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Dirt Work: An Education In The Woods

Author : Christine Byl
Published : 2013-04-16

I've been maintaining a piece of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail as a volunteer for longer than Christine Byl has worked on trails. However, I have never done the kind of work she describes in her book, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods.

Dirt Work provides us with a look into what it takes to build and maintain trails out West so you and I can hike to a scenic spot. This is tough work. Ms. Byl started working as a "traildog" after college. For 16 years, she was a seasonal laborer who worked in the woods designing, building, repairing, and maintaining trails in Glacier National Park and later in Alaska.

Unlike the A.T. and other long-distance trails in the East, major trail work is done by seasonal employees, not by volunteers. In her book, Ms. Byl recalls long days of clearing brush, digging ditches, building bridges, cleaning up after forest fires, and blasting snow. She learned how to use such unfamiliar tools as crosscut saws, pulaskis, and chainsaws. She grew accustomed to dealing with the harsh living conditions and injuries that are part of the job.

And, frankly, she learned how to cope in the backcountry, miles from the nearest restroom. Yes, Ms. Byl is not afraid to talk about "dropping her pants in the woods.

Should you have an unexpected shit-in-the-woods scenario, look for "toilet paper plants": false hellebore... A clump of anything soft works in a pinch--ferns, moss, fireweed, leaves rolled tight.

She also discusses how she worked with other trail dogs, both male and female. Dwight has a drinking problem. Cassie, her supervisor at the time, is "hot." Another woman constantly tends to her physical appearance. She reserves her strongest analysis to volunteers who come out to the park every year to do trail service work for a week. Every year, Ms. Byl writes, there's a volunteer who feels superior, bemoans the hard work, bugs and weather. She and her coworkers love to make fun of visitors. Much of the time, she calls them tourists, instead of visitors, which makes me cringe.

If you're looking for a plot or a narrative arc, you will be disappointed. But if you want to get a feel for hard, physical work that's done so you can hike in the national parks for your two-week vacation, you will enjoy the book.

As one who loves numbers, I spent time with the traildog's index, Christine Byl's life in statistics. Here's a sample:

* Seasons of trailwork: 16

* Fingers broken: 2

* Annual allowance for official NPS uniform in 2008: $115

But one number stopped me dead, and so I checked it several times.

* Maximum calories consumed in a workday: about 8,000

Even if she worked so hard that she could burn up these calories, how did her stomach deal with this amount of food?

After six years as a traildog, Ms. Byl entered a master of fine arts program at the University of Alaska. But in the summer, the pull of the trail work was irresistible. She and her husband went back to seasonal trailwork for the U.S. Forest Service in Cordova, Alaska. This was another culture--rain, ferries and trail crews carrying guns. She had to shelve her old boots. Because of the constant moisture, she needed rubber boots. Here she saw sea otters and wolves and became a birder.

She moved on to Denali National Park while finishing her graduate degree. Healey is now home where she and her husband run a trail-design and construction business. Ms. Byl's writing has an abrupt, choppy style. Her descriptions are evocative, but on the next page, she's on another subject. If you're on vacation, you can read it in bits and pieces, and pick up where you left off and not be lost. If you want to know a backstory on working in the national parks, read Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods.

Blog Tour

I was part of her "blog tour," which provides you a chance to bounce some questions off Ms. Byl. I had several in mind.

1. If you had to pick out an experience on the trail that said to you "this is what I'm meant to do. This is why I'm doing this", what would it be?

More than one experience, it was a generally growing sense, over time. But my first season, I do remember that I felt more like I fit somewhere than I could ever remember feeling before. Or, at least, that I wanted to belong to this group, even though in many ways, I didn't really fit yet. Over the years, I have developed a real sense of community with trails people. We don't need to have everything in common, but we share this intense bond that comes from doing hard work together and knowing the same places deeply. I do have moments every season, in all kinds of situations, where I'm struck by the fact that there's nothing I'd rather be doing. (Usually this happens in sunny weather, though!)

2. Did you ever try or dream to get a full-time career job with the National Park Service?

I've always had the strong sense that for me, trail work was a great seasonal job to augment other pursuits and passions, but I did not want a career with the NPS. My husband had a term job for a few years before we started our business, which came with health insurance—that was pretty awesome. But a six-month season suited me perfectly. As I say in Dirt Work, "I've never wanted to climb any ladder for the NPS except the one leaning against the tool shed." This is just a personal preference though—I know and admire a lot of career NPS folks who do excellent work in parks all over the country.

3. When you were a seasonal and before you went to graduate school, how did you support yourself? How do most seasonal traildogs support themselves?

Generally speaking, I've supported myself for the last 16 years from seasonal trail work. Even during grad school, every summer I went back to the field when school let out. Sometimes I've had other jobs in the off-season—from temp work to college professor—but the bulk of my income is trails/field based. Seasonals vary widely in how they make money. Especially in the NPS, the wages for trails jobs are decent enough that many people just work for six months and live frugally on that income, doing whatever else they love in the winter—traveling or volunteering or writing or ski bumming, whatever. Some people go back to school. Others have off-season jobs, everything from working in Antarctica to construction jobs to teaching. Still other traildogs work trails all year long, moving to parks in different climates in different seasons. So, you might work in Alaska in the summer and in Saguaro in the winter. I've never worked in a southern park, though I have heard great things about them.

4. Do you have any lasting injuries or aches that will be permanent?

Oh yes. I don't think I know anyone who's been doing trails this long that doesn't have at least some minor complaints, except one friend who I swear is bionic. I had carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists that healed pretty well but can flare up if I'm not careful. I had two hernia surgeries from which I have scar tissue; I will always have a weak spot there and have to be really careful because they can often recur, I'm told. And then, I have the myriad little dings that most field laborers have—creaky knees, a couple of broken fingers that get stiff and cold easily, lots of scars. So far though, I think the consistent exercise, the high level of fitness and strength, and the mental health benefit that I get from working outside has outweighed any health downsides. But ask me again in ten years and we'll see how I feel about that!

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