Report on the 2022 Zia Experience

Abilities Digest writer Janet Kelly took part in the Zia Experience last summer. Here is what she saw. The article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Abilities Digest.

Doe and faun among Philmont tents

Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is nestled in the Sangre de Christo Mountain Range near the town of Cimarron, about an hour east of Taos. It is beautiful there, to say the least. The air is cool and clean. The deer are in abundance grazing the grass outside the Villa while their little fawns scamper and bound in the joy of living the Philmont life. The people are friendly and kind. The ice cream at the local creamery is divine and the parking lot wasn’t too bad this year.

“Are you ready?” came a mom’s voice from the tent sites near the camp office. “Don’t forget your water bottle!” Glancing around, you could see “the guys” from Troop 263 lining up to trudge over to the flag area so they could wait for the bus to take them to the Dino Trek. They were pretty pumped. Hiking at Philmont! This is what they came for!

The Zia Experience Family Adventure Camp is an opportunity for those with disabilities to experience Scouting with the support from a dedicated Philmont Training Center staff (PTC) and volunteer faculty from the National Special Needs and Disabilities Committee (NSNDC). During the weeklong adventure, daily activities are planned and executed depending on the needs of the people attending.

Philmont staffer in T-Rex costume

This year the Dino Trek was added to the agenda. It is a mildly rough trail, not strenuous, but full of rock rubble and a gradual ascent. The endpoint is the Tyrannosaurus rex fossilized footprint. To add a little zest to the hike, one of the Philmont staff donned a T-Rex inflatable costume and made an appearance from behind some boulders. Definitely jazzed our excursion up a notch! Then it started to rain. At first it was gentle and spotty and then it was just raining. Steadily. Along the trail. the way became muddy and very watery. Everyone had ponchos on. Some had umbrellas.

The parents slogged along with the sons. Some of us were slip sliding away. One fell, bounced back up, and continued. The coolest thing was when I heard them all singing in the rain! Just bellowing out a tune and laughter floating in the air while we trudged back to the bus pick up area. The best thing about the whole experience was when someone commented that they had just hiked like a Boy Scout…in the rain! He was joyous! A smile from ear to ear!

The kicker is this hike was only a total of two miles. We were in country where Scouts trek for miles and miles up and down mountainsides in the rain, hail, snow, and heat. Miles. Seven and ten and twelve day hike miles…totals of 90+ miles in many cases.  I’m sure some would roll their eyes at this troop’s accomplishment, but when you consider who was doing the hiking, it WAS an accomplishment! And IN THE RAIN!!! Amazing!

They were thrilled and that was only the second day at camp.

Horseback riding involved volunteers to be on either side of a rider and his horse if the rider was unable to control the horse. There were several staff who are very competent riders. They led us on a trail near the horse corrals, past a pioneer wagon, and into the grassy fields. Each horse had a name its rider was asked to remember. Tim was up on Jelly. He was designated to tag along at the end. When Tim asked why, he was told that Jelly tries to kick all the other horses. “That’s bad,” stated Tim rather matter-of-factly.  I was then and there definitely on the alert for any shenanigans Jelly was thinking up. Very fortunately PTC staff Heather was walking next to me and was ready and able to intervene if necessary. Horses definitely have personalities and senses of humor!

Rappelling was another matter. Brian and his crew of tremendously patient and skilled staff helped all of the guys get into their gear and led them to the rappelling towers. NSND volunteer Chris Werhane had all of his adaptive equipment ready to go when the climbing got tough and intervention was needed. The guys were shown how to rappel up and how to get down. After that, parents stood by to help and encourage. Some of the guys like Danny and Kendrick, made it to the top and rang the bell. Some guys barely got past the first few footholds before they slid back down. Everyone tried though. Everyone. Quentin, belted into a sling, participated in lifting himself up in the air with ropes and pulleys. Simple machines that made the experience so moving, everyone was shouting for him to pull and push. Quentin made it about 10 feet in the air before he was gently let back down to the ground. Lots of hugging and back slapping after that feat.

Philmont Zia participant with targets from the shooting range

Shooting sports was another exciting activity that everyone participated in. Jim and his team of PTC range officers were phenomenal in support and explanation. There was .22 caliber rifle shooting, 12 gauge shot gun shooting, and tomahawk throwing. There were Adaptive Conference participants helping each Zia participant. There was much concentration and encouragement on all firing ranges. Some guys did great. Some never hit the target. It didn’t really matter. It was the experience of learning about firearms, remembering range rules and holding and loading a rifle that was thrilling to many who had never touched a gun. Ever. Tomahawks were quite a challenge. When someone experienced flips his/her wrist and nails the target, it looks easy. However, try it out and see what a challenge it really is! Our guys did and stepped up to the plate in form and fun.

The guys also visited Kit Carson’s ranch at Rayado. They learned about making nail hooks and actually got to forge some with hammers and tongs. Goats and chickens abounded. Some cheeky chickens ended up balancing on the heads of a couple of the troop’s more courageous souls. Shouts of laughter were heard echoing in and around the courtyard.

The beautiful Scout Museum held some artifacts that all the Scouts could relate to, including many of the merit badges, eagle required merit badges, handbooks, tents, and uniforms of old. The story of the lone wolf, Lobo, was one of their favorite spots in the museum.

The nights were filled with social activities. Everyone had a lot of fun. There was ice cream, cobbler, roping “calves,” dancing and singing and then falling asleep with a happy, tired feeling from a day well lived.

Each day at PTC, the NSND volunteer faculty and the Adaptive Conference course participants were there to help the guys in Troop 263 enjoy their week at Philmont. By the end of the week everyone was tired, but happy. We ALL had a mountaintop experience… ALL of us.

Come join us next year for the Zia Experience at Philmont Scout Ranch 2023. Check out the schedule of courses as it becomes available this winter on the Philmont Training Center web site. Be there!