- Jarod Contreras
Roving Prospectors share unique history of Philmont land with Scouts, staff alike
August 8, 2022 — Today, we often speak of Philmont’s power to change lives. Specifically, the land that Scouts and staff alike hike, and its power to change lives. However, much of Philmont’s history consists of humans changing the land instead.
All across the Ranch lay reminders of past inhabitants, whether that be the petroglyphs at Indian Writings or the mines at Cyphers and Baldy Town. Philmont is a land littered with the remnants of human impact.
Roving Prospectors walk their two burros, Thompkins and Stompkins, to French Henry on July 28, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Jarod Contreras.
For many decades, from the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, Philmont’s north country saw active mining and a thriving community built from that work. Baldy Town, a staff camp with some remaining foundations still visible, once had more than 2,000 inhabitants. Scouts learn of this history from staff camps like French Henry, an interpretive camp for the French Henry mine, and Baldy Town, which this summer turned interpretive.
However, there are always more stories hidden in history. Aiding in sharing that history is a unique group of Philmont staff: the roving prospectors.
This little-known program consists of three staff members who live interpretively as if they were 19th-century gold prospectors. Moving from camp to camp in the north country with their two burros, they teach crews what it would have meant to live and work in the Baldy Mountain area more than 100 years ago.
Prospector Alex Conrad is also known by his interpretive name Bloomington. He explained his job simply to his friends before the summer started.
“I’ll walk around with burros and look for gold,” Conrad said.
It is the most basic description of the prospectors’ job. However, all three roving prospectors believe the job holds more potential than simply walking or panning for gold. Unique to the program is, unlike staff camps, the roving nature of the prospectors, which leads them to not be known by many.
Prospector Alex Conrad digs on the hillside above French Henry for dirt to pan on July 28, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Jarod Contreras.
“I think we provide an interesting air of spontaneity to Scouts who stumble upon us on the trail,” said Jarrett “Burnside” MacDonald, one of the roving prospectors.
Roving makes them a surprise to many. It has also allowed them to make more connections than they otherwise would have, Conrad said. This group of prospectors began their summer with the intention to make connections and help the program grow. With treks and a combined experience of 18 seasons under all their belts, the prospectors agree that they each have a deep respect for Philmont and its power to change lives.
“We know what a good staff member can do on trek,” Conrad said.
In their effort to be good staff members, the group has made efforts to learn as much history as they can to be informed resources to answer the many questions Scouts ask them. While teaching Scouts how to pan for gold, they also share how mining altered the Baldy region’s landscape, how the miners would have lived, how mining hard rock worked and more.
Detail of a promising rock that tells the prospectors much about the land on July 28, 2022 at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Jarod Contreras.
Simply by walking the trails, they exude a respectable authority in their period-accurate clothing as they tow their burros along. Two burros help to transport their equipment and living essentials across the north country. However, when asked what the most difficult part of the job was, both Conrad and MacDonald exclaimed in unison “BURROS!”
Thompkins and Stompkins are the two burros the prospectors currently utilize. Thompkins got his name because he has a sunken eye and Thompkins only has one “I.” Stompkins got his name because he likes to stomp on everything. There are two other burros that the prospectors used to switch out, however, those two are in “time out” at Miranda for the rest of the summer because they were too much to handle.
Those burros are named Monchkins and Chompkins. Monchkins’ biggest problem is that he runs everywhere, especially when he sees a yellow flower, because he finds those to be particularly tasty. Chompkins’ biggest problem is that he bites and often refuses to walk. In fact, it once took all three prospectors and a handful of helpful Miranda staff an hour and five minutes to convince Chompkins to move a hundred feet up to the Miranda cabin.
The Roving Prospectors hitch their burros Thompkins (front) and Stompkins (back) to aspens for the night at French Henry on July 28, 2022 at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Jarod Contreras.
The prospectors realize that challenges like those are simply part of the game. In fact, they’re perfectly content to face challenges like those if it means they can enjoy the freedom of being able to rove around the backcountry. “You’re not particularly beholden to anything besides the weather,” lead prospector Ervin “Gaffer” Lane said. And when the weather does come, they batten down the hatches and help where they can.
At Baldy Town, during a particularly nasty storm, they warmed drinks for cold crews, helped dry out wet clothes and provided moral support as rain and hail fell.
“I’m starting to feel that we are ambassadors for the whole of the Ranch, history and all,” Lane said.
At the forefront of all three prospectors’ minds is an awareness of the program’s uniqueness and fragility. “I think this program has a lot of potential and I’d like to see it continue to evolve in future years,” MacDonald said. Much of Philmont’s knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. None of the prospectors want to see the program fall to the wayside.
“At this point, we’re really just looking at building a legacy for next year and years on,” Lane said.