Arriving at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the first thing I noticed was the color of the ground at my feet; it was orange and, really, it wasn’t so much “ground” as tightly compacted dust. The second thing was the mountains — endless, craggy mountains as far as I could see. Thirdly, was the silence. A conversation ten feet away was completely muted by the wind, gusts stealing away words and lifting them off somewhere to digest them. Finally, there were butterflies – but these were lodged in my stomach. I had arrived in the wilderness outside Cimarron, New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch (www.scouting.org/scoutsource/HighAdventure/Philmont.aspx), and readied myself to hike 70 miles on a 12-day trek through the Rocky Mountains.
My group began our journey several days before at the M Lazy C Ranch outside of Colorado Springs (www.mlazyc.com/). The Lazy C is a working family ranch. Our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Myers, organized horseback riding and put us to work on a cattle drive. Colorado Springs is also home to two of the most interesting places to go on a free tour: the U.S. Air Force Academy (www.usafa.af.mil/information/visitors/), where I was chosen to land a fighter jet (actually, it was just a simulator, but it’s as close as I’ll ever come to landing a $40 million aircraft), and the U.S. Olympic Training Center (http://www.teamusa.org/), where we watched the women’s volleyball team practice for the Beijing Olympics.
Arriving at Philmont, our guides informed us that bears got a thrill from raiding small, defenseless campsites. Bears have noses like SONAR and can build up more kinetic energy than a freight train. Our guides implied that bears killed for the sheer fun of it, and the food we carried didn’t nourish them half as much as the look of fear on our faces as they ate us whole. We never did see the slightest trace of anything resembling a bear during our journey through the American Southwest, but the stories of how they leveled cabins in search of prey kept us on our toes.
The second challenge torturing us on the trail was food – not the taste or texture, but its availability (or lack of it). We carried everything we need on our backs — tents, warm clothes, extra gear, and food. The pack totaled 35 pounds, leaving only the bare essentials for food. Our group fought over who got a bigger scoop of red mush at dinner, and haggled over Gatorade and raisins. On the trail, opening up a cache of food at lunch, one item become completely invaluable – a little packet of peanut butter. It’s such a common commodity at home in the pantry, but peanut butter stock goes through the roof on the trail.
After all the preparation, hard work, and meager meals, I’m left with incredible impressions of my time in the American Southwest. The sky never really seems so big until waking atop a mountain at 12,000 feet. Water never tasted so fresh until drank from a running creek beside a span of evergreens. The obstacles we overcame on the trail paled in comparison to the view of a sunrise peaking over the horizon, painting rocks a rustic orange and causing trees to glow gold.
While hiking, I picked up a rock on the trail and pitched it across the way. Later, I thought about the fact that my rock probably rested in the same spot for hundreds of years and no human may ever come across its way again. Our country is home to one of the most undisturbed, majestic spots on the planet – the Rocky Mountains. It’s a journey of a lifetime in our own back yard.
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