Portent. In the summer of 1966 my mom and I moved to Kenya to join my dad. He'd gone on ahead to get things ready for us. We'd already sold our house. Mom and I were living in our next door neighbor's basement apartment. The neighbor to the west, not the dahlia farm. Before she and I headed overseas I went to Philmont Scout Ranch on what I thought of as the ultimate backpacking trip. Philmont is a huge (140,177 acres) Scouting wilderness near Cimarron, New Mexico. On my trip home one of the yahoos I went backpacking with sold me a deck of pornographic playing cards. I was grossed out by the images. I had no experience with porn. I didn't want to buy them. But there was a lot of peer pressure at that moment to be one of the guys and I caved. I hid them in my stuff. When I got home my mom found them, I think almost immediately. I was no good at hiding anything. She was in tears (where did we go wrong), I was in tears (I didn't even want those stupid cards). It was a terrible moment. I took the cards outside and burned them in a little bonfire on top of the neighbor's rock wall. Little did I know that was a portent of what Kenya had in store for me. Not porn but loss of connection with who I am.
Miserable. The preious summer I went to sleep away camp for the first time ever. It was up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was miserable. We were in a mountain wonderland, enticing trails beckoning. Let's go hiking! Oh no. There was also a lake. Everything we did was about the lake. I hated the water as a kid. And here I was in a fucking swimming/canoeing camp.
Minnows. When we arrived they lined us up at the dock. They needed to see us all swim. That would determine our fate. We had to jump off a dock, one by one, and swim along the dock so they could watch us. It was the fucking softball throw all over again. They told us we'd be divided into three groups: Sharks, Flying Fish and Minnows. The counselors got a game going: call the candidate's group before he actually hit the water. I think my foot was still on the dock when I heard 'em yell "Minnow!" It went downhill from there. The dock was three sides of a rectangle, the shoreline the fourth. We had to walk out one of the ends of the rectangle then swim along the inside of the far side. There was no telling the depth there. My guilty secret was that I did not know how to swim. I would reluctantly play in the water but I always kept a foot on the bottom, even in Spring Creek. Those moments when Tim forced the issue and the current did sweep me away were sheer terror. I could wade across Spring Creek at any point except the outside of a sharp bend where the current created an undercut bank and a deadly deep spot where drunk people drowned. I knew a boy who had drowned in one of those and I don't think he was drunk that time. The rest of Spring Creek was between ankle and waist deep. The places where I fanned for treasures were about knee deep. Any deeper and I wouldn't be able to stay in place to do the fanning. Tim could fan in waist deep water using swim fins but I never got the hang of those. They kept coming off my feet. I went along with Tim's torture of making me get swept a few yards to the next gravel bar, but I was a play in the water kid, not a swimmer.
Scouts. So why Philmont? Despite my athletic incompetence, I loved being in Scouts. I loved being out in the woods, hiking and camping. I'd hiked with my dad. I'd had backyard campouts, and a real one on the Chipola River with Tim. We boated in. He wasn't big on hiking, though he'd been a scout in his prime. The mosquitoes ate me alive. I loved being out there, really out in the woods at night. I did fine in Scouts but was not a big achiever. I stalled at Star Scout, never getting enough of the right kind of merit badges to make Life, much less Eagle. I had no interest in rank. I just loved to hike and camp. Rank seemed stupid to me. So Philmont. Here's some shamelessly unabashed promo.
That was fun to watch. My new life feels like that to me. I've embarked on a grand adventure.
Tebo. The bus trip out from Asheville was an oddly charmed passage. Our driver was Tebo, a friendly guy, and this was his favorite gig as a driver, Scouts to Philmont and back. He welcomed us into our big adventure and did his best to make the bus trips enjoyable, narrating bits of lore as we rode by points of interest. He knew that route like the back of his hand. We spent the nights on military bases where we slept on the floor and ate in the mess. The food was good, according to my unsophisticated palate. I learned about take all you want, but eat all you take. Tebo knew everybody, wherever we went.
Fairies. We had an 11-day hiking itinerary; I think we hiked every day but two. I developed a reputation as a weirdo because I would take off by myself whenever there was down time, and hang out next to a rushing mountain stream, or somewhere there was an expansive view of the mountains, just soaking it up. They laughingly accused me of communing with nature, or talking to the fairies, but it felt like friendly joshing. I was a tolerated weirdo. To this day I kinda don't get it. Why didn't they wander around and enjoy the wilderness? Doesn't everyone like that? But they were happy to clump together, teasing and punching each other, talking about masturbation and porn. The wilderness was just something they marched through.
Order of the Arrow. Our last night at Philmont we were back at headquarters. There was a council meeting around a bonfire that night, and a few Scouts got tapped out for OA. I was one of them. The Order of the Arrow is a secret honor society within the BSA; you can read all about it if you like that kind of porn. I have no idea what possessed them to pick me. Maybe they thought it'd make a man out of me, so I'd give up my fairy-talking ways? It was all academic anyway. Being tapped out just meant I was invited to undergo The Ordeal, where they tested your mettle to see if you measured up to OA standards. There were no ordeals scheduled before our departure for Kenya, so all I got was a stapled mimeographed copy of the secrets. I talked about OA when I whined about leaving Asheville, but it was half-hearted. OA wasn't for me. I'd be a slacker there just like I was in Scouting. I was only there for the outdoor fun. Except for that Scouting was stupid.
I lost all interest in backpacking and camping out when I moved out of my marriage and started a new life. I no longer needed an excuse to get out of the house, and nature, well, it's actually everywhere. And I enjoy it tremendously.