then came ski lifts and helipads and Swiss-style architecture and multiple chalets and dozens of guest rooms and four new snowcats, and it became clear that Moonglade was something else: an elite private ski resort inside a onetime wilderness. There were no passable roads here; construction materials were brought by helicopter, presumably at enormous cost. Someone had nevertheless found room in the budget for flatscreen televisions, a moose head, a swimming pool, and at least two billiard tables.

After pictures of Moonglade appeared online, Putin’s press secretary said his experiences there were “exactly” like those of “ordinary tourists.” It was an odd statement, since ordinary tourists lack helicopters, and if they came to Mount Fisht at all it was during summer, when they could follow once popular Soviet trekking routes through fields of flowers and into the stunning high country.

Hikers had been some of the first to notice the strange construction at Moonglade. Some reported being chased off by guards who forced them to delete photos from their cameras. Images got out anyway, thanks in large part to the homegrown group Environment Watch on the North Caucasus, or EWNC, which began hiking to Moonglade for annual “inspections” in 2007. Photos and surreptitiously shot video appeared. In Moscow, opposition leaders added Moonglade to a list of increasingly lavish presidential perks that they cataloged in a 2012 report called “The Life of a Galley Slave.” The title was a reference to something Putin declared after his first turn as president: “All these eight years I toiled like a galley slave, from morning until evening, with every ounce of my strength.” According to the report, Moonglade was one of 20 palaces and country cottages that Putin had available for his personal use, along with four yachts, 15 helicopters, and 43 aircraft. The authors enlarged photos of Putin’s wrist taken during various public appearances and identified a watch collection worth roughly $657,000—more than six times his official annual salary.

I had arrived in Sochi with ski-touring gear, a map of Mount Fisht, and a half-baked plan to do a Moonglade inspection of my own—but the same rains that ruined various Olympic test events scuttled my chances. Jeep roads to the trailhead were impassably muddy, there wasn’t enough snow to move quickly on skis, and the mountain guides I called laughed at my plan, saying it would take me most of a week to hike up Mount Fisht and back. So I settled for an evening train trip northwest along the Black Sea to meet the founder of EWNC, Andrey Rudomakha, a legendary Caucasus activist who was perhaps the region’s most persistent thorn in Putin’s side. My train mates passed the time smoking, drinking tea, and talking loudly on their cell phones. But when sunset came and we passed empty pebble beaches lapped by dark waves, everyone stared out the windows and there was a moment of reverent silence.

AT THE STATION in Krasnodar, the regional capital, a group of college-age men met me with a cardboard sign that read STATE DEPARTMENT. One explained the joke: “Everyone thinks we’re funded by America.” Dissent in Russia was increasingly maligned as a foreign plot, and Putin had just signed a controversial law saying that any organization that receives money from abroad has to state clearly on paper and electronic documents that it is a “foreign agent.” My hosts and I piled into a junker Lada with a missing seat and raced to the small offices of Yabloko, or Apple, a green political party. Politics were Rudomakha’s latest experiment, an attempt— not yet very successful—to see if there was a way to fight for the Caucasus beyond picket lines and press releases.

Inside, young volunteers were devouring pizza while Rudomakha—in his youth a rock guitarist, Che Guevara admirer, and founder of a commune—typed quietly at a computer. His goatee and trademark pile of dark hair were now trimmed, almost respectable. He and I grabbed slices and sat down in the kitchen. The Olympics, Rudomakha told me, were an environmental disaster that he and the EWNC were protesting at every turn. Moonglade was just as “ecologically dangerous,” because the area had formerly been so pristine, but it was also where Rudomakha had achieved a major victory. A few years ago, authorities started to build a paved road to Moonglade through the heart of the wilderness, and the EWNC filed a lawsuit, sent activists to block machinery and loggers, and made an emergency appeal to Unesco. A public warning by Unesco that it might have to add the western Caucasus to its list of threatened World Heritage sites was enough to get the road canceled, even if the ski lodge remained, and even if a fight now loomed over a different road project, to access Moonglade from the other side. “There is no law in Russia,” Rudomakha said. “That’s why most of our fights are fights to lose. But this has Unesco. We may have a chance.”

{%{"quote":"“I want to be a giant and take all the buildings and trucks and break them,” Yulia said. “It is horrible to make such things with nature.”"}%}

Why did the oligarchs need a road at all, I wondered, when they had helicopters? “National security,” Rudomakha explained. According to yet another rumor, impossible to confirm, Putin once became stuck at the dacha when a winter storm grounded his chopper. He had to go back down the mountain on foot, like an ordinary tourist. That was unacceptable.

Rudomakha had hiked in to inspect Moonglade four times, and with each visit he saw more security. Most recently, he said, there was a fence and a watchtower. Rudomakha’s deputy, a clean-shaven man named Dima, pulled out a laptop to show me on Google Maps how to find Putin’s palace on the Black Sea, which also occupied public land and was surrounded by a tall fence. Dima told the story of a time when he and another well-known EWNC activist, the biologist Suren Gazaryan, made an inspection of the palace. Inside, they came across a surprised security guard and a man in camouflage, who told Dima he was an officer in the presidential guard.

“What is the Presidential Security Service doing here?” Dima asked.

“None of your business,” the man replied.

Officers from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, appeared, along with border guards, although any border is over a hundred miles away. Then came local police and men from a private security company. “They took all our cameras,” Dima said, “and suddenly there was no mobile-phone service. They broke into Suren’s car and took notebooks, laptops, phones, modems—everything electrical.”

The activists were taken to a police station to give a written explanation of what they were doing in the supposedly public forest. “I saved one memory card in a sock,” Dima said. “It was the only media that survived.” Gazaryan was later convicted for damage to a construction fence—someone had painted THIS IS OUR FOREST! on it—then charged with attempted murder because he had picked up a small rock and told a security guard to keep his distance. Facing years in prison, he fled Russia in November 2012 and is now in exile in Estonia.

“DO YOU HAVE just one daughter, Yulia?”
I asked her this on a rainy morning as we set out with Maria to do the RGS tour of Olympic sites. It was just small talk, but she wheeled around in the front seat of the car and stared fiercely at me. “How did you know that?” she demanded. She calmed down when I reminded her that I had seen the little girl at the RGS branch earlier in the week, but in an instant I understood the atmosphere of fear that now pervaded everything. Soon the news would trickle out that Russia had set up a surveillance system in Sochi that would monitor every tweet, e-mail, and phone call made by visitors during the Olympics.

Yulia, I learned, was also a longtime member of the EWNC; she had even lived on Rudomakha’s commune in the nineties. Rudomakha and Gazaryan, meanwhile, were RGS members as well as EWNC leaders. But it was important that I distinguish between the two groups, Maria said. The Sochi RGS’s opposition to the Games wasn’t in any way political; it had everything to do with what we were about to see.

Our destination was an important wetland for migrating birds—some 200 documented species, Yulia said, plus various rare plants. A decade ago, she and the RGS spent a year and a half leading a detailed survey of flora and fauna. She handed me an old brochure showing frogs, ferns, swans, and the snowy Caucasus reflected in the deep blue of a pristine pond. “This territory was going to be a preserve,” she said. “We had all the documents prepared. It was going to be protected by the Ramsar wetlands treaty. Then it was gone.”

We turned off the highway and followed a line of giant orange dump trucks into the Coastal Cluster. Fisht and other partly built Olympic stadiums were rising out of the mud, surrounded by gravel roads and a growing forest of high-rise housing for athletes, media, and spectators. The din of construction was audible even through the closed windows of the car. Maria groaned. Yulia peered out the window. “It’s hard to say in one word how this makes me feel,” she said. “I want to be a giant and take all the buildings and trucks and break them.” She made a snapping motion with her hands. “It is horrible to make such things with nature.”

“We say this area is like Oman,” Maria said. “It has become like a desert, with no trees.”

{%{"image":"","caption":"Maria Reneva (left) and Yulia Naberezhnaya of the Russian Geographical Society"}%}

When we got to what remained of the wetland, Maria and Yulia said nothing. They didn’t need to. A series of barren ponds marked the intersection of two mud tracks plied by a steady rush of trucks. Their banks were littered with plastic bottles, construction debris, and piles of slash wood. A stray dog stood next to two portable toilets, and next to the toilets were two signs, one in Russian, one in English, that declared this apocalyptic scene the NATURAL ORNITHOLOGICAL PARK IMERETINSKAYA LOWLAND.

“On the whole territory of the Natural Park,” said the signs, “it is prohibited to perform actions leading to changing its historically formed natural landscape.” habitat for animal species—above all, endangered species—had to be preserved. Specifically, one could not hunt, damage breeding spots, harvest wild plants, pollute the water with raw sewage, or decrease the “ecological, aesthetical, and recreational qualities of the Natural Park.” The cynicism was almost brave.

From the wetland, we drove to a residential neighborhood overlooking the Coastal Cluster, stopping only for water and bread at a gas station. Yulia ate her portion in the rain in the parking lot. We were looking for a street called Bakinskaya that neither Maria nor Yulia had ever visited, but it wasn’t hard to recognize once we found it. An entire block of homes, most of them still occupied, were tilted at strange angles, as if Yulia’s angry giant had swung and missed the Olympic site and hit these houses instead. Just downhill, two apartment buildings looked like Sochi’s version of Pisa: they leaned drunkenly toward one another, propping each other up.

For two years, residents here had watched dump trucks arrive full at the top of the hill above them, then return empty. Up to 30,000 tons of Olympic debris, most of it from railroad construction, ended up in an illegal landfill. One day, after a rain, the hillside suddenly slipped, and all the homes’ foundations slipped along with it. Ten months before we visited, the government had finally agreed to resettle Bakinskaya’s residents. But ten months had passed, and the dump trucks kept dumping, and the people were still living in their slumping homes. A man Simon and I met on the street told us that he feared more landslides. Why not move? “I spent all my money on this house,” he said. He couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.

Our last stop—new to Maria but not to Yulia—was an activist encampment on the north bank of the kudepsta River, manned 24 hours a day by local residents and the occasional EWNC member. They had occupied the site for nine months, ever since a construction company put a temporary bridge here and prepared to drive heavy equipment over it. A 367-megawatt gas-fired electrical plant was to be built on the other side to power the 2014 Games. The activists, many of them pensioners in fraying sweaters who sat around a stove in a shelter made of tarps and scrap wood, feared that its noise and air pollution would alter the neighborhood forever.

They were holding a press conference today. A few minutes after we arrived, two leaders— one wearing a Yabloko jacket—began speaking to a crowd of perhaps 50 people who had gathered at the bridge. For 20 minutes they seemed formidable, ready to throw their bodies in front of the machinery again if it came rolling across the bridge. But after the local journalists left, the gathering became a discussion about strategy, and then the discussion became a bitter argument about tactics. As the rain poured down, the argument nearly came to blows. Maria led Simon and me to the car. “How can they ever win?” Simon mused. Democracy was laudable. Compared with Putinism, it was also frail.

ON MY LAST DAY in Sochi, I attended the Sunday show-and-tell at the RGS, and for a few hours no one even mentioned the Olympics. Three members, one after another, held court in the conference room, which was down the hall from the library and next door to a tiny museum filled with photos of glaciers and caves and with any geologist’s dream rock collection. Three dozen people, young and old, had packed in to see the presentations. First up was a guy who had taken a fairly standard tourist trip to the Crimean Peninsula and had the slide show to prove it. As older members lobbed questions—“What’s that called?” “Were cars allowed?”—the man sitting in front of me took frantic notes on a Hello Kitty notepad. Next was a video of a high-level trek through the Caucasus set to upbeat elevator music. Images of ibex and green alpine meadows flashed on the screen. The mountains above Krasnaya Polyana looked as stunning in summer as they did in winter.

The last presentation was totally unexpected: a gold-toothed member named Andrey had hitched exactly 19 rides and hopped an unknown number of freight trains and built one log raft and spent no more than 5,000 rubles (about $150) to travel to the top of Siberia and back the previous summer. The trip lasted 58 days. He was attacked by one seagull. “Now I will show you 259 photos,” he said. He quickly had the whole room laughing and clapping and singing along to songs he’d written on the road. I was seeing the spirit that foreigners are sometimes surprised to find in Russia but always do. It was the Russia Putin should be proud to showcase to the world in 2014.

I got an e-mail from Yulia a few days after I left: Loggers and bulldozers had been discovered cutting a new road to Moonglade, this time from the other side. She went there immediately with the EWNC and did an inspection, and she held on to her camera’s memory card; images are now all over the Internet. A little more than a month later, officers from the FSB and Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism burst into the EWNC’s main office in the nearby city of Maykop. They forced the activists to log in to their e-mail accounts, then spent 90 minutes reading through messages. They “recommended” that an upcoming EWNC report on the 2014 Olympics not be published, lest it “damage Russia.”

A few months later, Andrey Rudomakha was asked to meet with a supposed whistle-blower at a Krasnodar bus station. The man had said he was a “concerned citizen” named Alexei who had information on an illegal landfill. Instead he was from the Center for Combating Extremism, and he carried a letter from a prosecutor. Rudomakha was forced to read it out loud while the officer filmed him. Register the EWNC as a “foreign agent,” the letter said—or else.

In late April, heavy machinery and seven private security guards arrived at the north bank of the Kudepsta. Residents climbed onto parts of the bridge and jumped into the shallow river, briefly stopping their advance. Then as many as 70 police arrived and forcibly dragged them out. Three people were sent to the hospital. The machines reached the other side.

As for the Sochi RGS, the lawsuit from Moscow came in early March, as promised. But the next month, just as protesters were being pulled out of the Kudepsta River, something remarkable happened. “You may congratulate us,” the e-mail from Maria and Yulia read. “We won our case yesterday.” Moscow was signaling that the Sochi RGS would be allowed to exist. They were surprised. I was surprised. I was also reminded of something Maria had told me in Sochi. “Whatever happens to us,” she said, “they will wait until after the Olympics, when no one is paying attention anymore.”

McKenzie Funk's book Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming was published in January 2014 by Penguin Press.

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Can Antoine Vayer Crack the Doping Code?

On the eve of this year's Tour de France, Vayer, a journalist and former trainer for the Festina cycling team, published an electronic report and subsequent book, Not Normal?, that all but accused some of the biggest names in cycling of doping. In the publication, Vayer, 51, compared the power outputs of active riders with those of 21 Tour de France winners since 1982, including known dopers Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich. Vayer's theory: if a rider passes a certain threshold of power on a given section of the Tour, chances are he's cheating. Those he implicated include retired riders who have never been caught, such as five-time Tour winner Miguel Indurain (Vayer described his 1995 win as "mutant"), as well as supposedly clean active racers like Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, and Chris Froome, who went on to win the 2013 Tour. In a tight-lipped sport that traditionally protects its own, this was akin to passing out scarlet D's.

Once Vayer's report spread everywhere from ESPN to The New York Times, the cycling world reacted with predictable defensiveness. David Brailsford, manager of Froome's Team Sky, called Vayer's work "pseudoscience." During the Tour, Froome, who has never tested positive, declared himself "100 percent" clean.

But here's the thing: many studies support Vayer's data, which is based on a complicated model that takes into account moving time, speed, grade, mass, drag, rolling resistance, wind, and other meteorological conditions to estimate how much power a rider produced on a given segment. The question is whether Vayer's interpretations are accurate.

"Vayer does himself a disservice by being overly bullish, but it doesn't mean he is wrong," says Michael Puchowicz, a former college racer and sports-medicine doctor at Arizona State University. "The best performances achieved during the doping era by Pantani, Riis, Ullrich, and Armstrong are incredibly unlikely to be achieved by a clean athlete." But Froome appeared to do exactly that at this year's Tour, clobbering the Ax 3 Domaines climb in Stage 8 with the third-fastest time in history. The performance
qualified as "miraculous" in Vayer's rating scheme.

So is he recklessly throwing arrows or leading cycling toward a more transparent future? It's hard to tell, but this much is sure: at a time when cycling's governing body, the UCI, is being maligned for years of negligence, the French trainer has emerged as the loudest crusader to clean up the Tour. "If we keep pretending that nothing is going on," Vayer says, "we'll wake up in another twenty years and all the cheats will still be running the sport."

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Thrifty, Clean, and Brave

The very first ones I saw, out of all the thousands, were like this: a little platoon of eight or ten, coming along the edge of a field in ragged single file, lit by the peculiar flaring light of a summer rainstorm. As they skirted the muddy ditch by the roadside—arms swinging, faces wet and pale—they looked, in their old-fashioned campaign hats and capelike ponchos, like something not from the end of this century, but from its beginning, a faded photo taken at Ypres or the Somme. Then they swung out of sight, leaving me with the distinct feeling that I had entered a foreign country—one bordered not so much by place as by time.

In the America that most of us inhabit, the Boy Scouts seem an anachronism, a quaint holdover from sepia-toned decades past. And if the Boy Scout movement is one of the closest things to a folk religion that our century has produced, then the Philmont Scout Ranch is its Promised Land.

Like many sacred places, Philmont, situated in the cattle country of northeast New Mexico, straddles a boundary between two worlds. To the west, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rear up, wild and gray: a wall. Immediately on the other side of New Mexico 21, which borders the ranch, the country flattens into vast prairies, vanishing into distant golds and greens among the scattered mesas. Philmont's base camp is sudden and incongruous, a scatter of sprawling single-story buildings and then, just beyond them, row upon row of identical tents, boxy and olive-drab.

Every summer, nearly 20,000 Boy Scouts pass through those tents on their way out to 12-day treks through an immense wilderness. At any given time between June and August, 4,500 Scouts are rambling around the mountains and canyons. Philmont is not just a camp, then. It's a self-contained little empire, with more acreage than certain European countries, its own bustling capital, isolated outposts, and strange provincial subcultures—all of it ruled by paunchy men in khaki uniforms, beribboned like Paraguayan generalissimos. Philmont, its managers say, purchases more freeze-dried food annually than any other single entity in America, including the Department of Defense. Each summer its campers go through 300,000 sticks of beef jerky, a quarter-million packets of Swiss Miss, and 90,000 PowerBars. Its wranglers handle more than 350 head of cattle; its buffalo herd numbers 130. Philmont receives more mail on a summer day than the nearby town of Cimarron does in a week.

The man who gave this empire to the Boy Scouts was never a Scout himself. An Iowan who came west at the turn of the century, Waite Phillips roamed the mountain states before settling down to make a fortune in the oil business. He was a great outdoorsman and, though no intellectual, a serious-minded moralist who composed epigrams for his friends. ("A life without plans results in aimless inefficiency.") By 1941 Phillips had deeded his entire sprawling ranch to the Boy Scouts of America, along with an endowment so generous that a full Philmont program still costs just $375 per Scout.

Each morning from June through August, a stream of buses pours through the big wooden arch that says, "Welcome to Philmont," disgorging hundreds of Scouts. Base camp, I saw as I walked around on the first day of my visit, is an anthology of American boyhood, circa 1999: midwestern troops with the cropped blond hair and perfectly pressed uniforms of an elite military unit; goateed, Teva-shod guys hanging around the snack bar playing Hacky Sack; boys with silver rings through their eyebrows.

Scouting's traditional credos—"thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" and all the rest of them—might seem of dubious relevance, uncool even, to today's plugged-in adolescents. But oddly enough, in a nation with an ever-increasing number of youth soccer leagues, sports camps, and outdoor-education courses, not to mention the countless electronic distractions that kids can choose from, Philmont has a two-year waiting list. When the camp opened its phone lines last spring to take registrations for the 2001 season, all the slots—plus a 20,000-name waiting list—filled up within four hours.

And Scouting itself manages to steadily increase its ranks every year. In the 1970s the movement was in deep trouble. It stood for everything that American youth was shrugging off, and membership dropped precipitously. In response, the organization moved away from its antiquated-seeming emphasis on hiking and camping, adding new merit badges in things like American Cultures and Disabilities Awareness, and it hired Oscar de la Renta to bring the Boer War–era Scout uniform into the leisure-suit age. But it wasn't until the 1980s that Scouting began to rebound—partly because of the country's turn back toward conservatism, but also because of the increasing popularity of adventure sports. Boy Scouts started earning merit badges for things like whitewater rafting. And Scouting's "high adventure bases," of which Philmont is the largest, grew more and more popular.

Philmont's 12-day treks are no ordinary camping trips. Participants are supposed to train intensively for at least a year before they arrive. For the first two days of their treks, the troops are accompanied by college-age guides, of both sexes, known as rangers—most of the males Eagle Scouts. But after that, for the next ten days, the boys are on their own in more than 200 square miles of wilderness. (Adult scoutmasters accompany them, but merely as "advisers," a title that pointedly reminds them to let the Scouts take charge.)

The ranch's vast backcountry is part Yosemite and part Disney World, with a touch of Colonial Williamsburg thrown in. Each troop follows one of 30 different itineraries that take them to campsites offering activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, and horseback riding. They visit "interpretive camps," where staff members dress and live like characters from the Old West, teaching the Scouts to shoot Civil War–era rifles, pack burros, and pan for gold. All of this has a moral purpose, too: As a bronze plaque near the camp trading post puts it, Philmont's goal is "to encourage the perpetuation of self reliance, courage, faith, [and] justice, on which this great country was built by the American pioneer." It's an experience designed to test what the participants have learned as Boy Scouts—not just the fire-building and knot-tying, but the other stuff, too, all those litanies that seem so strangely archaic: "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty..." "Do a good turn daily." And in the process, the Scouts themselves test, each summer, whether those unlikely articles of faith still hold.

"They're a good-lookin' troop," Mark Anderson, Philmont's director of program, observed after the members of Troop 353 had spilled out of their Gray Line bus. "Wearing their Class A's and everything." (The traditional khaki uniforms are optional at Philmont.) With his badge-spattered uniform and cheery demeanor, Anderson himself had the air of an overgrown Eagle Scout—which is exactly what he is.

I'd been expecting The Andy Griffith Show; what I saw was more like South Park. Troop 353, just arrived from Howard, Pennsylvania, had a bit more than the standard teenage allotment of zits and orthodontia. Six faces stared back at me, more bored than curious. They were accompanied by four of the troop's assistant scoutmasters. (There's something about a grown man in Boy Scout uniform that looks a bit bloated in any case, but collectively, these four had to add up to about half a ton.) The troop and its scoutmasters were to be led into the backcountry by ranger Julie Nguyen, a bright-eyed and relentlessly enthusiastic Oklahoma college student.

Julie had already told me about what she and the other rangers called the "Camper Timmy" phenomenon. "Every crew's got one," she said. "He's the smallest or the youngest kid, the one who everybody else picks on. You can usually see pretty soon who it's going to be."

It didn't take long with Troop 353. "Let's get a move on, guys," one of the assistant scoutmasters was saying. "We gotta get over to the dining hall or we're gonna miss lunch. Are we all ready to go?"


The emphatic naysayer was fumbling with his pack. He looked about 14 or so, with a face like some uncataloged species of small forest mammal: big panicky eyes and a quivering lower lip. On one sleeve of his uniform was a badge that said "Chaplain Aide."

"It's Corey again," groaned an assistant scoutmaster. "Will ya hurry it up?" He turned to me and rolled his eyes. "That's Corey."

At 14, Corey Mills was the youngest Scout in the group. The oldest was Jeff Davidson, a strapping blond kid of 17 whom the others looked to as a leader. In fact, they'd elected him crew chief; he'd be in charge of our expedition once we got out on the trail. Jeff had been to Philmont before, three years ago; he'd come back, he said, because he wanted to show it to the younger guys, especially to his 15-year-old brother, Greg, who was also in the group. There was another pair of brothers along as well: Sean Diehl, 15, a high-spirited boy with the flat-topped crewcut and gap-toothed leer of a comic-strip bully, and his quieter 17-year-old brother, Ryan. Last in the group was Kevin Morrison, a frowning, bespectacled 15-year-old who'd already been on an exchange program to Ireland earlier in the summer. He said he'd come to Philmont because his parents made him.

Kevin was the only one whose dad hadn't come along as an assistant scoutmaster. Jeff and Greg's father, Ken, had taken time off from his job (at a trucking company), as had Sean and Ryan's father, Phil, who managed a construction firm. Corey's father, George, was a shipping manager at a yearbook publishing firm. Corey's uncle, Sam, was there too, on vacation from the accounting department of a chemical plant.

Julie looked like she was sizing the adults up, a bit skeptically. Philmont's staffers are forever rescuing wheezing dads from the backcountry. And Troop 353 had chosen an itinerary classified as "rugged," a 63-mile trek through both staffed and unstaffed campsites. The climax would be an ascent of 11,700-foot Mount Phillips—which would, George Mills told me excitedly, coincide with the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. On our final night out, we'd camp in the shadow of the Tooth of Time, an immense, naked molar of dacite porphyry above base camp whose distinctive jagged profile was printed on all the patches, caps, and T-shirts at the trading post.

It was raining when troop 353 arrived at basecamp. It had been raining for the last six days straight. Up in the mountains, where at that moment several thousand Scouts were hiking, wet clouds drifted across the treetops. But nothing could dampen the constant drilling cheerfulness of the Philmont staff.

The troop was ambushed at the dining hall by a mob of rangers—ruddy-faced college-age kids, in identical maroon polo shirts—chanting in unison the opening number in a two-week barrage of songs and cheers and mantras:

I wanna go baaaaaaack to PHILMONT!

Where the old Rayado flows,

Where the rain comes a-seepin'

In the tent where you're a-sleepin'

And the waters say hello!

Waiting in line to eat, Troop 353 reacted with silent bewilderment, looking not at all eager to confront any rain a-seepin' on them anytime soon. They only livened up when we finally got our food.

"This is disgusting," Corey said, staring down at the compartmentalized plastic tray. The glistening meat filling of a sloppy joe was oozing over its barrier into the banana custard.

Greg rolled his eyes and shrugged. Sean pointed to Corey and explained for my benefit, "He lives in Julian, Pennsylvania."

"Shut up!" said Corey. "Howard's not that much bigger."

"Naw, we've got close to 1,000 people. What've you guys got, a couple hundred?"

To Corey's visible relief, they switched topics, and Sean began to tell Greg about tequila. "So it's got a worm in it you eat that absorbs a lot more alcohol."

"Yeah, but it's a gummy worm, right?"

"Naw, a real worm."

Greg just shook his head. "The only thing I like is wine coolers."

That night was the much-touted "opening campfire" for all the Scouts who'd arrived that day, held out in a little spotlit amphitheater surrounded by prairie. The fire part turned out to be purely theoretical, since the rangers didn't really manage to get the wood lit, despite copious amounts of kerosene. But once it was smoldering, the Philmont staff came out costumed as figures from local history—a gunfighter, a conquistador—and acted out well-rehearsed skits as the Scouts looked on as passively as if they were in front of the television.

Then a lone staffer addressed the dozen or so gathered troops. "Before we close this opening campfire," he recited, "we'd like to take an opportunity to enjoy one of those things that makes Philmont what it is: the sky. Its vast expanses are inspirational to us all. We invite you to take a moment to enjoy the evening sky."

For the first time, the klieg lights that spotlit the "campfire" dimmed, and for half a minute we had a view of the stars, of the darkened prairie, of the shadowy line of cottonwoods that ran off into the distance along a hidden stream. Then the tape-recorded music swelled to a climax, the lights came up, and the Scouts filed dutifully out toward their tents.

Meanwhile, across base camp, returning Scouts had gathered for a farewell campfire. We crossed paths with a group from Big Spring, Texas, and I asked them what was memorable about their trek.

"The smells," said one, a Scout named Jerred who, with his blond brush of hair, could've stepped off the cover of Boys' Life.


"Yeah, till I showered today, man—I could smell myself from five miles away."

"And some of those meals they give you—that makes it pretty bad, too," said another. "This other troop we hiked with, from Colorado, they had a farting competition, with points. It was a point for every fart, two points if somebody else mentioned it, ten points if you cleared the area. The scoutmaster's son won it. He had about 300 points!"

The rain had stopped by the time we shouldered our packs and made for the trailhead the next morning. Still, there were thick scarves of cloud below the Tooth of Time. We'd reached a swollen stream that Julie had made us walk through, ignoring an easy crossing a few yards upstream: "Hey, guys, that's why you have boots!" she merrily told us.

A few minutes later, Ken Davidson, the heft-iest of the adults, stopped halfway up a modest incline. Sweat trickled across his bald dome and dripped off the tip of his nose. "Oh, man, that's enough for me," he gasped. "That's about as much as I can stand."

Then the mosquitoes started biting. Corey looked mournfully down at his left arm. "I got bit five times just on this one," he said. He'd put on his hat, broad-brimmed, with a chin string; jammed down to just above his eyes, it made him look even more lemurlike. I helped him get his water bottle out of the side pocket of his pack, and he took a swig.

Corey grimaced. "Ewwwww!"

"You don't like it?" I asked.


"You don't like water?"

"He doesn't like very much," explained Greg.

"He likes Mountain Dew," Sean said.

"No, I don't like that anymore," said Corey. "I don't really like eating."

By the time we reached our campsite, though, even trail food looked good. Dinner was a glutinous mass of salty noodles speckled with wizened little cubes of chicken—but each boy finished his portion, even Corey. Part of the Philmont ethos is an almost obsessive dedication to cleanliness, and so before we washed the dishes, Julie made us lick every last morsel out of our bowls, till they glistened with the faintest coating of yellow slime. Jeff manfully picked up the cooking pot, stuck his head in it, and licked that out too, till he emerged a few minutes later, red-faced and smiling gamely. Then he noticed some stew still adhering to the inside of my bowl, and so, barely pausing for breath, he went to work on that as well. I was starting to see why the rest of the troop thought he was leadership material.

The rules didn't stop with cleanliness. There were the Five W's of choosing a tent site. The Four C's of successful group bonding. The art of Making a Collective Decision. There would be no whittling. No washing in streams. No deodorant. Campfires—seemingly Scouting's raison d'être—were discouraged for safety reasons, although once out of sight of the rangers, nobody paid much attention.

There are some good reasons for such rules. One night back in the 1980s, two Scouts who had sprayed deodorant all over each other when they were horsing around were dragged from their tent and mauled by a black bear. And just a few years ago, a Scout won a large out-of-court settlement from Philmont after scalding himself by tipping over a cooking pot into his lap. Scouting officials have also gone all-out to rid the organization of its reputation as a magnet for pedophiles. At base camp, separate shower houses are marked "Adult Males" and "Male Youth." And the Boy Scouts' "two-deep rule" decrees that at least two adult leaders must be present whenever scoutmasters meet with their charges.

The disciplined approach clearly had its benefits. Looking around our campsite, it was hard to believe that thousands of teenagers tramped through here every summer. There was no graffiti carved on the trunks of the fir trees, no litter in the grass. In the fringes of the woods beyond our tents, a big mule deer buck moved, browsing, through the twilight.

But here we were around a fire circle with no fire in it, in a wilderness where wildness was kept at bay.

Since its beginning, Scouting has had something of a divided soul. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the vastly different personalities of the two equally strange men who inspired it.

The worldwide movement started in England under the last great stiff-upper-lip hero of the Victorian age: Lt. General Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell won fame as a commander in the Boer War in 1900, when he'd held the town of Mafeking for seven months under siege by a much larger enemy force, all the while sending out incomparably cool messages to reassure Queen and citizenry: "All well. Four hours' bombardment. One dog killed." After the war he became concerned by what he perceived as the slackness and softness of modern British boys, whom he described as "pale, narrow-chested, hunched-up...smoking endless cigarettes."

A famous photograph of Baden-Powell at Mafeking shows an almost painfully dapper little man with waxed mustache-ends, a swagger-stick, and laced boots that seem to extend halfway to his shoulders. It is pretty much a caricature of a repressive personality, and Baden-Powell, in fact, was committed to the repression of sexual desires of almost every sort, in everyone: His original manuscript of the Boy Scout handbook included an extensive chapter warning Scouts against the terrible hazards of "self-abuse." By dressing up boys like junior officers in Her Majesty's African Rifles and haranguing them endlessly about character-building, Baden-Powell set the tone for a particular approach to Scouting that thrives to this day.

His American counterpart, Ernest Thompson Seton, was big, loose-limbed, and wild-eyed, with an unruly mop of black hair. A writer and illustrator of wilderness books, he rarely washed or shaved, and was known to emit unexpected wolf howls or moose mating calls in public. He espoused utopian socialism, feminism, and the restitution of the Great Plains to the Indians. Not surprisingly, his ideas on the proper upbringing of boys differed somewhat from Baden-Powell's. In 1902 he founded a group called the Woodcraft Indians, whose young members frolicked in feathered warbonnets and camped out in Sioux tepees. The idea, he said, was to release boys' "animal energy" and teach them to "think Indian."

Seton met Baden-Powell in 1906 and, with typical impulsive enthusiasm, lent his support to Baden-Powell's Boy Scout movement, which the Englishman would soon establish in America. Seton was given the title of Chief Scout and invited to write the first edition of the famous Handbook for Boys. Soon he came to regret his decision. "My aim was to make a man," he later wrote, "Baden-Powell's to make a soldier." The Scouts' uniforms, he believed, imposed conformity; the endless codes turned the boys into "a lot of little prigs." But the Boy Scouts of America flourished, while the Woodcraft Indians withered away. Though today the organization honors Seton as one of its founding fathers—Philmont's library is named after him—it drummed him out publicly during World War I, a response to his allegedly pacifist and anarchist views.

If Philmont's base camp, with its uniforms and nightly chapel services, represents the Baden-Powell side of Scouting, in its backcountry the spirit of Seton lives on. There are no merit badges to earn out on the trail, no oaths to recite. Once the ranger assigned to a crew leaves, as Julie did on our third day, there's no outsider to nag them about following rules. And the trekking Scouts leave their Class A uniforms behind. Instead, most of them wear T-shirts that each troop has designed specially for its trip to Philmont. Troop 353's featured a migraine-inducing tie-dye pattern of hot fuchsia and piña-colada blue. Printed on top of this was the outline of what I first interpreted as a half-squashed chipmunk but turned out to be the Tooth of Time.

"Whoa...those shirts!" said the staffer who came out to greet us at Crater Lake, the first interpretive camp of our itinerary. He'd woken up not long before and looked unprepared for so much tie-dye so early in the day.

Troop 353 seemed equally nonplussed as they checked out his old-fashioned striped shirt, wool pants held up with suspenders, and dusty bowler hat. "Welcome to the home of the Continental Tie and Lumber Company!" he said. "We chop wood with all kindsa axes here: axes, broadaxes, and Conan the Barbarian axes. We climb spar poles, and if you don't know what those are, you'll find out. We're gonna saw wood with a crosscut saw, and if you feel like tossing the caber, we'll do some caber-tossing."

Philmont's backcountry staffers, especially at the interpretive camps, are often as eccentric—and as unwashed—as Seton himself was. Living by the light of kerosene lanterns, sleeping rolled up in buffalo hides inside log cabins, they defy the Eagle Scout stereotype. This is where you find the ski bums, the potheads, the vegans. Like the original pioneers, these staffers are fiercely clannish and independent-minded, scornful of the soft bureaucrats back in the decadent imperial capital of base camp. Theirs are the jobs at Philmont that nearly everyone wants.

Troop 353 was too tired for ax-swinging and log-sawing. Once they'd finished lunch and pitched their tents, most of them slept until midafternoon. They did make it down to climb the spar poles, though, pulling themselves up lumberjack-style. Even Corey ended up making it to the top. ("I can see Julian from here!" he shouted.) After dinner we had a campfire with a couple of other Scout crews: a real one this time, where the Crater Lake staffers strummed guitars and sang songs as the last glow of sunset faded.

The kids stumbled back to their tents, but the four Crater Lake lumbermen stayed on. They huddled around the campfire with some rowdy girls from one of Philmont's trail-building crews, belting out more music: some Dead, some Johnny Cash, Indigo Girls, John Prine.

I asked one of them—a guy named Rob who wore a vest and watch fob out of an old tintype—why the Scouts themselves never sang. "Honestly, it's kind of hard when they don't seem to know any songs," he sighed. "The kids who come through here now—I know it's a stereotype, but a lot of them really do just seem to have that Gameboy-generation thing. It's hard to get them roused up about anything some of the time. I remember a few years ago, when I started coming here, when the crews would come into a camp, they'd each have their own cheer to let you know they'd arrived, and they'd all have different songs they'd sing on the trail. Now it seems like a lot of them just want to get it over with and get home."

The tough hiking began as we left Crater Lake. We slogged our way seven miles up a narrow canyon, soaking our boots crossing and recrossing a raging creek. A warm monsoon rain descended, and Sean started singing, "Phil-mont sucks... I hate Phil-mont..."

The next day, a hailstorm broke over our heads, followed by freezing rain. Corey wouldn't get his raingear out of his pack, so he ended up drenched and shivering. Kevin slipped and twisted his ankle, and the other Scouts whispered that he'd tried to come down on it harder so that he could get sent down to base camp. Then, as the rain poured down, the boys realized they were lost. "This sucks," said Phil, whose thick red hair was matted down with water. "I'll tell you one thing, I'm never coming back here as long as I live."

Somehow, though, the team was coming together. Jeff had been pretty quiet for the first several days, hiking out in front with a small American flag—the camp's traditional badge of leadership—pinned to his pack. But even lost in the middle of a downpour, the Scouts deferred to him. He studied the map as they gathered quietly around, ignoring Phil's and Ken's loud demands to keep moving. Jeff had told me he wanted to study law enforcement when he graduated high school next year, and he already seemed like a solid cop.

In fact, most of the kids seemed solid—more like products of the 1950s than the 1990s. Their lives back home revolved around hunting, soccer, and Scout meetings, which the troop held every Tuesday night in the basement of Howard's Methodist Church. They almost never cursed. Like typical teenagers, they were endlessly charmed and disgusted by any substance issuing from their own or any other creatures' bodies—cow pies, no matter how many times we passed them crossing the pastures, rarely failed to draw comment—but they barely talked about sex. And they scarcely argued with their fathers, even during their biggest challenge: the assault on Mount Phillips.

As we climbed its flanks, the adults kept dropping behind. We'd hike for ten minutes and then Jeff would call a halt until Ken, Sam, George, and Phil caught up to us, panting and red-faced. Toward the end, Greg picked up his father's pack and hiked with it in his arms. When we came up the final stretch, a steep and rocky uphill with no switchbacks, Corey was in the lead. He'd stop every few minutes, look back, and shout, "This is nuthin'! I'm not even tired!"

At last we emerged onto the summit, a Martian sweep of reddish-pink gneiss. It was late afternoon, and clouds were coming out of the west in slow procession like alien battle cruisers. The boys looked out over the rows of distant peaks.

"I'm on top of the world!" yelled Corey, scrambling up onto a cairn.

"No, you're not," responded Kevin and Phil, in near-perfect unison.

That night we celebrated with a campfire—our own now, fed with dry branches of firs and junipers—and stretched out on our backs to watch for meteors. All of us except two, that is. Jeff had gone off with Corey after dinner and hadn't come back yet. Everyone wondered what they were talking about.

Still, it took a few minutes after Jeff returned, alone, before anyone asked him. "I just sort of thought I should talk to him about the last time I was here," he explained. "I was the youngest kid on the crew then, and I remember what it was like. I remember how cool I thought it was when the crew leader would talk to me."

After the conquest of Phillips, the rest of the hiking seemed almost easy. The last morning was a Sunday. The troop camped below the Tooth of Time, and one by one the boys straggled from their tents for an early-morning religious service. But as the Scouts gathered on the cliffside, their crew leader was missing. Jeff had left his tent before sunrise—against Philmont regulations—and gone alone up the Tooth.

So the rest of Troop 353 sat down together along the edge of the cliff. Far below, the brightening plains raced out toward the horizon, glinting here and there with sunstruck water. Corey, as chaplain's aide, led the service out of little paperbound prayer books they'd issued us back at base camp (Eagles Soaring High: Trail Worship for Christians, Muslims, and Jews). When it was over, Greg and I walked back to the tents a little bit ahead of the others. "Look to your left," he whispered. There was a doe grazing just off the path. She stood for a minute, oblivious to us, until the troop caught up and she cantered off into the woods. Sean and Ryan raised their arms at the shoulder and started pumping out imaginary rounds in her direction.

Then Jeff showed up. "Hey," Ryan said to him, "you missed the church service."

"I had my own church service up there," he replied.

God and nature, boys at one with the woods—this is the Philmont that makes its leaders swell with pride. Earlier in the week I'd spent a few days away from the trek and gotten a lift down to base camp with no less a personage than Philmont's general manager, Bill Spice, who took me bouncing down the mountain in a gigantic Chevy Suburban painted Boy Scout khaki. Spice himself was as khaki, and as oversize, as his vehicle.

We stopped off at an old hunting lodge built by Waite Phillips and now used to house well-connected guests. Its occupant that week was Congressman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas. "Pete and his family are good friends of Scouting," Spice told me. "His dad was actually a scoutmaster while he was director of the FBI under Bush and brought his troop on a trek here one summer. I think that was the only time you had assistant scoutmasters out on the trail with Uzis." The younger Sessions, blue-eyed and fair-haired, served coffee and made small talk on the porch of his cabin ("New Mexico is truly the Land of Enchantment..."). Back in the truck, as Spice lit up a cigar, he told me proudly that another congressman would be using the cabin the following week.

In fact, the Boy Scouts of America boasts that more than half of all members of Congress—plus most astronauts and airline pilots—were once Scouts. The ranks of former Eagle Scouts alone include an assortment of celebrity manhood ranging from Neil Armstrong to Gerald Ford to Ross Perot to John Tesh. And these days, Scouting needs all the friends it can get. While Troop 353 was out on the trail, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of James Dale, a former Eagle Scout who'd been expelled as an assistant scoutmaster after officials discovered he was gay. Lawyers for the Boy Scouts of America were vowing to fight the decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Homosexuality is just one of the issues that has lately seemed to push the Boy Scouts, an ostensibly apolitical group, further into the camp of cultural conservatism. Within Scouting, people refer to its principal battles as "the three G's": gays, girls, and godlessness. The organization, which is not affiliated with the Girl Scouts, has been much slower than European scouting groups in allowing female participation. And along with gays, Scouts who say they don't believe in God are barred from membership. The organization's national leaders have recently taken a sharp turn toward the Baden-Powell tradition, proclaiming that Scouting isn't just about camping and hiking—it's about a particular brand of morality. The Boy Scout Handbook now includes a section recommending that Scouts abstain from sex before marriage.

This stems partly from the Boy Scouts' little-publicized institutional connections to conservative religious groups. Local troops are sponsored by affiliated organizations, often churches. In fact, nearly a quarter of all the scouting troops in America are under the aegis of the Mormon church. But even among parents who are not especially religious, Scouting is seen as a shelter from a hostile culture. And when I asked Bill Spice one afternoon what it was that still drew so many boys to Philmont, he had an immediate answer: "family values." We were sitting in his office, underneath a framed Norman Rockwell poster. "This is the place where they see it all coming together, out on the trail: moral and ethical decision-making, getting along with others, self-respect. And I really think you can't help but believe there's a Supreme Being after you've come out here and seen the New Mexico sky.

"When I hear politicians saying, 'Let's get back to family values,' I just say, the Boy Scouts never left them."

True, Spice said, there were occasional unpleasant decisions to be made. "There was a young man who worked here for several years—in a real leadership position on the ranch, actually. Great young guy. Well, he wrote to me one winter and said he'd decided he couldn't come back because it would violate the BSA policy on homosexuals. To tell the truth, I was sorry to see him go, because he's a good kid. But I believe we have a mandate from the clients who send their kids out here that they're going to be safe, out of harm's way, and not subjected to alternative lifestyles."

That was the official line. But I thought back to my first night in base camp, when I'd gone out to watch the meteor shower with Frank, a young staffer from the Midwest. Also joining us was Irma, a college-age Scout from Europe who was working at Philmont on a summer exchange program. (Frank and Irma are not their real names.) We drove in Frank's car out the main gate and down to a place where Route 21 swings in a high arcing loop eastward.

Here, at the top of the rise, Frank pointed out the constellations: Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Scorpius. Eventually he pulled a case of Coors out of the trunk, and then a bottle of bourbon. This spot was a popular one for Philmont staff to come and drink, it turned out, since it was just off ranch property and hence exempt from the rules. Before long a few other cars had pulled up. In the backseat of one, a staffer passed around a bong. Meanwhile, Frank and Irma had started making out against the hood of Frank's car.

Another car pulled up, and two more guys from base camp jumped out. The driver, a pale, lanky kid of 18 or 19, sat inside, smoking a cigarette. He wore one of the maroon Philmont staff polo shirts. He was very drunk.

"C'mon over here," he beckoned to me. He had a throaty southern accent. "Get closer. I wanna see your dick."

I stared at him, not sure I'd really heard him right: "What?"

"Yeah, c'mon, whip it out for me. I know you got a big one. Yer one of them tall, lean boys. Bet yer hung like a pony."

Then he called out to the two friends he'd arrived with. "Hey, I want somebody's dick in my face. Somebody whip it out and slap me with it."

"Yeah," said one of the guys, "let's all take our dicks out."

"Naw, let's get naked and run sprints again this time," his buddy said.

"So you guys are Boy Scouts, huh?" I joked.

"Yeah, Eagle Scouts. All three of us were."

"And hey, don' worry, we ain't fuckin' fairies or nothin'. We got girlfriends at college. We're just messin' around, y'know?"

"Hey c'mon, let's get naked. Let's get naked."

Soon their car and Frank's were the only two left on the hilltop. Frank detached himself from Irma and walked over. He was now drunk, too.

"Listen, man," he told me, "you're gonna have to ride back with these guys." He looked down. "I mean, sometimes you sort of just find a kindred soul and, well, shit, the flesh is weak. So, uh, anyway, I think we're staying up here tonight."

A few minutes later I was in the southern guys' old sedan, tearing down the road toward camp. They'd forgotten about getting naked, at least for the moment, but the pale, lanky kid was hanging out the window, hurling empty bottles of Bud Light against the road signs and whooping and hollering into the night.

So the wild anarchy of adolescence couldn't be entirely tamed after all, not even in Bill Spice's kingdom of family values. Boys are more complicated creatures than Boy Scouts are, or than Scouts are meant to be. In fact, the boys who seemed to find the most meaning in Philmont weren't (to quote Seton) "little prigs," but the ones with the filthiest T-shirts and the scruffiest faces, the ones for whom Scouting itself was a form of youthful rebellion. The boys in Troop 353 told me they were embarrassed to wear their uniforms back home, but there was one Scout from another troop, an intense-eyed Oregonian, who said of the non-Scouts at his school, "They all wear uniforms, too—all those Abercrombie & Fitch clothes, the fancy outdoor gear that they never even go hiking in. That stuff just says how much money your parents make. But my Scout uniform stands for something."

Back at base camp that afternoon, the guys from Troop 353 seemed like ordinary, lazy teenagers again. They parked themselves at the picnic tables outside the Philmont trading post with cheeseburgers and sodas. Kevin brought out a portable CD player and flipped happily through a binder full of discs by Smash Mouth, Limp Bizkit, and Third Eye Blind. Over by the tents, Sean met some Scouts from Tennessee and traded T-shirts with them.

Something had happened out on the trail, though. I looked over at Corey, who was scarfing down a microwavable pizza. On the trek, the finicky eater had licked his bowl out after every meal. He'd even volunteered to enter a pancake-eating contest when no one else from our group would. He hadn't won, but he'd sat there wedged in between two enormous Scouts from Oklahoma, bravely stuffing the lumps of gummy flour into his mouth—all so that his friends could enjoy the prize, a chocolate cake he'd be too sick to taste. He'd climbed the spar pole at Crater Lake, soldiered on through the hailstorm, and led the ascent of Mount Phillips. Along the way, Camper Timmy had disappeared.

It was too soon to say, as the Scouts headed back home to their classes and soccer practices and food fights and first dates, what of Philmont would stick with them. Experience and memory are more complex than a group photograph of six boys and their fathers posed stiffly below the Tooth of Time. Long before Scouting or Philmont ever existed, societies were sending their adolescent boys into the woods to find themselves. Perhaps the contradictory project that Baden-Powell and Seton began owes its successes to that lost tradition, the idea that at a certain point in their lives young men must be trusted to navigate a world in which anything can happen.

Washington, D.C.–based writer Adam Goodheart reports frequently on travel and history. This is his first assignment for Outside.

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Fighting the Rising Tide

AS CLIMATE adaptation measures go it’s a doozy, worthy of the storm that spawned it. New Jersey governor Chris Christie wants huge protective sand barriers to exist along all 127 miles of his state’s shoreline, where Sandy made landfall last October, ultimately destroying 360,000 homes and causing $37 billion in damage.

The initiative will play out differently around the state, largely because federal law restricts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will do much of the work, to whatever was authorized or constructed in the mid-1990s, when the project was first dreamed up. So, for example, along 21 miles of coast in northern New Jersey, from Sea Bright to Manasquan Inlet, the Corps will rebuild an existing berm—a ten-foot-tall flat stretch of beach, 100 to 200 feet wide—but there will be no dunes, which are taller and narrower. The $125 mil-lion project will use eight million cubic yards of sand dredged from the ocean.

The next stretch of coastline, from Manasquan to Barnegat Inlets, will get the full berm-and-dune treatment. If local authorities and homeowners agree, the dune would be 18 to 22 feet high, and the project would consume another ten million cubic yards of sand.

That doesn’t mean everybody wants in. On the tourist-centric Jersey Shore, views matter, and dunes block them out. In Seaside Heights, a tiny barrier-island town that was walloped by Sandy, officials are worried that beachgoers won’t be able to see the water even from its rebuilt boardwalk. And in a test case watched statewide, beachfront homeowners Harvey and Phyllis Karan sued five years ago and won
a $375,000 judgement for the loss of their view in the tiny borough of Harvey Cedars. But the state supreme court overturned that in July, telling a lower court to consider the value of the dune that saved
the Karans’ nearly $2 million home—and others around it—from Sandy.

“Beach replenishment and storm abatement has been a passion of mine,” says Jon Oldham, mayor of Harvey Cedars. “I’m not gloating,” he says, “but I feel we did what was best for our town.”

Dunes, often described as fragile by officials trying to keep beachgoers off them, are relatively inexpensive, and they work—against waves. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates that 80 to 85 percent of the state’s oceanfront property has some form of dune protection, some of it built over the years by individual towns, not the Army Corps.

The famously blunt Christie has called dune opponents “knuckleheads,” and at one town meeting said a litany of objections raised by homeowners were “bullshit,” designed to obscure their real goal of pre-serving views. “We are not going through that again,” he said of Sandy’s devastation, “so you can sit on the first floor rather than the second floor and see the ocean.”

Lenny Bernstein is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post.

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