Iowa is an amazingly flat state, with rows upon rows of meticulously organized corn and soybeans, sprinkled with semi-interesting geographical features and pockets of monotonous urbanization. I was lucky enough to be born in the ever expanding metro of the capital city, Des Moines. Just 20 or so miles west of Des Moines is my hometown, West Des Moines. Cleverly named for its geological positioning in relation to Des Moines, West Des Moines (WDM) is a vast land of suburban hell. It was also voted the fourth best city to live in by Money Magazine.
Because of WDM’s size, Boy Scout troops aren’t hard to find. In 2010, I fulfilled the requirements, and traded my blue and gold Cub Scout uniform for a rugged yet brand new green and tan Boy Scout one. Since that day, I’ve learned everything there is to know about Scouting, except how to shoot a gun. I hate guns, and would much rather wear a winter coat to a public pool in July than do the shotgun shooting merit badge. One aspect of scouting has stuck with me more than others. It was harder to learn than the others, but worth it.
“Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures,” is a common phrase when teaching the principles of Leave No Trace. Leave No Trace is the program the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) devised to get scouts to practice conservation and promotes a healthy appreciation for the land. As a new scout I fully understood the principles, but I hadn’t quite bought into the idea of conserving the Hawkeye State. Iowa’s state parks have been so heavily tread upon already, I wasn’t sure I could really effect them much more.
Iowa’s state parks were hard to appreciate. What they lacked in individuality from each other they made up for in empty Bud Light cans and cigarette butts. The trails, which were seemingly never longer than five miles in length, were around four to five feet in width. They were probably made to accommodate the ever growing width of Americans’ hips. Inevitably, an Iowa state park will have these quintessential items: a small community of RV owners who claim to be camping, muddy, depressing trails that are really just circles, and the one interesting feature that kept people from building a new shopping mall on it. Most of that time the feature is a big rock: we don’t see big rocks very often. It’s a special thing for Iowans to stand on top of a big rock.
Lucky for me, the BSA has a lot of opportunities to get out of Iowa. Through scouts I have been to South Dakota, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado, each with extensively more activities than Iowa. When I was 15, I got to experience what most scouts can only dream off.
In the summer of 2013 a small crew from Troop 242, myself included, made the pilgrimage to Scouting's most coveted high adventure camp: Philmont Scout Ranch. We set out on a ten day trek, across pointed ridges and through flooding canyons. Philmont is a camp abundant with opportunities and difficult challenges: at one point, I had to eat thick, creamy, fettuccine alfredo, for breakfast. Alfredo should never be the first thing of the day to grace your tastebuds. That’s what happens when you get into camp too late to cook.
Philmont is an enchanting plot of land, reaching from the pine forests and flowing meadows of the north, to the dusy, hard terrain of the south. Rain clouds glide across the sky, sprinkling on unsuspecting backpackers daily, yet never raining enough to lift the fire ban in the area. We were to drag ourselves, shelter, and food through the wild for ten straight days. Most wouldn’t want to attempt this trip if they were paid to do it.
I was the minority. Ever since I donned the Boy Scout uniform, and memorized the oath, I couldn’t wait until I was hiking the motherland of High Adventure camping. I willingly paid thousands of dollars in gear, transportation, registration fees, food, and the less important things like expensive camping towels, so I could go put my body through one of the biggest challenges of my life. The weeks leading up to the trip were the longest of my life.
Our trip including everything from panning for gold to climbing actual rocks. See, in Iowa, we are forced to use fake rocks to practice climbing. Getting to climb on a real rock was a huge accomplishment for us, and a testament to Iowa’s blandness; Iowa is so void of natural features, we have to use fake rocks to climb on.
The most interesting, enlightening, and arduous activity on our schedule happened in the very middle of our trip. It would take a whole day to accomplish, and would prove one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my young life. On the fifth day of our trip, we were to climb Baldy Mountain: the King of Philmont.
Baldy Mountain towers over the other peaks and ridges in Philmont at 12,441 feet above sea level. It’s the only peak with a panoramic view, and his bald face can be seen, watching over us, throughout most of northern Philmont. Baldy wasn’t always a part of Philmont, however. Back in 1938, Waite Phillips, as in the oil company Phillips 66, donated just over 35,000 acres of land he owned in northern New Mexico to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Just three years later, he donated an even larger portion, bringing the total acreage to 127,395. But it wasn’t until 1963 when vice-president of the National Council, Norton Clapp, contributed enough funds to purchase 10,000 more acres, including Baldy Mountain.
As we were bused from base camp into the wilderness to start our adventure, we could see Baldy in the distance. It loomed over the entirety of the north, like royalty, surveying his kingdom. He was to be feared by everyone, though at the time I was only afraid of bears. Iowa doesn’t have bears, so to me they were the real threat here. We spent the first three days with a guide, laying down the rules and best ways to get from point A to point B. We spent a great deal of time on learning how to camp without any effect on the environment. We were amazed at how effectively trash can be packed, and how leaving even a crumb of cereal on the trail could mess with the environment. The Leave No Trace principles here were the equivalent of the Bible in the Vatican City. They went so far as to have rules on how to relieve yourself, and they were uncommonly detailed.
Out in Philmont, their bathrooms are called Red Roof Inns. These were simply holes in the ground, with a small red roof and sometimes, if you were lucky, a nice little door. One would think you’d just take care of yourself in the Red Roof, but you’d be wrong. Red Roofs are only for number two. Number one isn’t allowed, for the critters can smell that, leaving the chance that a critter ends up in the bottom of the Red Roof Inn. There are more rules, but I’d rather not talk about how much critters enjoy the saltiness of human waste.
When the fifth day of hiking through the meadows and over the never-ending ridges came, we were eager to get to the summit. To get to the trailhead, we had to follow the switchback over a small ridge and into what’s known as Baldy Town, New Mexico.
Baldy Town isn’t much of a town at all. It’s simply two wooden shacks, a concrete shower house (which was an eyesore amongst the setting we were in), and a latrine. That being said, it overlooks a gorgeous valley, overflowing with pine trees and scattered with small houses just outside the border of the ranch. We were high enough that we would watch the rainstorms in the distance approach the meager mining town. Baldy Town was once, though it's hard to believe, a functioning hub for the mining community in Baldy Mountain. Baldy still has mines running through it, though you can’t enter unsupervised. Once the phase of gold mining was through, it was abandoned until its purchase along with the mountain in 1963. Nowadays, it serves as trading post where you can stop to get out of the rain, have a shower, and eat a Toblerone. I foolishly left my towel out to dry near the shower house and forgot to pick it up before leaving. We had already crossed the ridge by the time I pictured it hanging off a line blowing in the wind, instead of being in my backpack. Being an expensive camping towel, my mother interrogated me about it and wasn’t happy about it’s whereabouts when I came home. When thinking of this story I asked her if she remembered it. “Yeah, and I’m still pissed about it!” was her response. I don’t think she’ll ever let that go. That’s besides the point, however.
As we started to ascend the mountain, switchback after switchback, there was no way of knowing how close we were. Most of the trails in Philmont were switchbacks, which were cursed on us hikers, probably of communist design. Switchbacks were used when hills or ridges were too steep to walk straight up and over; instead of a straight path, the trail goes up at a slant across the mountain for a bit, and then turns and goes at the same pitch the opposite direction. For naive Iowan hikers, switchbacks prove to be incredibly boring. Going back and forth for thirty minutes and seemingly not getting any closer slowly drive scouts to insanity: some even start thinking about their hometowns, heaven forbid. Luckily, the switchbacks all eventually opened up to a shining, blue sky.
There was a point in the hike where we finally broke through the spotty coverage of our now good friends, the pine trees, and onto the unstable rock pile that made the hike that much more challenging. The deceiving part of Baldy is he effectively makes you think you’ll have summited ten times before you actually do. The path before you looks the same every time you raise you head to see if you’ve made it. I’d pick a point every twenty steps or so, and claim it to be the top. After reaching said point, I was thrown into my own tiny depression at the realization of where the summit actually was. I trudged through the opposing wind and slipped often on the insecure floor of the mountain, until I finally found myself to be much taller than before.
It's a funny experience, walking to the very top of the world. I never thought I would be able to be that far into the atmosphere, clouds sliding along what must’ve been an imperceptible barrier, keeping them from consuming us in a haze of confusion. The summit was surprisingly long. The south side was a little higher and was probably considered the real summit. Not surprisingly, the summit was made of the same untrustworthy rocks as the trail up to it. It’s as if Baldy was constantly testing his visitors to see if they could climb him without getting broken or twisted ankles.
Anyone can tell you that to get on top of the mountain you have to climb it. But no one has one correct answer for what to do once you actually get on top. You could start the descent, but that would prove the climb up a waste of time. There seems to be a few generic responses to summiting a mountain, as I got to experience and observe some of them first hand.
For me personally, I got a few pictures, my favorite being my dad, brother and myself posing to look as if we were falling of the mountain, and observed the miracle of the natural world. I got to see first-hand how nature can create a wondrous experience that mankind will never be able to replicate. The tallest building, fastest car, or smartest computer will never compare to the untouched beauty of a mountain.
Others had much different ideas on what should be done on the summit of a mountain. Many of the kids from our crew took their time on the summit to take a nap, or to drink the hoards of gatorade they had collected. Many people called home in a humble boast of their accomplishment and their great cell signal. They waited for their mom or dad back home to answer before exclaiming, “Hey mom, guess where I’m calling you from!” Something that made me slightly envious were the crews that had traditions. One crew filmed themselves singing the ever so appropriate “God Bless America”. We talked to them for a little, and they explained how every year for the better part of the troop’s existence they sang it on the summit. I couldn’t help but be jealous of the multiple opportunities they’d received to experience Philmont.
The hike down was simply dangerous. No doubt about that. Instead of going down the switchback we were supposed to, we went down a water run off that was (believe it or not), made for water-not people. My knees ached and begged me for a break, for the angle at which we hiked was entirely too steep. Astonishingly, we all made it down the run off with our legs intact. The run off quickly turned into a rushing stream, racing over smooth boulders and past the pine trees, clinging to the little soil they could find. We stopped for lunch here, watching the stream flow as it got wider and wider, and defended our food from the mini-bears.
Mini-bears are animals that only reside in Boy Scout camps. I’d like to say that they’re a different breed of bear, the result of a mad scientist who accidentally let these creatures into the camps. And that now, the BSA contains these monstrosities inside their camps to ensure they’re cuteness cannot spread throughout the country. But, that would be lying. Mini-bears are just ground squirrels. But we all know ‘Mini-bear’ sounds much cooler than ‘Ground Squirrel’.
As the trip continued we ventured further and further from Baldy, and not so gradually I got a nasty cold. There were times when I thought I wasn’t going to be allowed to stay on the trail. The main way to do that was to keep my food inside of me. I did that pretty well, up until the very last night. We decided I would be alright until the morning. The next morning, after breakfast, we packed our tents for the last time, carefully rolling them into their bags, making sure to keep them nice for the next users. It was a beautiful day to go back to base camp; the sun shone through the needles of the pine trees, and I immediately started thinking when my next opportunity to come back would be. We hiked to the bus stop, and I started to realize how long it could be until I get this experience again. I had to quickly memorize every last detail.
The bus arrived after only minutes of us waiting. It stormed across the road, billows of dust expanding behind it, like an ocean wave. The bus stop was ironically right next to a grazing area for the horses. It felt like they were put together as a cruel reminder to the horses why they’re obsolete now. I could tell they all knew they had been replaced, and they weren’t too happy about it. The horses moped around all day with long faces, eating grass.
We threw our backpacks onto the back and without hesitation climbed into our seats. Our adventure was finally over. As we drove further out of the wilderness, disrupting the dry air behind us, and looked over my shoulder to who was now an old friend. Baldy was still there, sitting impossibly close to clouds, still watching over us. It felt like I was leaving my Grandma’s house almost, cheerily saying goodbye, but not wanting to. To this day, I avoid remembering that bus ride home, as the nostalgia that fills my chest can be overwhelming sometimes. I joyfully await the day when I can go see my old friend Baldy again.
Once I was back in WDM, little had changed. My sisters and mom had worked on their tans, though my eldest sister doesn’t tan at all; instead, she simply burns and accumulates more freckles. The summer slowly ended, and monthly camping started back up with the troop, as we started hauling kids out to Iowa’s state parks again. Nothing had changed there, either. The trails were still too wide, the camps too small, and litter was still in sight. But now, my reaction to the crappiness had changed: instead of pointing out the trash, I picked it up. Instead of complaining about the trail, I made sure the scouts didn’t make it wider by going off the of it. And then I complained about it. I started to see the value in even the worst parks in Iowa.
I appreciated Philmont to the extent of near insanity; I wouldn’t even spit on a trail, for fear of harmful erosion. The thing about that is, I wouldn’t be back in Philmont for possibly 30 years. However, I would have most of the rest of my life to explore and love the parks I was born into. Iowa’s parks were all I had, and suddenly, I needed to protect them with my life.
Baldy was more than the biggest rock I had climbed as an Iowan. He taught me how to appreciate even Iowa’s smaller rocks. Baldy helped me truly learn why we practice Leave No Trace, and he gave me an appreciation of all of the rocks in the world. Baldy taught me small rocks are just as important as the big ones.
Now, I lead my life in hopes that when I’m gone, I’ve not had a negative effect on my Earth, and that I inspired others to conserve the Earth I did. That all I’ve taken were pictures, and all I’ve left are footprints.