“Is the sun ever going to come up? I am freezing…”, I said quietly under my breath. It was everything I could do to hide my uncomfortable chill from the others. My father was already awake. He made little noise as he dressed in the dark and left the old tent, but I was awake anyway. I never slept. I was determined to not complain about my poor choice in sleeping plans but I was exhausted. I kept the moon company the whole night.
My father warned me of the light poncho-liner but I was sure I’d be fine. “It is July. It’s been 65-degrees at night all week! That’s why I have been sleeping in the hammock this week, to test it out!”, I told him the night before we left. As he sat in the living room tying closed his external frame pack, he replied to me “We will be pretty high in elevation. It can get chilly in the mountains. You’ll probably be more comfortable with a wool blanket or the Kelty sleeping bag we bought for you last year, but you do what you want”.
The thick nylon sheet should be more than enough. I have been using it in the hammock every night this week, I thought as I walked back to my room.
I was calmed when I heard the loud click of my father’s folding Buck knife. He started peeling dry sticks to rekindle the coals from last night’s fire. Just a few more minutes until a warm fire, I thought with relief. “Just a few more minutes”.
I slid on my shorts and crawled out of the tent. After finding my way to the common area by the dawn twilight, I sat on a large rock next to the fire pit. I wrapped myself tight in the dark green poncho liner just as I did most of the night. My father looked up as he opened the small tin he filled with Folger’s coffee and gave a faint smile. We were the first ones up, today.
Yesterday we spent hiking through some of the thickest valleys of the trip. A dozen men, boys and their fathers, were spending a week traversing the Pacific Crest Trail. Beginning at the 920m/3000ft high Snoqualmie pass, the troop was hiking 80km/50mi south to 1660m/5400ft Chinook pass over the course of four nights and five days.
The previous day was frustrating. For miles surrounding Sand lake the mosquitoes were swarming. For two miserable hours we wore the thickest garments each of us brought. Not a man around wasn’t covered in a film of deet soaking into his skin.
After skipping lunch and hurrying through the most humid part of the trail, we were excited to get higher in elevation and away from the swamps of the valley. It was dry higher on the ridge and out of the trees, but it was also much more exposed. The sun had set over the ridge to our west relatively early in the evening. Clinging to the waning heat radiating from the rocks around us, I could already feel the cold night air coming on the breeze.
“How did you sleep, buddy?”, my father asked me as I watched the tar-colored water fill the plastic indicator on his steel coffee pot.
“Alright”, I lied. He didn’t seem convinced but didn’t push the question.
“Is the coffee done, yet? What’s taking you so long, old man?”, Phil joked as he approached us from where his tent was pitched. The six-foot tall grizzled father towered over my 12-year old frame as he stood behind me inspecting the pot of cowboy coffee.
After my father removed the coffee pot so the grounds could settle, he filled a thin-walled aluminum pot with water and settled it on the bed of coals. It was only a few minutes later the other guys stirred from their tents. Mesmerized by the bubbles slowly starting to appear on the wall of the open-topped pot of water, I hadn’t noticed my father reach into his pack and pull out a brown packet of Quaker oatmeal. He poured it in my tin cup and handed it to me. Once locating his leather glove, he grabbed the pot of water by its metal handle and pour a small amount into my cup. The cheap grain with cinnamon and dehydrated apple was intoxicating. The smell of instant-oatmeal was heavenly to a boy fatigued from three days of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
As the fathers finished their coffee near the edge of camp, the boys sat joking around the smoldering fire.
“Dude, do you think we’ll see a goat today?”, Jon asked me as he shoveled the fifth packet of oatmeal into his mouth.
“I don’t know. Dad and Phil were talking about that this morning. They said it would be real good hunting here this fall if the snow didn’t come early.”
“Well, I want to touch a goat”, Jon replied.
“Yeah, we know all about your goat fantasies!”, Michael said laughing at the opportunity.
“Who are you kidding? Jon ain’t even got pubes, yet. He couldn’t fuck a goat if we gave him a chair to stand on!”, Sean mocked. At 16, Sean was the oldest boy on the trip. Rarely did a comment come from him that was not an innuendo, or if the adults were gone, outright sailor-talk. Even if I was sometimes intimidated by the older boy, I admired his extroverted charm and how he kept the spirit of the group high. Free from our mothers commenting on our language, we felt like rebels. We were men. We slept under the stars, cooked on a fire, and spared nobody from teasing. When so close with a tribe of men, “be nice” means something very different. Sleeping together, eating together, and bathing together, “equal opportunity” looks very different in the mountains.
After letting the tents and sleeping bags air-out sufficiently, we all packed our bags and set out to our next destination.
Even as the youngest boy in the group, I was usually one of the fastest. Only two older boys were ahead of me. We were supposed to always have a hiking buddy, but I did not enjoy this rule. I knew its importance. How could I forget? It was only last summer that the troop helped extricate a hiker from the Duckabush who broke his leg. The Texan and his young bride were hiking across the Olympics for their honeymoon, but that was put on hiatus after the man slipped on a moss-covered rock while crossing one of the countless rivers. The eldest boy on that trip and his father, an emergency department nurse, stabilized the man’s leg with an orange SAM splint and two other fathers traded off carrying man on an impromptu stretcher made of two poles of fir and folded tarp. The story made our local newspaper. Even though the reporter wanted to interview the nurse father, he ensured them it was a group effort and not one man could have helped the victim get to safety alone.
Plodding along with my hiking partner, Jacob, I at least enjoyed that he didn’t talk much. I preferred the silence.
The sun finally came over the ridge as we neared the scree. The field of open rock ahead of me was beautiful. I looked around at the ridge that seemed to enclose me. I noticed its rises and its saddles. I compared it to the features my father pointed to this on the topographical map after breakfast, where he quizzed everyone on the likely terrain expressed by the lines and shadows on the laminated paper.
I pulled a disposable camera from my pack. We all were given a 24-picture single-use camera the morning of the trip. The moms always left us with a gift to take when they dropped us off at the trailhead. Sometimes it was a plastic pouch of beef jerky, other times it was pack of baby wipes to share when we camped away from a river to wash in. At the top of Snoqualmie pass three days ago, Jon’s mom opened a cardboard box she has hidden in the back of her Ford Windstar minivan. She removed the protective foil from six plastic cameras and encouraged us to “bring something home”. Even though a few of the boys used most of their 24-pictures up in the first day, I had not touched mine, yet.
I cranked the plastic disk until it gave resistance. With little experience in photography and out of breath from the climb, I struggled to get the frame straight. After I got the view finder leveled half with tan rock and half with blue sky, I depressed the flimsy plastic button. *click*
I let the camera down from my face, but I already knew the film would never compare to the sight in front of me. Few places I had hiked in Washington were as rugged country as this. The saddle I saw ahead of me was where the Pacific Crest Trail crossed into the Norse peaks wilderness of the Cascade mountains.
What seemed like hours should have been days. Two miles the trail hugged the mountain side, slowly curving in a way that kept it in view the whole stretch. Why was this the stretch of trail that drew my attention so hard? I don’t know. But I didn’t want it to end. The challenge. The exposure. The beating sun. The sharp rocks, radiating heat into my face.
As I near the saddle, I turn back once more. I could see the other few boys and the fathers working their way up the trail. They looked like specks on the mountain side as they slowly worked over the gravel, scree, and boulders. I as I began my final push to the saddle, 1800m/6000ft of elevation left me breathing heavy and unable to catch my breath, so used to life at sea level. Though my pack was light compared to the group, the ounces turned to pounds.
What lays before me formed a memory that would persist for the rest of my life. The image, so vivid, built a fortress of adventure on the foundation laid by my father and the men of my troop, my tribe. Years of camping without luxury, thousands of miles of backpacking the Olympic and Cascade mountains, a lifetime of lessons and wisdom could not prepare me for the infinite beauty that lay ahead. God himself could not paint a picture so strong.
It was announced last week that the Boy Scouts of America is changing its program. The organization founded by Robert Baden-Powell has taught and trained more than 100-million young men in America since its creation more than one century ago. Including my grandfather, my father, and all of my uncles, my brother and I continued the tradition of fostering outdoor skills and personal development. My brother and I both are Eagle scouts and I am confident to speak for him, we both consider our years of involvement with the Boy Scouts of America to be monumental in the formation of our values and pursuit of our lives.
As I observe the world around me become more feminized, passive, and weak, I also see fewer and fewer places for boys to grow into men. A coincidence? Unlikely…
The Boy Scouts of America ensure us that the organization is not changing its name, only the Boy Scout program is changing. It will now be known officially by variant of its long-standing colloquial name, Scouts BSA.
I was a little concerned with the involvement of females in scouting leadership. Where are the fathers? Why are there not enough fathers to run the scout troops? Are there not enough men to keep the scouts going?
It was announced last week that the Boy Scouts of America is changing its program. Scout troops will still be segregated by gender, there will be male and female gender troops chartered by the traditionally men’s organization beginning in 2019. While I am confused at why girl scouts, venture scouts, sea scouts, exploring scouts, 4-H, FFA, Boys and Girls club, church clubs and youth groups are not enough, I am most concerned with the practicality of the change.
Will the troops only hold their meetings separately? Will they be on the same night but held in a different room to save parents of boys and girls an extra drive? Boys then miss the conversations and time with their fathers on the drive to and from meetings. For me, this was a particularly strong bonding time with my father. He often worked nights and weekends and missed many family dinners. As he and I often stopped on our drive home for ice cream and talked, I remember those Thursday nights as some of the best of my childhood. He and I shared our “dinner time conversation” once a week. We talked about his job, we talked about his marriage with my mother. I learned so much of ethics, dating, respect for women and for other men. How many of these conversations will never be had, again?
Will all activities be segregated? Will there be boy camps and girl camps? Will there be boy hikes and girl hikes? I doubt it. The logistics of that would be a nightmare. If the scouts are having a hard enough time keeping fathers involved as it is, how will they keep enough parents involved to run two separate camps? If they are run together, then where will the boys have time to be boys? When will the bond of masculinity be built?
When I earned Eagle scout in 2011, there were four boys in my troop – the minimum required to retain our charter with the Boy Scouts of America as an official troop. If a girl wanted to join a scout troop in my area, what happens? How many years until the exceptions are made? “There are no other options, we have to let her in.” I can hear the plea, already…
Where can boys grow into men? The options seem to be dwindling. In a soy-boy culture of soft palms and declining testosterone, strong-willed and assertive leaders are a dying breed.
Where will boys grow into men? The answer will soon be nothing but a whisper – an echo of my history.
This must be the feeling of death. Death, by a thousand mosquito bites.