Table of Contents


Portent. In the summer of 1966 my mom and I moved to Kenya from Asheville to join my dad. He'd gone to Kenya ahead of us to get things ready. We'd already sold our house and were living in our next door neighbor's basement apartment. The neighbor to the west, not the dahlia farm. But 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 Scouting wilderness near Cimarron, New Mexico. On my trip home one of the yahoos I went backpacking with sold me a miniature 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 or keeping secrets. 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 tiny bonfire. 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 previous summer I had gone to sleep-away camp for the first time. It was way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was miserable. We were in a mountain wonderland, with mountain trails enticing enticing us in every direction. True, it was no Craggy Gardens, but still. I was itching to explore, to head up some inviting trail and see what was around the bend. Alas, there was also a lake, and lake activities were the focus of this particular camp, at least the week I was there. My guilty secret: I couldn't swim. I just liked splashing around in water that was not over my head, e.g. Spring Creek.

Head and scut. Sleep-away camp introduced me to service and privilege. We all had assigned tables in the dining hall, ten scouts to a table. Eight sat on benches along the long sides, plus a scout each at head and foot. At each successive meal we rotated one place clockwise, so everybody got the sit at both the head and the foot. The scout at the head was the host. His job was to keep order and dole out the food from the bowls and platters brought from the kitchen by the scout at the foot, the scut. The scut arrived early to set the table, ran the food, and stayed late to clear away dirty dishes and clean up. Being the host was great. You could serve yourself and your buddies the choicest bits and lord it over anyone who transgressed the well-defined rules of order. Being the scut sucked. You were powerless but had to do all the work. What a microcosm.

Not a swimmer. When we arrived they lined us up at the dock. They needed to see us all swim. That would determine our caste. 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 them yell "minnow!" My first ever sleep-away summer camp went downhill from there.

Scouts. So why Philmont? Despite my athletic incompetence, I loved being in Scouts. I loved being out in the woods, hiking and camping. Nature was my spiritual home. I hiked with my dad, first in Marianna and then regularly in Asheville days. I had backyard campouts, and a real one on the Chipola River with Tim. We boated in to that campsite. Tim wasn't that big on hiking, though he'd been a scout in his prime. I loved being out there, really out in the woods at night. I did fine in Scouts but I was not a big achiever. I stalled at Star, 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. Still does. So Philmont. Here's some shamelessly unabashed promo with some great drone footage.

That was fun to watch. My new life feels like that to me, like 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. Yahoo is as yahoo does. To be fair, I suspect I was the only introvert in the group.

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 list of stuff like the secret handshake, and what WWW meant. 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 the hiking and camping, 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 need an excuse to get out of the house. And nature, well, it's actually everywhere. And I enjoy it every night, all night long.