A Scout Campout in the Mountains
By Mark Williams
The clouds hung low, black, heavy with rain, blocking the sunrise from the land. Trees hunkered down to protect themselves from an approaching storm. A troop of scouts were having a weekend campout in the Bushnell Tanks. The storm began, the rains started to fall, their tents were driven to the ground. They decided to break camp and get back to town. There were 12 adults and scouts, and two vehicles. One was a van and one was a SUV. The only thing between them and the highway home was a small dry stream near Sunflower.
Three months later, the Sun pulling the blanket of night slowly behind it, is preparing the land for rest. Trees seeking the suns last rays are stretching shadows over the undulating land. Drum beats, reverberating off the canyon walls, echoing up the Valley, are calling the participants to campfire. High in the Arizona Mountains, the final night of Scout summer camp is upon us, and like all final nights of summer camp, a flag will be retired.
Clothed in Buckskin, the old Scoutmaster sits, cross-legged, watching the ceremonies proceed. Sitting on a large rock, he holds a walking staff made of Oak that had been hewn from a local tree so many years before. Even though the Scoutmaster used the staff for walking, it had become more than that. The staff had become an indelible reminder of the history of the man and of the campfires he presided over. Feathers adorn the top of the staff, reminding everyone that to succeed in life, one must take wing to reach their potential.
The old Scoutmasters name was Stanley, there was more, James Kent Stanley to be precise, but everyone just knew him as Stanley. He was sixty-six going on sixteen, and although his body could not compete with that of the youngsters there, his enthusiasm outpaced the sum of the whole group. The years of life had taken their toll, with each doubling the effect of the prior. He had a noticeable limp and the elements and the earth had weathered his hands and face, such that they were as gnarled and dry as the trees that had fought the winds of time.
Scouts and leaders from the week’s summer camp enter the campfire grounds, as OA (an honor group of Scouts who encourage care of the earth and camping) members lead the way carrying torches. The dirt, having the consistency of sifted flour; ground by feet of so many past ceremonies before, swirls like a whirlwind encasing Stanley, holding him apart from the group, hiding his perch so as to make him appear that he is floating in air.
As the last torchbearer enters the campfire circle, signifying that all the participants have arrived, Stanley rises from the dust devils like a bear up righting himself on a tree. Arthritic hands moving slowly up the staff were raising him off the rock, making him look ten feet tall. Finally, as he stands erect, the drums fall silent; the participants stand quietly, and the dust devils race to the canyon walls to quiet themselves. The earth releases its energy in a great sigh and the stars begin to awaken in the east as the final glow of the sun touches the western horizon.
Stanley and a torchbearer walk in a clockwise manner around the campfire site. Stanley looks into the eyes of the audience, searching, asking, checking, and seeing if they are prepared for the ceremony. When he reaches the end of the stands, he returns to the rock at the center of the campfire. Four scouts dressed in regalia move to their positions and stand facing him, each with a torchbearer, thus marking a compass point, North, South, East, and West.
Stanley faces North, raising his staff, the Scout speaks “I am the North wind, I bring the rain and the snow, to quench the thirst of the earth.” Lowering the staff he turns and faces East. Again he raises the staff and the Scout says, “I am the East Wind, I bring the sunrise and the promise that each day is a new beginning.” Stanley then turns to the South and the Scout says, “I am the South wind, I spread the seeds of life that will nourish the earth in future days. Finally, turning to the West, Stanley raises the staff, the Scout speaks, “I am the West wind; my brother, the East wind, and I carry the sun across the sky, insuring that each part; the earth, the animals, and the plants, receive their share of the sun."
"As a reminder that the sun will return with my brother, the East wind, I blow this one ember of the sun to light your campfire to warm you and to promise that the sun will return again.” At that instant a bolt of light flies from the edge of the cliff wall, through the trees and into the stack of logs. A roar is heard from inside the logs and a fire bursts forth. The fire reaches 10 feet in height and the cold air that had enveloped the proceedings vanishes in the same instant.
The faces of the audience, softened by the blanket of night, were now etched with sharp contrast from the fire. The cliff that was a black curtain now turns a bright orange red as the campfire leaps from its cradle. The stars that were opening their eyes shut them tight from the brightness and they hide in the safety of the darkened sky. The brightness of the fire illuminated the area around us, reminding us that there is always a world beyond the small circle of our lives.
When the fire recedes from its instantaneous birth, the assistants have disappeared. Torches mark the compass points, defining the outside world beyond our sight, and Stanley is standing in the campfire circle. Stanley begins to speak, in a strong but quiet tone, drawing the attention of the participants to his words, and away from the outside world beyond the campfire. “We can take guidance from the winds. The north wind tells us we must quench our thirst, both in body and mind. The east wind tells us, that each day we start anew. Even though we will have both darkness and sunlight in our lives, we must remember that we always have the opportunity to begin anew. The south wind reminds us to learn from history and with each thing we do or person we meet we are planting the seeds for tomorrow. The west wind reminds us that we cannot live without others, and even in the shadow of our lives, we can still give meaning to those that remain.”
Stanley continues, “Each of you have participated in one of the greatest weeks of your lives! Some of you have come out from the shadows of the trees, and stood in the sun showing your strengths and knowledge.
Some of you know the darkness of striving but not succeeding. Each of you, however, have learned something new, met someone new, and shared in the brotherhood of scouting.”
The fire, having aged, now lives at a level that is right for the final activity. A Scout appears from the Southern Compass point. Walking around the torch he approaches the campfire. In his hand is a vial of ashes. He begins to pour the vial into the fire. He says, “As the south wind brings the seeds of life to the land, I bring the seeds of past campfires to join this campfire reminding us that each future lives in the past of others.”
Stanley, using the oak staff, stirs the fire, mixing the ashes. He says, “We are the sum of our forefathers. We are the hopes and dreams of their efforts. We have come from the strengths of others. We will become the memories of those that follow. Remember to work hard so that the seeds you sow will be strong and healthy.”
From the North compass point, a scout approaches the fire. In his arms are the white stripes of a flag. He says, “As the North wind brings snow, I bring the white of the flag, a color that represents purity, honor, chastity, and cleanliness. It speaks to us of holding our lives up to a higher meaning”. Placing the strips of cloth in the fire, he concludes, “I burn the white”. The assistant disappears into the blackness and the trees. Stanley, again begins to speak, “One important seed of life is holding ones values, of setting ones goals, of keeping to the road of honesty, and integrity.”
Stanley pauses, waiting for the strips of cloth to be consumed by the fire, and letting the dark of the outside world creep in, further binding the group and letting the thoughts of the audience bloom and develop as the stars in the heavens. Stanley moves towards the East torch, away from the fire, but closer to the audience.
A scout, passing Stanley, from the east compass point walks briskly and reverently to the fire. This assistant has the red cloth of the flag. He states, “As the East wind brings the sunrise, I bring the red of the flag. The red is for valor, vigor and for passion. Valor is for the blood spilled by those before us in battle for our freedom. Vigor is so that we do not become complacent in our lives. Passion is so that we live our lives as participants and not spectators! I burn the red”. He then places the red cloth in the fire.
”The cost of freedom is expensive! The cost of survival is pain! However the cost of complacency is much worse!” Stanley continues, “If it were not for men who fought in other countries to protect our freedoms and for those who have watched our constitution we would not have the freedom and the safety that we now have.”
As Stanley turns back towards the fire, the scout from the West Compass point is already standing at the fire. He holds the blue cloth. He begins to speak, “As the West wind brings the sun to rest, and allows the night to flourish, I bring the blue of the flag. The blue is for the heavens; it stands for our closeness to God and for the inspiration of our lives. It stands for royalty and beauty. I burn the blue”.
As the scout moves back to the west, Stanley has moved amongst the scouts. He has what appears as a medicine bag open. He goes about the group encouraging one from here and one from there to take a star from the pouch. A star that once proudly flew along with his brothers, of red, white and blue. Only some us of are able to take a star from his pouch, but he reminds us all that we are each born under a star. That is what makes us special.
He reminds us that the states are what make up the union, and it is the states that set the goals of the country. We are reminded to hold fast to our rights, allowing no one to take them from us.
As he hands out the last star, Stanley says, “Will those who have stars please approach the fire!” After all the people having stars are at the fire, he says, “As we were all born under a star, and each of us have a star, I ask that you place the star in the fire for someone or some event that is important to you. This is so you can remember each time you look into the night sky and see your star.”
I have been given the privilege of having two stars, one for a scout and one for a scoutmaster. I stand before the fire, feelings it’s intensity, making my eyes squint and the jacket I am wearing unnecessary. The roar of the fire, reminds me of the roar of water.
I am taken back to that weekend in March, when the troop left for home and all they had to do was cross the usually dry stream bed. I had gotten the call late Saturday night, a scout mom from the Cub Scout pack that was tied to my troop, relayed the information to me. The troop had started across the river, the van made it fine, but the SUV stalled and there five people sat, trying to figure out how to get the SUV to the other side. All this time the water was rising up the side of the truck. Finally they decided to open the windows and climb on the top of the SUV and wait for rescue.
As the rain continued, 911 was called, and friends stood on the other side of the river bank, next to large road equipment waiting and hoping for a safe ending to their plight. The road equipment can’t be used to help. A helicopter could not come in, as the storm was too much for it to safely fly. So everyone sat, and waited for a plan. After eight hours of sitting on top of the SUV the water breached the SUV and came over the top, causing the SUV to roll. All five were thrown off. Two survived, three were drowned. Two were from my pack and we were friends.
I stand before the fire, unable to fathom the fear that these people must have felt. To have to sit there and watch, waiting, wondering about the outcome. This is why I am here, this campfire, this moment, this starry sky. I feel it is my duty to place these stars for them in the sky, so that they can look over other scouts and make their passages safe. I throw the stars in the fire, and watch as they are lifted upon the flames for their place in the sky.
As the last star is consumed, Stanley, takes the oak staff, stirs the fire one last time. This, he says, “Is to make sure that no part of the flag remains, that if there was, the flag would be defiled and would not receive the honor that it was due, and the stars would fall from the heavens.” He asks the scouts to stand, calling them to attention, and as they salute, he begins singing America the Beautiful.
After the song is completed, the salutes are dropped and the ceremony is closed. The participants leave without a sound, fading into the blackness of the night, their paths home now being lead by their stars. The campfire songs of the past week mix with the ones of years gone by. The wind dries them and hangs them on the trees for those who will return next year to share.
Stanley stands sentinel over the scared fire, as if to insure that the stars placed in the heavens that night will remain till sunrise, insuring their permanency. Singing a song quietly as if a lullaby, quieting the fire that has done its job and will not return for another year. I watch as he moves his hand slowly over the oak staff. I see him pause at some, and smile, I also see he pause at some and see him sigh and his body sags as if a great weight was placed on his shoulders. I see the two marks that I have added, one for a scoutmaster, and one for a scout. This is my history added for another year and another campfire.
Staying till the sunrise, I watch a young scout from camp approach Stanley and offer him a hand up. I wonder will this scout take the old scout masters place when it is his turn to retire. I wonder if the same reverence will be shown, not only to the flag but to all who hold it dear. They walk the path back to the mans lean-to without saying a word.
I sit on the cliff edge, at the back of the campfire area. I watch the west wind carry my stars to rest, and then turn to face the east wind and watch as it brings another sunrise to the land.