Submitted June 1, 2009

I felt panic and had this completely irrational urge to run

In 1953 I was 14, and an Explorer Scout on a month-long trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch (3 weeks at Philmont, 1 week in travel.) The trip was what was called a Wagon Train, essentially travel around the perimeter of the ranch backpacking, on foot with burros and one leg on horseback. We generally moved from one fixed camp to the next.

My Scout troop and later, my Explorer post was heavily into camping so I had 3 years of solid experience backpacking, car camping and some canoeing. Averaging between 25-30 overnights per year. We never canceled a trip due to weather and frequently traveled off-trail.

We were in the last few days at Philmont and had arrived early at a camp below a large mesa. We had been told there was an area of large winterkill on the mesa with deer skeletons piled up. I had the idea that a mule deer skull, even without antlers, would be an interesting memento and wanted to find one. One of the other guys was also interested. The area was supposed to be close by so we climbed to the top of the mesa after lunch to look around.

We were looking for something specific and had not really paid attention to our surroundings. That was mistake 1: Look around as you walk and mark terrain features. In particular, look behind you – that’s what you will see on your return. Neither of us had a compass so we relied on terrain features – features not very prominent on a flat-topped mesa.

After about three hours we hadn’t found anything. The afternoon was wearing on and I wanted to go back, but my friend wanted to keep looking, so we separated. That was Mistake 2: If you travel together, stay together, one of you may notice what the other missed.

On the walk in we had come upon a pond and had walked most of the way around it, bearing to the left. On the way back I came to the pond but thought to take a shorter route by bearing to the left instead of the right. That was mistake 3: Never invent a shortcut in an area in which you are unfamiliar.

I walked for a while along a vague path that I thought was were we had come from until I suddenly realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was. When I looked around I wasn’t even sure where I had just come from. At first, I felt panic and had this completely irrational urge to run. I somehow resisted that and sat down. Mostly as a distraction I took inventory of what I had with me. Not much.

It was a warm day so I had no jacket. I was wearing hat, shirt, trousers and boots. I had my trouser belt, a Boy Scout knife, a bandana, and my Marble’s match safe with waterproofed strike-anywhere matches.

This is when I stopped making mistakes. First, I thought about everything I had been told to do. In the northeast the basic rule is walk downhill until you come to water, then follow that downstream. It’s a good rule but here, in the arid southwest I wasn’t sure about finding water, and on the flat mesa, downhill was also a problem. I decided the best thing was to pick a direction and walk as straight as I could until I came to a grade. That’s what I did and after an hour or so I came to a wire fence.

I looked up and down along the fence and saw nothing. So I decided to follow the fence in the general direction I had been walking. I did, and after another hour or so finally came to the edge of the mesa with a downhill to follow. I finally came to a dirt trail with lots of hoof prints. They were fresh, but seemed about evenly divided in both directions, so I picked one and walked along the trail. After another hour or so I came to a narrow, paved road. By this time it was growing dark, but I continued on. I wasn’t particularly tired but thought that if I was I could find a place to get something burnable, build a fire and camp beside the road. As it happened, by the time it was full dark a truck came along and stopped when I flagged it down. Turned out it was a Philmont ranger, looking for me and my buddy. I spent the might at the main camp and returned to my wagon train the next morning. My buddy also got lost, spent the night in a tree and was found the next morning.

For an experienced 14-year-old Explorer it was terribly embarrassing but, in retrospect, was a valuable experience. I never again got lost (at least not for more than a few minutes) and never again went into the woods without at least a minimal set of survival gear.

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