6 Things I Learned About Outdoor Living by Working on a Trail Crew

First, imagine working a full-time, minimum-wage job. Then, add rain – so much that everything you own gets wet and stays wet for days on end. Add backbreaking labor, knee-deep mud, and dangerous tools. The result? A trail maintenance job, aka the most wonderful/awful job around.

I worked on a trail crew with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) for the summer of 2013, and it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Not only did I learn about trail construction and maintenance, but I also learned a great deal about myself and about the outdoors by living outside for three months. Here are some bits of information that I think are applicable to just about every outdoor pursuit.

1) Being Outside ALL of the Time is Awesome/Awful

As thru-hikers, trail crew members, and hermits know, being outdoors almost all the time is a simultaneously liberating and terrifying experience. The high points occur on sunny days, or while swimming in a river or eating lunch in a grassy field, however the lows are just as prevalent. Rain is the primary culprit. During my first two weeks on the crew, it rained every day. We made futile attempts to dry our clothes by erecting a huge tarps and stringing a network of ropes to hang our clothes from. This worked marginally well, but everything ended up wet anyway. Most people ended up throwing away clothing or towels due to mold, myself included. This may sound awful, (and it is to some extent) but the fact that I’m here today writing this post proves that it’s survivable. There’s a certain level of satisfaction in saying that you lived through such experiences, and I think doing so made me much more appreciative of being able to go inside, as well as have a less-anxious mindset about my belongings getting wet. Everything dries in the end.

2) Be Alone

This was perhaps the most life-changing thing that I experienced. In our modern world, it’s not often that we are truly alone and isolated from other people, modern noise, and the constructs of 21st century life. Thru-hikers may seek to hike the Appalachian Trail in order to experience this all-too-rare phenomenon: true silence. That’s part of my motivation for hiking the AT, and I developed an affinity for alone-time in Vermont. At first, it was perhaps the most unsettling and eerie experience I have ever felt. The woods are stifling, muting, powerful, and vast. I felt like a speck in an unbroken ocean of forest. Few times in my life had I ever been completely alone with my thoughts. This was an enlightening and a frightening experience – one that still profoundly affects me every day. There’s no better way to get to know yourself than by deliberately cutting yourself off from other human beings and by listening what you yourself think and have to say.

3) Live without Electronics

This one goes hand-in-hand with #2, above, and it’s not an easy one either. Being without a cell-phone, television, and computer was wonderful. I had never noticed how much “dead time” I spent aimlessly looking through Facebook or through other sites until I had to give them up completely. Doing so made me much more present and aware of my surroundings. I took the time to appreciate small things, like how flowers bloomed between two rocks, how the seemingly-timeless flow of the stream carved certain paths around boulders. Living without electronics is living real life. It’s being present and watching life transpire in real-time. I recommend this one for anyone who wants to experience the outdoors. It may be exciting to document and record every step of your journey, but I would argue that abstaining from such does not diminish the experience in the slightest.

4) Read Poetry

By now, this post is probably starting to dissolve into lucid ramblings. Bear with me for one more lucid ramble, if you will.

Most outdoor enthusiasts are probably familiar with the works of Muir, Whitman, Frost, and Thoreau – all of whom beautifully and eloquently expressed their views on nature and about outdoor living. I read their poetry while working on the crew, and I think doing so instilled a sort of timeless, common bond with them. They experienced almost exactly what I experienced, and therein lies kinship. Aside from these writers, I looked at unconventional sources for poetry, and found some. For example:

“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not our to rule.”

-Gandalf, Return of the King, JRR Tolkien

Inspiration can be found everywhere.

5) People are Great

I think people are generally nice. It’s not that I believed they were inherently bad or evil before working on a trail crew, but my experience only served to affirm this presupposition. On countless occasions, people stopped to talk to us while we were working, to thank us for keeping the trails in great shape, or to give us gifts like food and ice-cream. The kindness of ordinary people is such an obvious but unseen trend. With few exceptions, I feel this to be the case. Thru-hikers know this as “trail-magic,” but I don’t think these acts are limited to the outdoor world or the trail. Be nice to others, and you’ll receive kindness in return. The folks that I worked with in Vermont are sure to be life-long friends. Pushing boulders with pry-bars while knee-deep in mud sure does bond people. Below: the crew after a boulder-pushing session.

VYCC Trail Crew 7, Summer 2013

6) Appreciate Trails!

Finally, I think that few people who have not worked on a crew stop to appreciate trail work – I didn’t at least!  I never expected trail-maintenance and trail-building to be quite so tough. Through my short stint as a worker, I developed a profound respect for the men and women who work countless hours to make trails like the AT a reality. Despite obstacles like mud, rain, thunderstorms, heavy tools, bees, and chiggers, trails still get built. The next time you’re out hiking, take the time to admire the bridges that you cross, the stone staircases that you ascend, and the handrails to which you cling for dear life. They didn’t build themselves! I worked for a measly three months on a crew, but many people do this incredibly difficult and rewarding work as a full-time job. We owe a lot to them and those who preceded them.  If you really want to show your appreciation for the outdoors, consider giving your time to preserving trails for posterity.

To conclude, that summer in Vermont was both the best and worst of my life. I developed new skills, made life-long friends, and learned to be present. I would unconditionally recommend this experience to anyone who loves the outdoors. The investment is well worth your time.


Photo credit: Britt Kusserow

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