On the train to Rostock, looking out at the hazy summer sky, the wide green fields that stretch on in gentle rolls, punctuated by twirling turbines. The green hits me- no longer the young varied green of spring, but already more mature, fuller, deeper, more sure of itself. I’m looking out the train window and picturing the huge column of smoke thousands and thousands of miles away, where a place I love is burning.

Here, white trees form an open-air tunnel for the train to speed through, and the tunnel opens onto fields edged with pine forest. My heart, how many aspens have turned to ash, how many ponderosas are nothing more than charred remains? They are fire-loving trees, the ponderosas, but they are no match for unchecked flames that lick their sides and engulf their crown, suffocating them and burning from the inside. Can you hear them crack and scream as they fall, as they crumble?

For decades, we taught that no fire was good fire. In our fear, we created more danger. After years and years of buildup the forests are clogged with dead wood, ready to burn. Fire is like an uncomfortable secret bottled up too long; when it finally comes out, the results will be devastating. And the results will be devastating.

I spent two summers as a Ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch, and on every ride to the North Country I showed my crews what happens when a crown fire rips through ponderosa forest. The Ponil Canyon, which I have only known to be hot and unbearable in the sunny June weather, was not always so. Some members of my Alumni crew remembered when it was green, when it had spots of shade, when there was any relief from the blazing sun. The Ponil Complex Fire of the early 2000s destroyed most of the life in that canyon, which likely contributed to the severity of the 2015 flash flood in which one Scout was tragically lost. There were no trees, no deep rooted plants to slow down the wall of water which blasted through the canyon like a freight train without a conductor.

And now, at this moment, years of nightmares have come true. Central Country is burning. Ute Park is burning. Cimarron is under mandatory evacuation as smoke covers the sun. Philmont is evacuating as the immense tower of smoke rolls out from behind Tooth Ridge, almost lazily. It is in no hurry. At this moment, the fire is 0% contained, and our best hope is for no wind and lots of rain. 

It is hard to think that some of my dearest memories of Philmont can never be revisited. I’ll tell you one of them. So there I was, lying on the ground at Black Mountain Camp with my fellow members of Training Crew 5 surrounding me. It was a dark, cold night in late May, and I was shivering in the damp grass. But the sky was clear and blacker and more open than I had ever seen it. Despite the cold, I was transfixed. Just as I thought I was seeing one of the most incredible night skies I had seen in my life so far, the full moon began to rise behind a tree-lined ridge, throwing the distant branches into impossibly sharp relief. As the moon continued to fill the sky, I listened as my fellow Rangers told stories of their Philmont memories; their first treks, their first year working, their best hike-in. In that moment, I knew Philmont would be a special place for me, too.

That ridge may now be bare, engulfed in flames and smoke, but the moonrise will never fade from my memory. This is what I can give: a story, a warning. Cherish the moments you have. Take care of the land. Take care of each other. Let us learn to live in harmony with nature lest it, as a result of our neglect, destroy the places we love.

***

This past summer, Philmont Scout Ranch, a BSA High Adventure base located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northeastern New Mexico, closed for the season for the first time in its history. First used by the Boy Scouts of America under the name Philturn Rockymountain Scoutcamp in 1938, Philmont holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of individuals throughout the United States, and even internationally, who have visited the Ranch for a backpacking trek, a training, or spent one or more summers working on the land we call “God’s Country.” The two fires that ripped through the backcountry this year were devastating, but not completely unexpected. When the first fire began at the end of May, I was living in northern Germany and nearing the end of a two-year grant. I recorded my thoughts as I rode the train through my now-dear Mecklenburg, towards the Baltic Sea.

The landscape of northeastern Germany could hardly be more different than the rocky soil and mountains at Philmont. Mecklenburg is flat, green, and is famous within Germany for the variety and multitude of lakes. It is home to the largest national park, the Müritz. As one rides the train north from Berlin, the abandoned industrial buildings and closed train stations give way to expanses of field and crooked pine tree stands.

In the spring, the fields are vibrant yellow with rapeseed, and wind turbines stick out like so many slow-motion pinwheels while the Kieferbäume reach toward the sea. I try to imagine a fire engulfing these fields, these trees, turning the yellow to angry orange, leaving the trees barren and black. I can bring it to mind, but the image doesn’t quite work.

In New Mexico, though, fire is part of life. The butterscotch-scented ponderosa pines are prepared to combat low-intensity fires that keep their carpets clean, giving them room to spread their roots. Small fires are necessary for a ponderosa forest to thrive, but the risk of fires at a high-occupancy Scout Ranch was too great to allow for even small regular burns. What if a small burn became large, and Scouts were put in danger? Certain that fire was inevitable, a few years ago Philmont began proactively gathering dead wood that had been collecting for decades, clogging the forests. The effort was not quite enough to combat Nature, who finally revealed her impatience in late May. Her fury tore through Philmont’s central country, starting in Ute Park and burning over 36,000 acres of land on and off BSA property. The Ute Park Fire, as it is now referred to, forced the communities of Cimarron and Ute Park to evacuate. Even the Philmont staff relocated for a short period of time.

Photo by the author

From a distance, I watched my friends take on responsibilities they had not anticipated. Even as Philmont made the decision to close for the first few weeks of the summer, the Philmont staff extended their arms to help where they could. From Cimarron and the Philmont backcountry up to Northern Tier High Adventure Base, the “Scramble, Be Flexible” motto of the Ranger department became standard for all staff, and they embraced it. Though I didn’t return to Philmont this season, I still feel the spirit of the staff as I look at photos of workers in the familiar khakis and green polos tending the charred forest.

Philmont is no stranger to destruction. In 2002, the Ponil Complex Fire wiped out the forest on a large section of land in the North Country, disrupting growth and changing the ecosystem of the area for over a decade. In my first summer, 2015, a flash flood devastated this same canyon, sweeping away gear, buildings, and structures, and taking the life of one young Scout. In the face of tragedy, the Philmont staff responded with more energy, encouragement, and support.

***

I happened upon the magic of Philmont nearly by accident. Following my senior year of college, I was just determined to spend the summer somewhere outdoors, preferably in the mountains. After receiving an impersonal rejection letter for my application to Acadia National Park, I reached out to a friend I knew from high school and Girl Scouts who had worked at Philmont at some point. As it turned out, she had been living in New Mexico for two years and was still working at Philmont. And, even though it was relatively late in the application process, she encouraged me to submit my credentials. I had background as a camp counselor and trip director at a Girl Scout camp near the Adirondacks, and was hired as a Ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch for the 2015 summer season.

I was completely unprepared for how much the Land of Enchantment would live up to its name. Just a couple weeks after my graduation ceremony, I spent two days on the Lake Shore Limited and the Southwest Chief, riding coach from Syracuse, NY to Raton, NM. From the moment I stepped off the train in Raton, the wide expanse of clear blue sky drew me in.

As I started my training, I quickly learned that Philmont is not only special because the land is beautiful, though it is. Philmont is special because of the community of staff that welcomes youth from around the nation and the world to learn about the land. Throughout that season, I discovered the meaning of teamwork at its deepest as a member of an overnight Search and Rescue mission, in wake of the flood, and in welcoming a lost crew back to Base Camp in the dark. At Philmont, daily life is a practice of community.

This summer was hard on Philmont, but it is also finally a chance for the land to breathe, to wipe clean, to regrow. Just weeks after the first fire, small green tendrils were already creeping out of the blackened soil. I haven’t seen the extent of the damage of the second fire that caused the Ranch to close its gates to Scouts for the full season, but I have seen the determination of the staff, volunteers, and alumni to work with the destruction. I hope that this fire teaches us to work more closely with Nature, to learn from her, to tend her soil, and to allow her to thrive.

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Mary Miles

Mary Miles

Mary Miles

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