The scouts are from Troop 501 in La Canada-Flintridge, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. They've begun the first day of a trek at Philmont Scout Ranch, the 215-sq.-mi. wilderness near Cimarron, N. Mex., that is scouting's premier "high adventure" base. Months of training hikes, equipment checks and dieting for obese adult advisers have preceded this day. The hikers will trudge through dense forests, up and over 10,000-ft. mountain passes, pelted by daily thundershowers. Staff members at backcountry camps are decked out as miners, trappers and other frontier characters to provide history lessons and entertainment. The trek's success is measured by a unique scouting goal: Troop 501 must finish as a tight team in step with its weakest hikers.
Nationally, scouting faces an equally rugged journey. Like the 17,500 hikers who passed through Philmont this past summer, the highly traditional movement has been forced in recent years to shed some flab and check its compass. Static enrollments five years ago persuaded the national office in Irving, Texas, to commission a marketing study, which concluded that the Boy Scouts were dangerously out of step with post-1960s America; the public still imagined uniformed do-gooders who tie knots and help old folks across the street. One solution: the Scout Handbook was revised to show more minority scouts in action and offer advice on such off-campground problems as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, child abuse and how to resist sexual molesters.
A Philmont trek provides a deceptively casual scenario for such transition. Changing history is evident in the area's visitors. Spanish conquistadores and American pioneers passed through. Trekkers carrying side arms have included Kit Carson and, more recently, eagle scout and FBI Director William Sessions, who brought along pistol-packing bodyguards. In recent years women have become active in the formerly all-male backcountry. Two of 501's adult leaders are female, as are 20 of Philmont's 185 rangers who hike for two days with each group to help launch the trip successfully. Environmental pressures are being felt as well. While scouting enjoys a proud heritage of eco-awareness, Philmont was stunned to discover last year that its landfill violated New Mexico's updated waste-management laws. As a result, camping garbage now has to be carted 60 miles to nearby Taos.
Once in the mountains, Troop 501 discovers that trekking has changed radically since Carson's day. "Low-impact camping" rules mean skipping the traditional campfire unless the fire pit is cleaned and the ashes buried. Opened food must be consumed on the spot. An informal "30-second rule" applies to spilled food: eat it fast. "Smellables" such as soap, toothpaste and tomorrow's rations, all of which can attract bears, are loaded into a burlap bag after dinner and strung over a 20-ft.-high cable. Nighttime hygiene is discouraged; a freshened-up camper in a sleeping bag is yet another smellable. Breakfast is scheduled soon after a groggy, wet dawn so hikers can cover ground before the occasionally terrifying thunderstorms hit. Lightning killed scouts at Philmont in 1987 and 1988.
Squabbling occurs during 501's damp, disorganized first nights. Ranger Brad Wolgast, 21, an eagle scout and psychology student from Kansas, observes privately that the troop's adults and boys communicate poorly. "Things get left unsaid," he explains. Staff members at base camp tell of a stressed-out troop that tied one of its hikers to a tree earlier this year. Philmont chaplain Rusty Cowden, 38, remembers his own trek in 1967: "We got lost. A bear ate our food, and it rained 11 out of 12 days." But Cowden recalls the trip joyously. Coping with blisters, bears and soggy meals somehow adds texture to the chill of windy mountaintops and the sight of wildlife roaming in ghostly aspen groves. Most of all, scouting's unstylish traditions of group discipline and self-reliance provide a powerful social cement. "Scouting comes down generations, from my father to my brother to me," says 501's Morgan Browning, 14. "It sticks with you."
Since scouting is bound to such traditions, the movement faces the challenge of joining the fast-paced '90s without losing values that should endure. Quaint slogans like "Be prepared" and "Do a good turn daily" may in fact be useful in an age of Middle East crises and crack cocaine. Inner-city scout troops now meet in welfare hotels, in juvenile halls, even on ghetto street corners, where mobile homes serve as assembly halls. "We're not using the Norman Rockwell image anymore," says chief scout executive Ben Love, 60, who has initiated campaigns to combat five "unacceptables": hunger, illicit drugs, child abuse, youth unemployment and illiteracy. During Love's tenure, scouting has also developed coeducational "Career Awareness" Explorer posts, in which young people contemplating such careers as medicine, law enforcement and computers can meet professionals in those fields.
In a 19th century mining camp, Troop 501 is eating dehydrated lasagna softened by boiling water and the evening's drizzle. It is oddly tasty. Bearded "miners" like Jedediah Ezekial Springfield (eagle scout Trey Berlin, 21, of Richmond, Ky.) offer to teach gold panning and to provide tours of the abandoned mine shaft; they speak in twangy "interpretive accents." After dinner, the miners put on a "stomp" with guitar music and surprisingly pungent jokes. Another day's hike leads to a cattle ranch set in a lush green valley. At that campfire, a talented cowboy-guitarist nicknamed Fluffy performs the Oreo Cookie Blues, which he describes as a "song of addiction." Next morning the scouts heat irons to mark their hiking boots and hats with Philmont's brand: a P and "crazy" (backward) S under a bar.
Just after a hailstorm, Mike Downhower, 17, leads the troop down a mountain trail and suddenly notices a strange tree root. It rattles! Downhower skids to a panicked stop and gives the alarm. The rattlesnake simply slithers into the bushes. At a 19th century "Mexican" village whose cantina is stocked with root beer, Dennis Meade, 18, finds a rare gas-fired outdoor shower in a meadow. He also notices a barrel-shaped relocation trap on rubber wheels awaiting an especially pesky local bear. In the shower Meade hears a noise. The bear has walked into the dressing enclosure; he and the animal stare at each other for a tense moment until the bear leaves. In a narrow valley by a trout stream, Tim Anderson, 13, is asked to describe his favorite trekking moment. "The tall white trees ((aspens)) make me think of fresh air and a clean world," he says. At a lunch break, crusty former scoutmaster El Rey Ensch, 51, holds up his wrist for everyone to see the butterfly lighting on it.
A fat porcupine waddles along the wooded trail ahead, perhaps wondering why humans make such a delighted fuss when he encounters them. The mood has changed since that wet first night; 501 has come together. Eric Johannesen, 14, once desperately homesick and moody, has been asked to lead, and he sets a rugged pace: "This feels like a family relationship now. I'll get home eventually." Estelle Light, 42, a troop leader who happens to be a nurse, has tended sore feet and wounded egos all week. Assistant scoutmaster Don Browning, 51, hobbled by a sprained knee, finds that the scouts around him walk as slowly as he does. Crew leader Jason Servatius, 16, once an aggressive prankster, moves among the hikers, offering advice and checking equipment. It is raining again; nobody minds.