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I Hated Boy Scouts

Dude & Granite ascending Baden-Powell

I hated Boy Scouts.

The organisation, the activity, not the people. Joining the Cubs wasn’t my idea, as I recall. My parents probably thought it would be good for me, get me mixing with other boys, toughen me up. I jumped at the idea: camping, knives, a cool uniform. But once I was in, I was trapped, my Saturday afternoons lost forever. The solitude I enjoyed, the roaming for miles and hours through the mangrove wetlands and mudflats of our bayside suburb, was sacrificed for group chants and arcane Jungle Book rituals…

*****

MAY, 2010

Day 23 on the PCT. A 27-miler, alone, from the Sheep Fire Detour at Mile 344, up into the San Gabriel Mountains. In the afternoon, I lose the Trail on a steep snow-covered slope; a bad slip and I stop my fall with a foot jammed against a tree. Unnerved, tired, I emerge into foul wind and bleak sky…

..and onto deserted Highway 2 at Inspiration Point. Inspiration eludes me. Too late to hitch into Wrightwood; I cross, harassed by an angry swarm of snowflakes, and after a desperate search in a gully festooned with windblown trash, settle on an awful tarp site. A wet and windy night, and I’m back on the road at first light, hungry, fingers aching, ready to hitch. Only coffee will save this morning.

A young woman from New York State, heading to the roadside bathroom. “Trouble”, her name. Her companions emerge from their camp on the far side: “Dude”, her man, lanky, hairy, eyes hiding behind perpetual shades. “Rif-Raf”, a man who hikes in a skirt. Sharp-tongued “Fidgit” in her floppy flower-hat. “Terrapin” and “Granite”, a married couple from the east who met on the Appalachian Trail. I learn all this later, in town. They’ve already been in, but this weather sucks — they’re gonna hitch back.

“Might see you in there.” I wait, gloomily, at the edge of this lost highway. And wait…

A rare car and a kind local. I’m soon swinging down into town. Breakfast is large, and long…

I hated Boy Scouts.

Building strange and useless structures with wood and rope. Kipling-esque nicknames — Akela, Bagheera — and badges I aspired to possess but lacked the willpower to attain. Roughhousing with boorish brats I didn’t like. Team activities. The all-knowing smugness of  badge-smothered achievers.

I missed my treehouse in the mangroves, swimming in the sea, war games with small-town friends, forts of sand, mangrove-seedpod missiles. I didn’t want to learn knots. And camping? A precious weekend dumped for two days of misery under canvas with obnoxious louts. I’d have tears in my eyes as my parents drove off…

*****

Wrightwood is a warm little mountain town. I see the others later; they direct me to the home of Ray and Susan, locals who open their home to whatever trail transients summer delivers. A dozen of us do laundry there, spend the night on their floor, porch, in their backyard. Much talk of snow: behind, ahead. Town rituals of eating, resupplying, the post office. Big pizzas and beer devoured with my new friends.

I don’t remember if I was asked, or did the asking, but after our “zero day”, I climb into the pick-up to head back out with the others. That snow has given me a scare. And I hear there’s a lot more of the stuff on our next obstacle challenge…

The ride out: Trouble, Fidgit, Rif-Raf

..a 2,867m mountain called Baden-Powell

Wikipedia Commons: Richard Ellis http://yosemitephotos.net/

I hated Boy Scouts.

But somehow, badgeless, clueless, hopeless, I was made Sixer (leader) of Red Six. I could barely lead my own shadow. It never occurred to me to beg my parents to set me free. I suppose I thought it would upset them. So countless Saturday mornings crouched forlornly over leather shoes, applying polish. Afternoons squatting in mystical circles, Akela in the centre, chanting:

Sixer: DYB, DYB, DYB, DYB!*

(Hands drop to a salute. Akela returns salute.)

Cubs: We’ll DOB, DOB, DOB, DOB!**

* Do Your Best!

** Do Our Best!

*****

The zero in town was a smart move. We’re hiking up the steep switchbacks in formation, the sky blown clean and blue, snow gleaming deep across the path. Granite carries a GPS; a huddled consultation and we quit the Trail and head straight up the side of Baden-Powell. No point wasting time on buried switches when we can use the snow to our advantage.

Granite leads, his big, powerful legs stomping deep, determined footprints, a human snowplough. We file after him, grateful the hard work is getting done for us…

Dude & Granite on Baden-Powell

I hated Boy Scouts.

Years passed. I graduated to the more grown-up cult of Scouts. Oh, misery! I was at high school now, which is wretched enough for any delicate youth. And now it was my Friday nights I was losing, three long hours after a week of school. Other kids were home with their TV or venturing out into the real world. And there I was, still badgeless, still utterly mystified about what the hell I was doing, games with compasses I never won, building more elaborate but equally pointless structures.

I was promoted, through another colossal mix-up, to patrol leader of Eagle Patrol. Half my charges were delinquent youths from the local orphanage. They threw knives at trees, smuggled booze to camps. Swore like sailors. Murdered innocent saplings with tomahawks; buried cans of condensed milk in fires till they exploded. Some prank where they doused my father’s down sleeping bag in a vile concoction. I learned a lot about woodcraft in the Scouts.

*****

Baden-Powell, you big, beautiful bastard. A steady, exhilarating climb, hard work, the sunshine a soothing balm. Through open conifer forest, over a series of false summits…

Trouble pays a visit

..and we stop for lunch, right there on the snow. A lone New Zealander joins us, grateful for our footprint trail. Rif-Raf assembles one of his gourmet sandwiches…

Some weird ethnic food called "vegetables".

I hated Boy Scouts.

Three hours, three eternities. Training myself not to check my watch. 10:00pm and I was free. Oh joy! My father waiting in the car in his dressing gown, the drive home down the dark, empty roads, neither of us talking, my mind already swirling with plans for my two days of liberty…

An eternity of Fridays, one or two still vivid in my mind. Playing a “wide game” — a strange quasi-military exercise in the dark — some of my delinquent troops went a little too wide, smashed some windows of the local train station with rocks. We patrol leaders were summoned to the Scout Leader’s office in disgrace and stripped of our rank for the night…

The night I arrived to be taken aside by the Leader and sternly informed my empty, unembroidered sleeves wouldn’t do — I was a patrol leader. Soon I was running up and down the suburban streets in the dark, doing callisthenics, till my suffering was considered worthy of a Fitness badge. That and the Aviation badge I reluctantly attained (an airport visit, a scrapbook of plane pictures) were the sum total of my scouting achievements…

*****

Lunch over, we stomp onward and upward. The summit comes into view. That feels like DIRT — oh, you sweet, beautiful dirt — underfoot, as Granite breaks into a trot…

I hated Boy Scouts.

Even now, 30+ years later, I can recite the Scout Promise from memory:

On my honour
I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God and
To the Queen,
To help other people, and
To live by the Scout Law.

The Scout Law? You tell me. That one’s gone for good…

*****

..and we’re here, elated. I’m amazed, as ever, to realise I’m having fun…

..as we pose for our summit shot…

Another day, another summit.

..and after a little celebratory ritual of our own, check out the monuments to the man himself…

..the man whose creation sentenced me to countless Fridays, Saturdays and weekends of unhappiness.

My pack at rest.

So I suppose I’m a tad ambivalent as I view the weathered monuments. It was a long time ago, and I feel nothing whatsoever for the man. Or do I? Okay, maybe a lingering resentment. The peak’s connection with him, as far as I know, is limited to its name. Unlike Baden-Powell, I’ve actually climbed it, and there’s a far stronger connection between me and this 2,867m lump of snow-draped rock.

Still, it’s strange to be thinking of those days again, so far away in years and miles.

We head down, another cross-country GPS adventure, happily ignorant of the location of the real path…

We’ve done our best.

*****

I hated Boy Scouts.

One Saturday I told my mother I don’t want to go anymore. Didn’t want to be one anymore. “That’s alright,” she said, “But you’ll have to call the leader and tell him yourself.” The hardest call I’d ever made. I felt like a teenaged Judas as he said, “Oh…okay,” and I could taste the disappointment in his voice. 

Why hadn’t I done it years before? It was so quick, so easy.

No more group activities in the forest, no more camping. No more knots, or backpacks, or pointless toil.

No more damned hiking.

I was out.

The Scout Law.

Next post: Contemplating mortality in Fribourg

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good write up. I know a bloke who has a comfortable Chesterfield couch you can lie on, dim the lights and purge your scouting memories if you like? By the way, I like the look of the ‘dude’ and I noticed his beard is a little bit more realistic than the $6 one I bought! He’s nailed the hiking look I’ve always wanted.

    July 12, 2011
    • Cheers, Greg. Blogging as therapy — I recommend it. That couch does sound lovely though. I like the look of the whole bunch of us in those shots, a real motley crew indeed.

      July 12, 2011
  2. Oh yeah, that’s a great hiking photo. I love it.

    July 13, 2011
  3. trailguy2011 #

    Yowser…that’s some serious vitriol for the ole BSA! Come on, not one happy memory? Maybe I’m alone on this one but I really got a lot out of my scouting experience. Was it all roses…na, but that would just be plain BORING. My Dad was our Scoutmaster for a good chunk of the time so maybe that’s what made the difference. Sorry you ended up with such a scummy group…that sucks!

    I’m happy to see that your experience didn’t deter you from a love affair with the outdoors. Did you do the whole PCT last year or just sections? I’ve done a couple sections here in Washington State but would love to do the whole thing eventually. Wonder what my trail name would be…hmmmmm…

    July 13, 2011
    • Hey Trail Guy, Yeah, I must’ve had some good times, and space precluded a couple of nice memories: discovering Abba on a camp (well, I was young, and hadn’t found punk rock yet), and performing in the “Wonargo District Revue”, a big scout theatrical thing. I knew, writing this, that it might disturb some American readers – – scouts are taken very seriously over there! I think my feelings stem from being very shy and very fond of my freedom even then…

      Oh, and I did 2,155 miles or so — stopped at the WA border, so that state is still on my list!

      July 13, 2011
  4. trailguy2011 #

    2,155 is some seriously impressive mileage my friend…but ouch, you stopped right when things were going to get REALLY interesting. WA to Canada is probably the most scenic stretch.

    Give me a shout when you’re gonna come thru…I may pop up and do a section with ya. Seriously…it would be fun!! I can talk you down from hating on the Boy Scouts so bad…lol

    July 14, 2011
    • Hey thanks, that’d be great! Lots of folks said I quit just before the good part — but I was proud to make it that far, I’d just run out of steam and time.

      July 14, 2011
  5. Catherine L.M. Trouble Murray #

    Mr. Mountain Goat!
    Ahh, the memories fom that lovely day! And I have such fond recolections from Wrightwood, where eryone is disconcertingly nice. The BYOB pizza place (Cali pizza is really only a facimile to a New Yorker), camping in Ray’s backyard, beware the Cali brownies and gifts from strangers…..(Snow White’s apple?) The memories never end. That was the beginning of our replacement foreiner after we lost Frog. Thank you for keeping our numbers at lucy seven. I remember you that first morning coming out of the fog, cursing the cold (duh, ultralighter! Go team Heavy! warmth and comfort!) looking rather scrappy and scraggly. I remember being on the fence untill bumping into you at the coffee shop and discussing the merits of some goofy band, Duran Duran perhaps it was? Tru love after that!

    And to Gregg, RE: Dude’s beard. It is the real deal, I have never seen his chin. A hallmark perhaps to mountain men of the past centuries…..

    Hike on Hikers! Trouble. <3

    July 14, 2011
    • Trouble, great memories indeed. W’wood is in my top 3 trail towns I think. Meeting you guys is part of that.

      July 15, 2011
      • Catherine L.M. Trouble Murray #

        I love you!
        Dude says “hello”!
        Miss Ya, Where exactly are you right now anyway?
        L.M.Trouble. <3

        July 15, 2011
      • I’m in Brisbane, already planning a top secret trip for next year. Big hey to Dude and love to you both.

        July 15, 2011
  6. Andrew #

    I was in the Cubs for a couple of years in a small town. All they really did was kick a football around. Hardly any motivation to get badges.
    It was much more fun being a scout in the army!!

    July 24, 2011

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