- September 28, 2015
- Posted by Connor Adams, Crew Member
It was our first weekend in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Ten days of work and twenty miles of hiking later, we arrived, sweaty and breathless, at Big Prairie Ranger Station, one of two backcountry ranger stations in the wilderness complex. Dozens of miles away from the nearest road and even further from the nearest town, Big Prairie is a bastion of frontier civilization in the rough-and-tumble Wilderness. Forest Service trail crews, packers, river rangers, station guards, the occasional fire lookout and firefighter, and of course your humble MCC crew, all converge on Big Prairie after hitch for four days of recharging and relaxing.
Being the central node of a wilderness area, all employees are subject to the same rules that govern wilderness areas across the country. No machines, no power tools, no wheels, and the ever-present injunction to leave the area as “untrammeled by man” as possible and conducive to “solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” In an effort to retain the mystique of a frontier settlement, refrigerated food is kept in a root cellar, heating is provided by woodstove (and you had better be willing to chop the wood yourself), laundry is done by hand, communication with the outside world is reduced to whatever letters you can write and pack onto the mules before the weekend is over, and entertainment comes in only three forms: horseshoes, cribbage, and banjo. Most importantly, and thankfully, in this humble trail dog’s opinion, dinners are communal and cell phone service is nonexistent.
Freshly showered (showers are allowed twice a weekend and for five minute intervals, to conserve valuable propane) and aching with hunger after the twenty mile hike, I was elated to hear the sound of the dinner bell, calling employees from all over the compound to share in the enormous meal. One of the perks of cooking, of course, besides getting off dish duty, is the chance to ring the giant dinner bell at length and with considerable gusto. The spread at hand included a roast wrapped in bacon, a fresh garden salad, with vegetables picked right outside, pasta, Gatorade in a wide assortment of colors ranging from blue to slightly darker blue, and all the cookies you could want. People filed in slowly, heaped their plates, and took up positions on the porch to chow down.
I can’t think of a better place to share a dinner with a few dozen other people, all of whom you know share the same love of the outdoors as you do. The Big Prairie compound stretched out before us, the fading sunlight sharpening the corners of the antique and masterfully crafted buildings. Some horses nickered softly in the nearby corral, and the more precocious ones wandered up to see if they could get a bite of salad from someone’s plate while they weren’t looking. Everywhere you looked mountains reared up into the sky, but rather than menacing, they seemed protective, as if they were there to shelter the Big Prairie community from the evils and stresses of modern day life.
Old friends, people who’d worked together every summer for years, were reliving inside jokes, laughing long and genuine laughs. Silly bets were made, chops were busted, long-held and contentious opinions saw the light of a new summer and the opportunity for a crowd of noobies to learn the real truth about such-and-such or so-and-so. Cowboys and lumberjacks mingled and chatted and ate noisily and authentically, and loved each other for it. As I looked around, I noticed that this was very different from my typical dining experience, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Suddenly, it occurred to me: no one had their face buried in their phones. Fingers were being used to mop up gravy with bread, not to text. Eyes were used to engage their neighbor in conversation, not to peruse Facebook. Thoughts were bent toward the beauty of the Big Sky at hand, and not which Instagram filter would merit the most likes on a picture of that sky. I didn’t even see, among all the tools and utensils and pieces of gear on the porch, a single phone. My own sat in the bottom of my pack, untouched for the twelfth day in a row, and I realized with some certainty how much better I liked it that way.
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