It doesn’t matter what Clyde Keller is doing when he gets an invitation to the Philmont Scout Ranch and the chance to do some shopping at the Tooth of Time Traders, he’ll drop it and head to New Mexico from Pennsylvania.
“All you need to do is say, ‘Would you like to go?’" Keller said, “and I’ll be there in a heartbeat.”
Keller has been visiting the Philmont Scout Ranch for 34 years, since his days as a Boy Scout gearing up for his first 10-day backpacking trip. He’s taken his wife and his son, who also participated in the youth backcountry program, several times.
“It made an impression back when I was only 13 years old,” Keller said. The Philmont Scout Ranch made a lifelong outdoor enthusiast out of Keller, and that’s why the Philmont Scout Ranch and the Tooth of Time Traders won this year’s SNEWS-Backpacker Retailer of the Year Award for Youth Involvement.
This is the second consecutive ROTY honor for the store and program, which won last year for growth in outdoor sports. Manager Shelley O’Neill described a parade and homecoming celebration thrown for staff returning from Outdoor Retailer Winter Market that sounded akin to what Super Bowl champions get after a big victory.
“That was an incredible honor,” O’Neill said. “I told my boss that night at the award ceremony, ‘Did this really happen?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I’m still trying to catch up on what that meant last year and to get this honor this year is overwhelming.”
Doing the critical work
It’s been all over the news and the topic of myriad books and seminars: Children today suffer from nature deficit disorder. And it’s a direct threat to our industry, O’Neill said.
“If we don’t get the youth in the outdoors, I don’t have a job anymore,” O’Neill said. But a young generation that's indifferent to the outdoors doesn’t just endanger the business, she said. “If our industry dissolves, there goes our public lands and everything else because we won’t have people to support the use of those public lands.”
If Tooth of Time Traders keeps selling essential gear to the Boy Scouts (and some Girl Scouts) who come through its doors before their life-changing backpacking trips, we may not have much to worry about.
This past year Philmont served about 23,000 kids, and there is currently a two-year waiting list to attend the summer program. Some parents put children who don’t even meet the age requirement yet on the list so they'll be able to go when the time is right. There is speculation that the one-millionth camper in the Ranch’s more than 100-year history will hit the trails in 2013.
As with many activities, it’s a good idea to get people involved while they’re young, O’Neill said. “If they don’t get that interest when they’re young, it’s really hard to get an adult to say, 'Yeah we’re going to go camping.'”
Shaping retailers of tomorrow
When O’Neill first took over managing the store several years ago, she found it hard to staff up. Now, she’s overflowing with summer workers, who are generally past participants in the backpacking program.
O’Neill said it's because of the ROTY win of last year, but also because kids want to come back and help others have the same amazing experience.
“They call it the magic mountain,” O’Neill said. “They want to be a part of that magic for somebody else and they want to live that magic and be able to pass that on.”
That’s why Chad Hall is coming back again this summer to work at Tooth of Time Traders. He was a participant in the trek in 2001 and 2004, when he was 14 and 17.
Hall, who was born and raised in Georgia, said the experiences on the mountain were unparalleled.
“It literally was a life changing experience,” Hall said. “I don’t use that cliché lightly.”
Hall said when trek participants first come to the Ranch, they are nervous, timid and just a bit scared as they pick up any gear they may have forgotten at the store, but once they get off that trail they’re walking tall with their chests puffed out.
That, O’Neill, is what makes kids want to come back and work. She said she knows that many of her former employees are probably working in specialty outdoor retail shops around the country.
“The store is part of this bigger thing that happens at Philmont,” O’Neill said. “We get a lot of that feedback because we’re dealing with that person actually buying the backpack to get on the trails. We get to hear that from customers because they came into this store and we helped them that their child is going to be a lifelong supporter of the outdoors.”