Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wilderness trail leads to Emory stories

Life is like a Cliff shuttle: It tends to go full circle. Kim Urquhart's vacation took her back to her college years as an adventure guide in New Mexico, and around to her current role as editor of Emory Report.

By Carol Clark

During her college years, Emory Report editor Kim Urquhart spent her summers working at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. A high-country wilderness spread over more than 200-square-miles, Philmont is rich in wildlife and history.

“Philmont is like Mecca for Boy Scouts,’” Urquhart says. “It was the ultimate summer job.”

Urquhart worked as a photographer, as a mountain-bike instructor at a backcountry camp, and as a guide to the petroglyphs and archeological sites of the ancient Pueblo people who inhabited the area as far back as 1200 BC.

One fall, she extended her stay to work as an Autumn Adventure guide. The Autumn Adventure program allows all-adult groups to experience Philmont, which is normally geared to teenaged Scouts.
A feisty Western hognose snake greets hikers on a Philmont trail. Photo by Kim Urquhart.

Urquhart recalls that her most memorable time was leading an all-woman crew, the mothers of Cub Scouts from Norman, Oklahoma, on a backpacking trip. Something about being out in the wilderness forges bonds with people, she says. “You’re experiencing all this beauty with people of different ages and interests, but you all share this love of the place.”

The group of women kept returning each year. They stayed in touch with Urquhart, and this fall, they asked if she would join them for the 15th anniversary of their Philmont adventures. So in late September, Urquhart spent her vacation with the women in her old stomping grounds: Philmont’s North Ponil Canyon.

She didn’t exactly get away from it all, however: The group was guided by Allison Vinson, who graduated from Emory in May with a degree in environmental studies.
Allison Vinson puts her environmental studies degree to good use as a wilderness guide. Photo by Kim Urquhart.

“I couldn’t help myself,” Urquhart says, explaining why she worked on a multi-media slide show of Vinson during her vacation (see below). “It was fun to find an Emory connection in this remote canyon.”

Vinson comes from a long line of Emory alumni, and counts environmental studies’ Lance Gunderson and Oxford College sociologist Mike McQuaide among her most influential teachers.

“Coming to Philmont was good for me right after graduation, because I’m able to use what I learned in college,” Vinson says. “My goal is to educate people about conservation through hands-on learning.”

In addition to guiding, Vinson has worked as an invasive species specialist at Philmont, and wrote a chapter in the Philmont field guide to flora and fauna.

Despite all the time she had spent in Philmont, Urquhart learned a lot of new things thanks to Vinson. “She talked about how in an Emory botany class she started a field notebook that she wrote in almost every day,” Urquhart says. “She had it with her and still uses it.”

Fire ecology was another topic Vinson knew well. “Fires had burned through where we hiked, changing the face of the canyon,” Urquhart says. “I’d go to a secret spot that I remembered, and it would be gone.”

In transit between Philmont and Atlanta, Urquhart had dinner in a Santa Fe restaurant. One of the eccentric locals started telling her about his home: A bus that he bought through a surplus sale and parked in the desert nearby.

“He showed me a picture on his cell phone, and it was a Cliff shuttle!” Urquhart says.

The man explained that he couldn’t drive the former shuttle bus because it runs on natural gas, and there are no local sources. But sometimes he pretends he’s going somewhere by flipping the signs from “Haygood Drive” to “Clifton Road.”

And with that irresistible Emory story, Urquhart’s vacation became a true busman’s holiday.

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