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Twenty years ago this month, I loaded my backpack, laced up my hiking boots, and boarded a bus that was bound for an Amtrak station. On that day, I said goodbye to what might have been the most memorable Summer I’ve ever had. After my seventh visit* to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmaron, New Mexico, I knew that a significant chapter of my life was coming to a close.
I was not going to return to Scouting Paradise in 1997. I was already committed to taking a Summer class at Milligan. 1998 was out, too. I was already on track for an internship that Summer. And who knew what was going to happen beyond college, but I was 99.99% sure that spending another summer on staff at Philmont was not going to be in the proverbial cards. I knew that my stint as a member of the 1996 Crater lake staff was going to be my last hurrah.
And I was going to make the most of it.
I couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with during that final Summer. Andy, Ron, Karl, and Jon were some pretty great guys. They still are. Sometimes, I felt a bit out of my league as their teammate. They were hilarious. Creativity oozed out of their pores. You know how everyone talks about the Magnificent Seven from the Atlanta Games in 1996? I believe the 1996 Crater Lake crew was just as magnificent. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that I was in the presence of greatness the Summer of 1996.
There are a lot of great memories that I still carry with me from that Summer: getting pelted by golfball-sized hail, climbing on the roof of our cabin to gaze into the vast expanse of stars every night, throwing a loaf of bread across the dinner table any time someone asked for some bread, and the hundreds of Scouts we taught how to climb a spar pole, just to name a few.
The Summer of 96 was life-changing for me. I became friends with an amazing group of guys. I made some amazing memories. And it prepared me for the rest of my life.
5 ways serving on staff at Crater Lake at Philmont Scout Ranch prepared me for life:
1.) I saw the power of effective storytelling.
We closed out every night with an evening campfire. We called it the nightly “Continental Tie & Lumber Co. Company Meetin’ where we’ll sing some stories and tell some songs and have a fandango of a hootenanny.” And believe me. It was unlike any campfire event you’ve ever experienced. It was a mixture of music, audience participation, elaborate jokes, pop culture references, and inspiring stories all woven together in a memorable tapestry that told the Philmont Story in a Fractured Fairy Tales kind of way. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to explain the evening campfire because I’m pretty sure that when people think about us having an evening campfire, they think of a bunch of people sitting around in a circle, telling ghost stories and ending the night by singing Kumbayah.
Not even close.
Someone once described it as something not unlike a show you’d see in Branson, Missouri. I really don’t know. I haven’t been there. If someone who is familiar with both types of experiences, I’d love to hear what you think.
Although we basically followed the same script and generally sang the same songs every night, each night was completely different. We would feed off the audience. It was usually a rowdy evening. Each night was special and one of the reasons was because of the memorable way the stories were told.
Andy was a master storyteller and it was like I had a front row seat to a Masters level storytelling class every night. I soaked in as much as I could as he told stories that I had known for several years. I could tell you the stories about the Pink Bear and Clown Hatin’ School in my sleep, I’d heard them so often. Even though I was pretty familiar with them, I was still mesmerized by the way he told these stories. His tone, his word choice, his timing, the way he worked a crowd, the cadence to his storytelling…it never got old.
I learned a lot from Andy and the rest of the Crater Lake staff about storytelling methods. And it still impacts the way I tell a story. Not only have I used some of the stories in some of my preaching, but I also utilized other methods to draw the audience into the message I’ve tried to say. Aside from Andy Stanley’s Communicating for a Change, the lessons I learned about storytelling at Crater Lake had the most impact on my preaching style.
Add Ron, who had worked with Andy before, and knew how to play off his lead, and John and Karl, who were great storytellers in their own right, and we had a powerful mix. In fact, it was so good and so memorable that I firmly believe that we had the best campfire on the Ranch that Summer. And I defy you to prove me wrong.
2.) I learned that music isn’t the only international language.
Of course, we didn’t merely tell stories. We sang. And sang. And sang. There’s a small chance I might have permanently damaged my singing voice, but I’m OK with that. It was worth it. The songs we sang were generally bluegrass songs with a folksy twist. We had our own sound, with Andy on the guitar and/or banjo, Ron on the fiddle (showing off why he had earned two gold cups – one of which he was always wearing <rimshot>), and John on the homemade washtub bass. I put together a spotify list of some of the songs we sang. You’re welcome to listen to it, but I promise, we didn’t sound anything like these studio recordings.
The tempo was generally faster, the harmonies less bluegrassy, and the instrumentation was different, too. We had our own style and sound. I hear that the backcountry staffers at the modern Philmont are even better musicians than we were. That’s OK, though. Because we held our own.
We had several international crews come through during the Summer of 1996. One particularly memorable day was when a large contingent from Japan stayed with us. There was an obvious language barrier. That made our spar pole climbing demonstrations a bit of a challenge. And while trying to coach our Japanese guests, we got pretty good at using gestures to show them what to do and what not to do.
That night, we knew our audience was going to be full of guests from Japan. We decided to adjust our evening campfire, eliminating most stories and adding more songs. It made sense. Most of our jokes were cultural references, so in an attempt to accommodate our guests, we decided to utilize a language everyone understands:
We pulled out all the stops, playing fast and singing loud. We had a great time on stage and our guests loved it. We played so much that one of the guys’ guitar strings broke. He tried to keep on playing, but he just couldn’t. I had an extra set of strings in my guitar case. Yes, I had a guitar with me. No, I don’t know how to play. I was kind of hoping to pick up some skills by osmosis. Didn’t quite happen, but it was definitely handy in this situation.
I knew where the strings were and offered to run back to the cabin, which was probably a good quarter of a mile away from the Campfire Bowl. So I took off for the cabin while the rest of the guys…well…I don’t know what they did. They might have tried telling a story. Or they might have sung a song. Or Ron might have jammed a little on his fiddle. I really don’t know because I was on a mission. I had to get the extra guitar strings and I had to get them as quickly as possible. I grabbed the package of strings and made a beeline back to the Bowl.
“Those aren’t the right strings,” John told me. We need the other strings in your case. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had just run all that way for nothing and now I needed to do it again.
“Shoot,” I whispered.
Except I didn’t say shoot. I said the other word that starts with sh-. The one that is of the four-letter variety. I know. That probably makes me a horrible Scout. It’s definitely a violation of the Scout Law (“A Scout is clean,” after all…). But I said it.
And I guess I didn’t really say it as quietly as I thought. I’m sure I whispered it. I know I didn’t shout it. But it must’ve been more like a stage whisper. As soon as that word slipped out of my mouth, there was a huge roar from the crowd.
They recognized that word. And they thought it was hilarious.
“I didn’t say it that loud, did I?” I asked later that evening.
“Yeah, you really did,” John replied with a chuckle.
“Well, shoot.” And I really did say shoot that time.
And in that moment, I discovered that music isn’t the only international language.
3.) I came to realize that “networking” is not a dirty word.
Speaking of four letter words, I used to think that if someone was networking, that person was somehow getting an unfair advantage by pulling strings and achieving something that person really didn’t earn. I kind of thought it was a dirty word.
I think it’s safe to say that I would not have been on staff at Crater Lake if it wasn’t for the influence of Andy, our Camp Director. I’d known Andy since I was in fifth grade. We were in the same Scout Troop. We went camping together almost every month until he graduated from high school three years ahead of me. I looked up to him. It was my dream to work with him in Philmont’s backcountry.
When Andy stopped by the staff cabin at Beaubien towards the end of the Summer of 1995 and told me that he was hoping to work at Crater Lake the following year. I made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I would love to work for him.
When Andy was asked who he wanted on his staff at Crater Lake, he included my name. I’ll admit that I felt a little strange about that at first. It felt like I wasn’t really picked because of my merits but because of who I happened to know. I’ve come to realize that this wasn’t really the case at all. I would not have been hired if I wasn’t capable of doing the job. I understand that now. But I also understand that leveraging relationships to achieve a mutual benefit is not a bad thing. it never has been. It never will be.
When I worked at Beaubien in 1995 and then at Crater, I met people from around the world. Some of them gave me their email addresses and phone numbers. While I wasn’t really sure what to do with that information at the time, I’ve come to realize that those were natural networking opportunities and I could have done a better job of following-up with those after my time at Philmont was complete.
Because networking, if done properly, is a powerful tool. It is not a dirty word at all. My Crater Lake experience helped me understand that.
4.) I learned that a little thing can change everything.
Every time a crew steps off the trail and arrives in Base Camp, they fill out a survey. One of the questions on that survey asks if any particular staffer stood out in a way to make your crew’s experience especially memorable. I had an unspoken goal – you might even call it a dream – to show up on a crew’s survey card as the staffer who went above and beyond to make their backcountry experience an unforgettable memory.
I showed up on one of those cards, and I was genuinely shocked.
During the day, the main activity campers participate in at Crater Lake (and also Pueblano in the North Country) is spar pole climbing. You put some sharp gaffs on your feet, wrap an oversized belt around your waist, and take steps up the side of a 35 foot pole. Once you reach the top, you kiss the carabiner, shout something in celebration of your achievement, and have your “Donkey,” who is serving as the safety mechanism in the whole apparatus, gently bring you back to the ground. For some people, this is a great adventure. They jump at this opportunity. They’re the first in line and the first ones up the poles.
Then there’s the other guys.
Due to my moderate fear of heights, I would have fallen into this second group of campers. The ones who hang back and secretly hope that nobody realizes that they haven’t climbed the pole yet. The ones who nicely allow every person in their crew cut in line. They’d even let people go twice if the rules allowed it. No matter their faith, these are the guys who quietly start praying for a lightning storm to come so the pole yard has to be shut down.
These are the people this backcountry program is really for.
Because if you can push through the fear of climbing a 30+ foot spar pole, then you can push through the pain of climbing a 10,000 foot mountain with extra water strapped to your back. And if you can climb to the peak of that mountain when you’re exhausted, you start to understand that maybe there’s a chance you’ve been setting the bar too low for yourself. Maybe you can achieve more than you think you can. And maybe…just maybe…that’s one of the main points of these High Adventure Bases. If you don’t leave Philmont a changed person, then there’s something wrong with you. The programs are there to help you become a better person and a stronger leader. You just have to put forth the effort.
And that means climbing the pole. Even if you don’t want to.
It was getting late one afternoon and I was working with a crew who had come in late that day. I supervised everyone as they climbed the poles. I noticed one guy hanging back. I recognized his body language. He was using all of the excuses that I had used. Finally, after everyone else had taken their turns, we finally coaxed this young man into putting on the equipment and giving it a try.
Then, his silent prayer was answered.
Crack! A bolt of lightning cut across the sky. We had to close down the Pole Yard. Immediately. Because climbing a 30+ foot pole with a metal nail on top of it in the middle of a lightning storm is not the best idea in the world. Because it was so late in the day, we had to close the program for the night. It was time for everyone to start fixing their dinners and get ready for the Company Meetin’.
“What time do you guys head out in the morning?”
“Well, we’re hoping to leave pretty early,” their adult Advisor told me. “We have a long hike tomorrow.”
“Meet me here at 6:30. I’ll get him up the pole.”
I didn’t know what I was thinking. We were lucky to be up by 8:00 on most days. After the rowdy campfires, it usually took a while to relax enough to be able to sleep. That meant late nights. But that also meant late mornings. But not this morning.
The ungodly hour of 6:30 came that next morning and I met the young man and his adult Advisor down at the Pole Yard. I got the equipment out, hooked him up, and watched him as he took his first step onto the pole. I encouraged him and cheered him on as he made it all the way to the top.
I celebrated with them, congratulated him, and challenged the young man to make the most out of the rest of his trek. They went back to their crew and left our camp shortly after that.
I put up the equipment and went back to bed.
A few weeks later, I learned that I showed up on one of those survey cards. And that made me feel pretty good. Actually, it made me feel great. It wasn’t because I got the recognition. It was because I made a difference in that young man’s life. And it stuck with him. Hopefully it even stuck with him after he had gone home and encountered the everyday monotony of life after Philmont.
It really wasn’t a big deal to get up a few minutes early. But it made a difference. Sometimes it’s the little things that can change everything.
5.) I perfected my swing.
There was a popular legend that I heard over and over again while I was at Philmont: It’s illegal to throw rocks in the state of New Mexico. Some said it was to prevent landslides. Others said it was because the daughter of one of the first governors of New Mexico was hit in the head by a rock and he was so outraged that he outlawed rock throwing. I can’t find anything to substantiate any of these claims. Even if it happens to be legal to throw rocks in New Mexico, it’s generally frowned upon while you’re at Philmont. I tell you all of this because I don’t necessarily recommend what I’m about to tell you.
Growing up, baseball was generally my sport of choice. I was fairly decent at third base and was even better at shortstop. I wasn’t a great hitter, even though I did manage to get an inside the park home run once.**
Even though I hadn’t played in several years, I picked up right where I left off when I started playing intramural softball in college. Although my reaction time had slowed just a bit, I was still a pretty decent fielder and held my own in the hot corner. My hitting? It wasn’t any better. Yes, I had dominated when we played Wiffle ball in high school gym class, hitting a home run almost every time at bat, but I still wasn’t a very good softball hitter.
Everything changed after Crater Lake.
Since we were interpreting the life of a logger in the early 20th century, it was fitting that we also discussed America’s pastime. It helped that most of us were already baseball fans. So during our down time during the day, it was only fitting that we practice our baseball skills. There was one slight obstacle, though.
We didn’t have any baseballs.
The closest thing we had was the rocks on the shore of Crater Lake. Of course, we couldn’t play pitch and catch with those rocks, but we could hit the rocks. So that’s what we did.
I do not recommend this training method. It’s dangerous. We were stupid. OK? Someone could have gotten hurt. And I’m sure we would’ve been reprimanded if any of the Philmont higher-ups had found us out. But we would take bladeless ax handles or baseball bat-sized sticks and practiced hitting the rocks into the lake.
Somehow, I figured out how to properly utilize my body while swinging my ax handle. I would crush the rocks, consistently hitting them farther than anyone else on staff. If The Crater Lake Loggers were ever to become a baseball team, I was going to wind up playing cleanup because I finally learned how to swing a bat.
The next intramural softball season? I hit a home run in almost every game. Every time I smacked one out of the park, I silently thanked Andy, Ron, Karl, and John for being batting practice partners with me.
My home away from home.
Tucked in the shadows of Fowler Mesa near the Fowler Pass is a beautiful cabin that was built by Waite Phillips. He used it as a stopover spot for his trips further into the huge ranch that he owned prior to donating it to the Boy Scouts. Rumor has it that some pretty well-known people had once visited that spot. If memory serves correctly, Will Rogers had even paid that cabin a visit. The views from Crater Lake (which is really more like Crater Pond, but don’t let any other backcountry staff call it that) are breathtaking, especially at sunrise. I’d love to return there someday. It’s a magical place that we sometimes referred to as Crater Lake University aka CLU (Go Loggers!).
It’s in the spirit of the love that I have for Crater Lake and the way it prepared me for “real” life after Philmont, I leave you the Crater Lake Fight song, sung to a tune that’s eerily similar to this one.
We are the Loggers,
We’ll fight tonight
We are the Loggers
We’ll fight tonight
Fight fight fight
We’ll fight fight fight
We’re the Loggers of CLU
*A Camper for four years, an Advisor for one, and a Staffer for two. I did it all, baby.
**OK, it was technically a double and two errors, but an inside the park home run sounds so much cooler!