By Robin Jean Marie Conte
My sons went to Philmont this summer. Philmont is the legendary, 214-square-mile Boy Scout ranch in the mesas, mountains, and meadows of New Mexico, the original and ultimate “High Adventure Camp” for the Scouts. My boys and their crew spent 11 days hiking rocky trails with 40-pound packs on their backs.
And I can relate.
Although I can’t say that I backpacked Philmont in my youth, I can say that I backpacked, and I owe that to Sue and Bill Cameron.
Sue Cameron, or “Mrs. C.,” was my Girl Scout leader, and Bill Cameron was her husband. Under their fearless and cheerful guidance, we girls backpacked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, one section at a time, and hiked sections in North Carolina as well. My pack was only about 20-25 lbs., but for a 15-year-old me, who weighed no more than a wet dragonfly, that was plenty of heft.
One of my scouting friends, Susan, recently pointed out that Mr. and Mrs. C. led us at a time before girls were really out there, doing things. There were no girls’ soccer and lacrosse teams at every school. Besides that (and I know this is making me sound very wrinkled and creaky), there was no R.E.I. When we went on a backpacking trip, we didn’t bound into our closest store filled with outdoor recreational equipment and buy whatever we needed. We were doing UltraLight hiking before it was “UL,” and we got very creative.
Mrs. C. taught us to use rinsed-out bottles of liquid detergent for water bottles (and they had to be very thoroughly rinsed, or there would be problems on the trail). We learned to wrap the heads of our toothbrushes in plastic wrap and tie bits of toothpaste in the corners, to squeeze out when needed.
There were no sporks, no collapsible bowls made of squishy silicone. For our eating utensils, we packed a plastic mug and a spoon. We ate instant food mixed with water boiled over the campfire, and we consumed it in the order of thick to thin. We started with noodle dinners, finished with pudding, and finally poured in our flavored water, swished it all around, and drank it down. Then we wiped out our cups with our bandanas and stuffed them back in our packs.
Accompanying us on our backpacking trips was Mr. C. He and several other fathers joined us as male support and comic relief. He was even a registered Girl Scout leader himself, for almost a decade.
When one trip on the AT was thwarted by a torrential rainstorm, the adults diverted us to a cabin owned by one of our scout families. En route to the cabin, Mr. C. and the other dads strung a rope across a stream-turned-raging-river and led us safely to the opposite side; he carried the smallest girl across on his back.
We hung our sopping wet clothes across the one-room cabin and dried out while Mr. C. entertained us with jokes about the “Big Mouth Frog” and sang us silly songs. No matter the situation, Mr. C. wore a smile and an attitude that said, “It’ll be fine — I’m here.”
We Girl Scouts got a call from Mrs. C. two summers ago to celebrate her husband’s 80th birthday. He was singing in his church choir and we were the surprise guests. It was a fine reunion.
We got another call this past winter. Mr. C. had died. The woman who eulogized him at his memorial service did a walk through of his life, pausing at each stage to ask those present who were members of that Cumberland Island camping group or that Easter Sunday sunrise breakfast, to please stand. Then came the time when she said, “and if you were a member of Girl Scout Troop 1106, please stand.” There were 15 of us–more than an entire row–from as far away as Oklahoma and Colorado, and when we stood there was a soft gasp in the congregation.
We reseated ourselves, some of us mothers with Scouts of our own, weepy-eyed but proud to be part of the legacy of Bill and Sue Cameron.
Robin Conte is a writer and mother of four who lives in Dunwoody. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.