Trekking with Mr. Earle
By Dale Lewis
Scouting really works when the adults in a troop do their best to live by the Scout Oath. The boys may not notice when you drive 300 miles to get them to an event, but they know immediately if your language or actions fall short of servant leadership. My life in Scouting has been blessed with adult leaders who “get it”, especially in stressful situations, and who have earned the Scouts’ respect by their daily actions.
We have a high-adventure troop, focused on sending a crew to Philmont every two or three years. The older Scouts hike a section of the AT every year. The younger Scouts climb Georgia’s Blood Mountain for their first taste of working together, as they plan and carry all their gear and water to a mountain top for the first time. We include our AT hikes, along with hiking Jacks River and the Florida Trail as part of our preparation for Philmont. It takes 60 to 80 miles of practice together to get the crew ready physically and mentally for the coming challenge.
As we got ready for Philmont in the fall of 2010, we hiked northward on the AT from Springer Mountain. Half way through Day 2, we reached a small stream that would be our last water source before climbing to the night’s mountain-top campsite. There were 11 of us, carrying 3 liters of water each. We would need to climb for three more hours, make camp, cook dinner and breakfast, and then hike three more hours before the next water source. The water in our individual bottles wasn’t going to be enough.
The crew leader, age 14, looked at his crew and asked for volunteers to carry extra water. Silence. The crew leader suggested that the crew redistribute the crew gear, so that we could fill up our 3-gallon water bladder and still ensure that each Scout has about the same weight. Silence again. The crew unpacked the water bladder and filled it, then put it on the ground beside the stream. They admired it for a few minutes, but nobody made a move to touch it. This is a hard time for an adult leader. You really want to tell somebody what to do... but you can’t.
Without speaking, Mr. Earle opened up his pack and pulled out a couple of bulky items, then walked over to the 18-pound water bladder and put it into his pack. We spread his three water bottles, sleeping bag and a couple of other items among the crew, still without speaking. Earle strapped on his pack, now about 10 pounds heavier, and waited for the crew leader to start us up the mountain. As we walked, I thought about what I had just seen and how it made me feel. We made it to the top, made camp, had a hot dinner and watched the sunset. There were lots of smiles, and the day ended well. All it took was for one person to quietly step up and do the work.
As is our custom, we ended the hike the next day with a round of Thorns, Roses and Buds. There were few thorns. For most, Earle’s silent action was either a rose, a real bright spot, or a bud, something that we could nurture as an element of personal growth.
About 90 days before Philmont, we learned that Mr. Earle had cancer. It was serious, deep in his chest, and was having an impact on his ability to do his daily training run. It was obvious that he wouldn’t be going to Philmont with us. We had already lost one adult due to an out of state job change. Now, there were just two of us left, and Mike had never gone on a Boy Scout hike, due to his Navy work schedule. Thankfully, he was the youngest dad in the troop and in good physical condition. We had a chance, but we were going to have to work together to make it.
We arrived at Philmont on schedule, met our Ranger, went through the shakedown, food and gear collection processes, went over our hiking plan with the Logistics office, finished the medical rechecks and settled in for the night at base camp. We purchased an extra Philmont hiking cap and an extra water bottle. We already had maps, and had been studying them for months. The Crew Leader laid out the plan for who would be Navigator and who would be the Pacesetter for the next day’s hike.
That night, the crew decided that each day’s Navigator would wear the extra hat, and sign his name at the end of the day. Each day, the name of each camp we entered would be written on the extra water bottle. The water bottle was named “Mr. Earle”.
Day One on the trail was tough. It was day two of the hiking season and the first summer for a new campsite on the Turner property. There was no established trail, and the path consisted of a ravine that had to be climbed hand over hand, taking off our packs and handing them up to the person on the next ledge. It took a couple of hours to go the first two miles. When we reached the campsite, the water source turned out to be pit of green, slimy goo, impossible to filter and unsafe to drink. We had about an hour and a half before dark, and it was over 4 miles to the next camp with water.
The Ranger and the Crew Leader sat down to come up with a plan. We would eat a dry meal for dinner and save our water for the next morning. The Scouts understood, and agreed with the plan. We started walking at the first hint of light, before it got too hot, and had to stretch about a half liter of water for each person so that it would last for two hours. We made it, and had full water bottles by mid-morning. Teamwork was beginning to happen.
We worked our way through the week. There was some arguing and some fatigue-driven behavior, but we made it to each camp as scheduled. We ended each day with Thorns and Roses, signing the hat and updating the camp names on the water bottle. About halfway through the week, we arrived at Baldy Town and hiked up to our campsite, at a little over 10,000 feet elevation. We were going to be in this site for two nights, for the only time during the trip. The crew was excited. The peak was just 2,400 feet above us, so the decision was made to “sleep in” the next morning, then hike up with day packs and have lunch at the top.
In the morning, Mike and I had dropped the bear bags, finished breakfast and were sitting on our packs, ready to go, by 0800 (two hours later than usual). The boys began to stir at about 0900. Every lesson about team work had been forgotten. It took until 1030 to walk out of camp. The Navigator and the Crew Leader missed the first turn, so we started hiking downhill, not up. Mike and I looked at each other, but kept our mouths shut. The boys were astonished when we walked into the camp at Baldy Town. After much arguing, the crew filled up water bottles, turned around and started back up the mountain. The new Navigator missed the turn toward the peak. The boys were again astonished to find themselves back at their tents after over an hour of walking. At 1130 in the morning
It was decision time. Afternoon lightning is a threat on the top of Mt. Baldy, so crews have to be off the peak and back down to the tree line by 1400 hours. We had about 2 and a half hours to climb 2,400 feet, spend a few minutes and then get back down to the tree line. Everybody said go for it, so we did. It was tough. The trail is pretty steep, and the last 400 feet of elevation consists of small rolling rocks at about a 30 to 40 degree angle. It feels like you lose one step down for every two steps up. The air is thin, with about 25% less oxygen per breath than at sea level. We made it to the top by 1340, with 10 minutes till we had to start back down.
We all took a couple of minutes to enjoy the tremendous view, with snow on the mountains to the west and north of us and about 50 miles of visibility. Then, a wonderful thing happened. One of the Scouts opened the empty water bottle, filled it with air from Mt. Baldy and then sealed it. Without being asked, the boys crowded in close and raised their right hands together, holding Mr. Earle as high as possible over them. They didn’t say anything, and there was no need. We all knew.
We hold our fall Court of Honor in September. It’s a big one, with lots of merit badges from summer camp, rank advancements and awards for special achievements. As the finale, the Philmont Crew presented a slide show about their adventure, and talked about the experience. Then they asked Mr. Earle to come forward and stand with them. They presented him the Navigator’s hat, and told the story, then presented him the water bottle with the names of all the camps they had seen together. They had carried Mr. Earle with them for 10 days, and then kept it a secret for months, another sign of how far they had come together. Earle’s a quiet man, and humble. He smiled, said thank you and went back to his seat.
I’m thankful to have trekked with Mr. Earle. I think about his example, what it has taught me and about what it inspired in these young men. Like I said, the boys may not notice everything you do for them, but they know servant leadership when they see it. That’s really our job as Scout leaders. Walk the walk, do the work, treat people with kindness and encourage them when times are tough. That’s all it takes to be like Mr. Earle.