The sun had already sunk deep beneath the Sangre De Cristo Mountains on the horizon. Night shrouded the New Mexico sky and the fire before me brightened our tired faces on the bluff. I froze for an instant in this extraordinary moment as a man played “All Star” by Smashmouth on a banjo. My limbs ached for sleep but my mind buzzed with giddy euphoria. To either side of me, my newest friends had linked their tired arms in mine as silly lyrics burst from their lungs with unbridled joy.
The summer after my freshman year, I joined six members of Venture Crew 650 for a backpacking trek that would last twelve days and span eighty miles through Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. We would cook, pitch our tents, pack out our waste, and reach the summit of Mount Baldy along the way. Our trip through the backcountry taught me not only that I could accomplish a daunting feat, but that I didn’t need to be in incredible shape to do it. All our rag-tag crew needed to keep us going? An enthusiastic attitude and an array of Billy Joel songs to sing along the trail.
At first, I thought we were doomed; we weren’t exactly track stars or bodybuilders. How could we ever conquer such a mind-boggling distance? The other crew members were older than me and from other schools, so I also worried that I wouldn’t click well with the group. My fears proved unfounded, for our crew bonded even when faced with poor navigation, blistering feet, and our collective stench after twelve days without a shower. Despite the trials of the trail, we constructed a team cheer, decided Jimmy Carter would pose as our crew mascot (because he’s from Georgia, too), and made sure to befriend every group we met.
Sure, things got tough. One day, I almost broke. The miles had rubbed my feet and patience raw as I stumbled along the trail. Fourteen miles in one day: it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t human. Soil sunk deeper into my skin with each layer of sunscreen I lathered on in vain. The silence was the worst; a steep incline always left us winded and speechless. Finally, as tears of frustration streamed down my sunburned cheeks, I heard a voice giggle before deepening between breaths behind me. “Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river”. A tired smile weaved its way across my face. My fellow crew member had rescued me from despair with the help of Tina Turner.
That night, as the mountains sat serenely in the distance and the fire shone brighter in my widening eyes, I saw what we had become. A gaggle of suburban high schoolers had grown into a family after just a few days in New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment”. As the campfire and banjo-playing came to a close, our crew looked around - astonished to discover that every other group had chosen sleep over late-night song. It was then that I understood: we stayed for the campfire’s encore because at it’s heart, Philmont was not about taking the easy way out. Philmont was about soaking up every single moment that we spent in the blessed wilderness. It was letting the dirt and sun and song seep into the cracks of our souls.
Since my Philmont pilgrimage, I have carried this intentionality toward living with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. Originally, I lacked the confidence to tackle such a feat as staggering as a trek through Philmont Scout Ranch. But I found that no matter how challenging life gets, there will always be good people and banjo music to make the dark times a little brighter.
Claire Puckhaber - 2017 Participant, 2021 & 2022 Backcountry Staff