A YOUNG COUPLE WALKS barefoot across the Mesquite Flat Dunes, a vast expanse of hundred-foot-high sand hills in California’s Death Valley National Park. It’s a few minutes past 11 on a 60-degree morning, and the man and woman carry camp chairs. Each has a hardback book tucked under one arm. Their steps make parallel footprints in waves of corduroy sand.
Ostensibly, they’re set for a peaceful, enjoyable day. Until … “Go! Go! Go!”
The Scouts of Troop 19, who interpret “peaceful” and “enjoyable” as antonyms, run as fast as the sand will allow. They’re carrying snowboards and snow sleds, unmindful of the fact that they’re in the driest, hottest, least-snowy place in North America.
Their eyes remain fixed on the tallest dune on the horizon, in too big of a hurry to notice the couple. But the woman sees them. And the novel under her arm evidently becomes a lot less appealing. She turns to the man walking beside her and says, “Oh, sandboarding. That would be so fun!”
She’s right. And what compels Troop 19 to leave its rainy, Bay Area base and make an annual pilgrimage to this remote, arid spot is the chance to ride snowboards down sand dunes. They’re engaging in a brand of frenzied, off-the-wall, guess-what-I-did-last-weekend adventure that keeps Troop 19’s retention rate high year after year.
It starts with Paul Maheu’s “chaos theory.” The sturdy Scoutmaster, whose gray beard and red jacket speak to 18 years of Scouting experience, has helmed the Berkeley, Calif., troop for nearly two decades.
Maheu’s approach to leadership might mean that he’ll never have all the answers, but he knows what works: let the boys get crazy and make mistakes, keep the leash long but stress safety, and do it all from the moment you arrive on Friday night. “Then by the time we leave, they’re a well-oiled machine,” he says. “It gets better and better all the time. They learn better when there’s chaos.”
Good thing. On this trip, the Scouts tested Maheu’s chaos theory long before they made their first sandboard tracks on Saturday.
SCRAMBLED EGGS AND HOT DOGS. That’s one dish, not two. Judging by Coby Stein’s and the Jackalope patrol’s latest breakfast creation, why wait until lunch to cook up some franks when you can have them with orange juice right now?
Maheu’s fine with that. Scouts, he says, can eat whatever they want, but “we do like to recommend they make a real breakfast. We kind of have a no-doughnut policy.”
At the first smell of cooking food, stomachs growl in anticipation. But there’s one problem. “Apparently, after the last trip, the Scouts didn’t clean the dishes—they were in a hurry to leave,” Maheu says. “So they’re scrubbing everything real good today. And the Scouts decided on a new plan. At the first troop meeting after a campout, they’ll clean all the dishes.”
That way they can leave quickly on the final morning and wait to scrub everything when they have easy access to sinks and hot water. Also, the Scouts—not some unlucky dad who stores the gear in his garage—take responsibility for the cleanup. “Scouts need to make mistakes out here,” Maheu says, aiming his weathered hand toward the sandy, sun-streaked camp at the national park’s Stovepipe Wells site, “so they don’t make as many back home.”
He speaks from experience. “If you bring canned goods and forget the can-opener, that’s only going to happen once. I don’t forget the can-opener anymore, but only because I have forgotten it before.”
While Scouts do last month’s dishes, the adults prepare a gourmet feast. Remember, the troop comes from Berkeley, arguably the foodie capital of California. Arlene Zuckerberg slices an onion like a pro chef. Lisa Gessow cuts new potatoes effortlessly. A bottle of pure olive oil sits next to a loaf of 12-grain bread. There’s cinnamon challah bread to dip in goat cheese.
Delicious, for sure, and because several of the troop’s Scouts and Scouters are Jewish, the food’s all Kosher. If not for Troop 19’s willingness to prepare meals for different religious diets, Gessow wouldn’t be here. “There are several Jewish troops,” she says, “but before Troop 19, I couldn’t find one in Berkeley, so I appreciated how accommodating they are. We almost didn’t join Scouts because we didn’t know if it would be possible.” But this troop seems to make everyone feel welcome.
IF TROOP 19 WAS A ROCK BAND, senior patrol leader Isaiah McCole would be the lead singer. Younger Scouts shower him with attention and a barrage of questions. He wears fashionable sunglasses. He keeps the brim on his Scout cap flat and cocked to the side. But here’s the thing: For the cool kid, Isaiah shatters any notion of cliquishness. He talks to Scouts his age, but he doesn’t shun the younger guys, either. He works at keeping every Scout engaged and happy.
That’s especially important for Scouts such as Caleb Sperry and Elias Spainer, both on their first troop trip. As the Scouts on breakfast duty prepare food, Isaiah jokes with Caleb and Elias, two of the youngest Scouts out here. They form a triangle and toss a football around, engaging in friendly ribbing that goes both ways.
“Isaiah, you throw like Tim Tebow!” Caleb says.
“Thank you,” Isaiah replies.
“That’s not a compliment.”
Nearby, Maheu pays attention. He sees the exchange as emblematic of one of Scouting’s strengths. “This is one of the few organizations where all ages are mixed, and that’s great,” he says. “In school they’re all the same age. In Little League they’re all the same age. But in Scouting, they get that unique mix of ages that really teaches them and helps them grow. I encourage that.”
What Maheu means is that unlike some troops, Troop 19 doesn’t form single-age patrols. Older Scouts work with young Scouts as their mentors throughout. And keeping the integrated patrol method functioning smoothly requires some top-notch leadership from the top.
Right after breakfast Isaiah shows some of the leadership skills he’s learned. “Before we head out, everyone get full water bottles,” he tells the group. “Then we’ll do a police line before departing for the dunes.”
Scouts spread out and sweep for scraps, but a problem arises. They’re all rushing to finish, and haste means waste left behind. “Guys, it’s not a race!” Isaiah shouts. “Slow down!”
Then, he has a thought, a proven way to motivate the guys. “But it is a competition,” he says. “So let’s see which patrol can get more trash!”
Meanwhile, Maheu breaks free from the “chaos” for the first time on the trip to chat with the adults. They form a tight circle, most resisting the urge to turn around to determine if the Scouts are missing any litter.
“Thank you all for coming. I really appreciate it,” Maheu says. As the Scoutmaster talks, he makes eye contact with each leader for several seconds. “What we really want to do out here is engage the boys to do as much as they possibly can. That said, your job is basically the safety officer. They’re going to drop food on the ground, spill things, or worse. Don’t worry about that. Trust our boy leaders to get it done. It looks like it’s going nowhere, but it gets better as the trip goes on. I promise.”
ALL THE THRILL OF SNOWBOARDING at a fraction of the cost. That’s sandboarding. But there are trade-offs when swapping white powder for tawny.
On the upside, friction makes sandboarders go slower, making it the perfect beginner’s sport. On the downside, sandboarders can’t use a chairlift. They have to walk back up, and returning to the top for another run conjures images of Sisyphus and the boulder. “It’s like a StairMaster with sand,” says assistant Scoutmaster Harry Delmer, who recommends an efficient, diagonal route up the dunes.
After he catches his breath, Delmer explains why he’s here. “My son got Eagle in 2004, but I’ve stayed in for seven more years out of loyalty to Paul [Maheu]. He just has a charisma that 99 percent of men don’t have.”
The same might be said for Isaiah, who spots a younger Scout having difficulty reaching the top of one dune and rushes to catch up to him. Climbing is literally two steps forward, one step back—each effort half as productive as it should be.
Though the tallest dune reaches only about 100 feet high, the climb takes it out of you. Some of the Scouts even reconsider whether they want to go up for a second run. What goes down must huff and puff back up.
“How ya doing there?” Isaiah asks, patting the struggling Scout on the back. “You got this!” And the Scout, with Isaiah at his side, finally makes it to the top.
The scene at the top of the dune is chaotic but controlled. Most of the adults find a sandy seat and silently supervise, meaning Scouts can do pretty much anything that won’t get them hurt. And they do: tossing discs to troop mates 500 feet away and 100 feet below, carving “T19” in the sand, trying every possible way to get down the dunes by boarding, sledding, running, cartwheeling, front-flipping, and even swimming (lay on your stomach, start swim motion, coat yourself with sand).
In case their non-Scout friends back in Berkeley might want to see evidence of this extreme adventure, they also capture almost everything on video. The adults take their turns, too, like when Delmer—who has never been on a skateboard, snowboard, or even skis—straps on a board and glides down smoothly.
Two hours later, everyone is wiped. Sand dunes that were screensaver-perfect on arrival are peppered with hundreds of footprints—traces of all the effort expended getting back to the top. But before you call this a Leave No Trace violation, remember that by morning, winds will erase all evidence of Troop 19’s presence, leaving a fresh canvas behind.
AS THE LIGHT FADES on Saturday night, Dominic Montagu eyes the Jackalope patrol’s dinner. “Stir-fry chicken,” he says. “Looks good. One of the few dishes they make really well.”
Is this their signature dish, a visitor asks? “No. I’ve only seen them make this twice. Their signature dish is hamburgers, burned on both sides,” Montagu replies, laughing.
But he remembers a time when the troop’s meals were laughable. That came to an end when the Scouts appointed Life Scout Michael Stromberg as Grubmaster, a youth-created position with its own unofficial patch. “The position was created after some memorably bad meals,” Montagu explains.
He remembers one patrol bringing microwave popcorn (tough to enjoy without power outlets or a microwave) and the time Scouts had everything they needed to make omelets except eggs. Now, Stromberg approves the menus, helps with grocery shopping, and organizes supplies. “With the Grubmaster, the Scouts’ meals have gotten remarkably better,” Montagu says.
Notably, he makes that comment before learning what the Minutemen patrol plan to make for breakfast the next morning. The Jackalopes have whipped up traditional pancakes, but the Minutemen are preparing a blueberry-cocoa concoction that combines blueberry pancake mix with hot chocolate powder, cow’s milk, rice milk, and chocolate chips.
Stir, cook, and, if you’re brave enough, eat. The result? More “Um?” than “Yum!” But the Minutemen finish every last pancake, as well as the leftover batter, before Isaiah notices someone is missing.
ON THE FINAL MORNING in Death Valley, the campsite comes alive with Scouts packing up and cleaning up. Trunks open, air mattresses exhale, and tents collapse. Scouts shove blueberry-cocoa-covered dishes into Action Packers. But Isaiah notices Jaime’s tent remains an island.
“Are you up yet?” he asks. Silence.
“Jaime?” Isaiah calls, a little louder this time. Nothing. “Oh, no!”
Isaiah runs toward Jaime’s tent. “Jaime!”
“Yeah?” Finally! Life.
“Let’s go!” Isaiah implores.
The clock’s ticking, but Maheu stands calm, pensive. If his chaos theory holds up, every job will get done without his intervention. As Isaiah bends down to help Jaime pack, Sam Gessow heads toward the cars, shouldering a full backpack. His tent has disappeared. “Sam gets first prize today,” Isaiah announces.
Save another trophy for Isaiah, though. The way Maheu thinks, a strong youth leader is the MVP of a functioning troop. “I like to take the older boys aside and tell them, ‘Here’s what we want to get done today,’” Maheu says. “But with Isaiah, I don’t even have to tell him anymore.”
PLAN YOUR VISIT TO DEATH VALLEY
Where: Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada. The 3.4 million-acre site ranks as the largest national park outside of Alaska.
Closest Airport: McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, an easy, 2.5-hour drive via Highway 95 north out of Las Vegas. Take that for 90 miles, and then turn left on Nevada Highway 373 for 25 miles. Then turn right on California Highway 190, and drive 30 miles to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Find specific directions at the park’s website.
When: The park is open year-round, but summer heat can be life threatening. Death Valley holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on earth: a sizzling 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Spring is the most popular season, but visitors also flock during winter holidays. Reservations are helpful during peak seasons.
What: Hikes, nature walks, living history tours, ghost towns, bicycling, bird-watching, horseback riding, scenic drives, backcountry camping, volcanic-crater exploring, and more.
Camping: Nine campgrounds, with four open year-round. Troop 19 stayed at Stovepipe Wells, a large area with a general store, tables, fire pits, and flush toilets.
Sandboarding: Sandboarding and sledding are prohibited at the more-remote Eureka Dunes. The Mesquite Dunes, which Troop 19 carved up during its trip, are OK for any non-motorized use.
Don’t Miss: Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, which sits at 282 feet below sea level. Crystallized salts form a thick, crusty surface you have to see to believe.
Did You Know? Despite its remote location and the fact that it’s the hottest, driest, lowest place in North America, more than 1 million people make a visit to Death Valley National Park every year.
Learn More: Visit nps.gov/deva.
“WHAT ARE THOSE SNOWBOARDS FOR?” the park ranger asks.