Philmont: Book 15

Pre-script: I was a card-carrying member of the Boy Scouts of America for nearly two decades. After I left the program I started writing out a collection of essays of varying levels of fictions about my experiences, combined them into a book, and worked on getting them published. The book was, largely, lost in the various moves, through corrupted hard drives and other odes to general bullshit. I’ve managed to find most of it in a nearly-lost account. So, what the hell?

 Book #15

In the rush of packing up all of my backpacking equipment, extra socks, climbing gear, and case of whiskey, a notebook was the only item that hadn’t made it into my Jeep for the summer. I stopped at the Wal-Mart in Trinidad to buy three notebooks with perforated pages and a spiral-bound pocket book whose spirals would be rendered mostly useless the first time I sat down with it in my back pocket. For good measure, I bought a box of Bic ballpoints and a stack of envelopes.

 Philmont’s Tooth of time at dusk. Via StoryTellingOnline

This was all a part of the promises that had been made – I’d be leaving town for a few months, would you write me? I’ll write back I promise. I had three email accounts, and a cell phone with T9 texting capabilities and the signals of a world hurtling towards everlasting connectivity. The challenge, though, was having the computer to access emails on, the internet to pipe messages from faraway servers to the computer, or the data connection required to send text messages or receive phone calls. In my back pocket, next to debit and credit cards that would go mostly unused for the next several months, was a calling card used to dial collect from any one of the dwindling population of pay phones. I remember this summer well as the period where communications among peers were in flux. Where brave professors were sending syllabi for the next semester through email while I was being sent paper that served as evidence of my peers’ decaying interest in handwriting and writing things out in long hand or even bothering to remember mailing addresses. This was one of the many summers when my cell phone would go unused until it would buzz and come to life with excitement as it finally received notice of dozens of voicemails left by drunken peers in college towns or text messages sent right before the sender realized I was out of range.   And so I’d sit on the mountain top, hundreds of miles of landscape that couldn’t be captured in a photograph rolled out ahead of me, and I was tapping out responses on the 9 keys which kept me connected. The lesson, learned years later, is how the silliest thing one can do when elated with a feeling of love and friendship and a sense of identity is to leave town for months on end. Especially without a number to be reached at. If I could do it all again, the rule would be: you can only talk to those you can see.

There is the window that served as a post office and the first stop for Rangers coming off the trail from a few days of hiking. Hungry, tired, probably soggy from last night’s rain, and the only thing many of them can think is “does someone outside of this place remember that I am here?” Most are looking for packages with food, batteries, socks, or tidbits from home, photos, and so on. This is the same window that visiting Scout troops receive their kerosene stoves and bottles that had been shipped, empty, as it was contraband on any American flight that would have gotten them to New Mexico. All of this was managed by Jolie, a girl in her young twenties that spent summers here in between her scholarly duties as a masters student at the University of New Mexico. It was one of the few staffed positions on camp that guaranteed access to power, somewhat consistent internet connectivity, a phone, and lights that were bright enough to read by. So she spent a few hours of her day sorting the mail that came in on the blue relic of a postmaster truck from Cimarron and the rest of the time dispersing mail to the occasional visitor – the rest of her time dived into some thick Norton-esque anthology drinking coffee from her personal French Press (made with beans that were brought in specifically for her – a condition of her continued employment).

Even though I had only been on camp for a week, I stopped at the window before I hit the trail. I had one piece of mail waiting for me: an uneventful postcard from my mom: “Hope you arrived safe. Wear sunscreen.”

“Where are you headed?” asked Jolie.

“Zastro to Urraca” I tell her. She pulls a book off the shelf – a cloth bond composition notebook, writes “#7” in the description panel, and slides the notebook into a freezer Ziploc bag. “Leave this at Urraca” she says to me.   I slip it into my bag and pick up my crew. We take off a few hours later. Over the next three days I guide my crew through the trails on the southern end of camp, telling them stories of the trail and history of various landmarks, giving them pointers on surviving the Philmont backcountry, and we are eventually received by the staffed camp and cabin at the foot of Urraca Mesa. That night we enjoyed one of the dozen freeze-dried meals that composed my diet over the summer. The next morning I was up a little before dawn to pack my things and slip out on the crew before they rose. Stuffing my tent in the top of my pack I remembered the composition book and stopped by the cabin on my way out.

“Did you guys need a notebook?” I said, holding up the bagged composition book. “Jolie told me to leave this here.”

The blonde girl who managed the Urraca campground whose name I never learned  took the book from me and immediately started writing in it. “You’re supposed to write down that you moved this book, what’s your name?”

“Dave,” I told her, and she scribbled down the date and ‘Dave delivered this book to Uracca from HQ’ she gestured the book towards me, “Did you want to add anything?”

“Like what?”

“Anything you think needs to go into this.” The blonde explained to me that this was a tradition years in the making. No one who worked in the backcountry could explain when the tradition of passing around the notebooks started, or who starts it, or why they exist, or – more importantly – where they go when the summer is over with.

I couldn’t think of anything so she handed me two paperback novels with a Post-It on the inside of each cover, “To Jeremy (Ranger), thanks for the loan,” to carry back to HQ.

And so I came to learn the gorgeous, unstructured simplicity of the inter-camp mail system. Backcountry camps that served as resupply points received supplies, delivered by truck every few days through the network of dirt roads that snaked out from headquarters. Those camps that were staffed but not connected by a road were responsible or picking up their own supplies from a resupply point. Everything else that was delivered in the backcountry – mostly mail, books, some booze and drugs, were the responsibility of the Rangers that hiked between camps with the Scout crews.   To these isolated camps we brought letters from home and sheets of paper with news clippings photocopied onto them. While a novel means of delivery, a letter written by a mother or a girlfriend in June might not arrive till the middle of August – if at all- sometimes lost in the bottom of a back-pack or destroyed by a pack dropped during a river ford. All the while the recipient of the lost messages would still send out letters, never realizing that the lost communique was the announcement of a breakup, of a loved one moving on, finding a summer-fling and hey – maybe we can try again when the semester starts.

Fortunately I was able to receive my mail straight from Jolie, never compromised by the elements or the frequent, drug-addled space-ness of the Ranger population. Therefore, my Dear John letter had no problem reaching me sometime in the middle of July. While shocked, I couldn’t admit I was surprised. Even when I wasn’t galavanting around New Mexico we shared something of a long-distance relationship that I, myself, had been tempted dozens of times to step out on. In a way, the letter was a relief. The seven hour drive into the desert had left me wondering how I would endure another few months of probably not seeing each other.  Admittedly I was young and stupid in the ways of the heart, every relationship I had may as well be the last one I’d ever experience.

I flipped the letter over and under her post-script I simply wrote “Probably for the best,” handed it back to Jolie, who stamped it and set it in an outgoing pile. No use in spending whiskey evenings under the stars, reading and re-reading her words trying to decide what, if anything, could be gleaned from the subtext – something my generation would systematically kill over the next few years. Instead of romantic subtleties, we would dive headlong into an age when break ups happen over text messaging, instant messages, emails, and other ways that could be executed with minimal repercussions. To receive a letter with the news, especially with so much ground between the recipient and the sender, might be the best way to go about it. There was little chance we’d ever see each other again (though we would, as awkward circles of friends tend to mingle in such a way) meaning I could wake up the next morning without a hint of her on my mind. No more back and forth or questioning the “why” of it all.

Moving on, just gone. Barely a memory.

Although that is rarely the case, is it? In addition to the dozen digits of the phone card I would accidentally start dialing her phone number, when I might be trying to reach a roommate or family member, having to drop the hook and start entirely over again. For the next month on camp I would find little pictures of her hidden all over my car, in my trunk or pack – things she had tucked away among my things while the idea of my departure still tore at her.

I would only see the #7 notebook three more times throughout the summer, each time leaving my mark of where I picked it up and dropped it off from. Every other day or so I would receive another notebook to add to, to move to a new location, to pass off to another staff member. The highest number I saw written on the cover was 32. Although I also saw a 4.2 written on another composition notebook (perhaps a second run of books?). The first entries were anywhere from the first day of operations (5/27) to when the ranch was in full swing operation (6/8) and each book was started by a completely different Ranger, cabin manager, trail conservation member. Some would maintain their pristine, white pages through the summer. Most would be grungy from being handled by a hundred unwashed hands, pages swollen with ink and oils and the ritual drying of paper after a total washout rainstorm.

Used Moleskines via Trumpetvine

Inside the pages people would ask questions without the promise of ever seeing the answer that people would receive. Poems would crawl on for pages on the left half of the page while directions for improving the freeze dried meals spilled down the right. Parties with drugs and alcohol would be planned within the pages – far outside the jurisdiction of the Boy Scouts of America – but the locations and dates of the gatherings would be coded. The date was always past by the time anyone else saw the book, but if you were smart enough to decode the message you could just as easily stumble upon a collection of drunk strangers in the forest somewhere.

The books evolved into a disjointed collection of conversations being passed around the backcountry. Stories and conversations started on one page were picked up a dozen pages later, or picked up in an entirely different book altogether. Like an email chain with hundreds of participants or prisoners who played chess with someone in another cell by writing down the moves in margins of A Tale of Two Cities, eternally passed between the cells (riddles and puzzles were a great addition to the books. Rule seemed to be: if you solved a puzzle, you had to leave one to be solved). We were social creatures in an isolated environment – horrified of what we would find if we were to actually sit alone, in the quiet, somewhere out in the woods. To many, the books were comfort – a discussion to be had with someone miles away.

Around July, as more of the staff started to get familiar with each other, the tone of the books started to change. “Had to go to HQ to get antibiotics for syphillis” one anonymous hand scratched out in orange ink, “probably got it from Andrea at Beaubien. So, wrap your shit up if you’re onto that.” The next four pages were back-and-forth comments from other equally anonymous handwriting accusing Andrea of this that or the other, some comments saying Andrea had been given it by someone in base camp – the pen and ink equivalent of what is etched into a mens room stall. I never met Andrea. Rumor on following pages cited her going home for a “family emergency” and never returning to Beaubien.

“I came out here to escape the noise of the home life,” I remember one passage succinctly, “but without that noise, I am only learning how lost I truly am.” Some books were far better than others. Book #15 was the best of them. For twenty five pages, front and back, written in concise hand a young man had written out an account of abuse he had endured, going all the way back to the age of 4. “For years I told myself that I didn’t need this, I didn’t need my father or my family and that I would be much better off on my own.” At Philmont he was truly on his own, among a population of people that were easily as fucked up as he had been, and he had no direction home.   Sketches of maps to picturesque views or abandoned cabins. Reports of who had fresh weed on camp. Reports of who had a stash of painkillers. Reflections and conversations about the news clippings that were posted all over camp about the world that was happening outside of here.


As the summer started to wind down and the population of Scouts tapered off, the books too started to disappear. On my second to last day I had two of them in my possession, knowing that I had to deliver them back to Jolie. I had book #9 and #15 and I had ever temptation in the world to hide them in my Jeep – knowing that no photograph or postcard or brand would ever compare as a souvenir of this place that I wasn’t likely to ever return to. Books of absolute confession. Simple composition books that told the tale of what it was to be young and stupid and in the backcountry for a whole summer. I had been keeping journals just about all of my life – books that were serious meditations on page one but went on tangents of fiction ideas and shopping lists and quotes of things that I would never do again by about page 20, and every one of them with the past ten or fifteen pages left totally blank as I’d eventually grow impatient and start a new book. These journals I’d eventually destroy, never wanting to know what would be gleaned from them by a third party.

Even the notebooks I had picked up at the Wal-Mart at the beginning of the summer weren’t much use to anyone, even myself, when it came to using them as a core of memory. It was no ship’s log documenting where I had been for the past several months, a way to account to my benefactor of what I had done or accomplished – things discovered or left behind.   The temptation to #9 and #15 home was fantastic. Throughout the summer I felt a similar sensation to throw one of these comp books into a fire, or tear out pages that supremely pissed me off with their rantings from a lesser mind. Yet, I didn’t. I couldn’t. While I may have been a part of this grand collection of raw thought, I couldn’t claim any of it as my own. These composition books were something that could never be explained even if I were to show one to someone who understood everything about me. Being passed around and used in probably the only environment in the world where something like this could possibly work. Confessions laid on the page by someone in a cabin or a tent, written on an overlook or on the shitter, and passed on to be read by lord only knows who – comments left on the writing even though the author might never see it again.

On the last day I stopped by the post window where Jolie was busy returning mail that had never been picked up from staff members who had wandered off or vanished somewhere in the middle of summer. Jolie is where the books had originated from – fresh from a shelf full of them, marked with specific numbers, protected with a box of Ziplocs. So, without instruction, Jolie was the only sensible place for them to end.

“What happens to these now?” I asked as I handed her #9 and #15. I had imagined these books had something to do with her Master’s degree and the hours she spent picking over the hearty literary volumes she kept in the post office. I imagined her taking apart the notebooks by clipping the thread that tied all the pages together and doing her best to sort them out into chronological order – forty some odd timelines into one cohesive storyline – a massive epic of ergodic literature that would baffle readers for ages.

“Does it matter?” She said. #9 and #15 were tossed into an office box, one of a dozen I could see from the post window. “It’s all over now. See you next summer?”

“By the way,” she said, “here’s this.” It was a final letter sent by the ex I never quite processed. Postmarked a few days after her initial Dear John. “I’m sorry. I’m willing to work for it if you are,” she wrote, “I just need to know so I can transfer schools in time.”

Signed, hesitantly, with love.

It wasn’t too much later that I wished I’d kept better notes. The days run together out here. Weeks can pass quickly while days can seem to stretch on for months. I pull over at a rest stop outside of Raton and flip through my own notebooks that I had bought at the Wal Mart at the beginning of the summer. Here was 200 pages of scribbled notes, dated periodically, some pages completely torn out and mailed off to a recipient who wasn’t likely to keep the letter for any duration of time. At that dusty stop I flipped through the summer months and added notes of what I could remember – places I was at, days I was there. People I had met and written down phone numbers and addresses for – a few notes on who they were, why I should remember them and keep them in touch.

At that rest stop outside of Taos I thought of everything that I was bringing back with me from Philmont. A layer of grime and dust that would never leave the floor mats of my Jeep, a few stickers, a half-spent disposable camera, and these couple of notebooks. Considering what I had brought to the camp hadn’t fared well (a bunch of worn through, busted equipment, a long-distance relationship that had fizzled out, a dozen books I should have read for that fall that had been lost in the storm, a deposit on an apartment that I might not even have residency to any longer), what would be the point of bringing anything back? A few notebooks of long-hand wouldn’t come close to what I had experienced, or seen, or what it had been like. It’d be like trying to report about a war being waged in a place no one had ever been on the front page of a newspaper that had missed it’s delivery date.

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