Three generations of the Stevens family: David, 15, Scott, 55, and David, then 82, at Philmont Scout Ranch last month. They backpacked for 10 days at high altitudes. Photo provided
David Stevens had never been backpacking before. But he skis and plays golf, so, he thought, how hard could it be?
Besides, he figured, it would be fun to accompany son Scott, 55, and grandson David, 15, on their 10-day backpacking trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in the mountains of northern New Mexico.
“I thought I was in shape,” said Stevens, 83, a retired physician and a former Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council member. “When I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t in as good shape as I thought.
“The uphill climbs were breathtaking, literally,” he said, and the backpack aggravated his sciatica, a nerve condition that can affect the lower back and legs. “It was pretty exhausting, but I made it.”
As of this summer, more than 1 million Boy Scouts and adult leaders have backpacked at Philmont since it opened in 1938. The 137,500-acre ranch has elevations ranging from 6,500 to 12,441 feet, making the air much thinner than in Lexington, at 978 feet above sea level.
Not many three-generation families take Philmont treks, said a ranch spokeswoman, Beverly Ponterio. Stevens wasn’t Philmont’s oldest backpacker, but those older than 75 rarely complete the entire 10-day hike of more than 50 miles, she said.
In a concession to age, Stevens didn’t join the others in hiking to the top of the two tallest peaks: Mount Phillips and the Tooth of Time, a bare rock that is the signature feature on Philmont’s landscape.
Stevens, immediate past president of the Boy Scouts’ 55-county Blue Grass Council, took the trip last month with 40 boys and adult leaders from the region. He was in one of two 10-member crews from Troop 73 at Centenary United Methodist Church. His group was led by Dan Miller, a Lexington lawyer.
Stevens admitted that he should have prepared by doing more than hiking a few miles with a loaded pack at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary and The Arboretum. “It’s not like hiking at The Arboretum,” he said.
Scott Stevens, a radiologist who keeps in shape by cycling, said, “He was fine on the flats and going downhill, but the hills were just all he could do. He had never been backpacking; he didn’t understand how hard it could be, going up those hills at that altitude.”
Scott Stevens hiked with his father while the pace was set by the boys and the fourth adult crew member, pediatric cardiologist Mark Vranickar.
“I was the second-slowest,” group leader Miller said. “I was glad Dr. Stevens was along so I wasn’t the slowest. Not many people his age could have done that trek. It was a challenge for all ages.”
Scott Stevens was impressed when three Scouts offered to carry some of his father’s gear during the toughest climbs. The boys might have hiked a little slower than they would have otherwise, he said, “but they learned something from this; they learned patience.”
After backpacking 4 to 8 miles each morning to the next camp, Scouts were taught new skills by Philmont staffers. They learned to fly fish, throw a tomahawk, shoot a black-powder rifle, climb a pole with boot spars and even milk a goat. They set up and broke camp, cooked all of their meals and cleaned up after themselves.
David Stevens was a Boy Scout while growing up in Louisville in the 1940s; his son was a Scout, too. They are proud of the younger David, a member of the Henry Clay High School golf team who is close to achieving Eagle Scout rank, something they didn’t do.
Stevens said a big reason he went to Philmont was to develop a deeper relationship with his grandson and “see what kind of person he really is.”
“He’s usually pretty quiet when our families get together,” Stevens said. “But he interacted well with his peers, spoke up. I found out that he’s not lazy. He’s good at making up his own mind.”
Stevens’ son and grandson also learned something about him.
“He’s very persistent; he doesn’t give up easily,” his grandson said. “There were times when I thought he wouldn’t make it, but he stuck it out to the very finish, and I thought that was just incredible.”
“I knew he was tough,” Scott Stevens said. “But I didn’t realize how tough he was.”
“I’m glad I went,” David Stevens said. “But I don’t believe I’m going back this year.”