Laura Spillane does not fit the image of your average Ranger. Out of 185 Rangers, she’s the only one with a year to retirement, a husband, and two kids with her at Philmont this summer.
Spillane has been involved in Scouting for most of her life. Her and her husband, Kevin, put their four boys into Scouting when they were old enough to be Cub Scouts. Spillane was involved as an Assistant Scoutmaster for a decade and as the lead advisor of their troop’s Philmont trek in 2021.
She had been to Philmont before, however. In 2017, her troop, #671, from Nokesville, Virginia took her on her first Philmont trek. She went with her husband Kevin and her son Raymond. That first trek had a huge impact on her and her family.
“When we came in ’17, I remember our ranger was a petite young college student woman. I remember just watching her and thinking ‘That’s the job I want.’ And I said to her, ‘I want to be a Ranger. How young do you have to be to be a Ranger?’ She said, ‘I don’t think there’s any upper limit. Just apply.’ It took six years, but I finally did it,” Spillane said.
Their son, John, did not come with them on this trek, so they planned another visit for 2020, which got moved to 2021 due to COVID-19. Raymond applied to be a Ranger for the summer of 2021 and was able to be the Ranger for their 2021 trek.
Raymond and Laura were not the only two who could not stay away from Philmont. John did a Trail Crew trek right before Spillane’s troop completed theirs in 2021. He called them from Philmont to say he wasn’t coming home. “This is it. I found my thing,” he told them. Kevin, who was a few months away from retiring at the time, told her, “You know, I don’t want to work again, but if I were ever going to work again, the Cantina Manager at Ponil is the job for me.” They had bumped into the then-Cantina Manager at Ponil a few times during their adventure.
Raymond, John and Kevin were all on staff in the summer of 2021 and Spillane was staying at home in Virginia. She listened to calls from her family detailing fun Philmont stories, and decided she could not stay home one more summer. Despite tearing her ACL in a ski accident during the winter last year, Laura was determined to be a ranger.
Laura never skipped a day of physical therapy and spent a lot of time reading up on all the ranger materials she could.
“Once she had decided that she was going to be ready for the next season, we knew there wasn't going to be anything keeping her back...When she gets something in mind, it’s going to happen,” said Kevin.
When she got the job offer in February of 2023 to be a Ranger, she sat down with her boss in the Department of Homeland Security and told her she was going to Philmont. It was non-negotiable. Her boss said she could take leave and come back to work after the summer. Her job as a first-year Ranger was set in stone. Arriving in late May, she set off for a training trek with her training crew.
“It's been a real joy to find that, yeah, I can hike with rangers and keep up. And maybe, you know, walk them into the ground.” said Laura. During training trek, Laura was often leading the pack with her fellow Rangers. While the age gap is there, and you “can’t pretend it’s not,” she has found everyone to be welcoming and inclusive.
She explained what drew her to being a Ranger, specifically: “Frontline – basically directly working with scouts all over the Ranch. You know, guiding the scouts through the first few days, helping them get set up for success on the trail…Helping the advisors learn their stand-back role. [The Ranger position was] the thing that most appealed to me and the thing for which I feel like I’m well-qualified. I’ve spent a lot of time doing Ranger-like things, and watching the kids grow and learn and become more confident. And all that kind of thing jazzes me.”
Spillane expressed that she values getting to work with youth and the freedom to go all over the ranch the most. Philmont has given her and her family confidence and singular experiences.
“I think a good word picture is they come back from Philmont – they’re just walking taller. You come home, you’re more confident. You’ve got skills that others don’t have. You’ve done really hard stuff and gotten through it. You’ve worked as a group. You just have had an experience that is unusual. And that gives you an edge on your peers. I’m really excited to be part of helping that to happen for as many youth as I can."
“I feel like it’s given us all really happy experiences and a lot of individual personal growth. And I feel like it’s been sort of a rallying point, a central point bringing us all together kind of thing. I don’t really think anybody comes out here that doesn’t get some challenge.”
She recalled a difficult experience she had hiking up Wilson Mesa from Rich Cabins, which is about 2.5 miles straight uphill, on one of her treks and how she pushed through it.
“There was a moment when I was just like, up against a wall. I just felt like I had absolutely hit my limit. I hiked a mountain that just killed me. From Rich Cabins to Wilson Mesa. It had been a really rough emotional ride the day before. And I packed my pack wrong and it was pushing on my back raw…and by the time I got to the top, I just sat down apart from the crew, took off my shoes and socks and cried. But that was what I needed to do and half an hour later, all good, you know? Drank my little liter of water and got over it, which is what you do here. You push past or you get to that wall, you acknowledge that wall, you get through that wall.”
This summer, her husband Kevin works as the Cantina Manager at Ponil, and her sons, Raymond and John, work as a Ranger Trainer and north country Work Crew Foreman, respectively.
“The kids that come out here and they go through the Philmont experience, they grow and they learn and they realize how strong they are. They don't always get to do that with their families. Doing that with your family, It builds your family together.” said John.
Spillane aims to provide an experience like this to her crews so they can “walk taller.” She has been getting used to the Philmont hands-off approach of teaching - allowing crews to find their own way and make mistakes. As a mother, the hands-off approach is not a leadership style she’s used to: “It is not my natural space. I’m accustomed to being a person in charge…It’s leading from behind, which, if a scout troop is done right, that is the way leaders are leading.”
Her relationship to crew members is a little different. Most rangers are near-friends with Scouts at Philmont due to the small age gap and can connect with Scouts easily. However, Spillane has a peer relationship with advisors, and she feels she gains instant credibility that young Rangers usually have to work to build.
Despite some of the challenges of the teaching style at Philmont and age gaps, Spillane is doing well, according to her crews and family.
“She knows her job. She's a good teacher. She's very fit. She's definitely doing more than keeping up with these guys. She's really kind.. I think she's a great Ranger.” said Shon McGontmery, lead advisor of one of her crews, 713-D-01.
“She’s kicking butt, man." said John. "She’s doing great. Every person I’ve heard of, like, Rangers in her [training crew], or the people that have just seen her, it’s like, ‘Your mom’s the greatest ranger ever,’ like, she knows absolutely what she’s doing.”
With a lot of her family out at Philmont, she looks forward to getting to see them when she can. “I’m hopeful that we’ll find some window when we can all have a couple of nights to just go out there somewhere. You know, even a day hike as a family,” Spillane said.
She is planning on doing much more than a day hike with family in the near future. She plans on returning as a ranger again after hiking the Appalachian Trail with her husband next year.