We are standing in front of the rig. The sun has just risen, and the day is not yet warm. One by one, we struggle into our packs, bending and lifting and twist our way into the piles of stuff, asking each other, “Can you make sure those baguettes are underneath the bungees?” and, “I can take those hazel hoes, but I can’t bend down to get them. Help me?” Walking carefully so as not to overbalance, we maneuver ourselves into some semblance of a group. We hand cameras to Greg, our Forest Service contact, and smile (or at least grimace) as he documents our first moments on the job. Leadership Development Program is hiking in. We know that the trail is only two miles long, and that it is unmaintained, and that we’re to go to “the bottom of the draw—there’s plenty of flagging.” A person can carry anything for two miles, especially when it is all down hill. This is what we think, and according to our information, the group sets off singing. We are the workers from Northwest Youth Corps/ We have to go on hiking although we’re really sore/ We’ve got to hold up the bloodstained Pulaski/ Got to hold it up until we die…This cheerful and uplifting song is our anthem, to be sung for us many times, on many long hikes. But this is the first of them, and the worst. Five hours later, we stumble into camp. We will be pulling inch long thorns from our scalps and thighs for days afterward. It was a rough introduction to the joys of life on the mountain. Heat, logs blocking the trail, disappearing trail, endless amounts of trail, switching back and forth down the mountain, bushes with thorns, shrubs with thorns, and dead black, charred and twisted trees towering over us. We made it. It did not fully crush our spirits, as our Forest Service contact gleefully predicted it would do. In an altered state of numbness, we rounded the last bend, shed our packs, stood trembling for a moment, and then folded up silently on a downed log. Sitting there together, the crew looked off into the distance, then down into the gray dirt, then at each other. “We’ve got to hike back to the last stream and get water. Who wants to go?”
Tense your muscles. Twist your body. Feel the edge of the grubber bite into the dirt. It’s a good feeling, because this is good dirt. Not too many rocks. Rip back the grass, exposing a wide strip of dark brown earth. Reset. Stop when you reach the other edge of the trail. Kick the dirt and the grass and the small rocks off the trail, away from the edge. Examine your work. Kick at any stubborn piece of greenery marring the dark expanse. Take one step to the right. Repeat. Ask your crew members around your for stories, for recipes, for advice on love, for future plans, for favorite baby names. Their voices keep you going. There are times when it is pleasant to be working alone with your thoughts, silent and mechanical, so absorbed in your work and private meditations that time does not pass, or passes quickly. You’re not sure which, but it doesn’t matter either way. Right now is not one of those times. Right now is early afternoon, nearing the break that your crew will not take because they would rather end fifteen minutes early. Right now, you need to talk, to joke and laugh, and take long pauses to chug water, and in a few minutes, take long pauses to hike down the trail to pee. Pry at a big rock in the trail with your grubber. Kick at the big rock until it loosens. Pry at it some more. Sigh and carefully set your grubber aside. Bend down, feel your muscles complain about this new movement. Dig out the rock, trying not to put any new holes in your gloves. Throw the rock down the hill and listen to the satisfying crash, crunch, crash, as it rolls down to the streambed far below. Only two more hours.