Photography: Courtesy Philmont Scout Ranch
At Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico, the legend began long before the Boy Scouts showed up.
Boy Scouts come from all 50 states to test themselves on Philmont Scout Ranch’s backpacking treks, some spanning more than 100 miles. Along the trail they encounter aspens and pines, mountains and streams, deer and black bears.
They experience life as frontiersmen, gold miners, and ranchers. And at night they watch in awe as the ink-black sky explodes with a sea of stars.
This 220-square-mile patch of earth in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico has been refuge to dinosaurs, American Indians, travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, settlers, gold-seekers, ranchers, and, over the past 78 years, more than a million adventure-seeking teenagers. But the saga of Philmont Scout Ranch is a tale of history, mystery, and the incredible generosity of one man.
Tracks in Time
Philmont’s past is a confluence of the improbable. Some 65 million years ago, the Tyrannosaurus rex left behind footprints. The only confirmed T. rex tracks in the world are at Philmont, offering 33-inch-long proof that a 6-ton creature with teeth the size of steak knives once walked these lands.
The Anasazi left behind traces, too, through petroglyphs dating back to as early as A.D. 330 — some of which are still visible. Later, the Jicarilla Apache and Moache Ute Indians called this land home, hunting bison, antelope, and deer and growing corn, beans, and pumpkins.
In 1821, the Santa Fe Trail cut right past where Philmont’s headquarters now stand. Wheel ruts, like faded scars, can still be seen from the air. Word spread among traders making the 1,200-mile journey from Missouri along the trail about a tooth-shaped outcropping of rock along the route. They called it the Tooth of Time, because when you passed it, you knew your destination was just seven days away.
Today, the journey from the rock to Santa Fe takes less than three hours by car. And the Tooth of Time has become Philmont’s most recognizable symbol, emblazoned on water bottles, T-shirts, belt buckles, and bumper stickers.
“Every land has a story, and every story has a beginning,” says Philmont camp counselor Stephen Terry. A lantern casts angular shadows across his face; a crowd of rapt Scouts hangs on his every word.
At Philmont’s flat and expansive Urraca Mesa, the story begins with the Anasazi Indians and a battle between the Lord of the Outerworld and the Lord of the Underworld. It continues with the paranormal, or at least seemingly inexplicable. There are the lightning strikes, lots of them. And there is the fact that compasses don’t work here. The phenomena, we’re told, have a scientific explanation: something about the mesa’s mineral makeup.
But then there are the visions sworn to by Philmont visitors. Like the Navajo shaman in full dress, awash in blue light. Or the lost Scout, wandering late at night. Or Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, an outlaw long dead, who allegedly appeared beside a terrified Scout and fired his pistol six times into the trees. The Scout awoke the next morning, trying to shake off this vivid nightmare. But then, the story goes, he rolled up his sleeping bag to reveal six shell casings underneath. They smelled like fresh gunpowder.
Investors Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda didn’t want to simply travel through this rich part of the country; they wanted to settle here. In 1841, Mexico controlled the area, having won independence from Spain 20 years earlier, and the governor of Mexico was eager to spur development. Seeing an opening, Beaubien and Miranda petitioned him for a tract of land. They told of the area’s arable soil, plentiful water, and sizable mineral deposits. The only problem with this land, they argued, was nobody around knew how to use it properly.
Three days later, the 1.7-million-acre plot was theirs. Beaubien began settling the land, soon joined and then surpassed in the effort by his son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell.
With the help of his friend Kit Carson, Maxwell began building. Maxwell and Carson, both in their 30s, had spent the first part of their lives on the go. Now, with life halfway over, they craved something simpler. “We had been leading a roving life long enough, and now is the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves and children,” Carson wrote in his autobiography.
Development wasn’t without conflict. The Moache and Jicarilla, their way of life uprooted, suffered from bureaucratic mismanagement — at times denied food or clothing when the government couldn’t afford to provide these basic essentials.
Maxwell, meanwhile, kept building. In 1857, he found a spot for a ranch near the Cimarron River. There he built a two-story adobe house with an expansive floorplan but sparse furnishings. One visitor was given a room that was spacious but “had not even a chair.” He slept on a pile of wool mattresses instead of a proper bed.
But soon Maxwell would be able to afford all the beds he wanted. He was about to become rich.
Good as Gold
While roaming the slopes of Baldy Mountain, Jicarilla Apache and Moache Ute Indians found “pretty rock” that, it turned out, contained gold. Then in 1866, the smell of gold wafted from northern New Mexico. Maxwell opened a pair of mines he called Aztec and Montezuma, and soon he was pulling in $50,000 a year, making him one of the richest men in New Mexico.
Peculiarly, he didn’t store his wealth in a safe; he kept the gold and silver and greenbacks in the bottom drawer of an old bureau. “God help the man who attempted to rob me,” Maxwell explained.
Sure enough, when a thief took $200 in goods and a horse from Maxwell’s store, he wrapped a chain around the robber’s neck and stashed him in the cellar — without food or water — for almost two days. He had the man lashed 25 times before freeing him.
In 1870, sensing a gathering storm between the white men and the Moache and Jicarilla — whose discovery had sparked the gold rush to begin with — Maxwell sold his land to a company in England. But that company nearly went bankrupt, and the property was purchased by a Dutch-based company that divided it into tracts and sold those pieces to farmers and ranchers.
A Mountainous Gift
And that’s how Waite Phillips, the man to whom Philmont Scout Ranch owes almost everything, came onto the scene. Born in Iowa in 1883, twin brothers Waite and Wiate Phillips had a love of nature that blossomed in the wooded creeks near their home.
Wiate died of peritonitis at age 19; Waite joined his older brothers in the oil business and struck it rich almost instantly — a millionaire in only a matter of years. But, in contrast to Lucien Maxwell, for whom a wealth of gold exposed a nasty side, Phillips was, well, a real Boy Scout.
He donated Philbrook, his family’s mansion in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the city, which turned it into an art museum. But his most significant gifts were to the Boy Scouts of America.
Phillips began acquiring land for Philmont in 1922, envisioning a place for his son and daughter to fish and hunt and ride horses. He called his new property Philmont — a portmanteau of his surname and monte, a Spanish word for mountain. Phillips’ famous friends soon stopped by: Charles Dawes, Calvin Coolidge’s vice-president; Wiley Post, the first person to fly solo around the world; and acclaimed actor and writer Will Rogers.
Around this time, Phillips built a 23-story office building in downtown Tulsa called Philtower. With Philbrook, Philmont, and now Philtower all bearing his name, one pictures a Donald Trump-like figure, quick to put his name on everything he owns. But Phillips was a different kind of rich man. He gave away nearly everything, saying that “real philanthropy consists of helping others, outside our own family circle, from whom no thanks is expected or required.”
It was in this spirit that, in 1938, Phillips offered 35,857 acres of his property to the Boy Scouts of America. Phillips told the Tulsa Daily World that the “ranch represents an ideal of my youth ... and has meant a lot to my son and his pals. Now I want to make it available to other boys. ... I’d be selfish to hold it for my individual use.”
The early success of his gift pleased Phillips so much that in 1941 he made a second donation, this time offering 91,358 more acres that included his stunning summer home, a Spanish Mediterranean house called Villa Philmonte. But he still wasn’t done.
Phillips anticipated the immense cost of operating a massive camp — and doing so without gouging the Scouts who visited. So he made one more gift: Philtower. Phillips figured proceeds from the Tulsa high-rise would pay for Philmont’s upkeep. (BSA sold the tower in 1977.)
These days, 22,000 Scouts and leaders arrive each summer to attempt one of Philmont’s legendary backpacking treks. The easiest are rated “challenging.” The toughest are “super strenuous.” On any given day during the summer, up to 3,500 Scouts are out hiking Philmont’s trails, though the ranch’s vastness means it never feels crowded.
At Philmont base camp, it’s easy to tell which crews have recently returned from a trek. First, you smell them, because bear restrictions limit the use of smellables like deodorant and soap on the trail and instead call for concentrated, unscented soaps. Then you see them. These are changed men and women — tired but smiling. They exude exhausted euphoria, like an athlete who just won the big game in overtime.
They’ll be talking about Philmont as they travel home by car, train, or plane. About singing songs on the trail, summiting mountains, and eating trail food that actually didn’t taste so bad after hiking all day. About panning for gold or shooting black-powder rifles or seeing American Indian petroglyphs. About overcoming rain and blistered feet and sore shoulders. About experiencing heaven on earth.
Learn more about the Philmont Scout Ranch properties online or by calling 575.376.1136.
From the July 2016 issue.