How Experiences Shape Geographic Thinking

Philmont Boy Scout Camp, New Mexico

Phenomenology, in geography, is defined as how an individual experiences a geographic space through their senses. These senses are not limited to the basic five, but also extend to more subjective feelings. This includes emotions, the flow of time, the self, and the significance of objects. Such concepts are linked to studies of geography as an individual’s senses influences their relationship to their geographic space and thinking.

When it came time to reflect on the concept of phenomenology I could think of no better experience than that of my Rayado trek in the summer of 2019 at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron Mountain Range of New Mexico. I spent 20 days backpacking and camping with people I had never met before. This was all part of the challenge presented by the Philmont Scout Ranch: travel incredibly long distances with people you’ve never met before while not knowing where tomorrow’s destination will be.

Black Mountain Peak, Courtesy of Russel Scow

These challenges influence an individual’s outlook on an experience and shape it. In this way, challenges can be understood as a particular kind of phenomenon. The degree and type of the challenge will alter the way in which the senses understand and record the event. To further explain this, I’ve recalled an event from the Rayado trek that illustrates this principle.

Comanche Peak is a mountain leading up to Mount Phillips, the crown jewel of the southern portion of the Philmont Scout Ranch. It was while we were on Comanche Peak on the way to Mount Phillips that everything went wrong. We had to take shelter underneath a tarp to prevent hypothermia as a hail and lightning storm caught us in the open. This was the result of my collapsing onto the ground under an over-burdened pack and splitting migraine. It was nothing more than an hour-long experience, but I swear I had spent half my life praying that I be spared from being struck by lightning. This space, too, would be greatly exaggerated in my mental map; Comanche would be a larger area than it actually was, while all the mountains we surmounted that day would be smaller.

Mount Baldy Peak, New Mexico

When asking several members of the Rayado trek what they thought of the trek, every conversation always lead back to Comanche Peak. “It felt so long” said Russel Scow, a member of the Rayado trek, “with the lightning, it was brutal.” In the memory of John Palmer, it was, “pretty chaotic” on that mountain top. Doug Scott recalled the immense weight of the tarp that he had brought out to keep us warm on Comanche to keep the crew warm; it was, “the only time I handed something off.” John Lesko, one of our rangers, simply summed up the experience at Comanche through stating: “Philmont can be beautiful 90% of the time…the other 10%, it can be pretty miserable.” It is that statement by John Lesko that I feel best summarizes Philmont as a whole, Comanche Peak included.

It is this shared sense of chaos and suffering that was experienced on Comanche peak that brought us together. We would commonly joke that the rangers accompanying us were “Mom” and “Dad”, but after that day it took a whole different meaning. As we all huddled underneath that tarp, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. This stark memory of camaraderie in such adverse conditions stands out to me as we came to form a collective identity from that event. From there, it would only grow and strengthen. There was even a moment when we lost one of our members, Alex Barteo, due to health complications. After not hearing from him for several days, we held a mock-funeral for him, pouring out a precious carton of chocolate milk in solidarity. To our surprise, not even a minute after our funeral, Alex came back after being dropped off by base camp staff members. This sense of loss and then rejoice upon his return only goes to show this developed sense of a collective identity of hikers, cemented that fateful day on Comanche Peak. In the words of Russel Stow: “I could definitely do it again with the same group of people.” And I do not, for even a moment, disagree with him.

Little Costilla Peak, New Mexico

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Below are the recordings of the conversations between myself and those I interviewed for this blog post.

Doug Scott: March 8, 2o2o
John Palmer: March 8, 2020

Russel Scow: March 9 2020 (Part 1)
Russel Scow: March 9 2020 (part 2)

John Lesko: March 8, 2020 (Part 1)
John Lesko: March 8, 2020 (Part 2)

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