An anthology of American boyhood, circa 1999: midwestern troops with cropped blond hair, perfectly pressed uniforms; goateed, Teva-shod guys playing Hacky Sack; boys with silver rings through their eyebrows.
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.