Strenfest SW 2020 was located in the heart of the Blue Range Primitive Area in eastern Arizona. This was a multi-hour drive away from all attendees this year, and so Day 1 of Strenfest involved simply getting there.
I had arrived a day early to set up, so in the morning and afternoon I worked to prepare the campsite, including building a rudimentary path to the campsite from the parking field near the road. This path ran through a forest, across a river and through another field before finally making its way to the flat spot where we set up camp.
A photo of the Blue River, with the Whiteface cliffs rising above in the background. This photo is taken along the path to the campsite, about 200 yards from camp. We scaled these cliffs on Day 4.
As evening began to set in, two attendees arrived - Abe Levkoy, Colorado chapter (@abe) and Nick Larovere, Arizona chapter (@nicklarovere). A third attendee would not arrive until Day 3.
Once these two gentlemen arrived we set to work getting our first fire of Strenfest started. We built an upside-down fire, inaugurated it by sprinkling it with ashes from the 2019 East Coast Festival of Strenuosity (mailed to us by the indominable @averyb!) and lit it.
Strenfest SW 2020 had officially begun!
Once the coals got hot we made our first dinner - pulled pork sandwiches. My lovely wife made the pulled pork prior to the trip and we heated it up over the coals on the fire. Once it was nice and warm we served it up and it was fantastic. The meat was not ready until well after dark, so we consumed these sandwiches by firelight.
The best parts of any Strenuous Life event, and certainly of Strenfest, are the conversations held around the campfire after dinner. This conversation with fellow TSL members was described by prospective attendees as by far the most anticipated feature of the event, and I can happily say that Day 1's after-dinner discussion was the first of several fantastic evenings we spent around the fire.
As the hour got late the fire died down, and we soon retired to our tents. Wakeup time the next day was bright and early - 6AM - and I suspect we all fell asleep quite quickly.
I recall a light rain started up not long after I had curled up in my sleeping bag - it drummed gently on the rain flies and lulled us into a pleasant sleep.
Day 2 was the first full day of Strenfest. We woke at 6AM, as we did each day this trip. Normally I sleep badly in tents but on this night, and every subsequent night, I slept just fine.
Nick lit our breakfast fire that morning using char cloth and a ferro rod and in no time at all we had a nice fire going.
We cooked eggs and sausage for breakfast in a cast iron skillet. These took a long time to cook but came out delicious - great fuel for a strenuous day.
After breakfast we held our first badge workshop of the event, and this was Knotsmanship.
We began by walking through whipping and fusing. Each of us got a chance to both fuse some lengths of paracord and whip some lengths of hemp rope, which we then used for the remainder of the workshop.
After this we walked through each of the required knots: square, figure-8, bowline, sheet bend, two half-hitches, taut line, timber hitch, and (with assistance from knotmaster Abe) trucker knot. In between learning the knots we tested our knowledge with a few knot-based challenges, seen below.
One particularly fun challenge: we created a long line by sheet-bending several short lines together, threw it over a branch, hung a bear bag on one end with a bowline, and secured it with two half-hitches.
After knots came lashing. We demonstrated and tested square, diagonal and shear lashings.
We intended to actually lash together a structure to test our lashing skills, but we had to move on to our final challenge, which was: creating a rope stretcher using a variety of knots. We used the a design from AOM's article on improvised stretchers, modified to incorporate poles.
Did our design work? Well - somewhat! We selected the stick-poles for straightness, and not so much for integrity, and as a result one stick broke when we first lifted Abe. But despite the break, we could lift our patient and carry him around. If you're improvising stretchers, the assumption is that your patient is already stable - so we agreed that in a real medical situation you'd take plenty of time to find better and stronger poles.
After completing our Knotsmanship badge work, it was lunchtime. During lunch we had a visitor – a decent-sized prairie rattlesnake slithered through camp.
The rattler was totally at ease and ignored us entirely. We watched it go and took photos. What a cool experience!
After lunch it was time for our second badge workshop – First Aid.
The First Aid badge is primarily a knowledge-based badge, meaning that the workshop consisted of me explaining everything I know about the various first aid requirement topics. To make this interesting, I tried to present it socratically: we walked around the Blue River valley as we talked, and we went over the various items using a question and answer format.
Every so often we paused for a practical exercise. We practiced putting on tourniquets, tried out an emergency blanket, and practiced placing someone in the recovery position, among other things.
We also worked on patient transportation. Aside from fireman's carry, Nick showed us the shoulder drag and packstrap carry, and we also tried a couple of two-man carries.
Before breaking for dinner, we walked a short distance from camp to visit a natural spring. This spring is accessible only via bashing through several meters of thick brush, but the challenge is worth it.
The spring flows quickly enough to drink from, which we all gladly did after a long and strenuous day.
Finally, it was time to head back to camp for another fire, this one made by Abe, and another dinner, made by me.
Our dinner tonight was burgers. We cooked these over the coals as the sun went down and they came out fantastically. After two campfire meals we had dialed in how to get properly hot coals and so the patties cooked very quickly.
After this fine dinner we sat around the campfire and as the last bit of light left the Blue we went around and each told an interesting personal story about ourselves - a fine campfire activity. This led to discussions which lasted until a decently late hour.
We eventually retired to our tents to try to get some sleep, bringing the first full day of Strenfest to a close!
Day 3 was our second full day, and it began with another pleasant 6AM wakeup.
I started this morning with a teepee fire and using the coals from this we cooked pancakes and bacon.
There was no time to be lost as we all headed out for our morning event, which was a volunteering / service event. This is a tradition held since the earliest days of The Strenuous Life - all Strenfest meetups ought to involve at least one form of service. In our case we did two things: first, we split a bunch of logs, and second, we cleaned up litter along the dirt road leading down the Blue River canyon.
Okay, so I'm cheating just a little by counting splitting the logs as "volunteering" - seeing as the primary beneficiaries of the resultant firewood are the owners of the property - that is, my family. But my father did ask us to split the logs while we were here, and so I figure it at least partially counts as a good deed.
It's hard to find another activity with the raw strenuosity of chopping firewood. Each of us split 15 logs, and in so doing earned a requirement for the Lumberjack badge.
Once we were done we loaded it all into the woodshed and found we could barely fit it all. I expect this will last my family many winters. Thanks guys!
After splitting the logs we headed to our second service event - cleaning up litter.
The road leading down the canyon is a pretty road and as you drive down it you'll find that the local residents keep it fairly clean. However, if you peek over the side of the road down the many hills, you'll find quite a bit of garbage that has rolled down and accumulated below. The older folks up here aren't always able to walk down these steep hills and clean up - that's where we come in.
One of the benefits of cleaning up trash from forest hillsides - you tend to find some interesting things. In our case, among other things we found a mostly-complete skeleton, with skull still present.
The trash cleanup was a success. We walked a half mile and filled three trash bags, which we neglected to take a photo of, so you'll have to take my word for it. Our turnaround point was a pretty overlook above the river, where we snapped this cool photo of Abe and Nick:
Not long after we took this photo we hauled the garbage back to camp and broke for lunch.
As we walked down the road back to camp a truck passed by and stopped - it was Alan Chintis, Arizona chapter (@achintis), our final attendee! We directed him to the property and, upon returning, helped him unload his things and set up his tent.
With all attendees present we made a quick lunch. I also took this opportunity to fill my water bladder from the spring.
After scarfing down our food we went right to our second workshop of the day.
Our second workshop of Day 3 was Scout badge, one of the ones I was most looking forward to.
We began by making ranger beads for everyone. I've found that you can never have too many ranger beads - you think one set is enough, and then you get a second pack and wish you had a second dedicated set of beads.
Following making the beads we determined our pace count, and then immediately used this to measure off distances for the Scout badge fitness tests. In all we did the 100 yard sprint, 50 yard sprint and 50 yard low crawl.
Doing these fitness tests over the uneven forest ground instead of a flat manmade track certainly added to the experience, I think appropriately so.
After running our fitness tests we moved on to doing field estimations. We estimated the height of a tree, the width of a river, the time to sunset, and the distance to something far away. In all cases we took separate distances and then compared our results - happily in most cases we were all fairly close to one another, and to the real distance as well. These techniques work!
We also talked about, and in some cases tested, a few different ways of finding north without a compass. One thing we didn't do is take any photos, so in lieu of that, here's a nice photo of some red cliffs above our campground, taken earlier on Day 3.
Our last Scout badge event was a short walk along the road which we tracked using our newly-made ranger beads. We ended up walking about a mile and a half down the road, and then a mile and a half back, which the beads helped us to accurately track. Once again we found that our internal estimates were all fairly close to one anothers, which was pretty neat to see.
There's a lot of requirements in Scout badge, and we couldn't hit them all, but I'm pleased with the ones that we did hit. After returning from our ranger bead walk we retired to camp for dinner and a fire.
Once we got our fire going, but before we put dinner on, Nick led us through something that turned out to be one of the coolest things we did at Strenfest. We made ash cakes.
As Nick explained, ash cakes are a traditional recipe made by 18th-century soldiers on campaign who were often paid not in money but in flour. They'd mix the flour with water and salt to make a very rudimentary dough, and lacking ovens they'd form the dough into patties and bury them in the coals to cook. Yes, the patties themselves sit in the ash - hence the name. Your initial reaction to this idea is likely similar to ours.
Strenfest attendees are not cowards, so despite some trepidation we gave this a shot. Nick handed out flour and we all mixed the dough in our own bowls.
Once our patties were ready we buried them in the coals. After a short cooking time we dug them back out, dusted the ash off, and with only a bit of concern bit into the cake.
To our surprise, not only was the ash cake edible, it was actually really quite good! The ash cleans off the cooked bread fairly easily and - I'm really not joking about this - what remains actually gives the cake a nice smoky flavor. I don't think any of us expected them to turn out as well as they did, but they were great.
You may be curious at the fact that we have no photos of the finished cakes. No deception here - we simply failed to take them, likely because our hands were covered in dough. I encourage everyone reading this to try making these yourself someday - instructions can be found here.
Making the ash cakes was a fantastic experience - thanks much to Nick for showing us how to do it! A quote from an attendee after eating his cake: "Now this is a real Arizona experience. We are up here in her mountains, breathing Arizona air, drinking water from her rivers, and eating her dirt."
We weren't too full after the ash cakes to make the rest of our dinner - Alan made tacos, which we eagerly consumed. During and after dinner we had an interesting discussion about ethics and philosophy around the campfire.
Once it was properly dark, we left our dying fire for our final event of Day 3 - Astronomy badge work. Days 1 and 2 - and, as it would turn out, Day 4 - had cloudy nights, so we were quite happy to have a clear night to do this badge work.
We walked out to a large field with a wide-open view of the sky, where we all laid down and looked up at the stars. As you might expect, being this high up in the lonely Arizona mountains, the stars were as bright as you could imagine, and the Milky Way was fully visible.
We used a star chart to identify several constellations, and we discussed the mythology behind them. We told time using the Big Dipper, identified the visible planets (Jupiter and Saturn). Most excitingly, we saw several meteors from the ongoing Perseid shower!
We finished quite late - past 11PM - and with our regular 6AM wakeup looming we turned in immediately. Day 3, our longest day by far, was complete.
Day 4 was our final full day of Strenfest. By this day we were all starting to feel a bit worn out, as is right and proper for a Festival of Strenuosity - but we were determined to make the last day just as good as the previous ones.
As usual the day began with a fire and breakfast. Alan once again cooked for us, this time making some breakfast burritos. Major thanks to Alan for helping with the meal prep!
After breakfast we packed up and headed out for our big event: the hike.
The hike was, is and will always be one of the main events of Strenfest Southwest. I was proud to be able to lead the group up one of my favorite trails in the Blue - a natural animal trail that leads two miles up the side of the valley to the top of a prominent local landmark, the Whiteface cliffs.
This is a steep hike. The trail gains over 1000 feet of elevation in those two miles, and much of it is exposed - not much tree cover or protection from the sun. The task ahead of us was not made easier by the fact that Day 4 was the hottest day of the trip, with the temperature peaking at 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we made the climb we stopped at a few good lookout spots. Some photos:
We reached the top in a little over an hour. Despite its difficulty, it was immediately clear upon reaching the top why this hike is so special. The view the cliffs command over the Blue River valley is breathtaking.
We took a group photo at the top - our only group photo from the whole event.
We spent a while at the top resting and admiring the view before descending. A few photos from the descent:
Upon reaching the bottom we headed back to the campsite for lunch, followed by our final workshop of the event.
Our last workshop of Day 4, and of Strenfest, was the Sharpshooter workshop. We began this workshop, as is proper, with an in-depth discussion of the firearm safety rules.
Following this the group ran through the major parts of shooting a handgun. We covered the four step draw, loading, unloading, reloading, and handling malfunctions.
Once everyone was confident in their pistol handling capabilities we switched to live fire and got some trigger time. I was quite pleased to see everyone's skills improve over the course of the workshop.
We capped off the Sharpshooter workshop by giving everyone a chance to run through the 5x5 pistol drill. This is a challenging drill and a great way to measure your skills!
The workshop wrapped up as the sun began to set, and so ended the final big activity of Strenfest Southwest.
We retired for dinner tired, sore and happy. We had spent four days in the arena and, while not totally over, Strenfest's major challenges were complete.
We celebrated the completion of the event by roasting hot dogs over the fire, which made for an absolutely delicious dinner.
As part of our closing ceremonies, we gathered all the challenge coins present - two this time - and got a photo of them in front of our final fire. I intend to get a photo like this for all future Strenfests.
Our last campfire discussion ended up focusing on the event, how it went, events and workshops for future Strenfests, and the nature of the Strenuous Life itself. This was a fine way to wrap up the evening.
We retired to our sleeping bags physically tired but, I think, mentally fulfilled.
As per usual we woke at 6AM on Day 5, the day of departure.
We each immediately began packing up our stuff and hauling stuff it back across the river. Having four sets of hands to clean up camp made it far easier than the initial setup on Tuesday by myself!
Before fully closing out Strenfest we held a few closing ceremonies and traditions.
First, we took this opportunity to award Alan his Desert Rangers patch. This patch is earned in the Arizona Desert Rangers by attending three TSL events. Alan has attended many, many more than this since he joined in 2018, but we only introduced the patch a few months ago and we have not yet had a chance to award him his. I was glad to do so at Strenfest.
Next, we held the first instance of a new Desert Rangers tradition we've been planning: awarding badge patches. Desert Rangers who earn TSL badges may elect to have their deeds recognized in a patch award ceremony. Nick chose to do this, and we awarded him three badges he has recently earned: Frogman, Easy Rider and Microadventure.
Finally, we scooped some ashes from the campfire to store for our own use next year, and to share with other Strenfests across the world. We then doused the ashes, officially bringing Strenfest Southwest 2020 to a close.
We packed the remainder of the stuff back to the vehicles, finished our cleanup of the campsite, and departed by 8AM.
Nick had to head home immediately, but Alan, Abe and I drove into the nearest town for a small-town Arizona breakfast at a local diner. There we chatted more about strenuous doings while eating some great local food - our first meal not cooked over a campfire in several days!
After finishing our meal we said our goodbyes and departed. Strenfest Southwest 2020 was at an end.
What am I to say about Strenfest? I've tried to describe above the fun we had, the challenges we undertook, the badge requirements we earned, the skills we learned, and the friendships we made.
There is a special quality to Strenfest that cannot really be described. It may be different for each person, but it's something that can only be found in a multiday camping trip such as this. You may sense it in a Strenuous Saturday overnight, but you won't truly know it until you've attended a Strenfest event proper.
I hope everyone reading this will find themselves inspired to attend, or host, a Strenfest event of their own. These events are, I think, the ultimate expression and the true goal of the Strenuous Life: meeting up with good men, and doing hard things.
Grit and Honor!