The Land of Enchantment

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The Land of Enchantment

Collin (left) and Cam (right) Bonnell decided to spend the summer in New Mexico (Garrett O'Keefe for The Fordham Ram)

Collin (left) and Cam (right) Bonnell decided to spend the summer in New Mexico (Garrett O'Keefe for The Fordham Ram)

Collin (left) and Cam (right) Bonnell decided to spend the summer in New Mexico (Garrett O'Keefe for The Fordham Ram)

Collin (left) and Cam (right) Bonnell decided to spend the summer in New Mexico (Garrett O'Keefe for The Fordham Ram)

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by Collin Bonnell

In one way or another, I’ve always lived in urban areas. Back in Boston, I lived in a suburb twenty miles away from the city limits. At school, I live in the middle of the largest urban landmass on the planet. This summer, I decided to change that and became a camp counselor at Philmont, the largest youth summer camp in the world, in Cimarron, New Mexico. The experience would teach me much about myself and the country beyond the East Coast.

Located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Philmont sits on 140,171 acres of dense alpine woodland, prairie, desert, canyonlands and mountains. Philmont’s elevation, meanwhile, ranges from 6,500 to 12,441 feet above sea level. In addition to this land, it has access to several surrounding ranches and the Valle Vidal unit of Kit Carson National Forest. I was stationed as a program counselor at one of these outlying ranches, known as Chase Ranch, where I gave museum tours. 

While giving the tours and interacting with participants and advisors was certainly preferable to a normal job and a worthwhile experience, the main draw to working at Philmont is the off-days; 72-hour periods when you are allowed to roam the ranch and surrounding properties or travel around the Southwest as you please. 

On my first set of off-days, I went on an impromptu hiking trip in the mountains west of Pueblo, Colorado, with my brother, Cam, and a few friends. We spent the next two days roaming the northern half of the Sangre de Cristo mountains on a very small budget and living out of a car. On my next set of off-days, I went to my first rodeo on the Fourth of July and traveled with Cam and our friend to the nearby village of Eagle’s Nest, where we saw fireworks over a reservoir beneath the silhouette of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in New Mexico. A few days later our family visited and Cam and I explored Taos and Santa Fe with them and another friend of ours.

My most eventful set of off-days was my last, however, when Cam, our friend, and myself attempted a route known as “The Super Black Death Challenge,” which consists of walking twenty miles from Mount Phillips, located on the western edge of Philmont, up and down six other mountains before descending into Base Camp, all in the span of 24 hours.

The three of us started by walking through the prairie along the northern edge of Tooth Ridge, a massive and steep ridge that divides the ranch into two parts. We continued along this path for about five miles, spending most of the hike in the middle of a thunderstorm, before stopping at a staffed camp known as “Clark’s Fork,” where we spent the night. The next morning we woke up early to climb up the mountains and go through two other staffed camps before arriving at Mount Phillips after a ten-mile hike. We all got up at two in the morning and began walking. By daybreak, we had summited the third peak, and by noon we were ascending the last ridge. When we reached the last peak, however, I wasn’t able to ascend the ridge due to a thunderstorm that was moving in. I made it into Base, but I spent the next few days full of regret that I hadn’t climbed the last mountain to complete the Challenge. But then I had an experience which changed my outlook a bit.

It was a few days later and I was back at work on the Chase when we had a paralyzed participant visit. Since he was a kid the boy had dreamed of going to Philmont, and his Boy Scout Council had gotten together to finance a trip out to Philmont, where he went between several staff camps on day trips. Up until that point, I had been bitter about my inability to finish the Challenge, but talking with a participant who couldn’t hike at all changed my perspective. I discovered that I was blessed to be able to experience those mountains at all. 

The following day we had a chaplain and an advisor suddenly stop by after dinner asking if they could borrow our phone. I later learned that the advisor’s father had passed away and after staying for a while to get in touch with family members back home, he made a shocking decision. He decided to hike on and complete his trek before heading back for the funeral. Philmont meant so much it was worth delaying his grief.

When I was in New Mexico, I would have a perspective-altering experience almost every day. Additionally, my experiences over the past three months have exposed me to a part of the country which I had never experienced before. There is something about New Mexico that lends itself to inspiring the soul in a way quite unlike any other place I have visited. The locals call their state “The Land of Enchantment.” The name is deserved.

You are all entering what will probably be one of the most enjoyable phases of your life. I would like to encourage each and every one of you to try to undergo an experience like I have. Set aside some time to travel the country and the world, and take some time to learn more about yourself and the world around you. You will not regret it.