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Dispatches from the Wild: On Writing, Trail Work, and Falling in Love with the Challenge

| Rebekah Morrison

I am a trail worker. When I tell people that, I’m sure they imagine me emerging at dawn from a rustic cabin with sturdy boots, a flannel shirt, and suspenders. I take a sip of strong black coffee from a mug I carved out of a nearby oak as the animals frolic over to greet me. The smell of sap and morning dew sits in the air around us… Okay, okay, maybe they don’t imagine a lumberjack Snow White, per se, but whatever they do imagine isn’t quite what I and thousands of other trail workers experience season after season. We are dedicated outdoorsmen who wake up early to repair, create, or maintain the trails we all enjoy.

Trail work is tough. Let me repeat that: trail work is tough. It’s rugged. And it’s different wherever you do it. I’ve spent four seasons and 17 months doing trail work with the Maine Conservation Corps and California Conservation Corps, and nine of those I spent as a team leader. I’ve felled trees with a crosscut saw, slept wrapped in a tarp out under the stars, and lived in the backcountry without technology for three and a half months. There are other trail crews nationwide and some help eradicate invasive plants, some live deep in the woods, and some drive to a trailhead every day. They work through rain and snow and freezing temperatures because they’re committed and, for the most part, they like the work.

I used to think, as I assume most people do, that trails were formed by mere foot traffic. After all, prior to my time with the conservation corps, I’d never run into a crew rolling rocks, creating a reroute, or hauling tree trimmings off into the woods. Now, I know better. It’s been my life for a few years and I’ve fallen in love with it. The physical challenge of straining my muscles for nine hours a day at high altitude is rewarding, if you can believe it. Sure, there are times when I’ve thought about quitting but feeling myself grow stronger, hike faster, and learn more and more about the natural world are just a few of the reasons I’ve stayed in this line of work.

In 2014, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a focus on creative writing. Since then, I’ve been working out how to explain my experience in the woods through my words. In my first eight months doing trails, I wrote every day. Usually in my tent after everyone else had gone to bed, but occasionally on lunch breaks and after hammock naps on the weekends. Most of it was in letters to my mother about the things I’d seen and done and felt. I wanted to share my experience with people beyond my trail crews, to invite my family and friends to be transported to the moments I was experiencing. It seemed only natural.

There has long been a link between nature and writing. For proof, we need only read the works of authors like John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Rick Bass, and Terry Tempest Williams—all of whom have long explored how woods and words go together. Sometimes a person's words can affect the preservation of nature and other times nature can move someone to words. In a way, my trail work helps hikers create an experience similar to mine and the pieces of experience they lack, I’m attempting to construct through my writing.

They’ve done it and so can I, but in describing anything foreign to someone, I know it will take a lot of effort. Writing is tough, sometimes as tough as trail work, but as I struggle to work on trails, I also struggle to write about it. I try to keep in mind that neither is rewarding without a struggle and the finished product is always better when I take my time with it. I’ve realized that if I simply explain how to hammer rocks to bits or what it’s like to eat trail mix every day for a week, my friends and family won’t understand the collective experience as I do.

As a trail worker, not only are you sore and tired, but you scratch raw the four mosquito bites on your left leg, the two near your right elbow, and the bunch on the back of your neck. You’re annoyed at one of your teammates for crushing your last good step rock because now you’ll have to roll another one 30 feet up the trail. You rave about how great dinner was even though much of its “greatness” was a direct result of your hunger.

These are just a few short snippets of experiences I’ve had.  The others remain mostly indescribable. Though as difficult as both trail work and writing can be, I’ve found I’ve fallen in love with both.  And with a little more work and a little more time, I hope to one day have the words to give people a clear picture of what it’s like out here on the trail.

Originally published in the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild newsletter.