Ten years ago today I was sitting on a hillside on the far south boundary of Philmont constructing a shelter for myself out of a piece of a tent -- the rain fly, one pole, three stakes. I wrapped it around the base of an aspen tree about the circumference of my leg, laid the groundcloth down, opened my pack.
The flies were bad there during the day; over the fence, which was at the top of the hill, was a private cattle ranch and there is nothing that flies like more than some cows; the grossest thing about the flies was that when they landed, they were wet -- which left you always wondering What is making these things feel wet?
They were huge and dark black, like bumblebees without stripes. They were lazy in the heat, although this heat in the Rockies was not like the heat at home in July, which is hot and close and prehistoric. There were no cicadas here, just slow bumbling flies and then at night, mosquitoes. I devised a way of tying two bandannas around my head to hold my hair back and cover my face so that only my eyes were showing, to avoid sunburn and to keep the wet flies from bumping into me. I could see the beautiful valley and hill.
All throughout the little valley, from the top of the hill down to the bottom lay a row of fallen trees, struck by lightning in a distant storm and so their trunks were split in a corkscrew fashion with cracks formed form the sudden, instant evaporation of all their moisture at the time of lightning strike. They lay in an almost orderly fashion, one next to the other, and they made excellent balance beams for me to walk up and down as I read the only book I had with me, my Bible. I still have the same Bible I had then, worn and battered from its trip down Baldy, courtesy of a Boy Scout troop from somewhere like Illinois. I got it back and it was all in one piece but wet and battered, but by now in my valley it was dried out.
I read the stories in the Old Testament for the first time all the way through, and fascinating stories, too! Esther, Ruth, Judith. The Old Testament women were cunning and brave and I had to admit a little bloodthirsty. Thinking of our Rowdy troop, the only group to make it through with all its members, it didn't surprise me. I was probably the closest to leaving, from my constant spills on the trail to hypothermia on Baldy, but in each case my trail mates shared out whatever I needed from their packs, got me to my feet, and pushed me on. Quitting wasn't on the table.
And this was my reward. After a sweat lodge in an old canvas tent with hot rocks from the fire, water poured on top, sweating out the last of civilization from our pores, we were walked out to our solo spots, given pieces of a tent, some food, and two days with nothing to do but be by ourselves.
In my backyard right now there is a fallen tree that reminds me of those rows of lightning-struck giant silvery trunks. I ran out of film by then so I have no photos of it, but I can close my eyes and see that valley again. I can close my eyes and walk down the great fat trunks again, singing the Psalms to myself in a tune I made up just then, then look south over the fence and watch for fireworks on the night of my independence.