Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Burro Packing: Epic failure becomes legend

I'm feeling a bit nostalgic today, so I thought I'd discuss one of my more memorable hiking trips as a youth.  This isn't really in line with the same type of backpacking trips that I'd be interested in planning and taking today, but I've always thought it was a great story.  In fact, it's a literal comedy of errors in terms of an outdoor experience, although along with the axiom that "it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye"--well, this one remained all fun and games.  In fact, this experience entered the oral tradition of Boy Scout Troop 967 where it remained for years.  A friend of mine remarked to me once nearly ten years after the fact that he still regretted not being part of this experience.

In what I believe was my last Scout Camp at El Rancho Cima River Camp (or anywhere else for that matter, since I was a Life Scout and finishing up the last details of my official Scouting career) me, Pete Ferguson and Tim Matis were all required by our Scoutmaster, along with everyone else in our Troop, to spend a night on an official "overnighter" off site from our regular camp.  The three of us were among the oldest in the Troop at this point (all of about 14), we'd all been to Scout Camp at least three times now, maybe even four in some cases, and we didn't think that that notion had a lot to offer to us.  As is perhaps all too typical for kids our age and our placement relative to the other kids in the troop, we frankly thought we were just too good for the whole affair.  Nevertheless, being powerless to avoid it, we grumpily sat with the other guys and reviewed our options.

Burro packing very quickly jumped to the front of our consciousness.  The reasoning, if I recall correctly, was something along the lines of the idea that scouts with our experience shouldn't have to carry our own gear.  Stick it on a pack animal and this activity sounds like Easy Street.  Plus, there was supposed to be black powder muzzle loader rifle shooting, which sounded kind of fun.  The three of us quickly claimed a spot on this one, and we were the only ones in our troop to do so.

When the evening of the overnighter came upon us, we found ourselves waiting at the appointed gathering place.  There was a counselor or two (a nineteen or twenty year old guy, if I recall correctly) who had been roped into doing this activity literally half an hour before we were due to arrive.  He was trying to figure out the logistics.  There were two or three other guys (hereafter referred to as the TOGs--Two (or three) Other Guys) who had also signed up from another troop.  I'm sure we must have gotten their names and introduced ourselves at some point, but we promptly forgot them and didn't speak to them again, so from our perspective, they were merely passive hangers-on who were along for the ride.

We waited about an hour over our time for the burro to actually arrive so we could load our stuff on the surly animal.  The last minute and ad hoc obviously disarray of the planning quickly sank to second place as a problem with the activity.  We were expected to lead the animal along the trail.  "Don't stand behind him; he might kick" we were told.  Well, that's all well and good if the animal would follow you, but what actually happened was that we were given the rope tied to his bridle and then we discovered that we were basically being dragged along behind the burro, who seemed much more anxious to reach his destination than we were.  Desperately trying not to fall into range of the very hard-looking rear hooves of the burro while holding the rope, we were all drug by the wretched beast through dense yaupon brush since there wasn't enough room on the trail for both of us to walk side by side and the animal was too impatient (and too big) for us to adequately keep him behind us.  Plus, we were all a bunch of city boys who's experience with the outdoors was limited to things like Scout camp, not farm work, so frankly we just didn't know how to deal with a surly, stubborn animal.  We all had a take a turn "leading" the burro, but we had pretty brief stints before managing to pawn the activity off on the TOGs.

El Rancho Cima is located in the Texas Hill Country, so we had plenty of up and down on the trip, and ended up reaching a rocky summit where we set up camp, tied the burro in a paddock and waited for the next phase of our activity--the black powder rifle shooting, and of course, dinner.

Here, of course, the poor planning and last-minute ad hoc nature of the event became, again, the bigger problem.  The closest we ever got the black powder rifle shooting is thinking that maybe we heard some black powder rifles going off in the distance.  We think.  Rather, we somehow found ourselves skinny dipping in a rocky pool, until we were chased off by extremely aggressive and painful stinging horse-flies.  We quickly scampered back out of the water and into our clothes.

Dinner, it seems, was also destined to be a bust.  A great deal later than any of us expected, we managed to somehow get our hands on a small box of snack-sized Cheetos packs and a water cooler with Kool-Aid or Crystal Light or something in it.  We each got to eat a package or two of Cheetos, then we had to use our empty Cheetos bag (which hopefully wasn't too torn) to put Crystal Light into so we could drink it.  The supply lines of El Rancho Cima clearly didn't lead out into the boonies where we were.

Having now had literally our entire evening turn into a debacle and it starting to get late, we went to retire for the evening.  We discovered that we had one two-man tent.  For six people.  We were also short at least one sleeping bag, since the counselor had been drafted at such short notice that he hadn't grabbed one.  Tim offered his to the counselor, and Tim and I ended up having to share mine.  We were so crowded in the tent that at least one of the TOGs had his head sticking out of the tent on the ground.  We went to bed.  We did not go to sleep.  Excepting the TOGs, the three of us and the counselor talked for hours into the night.  We were also, of course, extremely uncomfortable, which didn't help.  I don't remember much about our conversation, but I do know that semi-delirious on lack of sleep, lack of food, and the sheer ridiculousness of the whole scenario, our conversation seemed like the most lively, hilarious conversation of my life, before or since.  We literally laughed and shouted and hooted and hollered deep into the night, while the TOGs slept.

Then, of course, an extremely fierce thunderstorm passed overhead.  Our tent threatened to blow away leaving us completely exposed.  The sides of the tent, which was an old surplus army canvas tent on a base that was made out of wooden palettes, flapped sharply in the wind getting us fairly wet.  The TOG with his head outside didn't wake up (although his face got pretty soaked.)  We laughed even more at that.

Finally the storm passed, and somewhere between two and four in the morning, we all fell asleep.

To wake up an hour later than we were supposed to.  The counselor had set an alarm on his watch, but either it didn't go off or it didn't wake us up.  Realizing that we were desperately late to return to our merit badge activities and everything else, we dashed up, put our stuff together, and went to load up the burro... only to discover that in the night he had somehow escaped from his paddock in the storm and run off.

Completely bypassing the whole reason we elected burro packing in the first place, we ended up having to stuff all of our gear as best we could under our arms and literally run from our spot back to the main camp, short-cutting and bushwhacking through the woods and ravines for a few miles.  We somehow managed to pull it off so that we missed little more than the flag ceremony, and to stumble our way, groggy and unfed on breakfast, to our first class only a few minutes late.

It's amazing to me how an excursion that was, on paper, such a dramatically epic disaster ended up being literally the most memorable and fondly recalled experience of my entire Scouting career.  The other boys were dazzled by our rendition of events the rest of the week, which got even funnier and funnier as we recounted them, until the entire trip reached some kind of legendary status, and the three of us that managed to go on the excursion became fable-like characters in an oral saga that was passed on in the annals of Troop 967 for years to come.  I've used the burro packing experience several times as an object lesson in talks and lessons, and those of us who went (and those who wish they had) have referred to it off and on again for years.