Silver on the sage, twilight skies above
Taos, New Mexico, is one of the most complicated and interesting small towns in the West, with the varied and immensely rich cultures of Taos Pueblo, the Hispanics whose roots go back hundreds of years there, the Anglos and, of course, the throngs of tourists. Indeed, there is no other place in the U.S. quite like Taos. It's also one of the most beautiful places I've ever lived, with the southern Sangre de Cristos rearing up from the sage-clad Rio Grande Valley more than 6,000 vertical feet to the 13,161-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico.
If it hadn't been for Philmont Scout Ranch on the east side of the Sangres, I never would have visited nor lived in Taos when I did.
The last time I was on staff at Philmont was 2003, when I worked as a ranger trainer and hiked something like 400 miles all over the 137,000 acre ranch during the three months I was there.
My basecamp tent mate from 2003 called me up last week and told me he'll be working at the ranch again this summer after living and working in the northeast for seven years. So, I got the day off from work, met him at the Amtrak station in Denver, and we took a road trip to Philmont, where I dropped him off.
As we drove through Taos, ate a slice of Sandy's Special during the requisite visit to Taos Pizza Outback (a Philmont Ranger tradition), fought our way through the Taos traffic jam and headed east over Palo Flechado Pass on US 64, I realized that as wonderful a place as northern New Mexico is, I don't miss living there. I was surprisingly unmoved by the place this week, except that the scenery there on Thursday was as spectacular as usual and the New Mexico rain as sublime as ever.
I have very complicated feelings about Taos stemming mostly from how I fit in there and the complexity of the place, something that most Philmont staffers who visit there several times each summer don't see much of. The writer John Nichols, author of "The Milagro Beanfield War," writes quite eloquently about such feelings in his many books of essays, particularly in "Dancing on the Stones."
Visiting there again brought on a little PTSD — Post-Taos Stress Disorder. I think it had something to do with my inability to hear the "Taos Hum," harness the "psychic energy" of the radiant desert sunlight and conjure Taoseños' extraordinary level of hate for Donald Rumsfeld, who once owned property there. Or something. And maybe it had something to do with their penchant for vast conspiracy theories, not the least of which involved a tremendous fear that the exhaust-laden contrails streaking across the sky from various commercial Airbuses and Boeings were in fact "chemtrails" of poison being sprayed upon the Taos Valley by black military jets sent there by the Bush administration. Of course, Taos' proximity to Los Alamos didn't do much to temper the paranoia among the townspeople.
I'll spare you further details, except to say that in Taos, legend has it that Taos Mountain either wants you, or it doesn't. If it wants you, you'll stay forever. The mountain didn't want me, which is one reason I now live in Colorado.
I also have complicated feelings about Philmont, where I spent five truly extraordinary and formative summers between 1995 and 2003.
I still revere the place and harbor warm feelings for the people I worked with and my experiences at Philmont, where rangers this summer will spend June, July and August hiking Rayado Canyon, climbing 12,441 foot Mt. Baldy and introducing more than 20,000 Boy Scouts to the natural and scenic wonders of the West (and its campsite-habituated bears).
But, well, it's complicated.
Philmont, it must be said, isn't really about the scenery. It isn't about the mountains, per se, and it isn't about Mt. Baldy.
Philmont, as another fellow Phil-staffer said, is about the Hike: ("I like...the Hike! That's what I like!) Ten days in the wilds of Boy Scout Disneyland will test the stamina of any XBox-addicted teenager. For staff, Philmont, in my experience, is about spending three months wandering the woods on your own and with your fellow staffers; it's about comradeship and campfires and beers at the James and backcountry Philfiestas. If you're 20 years old and have never been across the country before, it's also a little bit of a coming of age experience.
My first summer as a Philmont ranger was in 1998, when I was 20 years old and had never driven farther west than western North Carolina. I packed up my blue '89 Dodge Omni, spent three days reaching the 100th Meridian and then had to keep the tired old car from overheating as I rounded the big horseshoe curve into Taos Valley on Highway 68.
Philmont that summer was magical. The ranch seemed vast, the banjo and mandolin pickin' at the Crater Lake campfire and the Cypher's Mine "Stomp" seemed better than a David Grisman concert, and the months-long Hike through "God's Country" lived up to all the hype.
Even though the Tobasco Donkeys' latter-day Philmont anthem "I Don't Mind" rang in my head ("Well I am looking, I am searching, I found near the ground my soul and myself beneath this trail...), each year I returned, the magic became a little more subdued. That was especially true during the summer of 2000 when the Supreme Court decided the James Dale case in favor of the Boy Scouts, which inevitably meant staff who would rather not see the BSA kick out gay leaders with abandon (and fire gay Phil-staffers for being honest about their identity) for failing to uphold the "aims and ideals of Scouting" were told to check their politics at the front gate. The BSA seemed to bask in its anti-gay victory, and after two months of self-finding on the Philmont trail, I quit in protest two weeks before the end of the summer. I returned to the ranch three years later despite it all, and soon, I moved to Taos.
While wandering around basecamp Thursday night in the twilight, I realized I'm, well, over it. Going back to Philmont is a bit like going back to high school. It played a pretty huge formative role in my life, but I've moved on, as many of us do. Some people keep coming back to work there even when they're almost middle aged — one ranger I worked with was almost 40. For them, the magic lives on (or Philmont provides steady seasonal but meager income), but for some of us who can't return, it begins to fade after a few years.
So, while the silver on the sage still glows beautifully beneath the starlit skies above, I wouldn't want to have those experiences in the same way again. I was touched several times by the Phil-magic, but the magic I experience today, shared with my partner, exists elsewhere. And I'm glad of that.