- December 16, 2018
- Posted by Miriam Genheimer
I lay in my tent on the first night of our last hitch, thinking about how to articulate my current lifestyle while looking up at the stars in the dark wilderness sky. The next day the smoke will roll in, obscuring the layers of ridges rising to the horizon, and my tongue will still be tied. I want to give you the smells and the way my body feels after the workday; I want to show you camp life and waking before the sun. How can I capture the hours spent in my own thoughts or with my trail family or in the simple rhythm of swinging a tool?
Pack rats eat holes in my shirt on the first night, and I meticulously hang my possessions in a tree every day that follows. We spend our time working with our project partner, a Forest Service retiree who is still finding ways to live in the backcountry of the Kootenai. Each morning when I wake at five o’clock, a slight turn of my head affords me a view out into the sky; I watch the orange and blue sunrise saturate and then fade into early morning light.
There are so many inside jokes within our crew now, and they insert themselves frequently into our conversations. We are building water bars and drains on the trail during these first days. Sent on our way without a pull saw, we make do using our personal knives and the axe head on our Pulaski to strip the wood before we lay it in the ground. On the trail my mind drifts about, eventually tugged back by the angle of the trees above my head or the probing motion of an inchworm on my arm or a loose rock that catches my foot.
The days move by, but time is not smooth. The summer season is ending and our crew is mentally exhausted.
On the second day our Whisperlite stoves malfunction and we eat cold dinner. Everyone groans when it is only six o’clock and we already want to sleep (some do). Those of us who remain keep ourselves busy with card games until eight o’clock; then we go to bed. We are packed down the ridge after four days, and back up a new ridge onto the Skyline Trail just outside of Troy to brush and saw. Our packer is a man I won’t forget readily: gregarious and good-humored, full of stories and a love for the experience of life. Our transition day is long, and there are no good places to camp when we reach the work-site. Eventually a place on the ridge is selected and we all spread out to try and find ground that will not move us off our sleeping pads when we lay down.
During our first evening, the nearby fire grows from four hundred acres to six thousand. The sky is thick, a warm fire-breeze periodically slogging through camp. We can look directly at the orange-pink sun – no one is entirely comfortable. On one of our workdays temperatures climb close to one hundred degrees, but eventually they drop enough to make me zip up my sleeping bag at night and feel grateful for the rainfly that keeps the wind away.
The trail is much longer than anticipated, so our final day runs long as we push ourselves to finish. Three sawyers, three swampers, and somehow no one throws a chain. Morale improves as we all begin to feel the bitter-sweetness of the end and each night is filled with laughter and reminiscing. We bicker and tease like family. We are family.
I fall asleep reading each evening except one, when I am so exhausted I fell asleep before I could reach for the book. My pants are stiff and covered in smells of sweat, dirt, and gasoline. I wash my face each evening, but the rest of my body is irrevocably smelly from doing the same hard work in the same dirty shirt for days on end. For so long I have been pooping in the woods, eating oatmeal and couscous, and forgetting that most people see their own reflection countless times in a day. I forget about chairs and light switches and running water. Each day after lunch I slip my sweaty helmet back on my head and put on ear and eye protection and worn down gloves.
The more work we accomplish, the longer our hike back to camp is each day. The same trail is walked two, three, four times. On our last day of work we reach a steep meadow filled with fireweed and tall grasses. We are in the sky but unable to see through the smoke, although the presence of elevation and solitude surrounds us. The feeling of finishing the trail is a triumph as much as a curse of exhaustion.
On the next morning as I hike back to the rig, each step brings me closer to the worries and complexities of my life outside of hitch. Instinct divides me as I feel a horrible aversion towards civil life coupled with a deep need to shower and eat fresh vegetables. I take my time on the way down, singing tunes to myself while I pick thimble berries and talk to butterflies. Even as I do these things, I know how the world I am returning to will roll its eyes at my childlike activities. But what good is work in the wilderness if we do not eventually emerge, gazing about at the fact that we are part of Nature’s thread, not observers but rather hands and minds and societies that thrive when in symbiosis with Her? What is this work without awe and wonder and kneeling in the dirt?
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