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  • Jarod Contreras

A Peek Under the Hood

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

For Those Who Keep Philmont Running, It’s About More Than the Job

Michael Martinez maintains a hay rake on July 11, 2022. Parts often break on farm equipment, but consistent maintenance is key to long equipment life. Photo by Chris Nye.

August 1, 2022 — “I’m old and senile, but I’m cute, so it makes up for it, I hope,” said Kenny Martinez as he described the difficulty of operating old-school pump-action grease guns compared to new-school automatic ones. Martinez works in the Farm and Roads Department, a department that works behind the scenes of what Philmont is known for. They maintain the network of roads that web the Ranch’s camps together, they farm feed for Philmont’s livestock, they help brand cattle, maintain equipment and otherwise keep Philmont running.

Along with departments such as Maintenance and Motor Pool, Farm and Roads plays a special role on the ranch: if they’re doing their job right, participants and even staff don’t often notice that they exist. Spending the day behind the scenes reinforces that Philmont is a working ranch, just as Waite Phillips intended. It is a livelihood of manual labor, whether that be with livestock, the maintenance of facilities or with the farming of crops. It is a life on the land for a handful of those lucky enough to call this corner of northeast New Mexico home all year-round.

It’s the simple life

As storm clouds brewed above the Tooth of Time and the sun beat down on fields of hay, I came upon a handful of men greasing tractors, balers and other such farm equipment. As Martinez told me later, it’s vital to grease your equipment because, “everything on a tractor’s a million bucks,” but, “grease is cheap.”

As handshakes and names were shared, I saw that the men of Farm and Roads were quick to joke and quick to smile. Perhaps I had made new friends, but I had at least definitely been invited into the circle of camaraderie that these men share working day after day on vast fields and rugged roads.

I learned that a hay baler is, as most farm equipment is, a deceptively simple, ingenious machine. Pulling hay aligned by the hay rake, an entirely different, equally ingenious machine, into its mechanism, the baler can compress, flip and tie a bale, depositing the bale onto the field behind as the tractor continues to pull along.

“Soon you’ve got a bale popping out the back faster than a chicken with its head cut off,” Martinez said.

As the storm moved in closer, the men of Farm and Roads each hopped in to drive a different machine and rolled off to bale the hay from the west field. I too hopped into the cab of a tractor, positioning myself awkwardly above the controls as Eric Aguilar, a new hire to the department who started last year, drove.

Michael Martinez stack hay at Philmont Scout Ranch on July 11, 2022. Unloading the hay wagon is a technical process requiring training. Photo by Chris Nye.

As we circled the field, Aguilar illustrated what life in the department is like. Aguilar told me that, “it’s the simple life.”

He said he treasures the moments when, as he works the fields, small animals pop their heads up out of the dirt in curiosity and then quickly duck back in as the heavy machinery trucks along. He told me that he cherishes being away from the crowds of basecamp and that his solitude out in nature is important to him. He warned me that sometimes, just sometimes, snakes get baled, too. That you’ll come across a bale with a rattle poking up out of it or a gaping maw reaching out to bite you fast. It’s the simple things that matter, he reinforced.

Doing dangerous things carefully

The simple side of life, a hard day’s work out in nature, draws many to the departments that keep Philmont running. Curtis Seifert, who works in the Maintenance department, is a Senior Maintenance Technician and the Ponil Ranger, meaning he lives year-round out at Ponil. In a conversation in Seifert’s shop, surrounded by 80-year-old window frames that he was in the process of repairing and tools stacked high, Seifert described to me why he’s grateful for his position and life out at Ponil.

“You can light a spark with any participants out here but with seasonal staff you can light a fire with three months out here,” Seifert said.

Seifert only recently moved with his family, including his wife Jessica Seifert who works in the Ranching Department, out to Ponil. However, he is already embracing connecting with the seasonal staff he lives next door to. He sees his job as both a maintenance technician who services a wide array of problems across the Ranch but also as a guide to the young people he engages with.

Farming staff bale hay below storm clouds on July 11, 2022. Photo by Chris Nye.

“Do dangerous things carefully and that’s how you’re going to grow,” Seifert said when I asked him what the biggest piece of advice he has for both seasonal staff and participants.

The biggest impression I took away from my conversation with Seifert is that he is a very intentional man. I have found that out with many of the staff members of these departments. They may have been hired to repair plumbing, fix cabins or farm fields but they take it beyond their direct job duties. They are involved in the fire department, search and rescue or they take the time to positively influence participants and staff, and sometimes all of the above.

Seifert laid out materials he had collected and photocopied from the National Scouting Museum for our conversation. Materials that told the history of Ponil, of the buildings there and of Ponil’s role as basecamp early in Philmont’s history. Seifert described how, for him, the job was far more than sanding wood or installing plumbing, it was an opportunity to connect with the land, the history and the people.

He described a moment recently when he was renovating a wall inside his house, which was built in 1940. He found a signature with pristine penmanship inside the wall that said, “Pat 1940”. Before putting the wall back together, Seifert told me he spent that evening having a drink with Pat, who is long dead by now, and reflecting on what it means to work and live at Philmont. What it means to make it count out here.

When describing all that we have available, for adventure and for personal growth, here on the Ranch Seifert told me, “we’re drowning when others would sell their leg for a drop of water.”

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