While working on a trail crew in Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago, I remember thinking that, with three seasons of trail work under my belt, I was starting to hold my ground in the rock-setting world.
Another co-worker was quick to correct me. “Three seasons? That’s nothing, You’re not even close to a trail dog yet.”
By (as far as I can tell) fairly localized and arbitrary Rocky Mountain standards, a “trail dog” is someone who has completed at least seven seasons of trail work. I remember that this was explained to me after a particularly long day of hiking and sawyer work. My back hurt, my legs were tired, and the thought of feeling the same for another three seasons after that one was more than enough to subdue my usual go-for-the-gold personality. Seven seasons of trail work? I’m not willing to trade my intervertebral cartilage for the moniker, I thought, thank-you-very-much.
And so it goes. At the beginning of this 2013 season, it will be my seventh season on a trail crew and my fourth here at CFI. The years have been punctuated with traveling for research and scholarship. But, whenever academia does not tear me away, I always find myself excited to return to the mountains and this particular interaction with them.
Hiking on the Black Cloud approach to Mount Elbert after staff training last week, I reflected on what continues to draw me back. Waking up to sunrises on some of the most spectacular peaks in the country; being so physically exhausted at the end of the day that my eyes close before I can even zip my sleeping bag; listening to the sharp cries of pikas as they run around the talus; the indulgent luxury of a soft towel or a flushing toilet after weeks out on the trail.
All of these, however, are things that I could experience on my own, without coming back to this job in particular. What continually draws me to trail work? For me, the camaraderie of the people who also enjoy this job is what continues to draw me back. As a society, both nationally and globally, we are increasingly prioritizing a sedentary lifestyle over physical challenge, virtual interactions in place of real ones as we go about our packed daily schedules.
For me, trail crew has always been my personal way of reversing that tide. In the absence of cell phones and immediate Google answers to any question, you’re left with time – to read, to write with a pen and paper, to jot down endless lists of things that you will look up on Google when you get back to town, to really get to know your crew-mates in a way that modern life usually doesn’t afford. Even after a relatively short summer on the trail, the strength and depth of the friendships that I have made on my CFI crews–tested through rain, snow, blood, sweat, and tears–are some of the strongest and most remarkable that I have.
Though a “trail dog,” at last, the beginning of this season feels much like any other–a bit of uncertainty as to how it will pan out, a lot of excitement for however it does, and deep gratitude for an incredible, unique group of co-workers with whom I can share the experience. I can’t wait to start hiking.