We were called a Boy Scout troop, but actually we were just a rag-tag group of backwoods boys who lived near Mt. Hood, Oregon. In the late 1940s our Scoutmaster, Rueben, presided over this motley bunch of eight to 12 mountain kids who came to Scout meetings when they could, but would always show up for a hike or camping event. Like most 10- to 12-year-old boys we wanted to be in the forest, not in meetings.
Rueben was a carpenter by trade and had distinguished himself in the community by building his own snug house and having shot a mountain lion while deer hunting. The mountain lion’s hide rested on the back of his sofa and added to his certification as a real mountaineer. He also had two boys of scouting age, which may have been some motivation to shepherd the troop, but in reality Rueben liked to hike and camp as much as we did and he loved to teach mountaineering skills.
The community was a string of little settlements stretching along the highway from Marmot to Government Camp. Everybody was, by today’s standards, poor. Some more so than others, but the line between us was so blurred that it didn’t make much difference. Homes were often constructed of logs, like the one my brother and I lived in, or were, in some cases, uninsulated summer cabins in various states of disrepair. The focus for everyone was finding a way to eke out a living in this beautiful mountain setting. Some commuted to work in the bigger towns like Sandy or Gresham, others made their living by logging or milling lumber and some were subsistence-farmer-hunter-gatherers who during summers provided some type of service to the city folk who came to recreate among us “quaint folk.” The summer kids from the city generally regarded mountain kids as a bunch of “hicks from the sticks.” Which, in fact, we were, but we reveled in our backwardness and enjoyed our own brand of fun.
One evening the monthly Scout meeting was about to get underway in our community hall, a small uninsulated building with a woodshed that was nearly as large as the hall itself. We were all gathered around the sheet metal stove, drawing on what warmth there was and looking up at our hero, Scoutmaster Rueben. “Well,” said Rueben, “the Scout Council in Portland wants to have a Camporee this spring up behind the mule barn at the ZigZag Ranger Station, and they have invited us to participate.” Almost in unison we responded with “What is a Camporee?”
“A Camporee,” Rueben explained, “is a time when Scout troops get together and camp and have contests using the skills they have learned. There will be several Portland troops coming, and we all will be judged by some of the Scoutmasters and Forest Rangers from the ZigZag station.”
“What kinds of contests?” we responded.
“I think there will be contests for knot tying, fire building, knowledge of the Scout Manual, and that sort of thing,” Rueben replied. We looked at each other and smiled. It sounded like fun, but we knew what the Portland kids said about us.
The weekend for the Camporee arrived that spring, and after work on Friday, Rueben picked us up in his old 1940 Nash, which had somehow made it through the war years. Each boy had his bedroll and the things we took on hikes but not much more. We went up to the mule barn, which surprisingly we had never visited before. I guess we thought it was too “urban,” being behind the Ranger Station and all.
Shortly after we got there, the first of the city Scouts began to arrive. They all had on uniforms! I mean the full uniform, with the cap, shirt, pants, neckerchief, shoes, and badges — the whole works. More kept arriving and all were in full uniform, neatly pressed and shoes shined. They even had flagpoles with all kinds of banners on them. Now, we had seen drawings in the Scout Manual so we knew Scout uniforms and banners existed, but we couldn’t help staring. After a while we noticed they were staring back at us and slyly smirking their “hicks” smirk.
The Scout leader in charge of the Camporee drew us all together and explained that we should spread out and select a place to camp. We were off like rabbits and soon our troop had found an area under a couple of big cedars with some exposure to the morning sun if that should occur. We started pitching our tarps to form a lean-to tent and began to build a ring of rocks for our campfire. We fully expected it would rain — this was Oregon you know — so we planned for that in the way we laid out our campsite. About then we got word that judging of the first contest would begin.
It was a uniform contest! We bravely lined up at our tent site and stood as straight as we could. Rueben had told us to wear our uniform pieces, anything that had been passed down to us or that we found at rummage sales. Nobody had a badge. We did the badge requirements, but I don’t remember that anyone ever got a badge. George had on what he always wore, hand-me-downs from his brother Sam. Boots but no socks, bib overalls, a too-large work shirt under a nearly worn out pea coat, and his shock of reddish blond hair made him look remarkably like a “hayseed.” Gary was nattily attired in a long raincoat with a porkpie hat and a Scout neckerchief around his neck with a Cub Scout slide. Ken had the only official shirt, which he had salvaged from a rummage sale. Dick had a Scout cap. Jimmie had an undersized cap that kept falling off. Neither my brother Pat nor I had any uniform parts, but there may have been another Scout neckerchief somewhere in the crowd. Well, the Forest Rangers started down our line like a scene from a French Foreign Legion movie, stooping to inspect each boy, but finding little of merit. Our inspection went quickly, too quickly!
We peeked over at the other troops and watched them straighten each other’s caps and neckerchiefs. It was clear that this was going to be a bad start for us at this Camporee. And, soon we learned we had come in dead last. There seemed to be a little too much strutting around from the Portland troops after that.
The next contest was a test of our knowledge of the Scout Manual. To put it simply, we were clueless. Rueben had tried to coach us, but reading the manual was not our strong suite and memorizing anything from it was only a wistful hope on the part of the Scouting organization. Only Gary, who read everything, produced an acceptable answer to his question, but it was not enough to avert another disaster. Well, it was humiliating, but there was nothing we could do about it, so we worked on our campsite and put on the stew for supper. The evening mist seemed unusually cold and foreboding.
The next morning, we got the schedule for the day’s contests. First there was a wood-splitting contest to prepare wood for the morning fire. Then we were to build a fire that would blaze high enough to burn through a string stretched 30 inches above it. Next we were to prepare breakfast and have it judged. After that we were to cook a pancake, run to a wire that was strung 8 feet above the ground, flip the pancake over it, catch it, eat it, and run back to our fire. Lastly, as a team we were to build an emergency rope bridge over a small ravine.
Immediately we knew Jimmie should do the wood splitting. He did that for Scout meetings but also every morning and evening to keep his home supplied with wood. We made him take off the undersized cap however. Jimmie just went whack, whack, whack with the axe like he did every day, and suddenly there was a nice pile of firewood. The other troops had just split one or two pieces. While the wood splitting contest was going on, the judges visited the camps and had voted ours the best location and layout. Hey, maybe we could be winners!
The fire starting was clearly the job for George. He got up every morning before his mom and dad, who was a logger, and started a fire in their woodstove. His house didn’t have any insulation and you could see out through some cracks, so George had the heavy responsibility of getting the house warm in time for breakfast. The test strings were set up over the fire rings, and the judges were ready with their stop watches. At the sound of “GO!” George pulled out his knife and went to work on Jimmie’s woodpile. Soon, he had a nice stack of shavings that he built into a small teepee. Adding more wood, he struck a kitchen match on the seat of his pants and fire jumped up through the wood. The flames leaped upward and burned through the string! We looked over at the other troops and couldn’t see any flames or smoke, just a lot of yelling and the sound of knives whittling wood. We all gathered around George to congratulate him and take advantage of his warm fire.
The Meyers brothers, Ken and Dick, started work on getting our breakfast ready. Their mother was known throughout the community for her apple pancakes, and the brothers had brought some of her “pre-mix” and crisp apples. When the judges showed up, the boys had apple pancakes, bacon, and eggs going. The first Scoutmaster in his sharp uniform looked us over carefully considering our rag-tag appearance and seemed a bit pale and not too eager to join us for breakfast. After the first bite of pancake, the rest of his breakfast disappeared rather quickly. When he asked for another pancake, I knew it was all over. Mrs. Meyer’s boys had come through! It wasn’t a surprise when the other judges started coming over for pancakes and then agreeing that we had won that contest.
Next was the pancake cooking and flipping contest. For some reason this fell to me. Probably because my dad loved baseball, and I had been catching and throwing things since I was age 2. We used regular pancake batter so it would stick together better. The pancake bubbled and I turned it over to finish baking and got ready. I ran to the wire and gave it a big flip. It made several slow turns and came to rest hanging on top of the wire! For what seemed like a lifetime it hung there like a horse blanket, but then gravity overcame pancake cohesion and two parts fell toward earth. I made a couple outfielder swoops with the pan in time to catch both pieces, and gobbled them down with steam shooting out of my mouth like a dragon. Quickly I ran back to our fire. Turning around I saw one other scout running back to his fire, but all the others were either catching pancakes or picking up pieces. Our chances looked good again!
The knot-tying contest was next and fell to my brother Pat. He loved tying knots and practiced a lot on our little sister. He liked to have her run and then rope her like a calf and tie her up with one of several knots he knew. Again, a well-uniformed judge stepped up to him and handed him a short length of rope. “Tie an overhand knot,” he said. Pat whipped it up. “Tie a square knot.” A square knot he got. “Tie a clove hitch on my arm.” Oh, that was just what Pat loved to do, and the judge was duly clove hitched! “Tie a bowline.” And the rope sizzled and there was a bowline! Then intending this to be the ultimate test: “Tie a bowline on a bight.” That was actually easy because Rueben had taught us that knot in order to tie ourselves in on a rope line when we hiked together across steep rocky areas. So Pat tied himself in with a bowline on a bight. The judge beamed. Yes, we won that one too!
Building a rope bridge requires not only teamwork, but a certain amount of engineering know-how. So that fell to Gary in the long raincoat and porkpie hat. Gary was the kind of kid who spent his spare time reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and then telling you all about what he read. He had an old Erector set that he used to build amazing things like cranes, towers, and bridges. So, Gary could envision exactly what a rope bridge should look like and how it should be built.
When the contest started, he took charge and had us running in all directions with the ropes. First, we laid out the ropes forming the walkway across the small ravine. Next the handhold ropes were anchored in. Then the side webbing was woven in. We were having a great time running across the bridge and swinging on its sides when the judges cautioned us not to fall into the ravine. Looking around we saw the other troops in fits of rage or weaving each other into snarls of rope. Another win!
That wrapped up the contests. In the closing ceremony, we said the Pledge of Allegiance, one of the Scoutmasters read a devotional from the Bible, we said the Scout Oath, and loaded up to go home. We had won all the contests except the uniform and knowledge of the Scout Manual contests. Not bad for a bunch of “hicks from the sticks.” And there was noticeably less smirking going on. I recall we got a banner for the best Scout Troop at the Camporee and that was supposed to go on our Scout flagpole, which, of course, we did not have. But Rueben brought the banner faithfully to all the rest of our meetings. I think he was proud of his mountain-kid Scouts.
The Nazis escaped right about where the coyote is watching my dog. My dog, a failure in most basic dog departments, hasn’t noticed the coyote yet, because she’s busy trying to figure out exactly what this rabbit-like smell is. In a minute, the rabbit will break out of the brush, unnoticed, and I’ll offer the dog a drink of water that she won’t take. She’s lived here all her life, but she’s never learned the desert rules.
1. Nothing matters more than water.
I know the rules backwards and forwards, because I grew up in the Arizona desert, this part of the Sonoran that looks like the set of every Western movie you’ve ever seen. Along with all the other kids in my Boy Scout troop, I was strangely smug that I could survive, no matter what. We knew how to dig into the cool sand to rest when the temperature hit 120 degrees. We could build distress signals visible clear to the horizon. We knew what to do about rattlesnake bites (cut parallel, not in an X shape). We knew that cholla spines are barbed, and you can’t pull them out, so you have to push them further in. We figured the stories about the spines working their way to your heart and killing you were probably a lie, but we did know for sure how to get water from barrel cactus pulp, how to build deadfall traps for kangaroo rats and lizards.
Okay, to be honest, we would have died quickly should we ever have needed to actually try these things. My friend Corrine and her Girl Scout troop, no doubt as self-assured as we were, got lost in the desert for three days, with no food but a five-pound bag of watermelon Jolly Rancher candies. “Another day, it would have been Lord of the Flies,” she said, “and a day after that, the desert would have been eating our bones.”
2. Even if you know the rules, the desert is bigger and stronger than you will ever be.
Back then, of course, there was more desert; when I was a kid, friends lived on the edge of town, where their only neighbor was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was already refusing to face the lights of the growing city. Today the town goes on for an hour past where we used to float in the pool and watch the bats, in bunches thick enough to be mistaken for rain clouds, come out at twilight.
Still, even though it’s shrinking fast, every year the desert takes its toll. Helicopters fly in for rescues; hikers dehydrate, fall from ledges, think their cell phones are going to get them out of trouble. It pays to remember …
3. Absolutely everything in the desert would like to kill you.
It’s all sharp edges and oven heat and bad intentions. True story: A guy got drunk and started shooting saguaros. These are the quintessential desert cactus, tall and thin, their arms reaching for the sky like they’re being held up by bandits. Saguaros can grow over 25 feet tall, have roots miles long; and if it has rained recently, their hollow bodies can hold two tons of water.
Guy shoots saguaro. Saguaro falls over and crushes guy. Everybody in the city applauds.
The saguaros here in the park are dying from car exhaust pollution; even so, this is an oasis, several hundred acres of desert in the middle of Phoenix. The zoo and the botanical garden are across the road. People jog here, do orienteering, take nude pictures of each other against the red rocks. Hawks swoop after ground squirrels—one once passed my car, grabbed a squirrel, and headed back into the air ahead of me in less time than it took me to realize I was driving more than 70 miles an hour.