Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Lessons from the Trail

I graduated with my undergraduate degree in December, 1997. I immediately applied for a number of positions with the US Forest Service. I accepted the first offer I got: building and maintaining trails in the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest. I worked from snow melt to snow fall, May to October. Those were the most physically demanding six months of my life. We hiked five to eleven miles to our work site and camped there for ten days at a stretch. Our food (ten coolers for ten people) and tools were carried in by horses and mules, but we carried our personal items on our backs. I began with no experience with a tool larger than a hammer and no experience performing outdoor labor. Most of our work took us far above sea level. The learning and conditioning curve was steep. The skills I gained that summer have proved useful as I’ve begun to landscape our yard.

The most valuable lesson from the trail was that of patience. The tasks were tedious and repetitious, but I learned to pace myself and take joy in the simple activities. I might spend an entire day scouting for and carrying large rocks to be used in walls. Or filling buckets with gravel and carrying them a few hundred feet. Or sawing logs (by hand – no power tools allowed) that had fallen across the trail. Or moving one 200+ lb rock 50 feet with a large iron bar. With no where else to go and nothing to do but the work in front of me, I calmly concentrated on each task amidst the stunning beauty of the Sierra Nevadas.

The patience I developed has come in handy while crawling about the front yard, picking up spruce cones. Or digging a hole to plant a tree. Or simply nursing seedlings along. No matter how laborious the activity, I effortlessly lose myself in the task at hand, sunshine, and fresh air.

On trail crew, I did a lot of things or the first time. I had never pruned bushes, dug a hole, or used a saw. Those things required little skill and I quickly mastered them. The most difficult task I learned to perform was to properly swing a pickax. Initially, I just grabbed the tool like a baseball bat, raised the head to about waist-high, and hacked away. My technique was neither effective nor good for my lower back. Eventually, I learned the secret. My left hand grasped the shaft near its base and my right hand was positioned halfway up. I raised the tool high, with the business end over my head and a bit behind me. As I swung the axe down in a smooth arc, my right hand slid down the haft to meet my left and I bent my knees. The trick is to let gravity do the work, with a bit of oomph from the arms. Squatting saves the lower back from the trauma of repeatedly bending over and further accelerates the axe head. Getting the head to hit exactly where I wanted took a few swings, but the satisfying crunch as I tore into a thick, woody root was worth a few misses. There is a poetry to the rhythmic swing of the pickax and the punctuating thump as it nails its target.

Last night, in sneakers and a skirt, I rediscovered that poem in my front yard. I doubt that neighbor Tim, when he lent me the pickax, thought that (1) I’d be using it or (2) I’d know how to use it. Granted, my swings were abbreviated a bit by the proximity of the house (and a window!), but I used that thing like I meant business. I hacked away at the roots of the yew to the right of the front door, intent on removing it from the bed. Finally, the sky began to darken and my sockless heels to blister. I didn’t push it. I am confident that I will outlast the yew. I will chew away at it, bit by bit, until it’s gone. Then I have three more to eliminate.

Although a job consisting of hard physical labor seemed incongruous after just obtaining my B.S., it has proven to be one of the most satisfying and useful experiences I’ve had. Surrounded by ragged peaks, breathing the butterscotch-scented air of Jeffrey Pines, and bathing in alpine sunshine, I grew both physically and mentally. Whenever I’m confronted with a physically difficult task, I just remind myself that I, literally, used to dig ditches for a living. After that, everything else is cake and pie.


Blogger Scott in Washington said...

That is a nice description of how to swing a tool. I really enjoy splitting our firewood - a very similar exercise that, even after doing it for 15-20 years, I am always finding new subtleties in its correct and efficient performance.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Well written. I love the Sierra Nevada mountains. Back in the 80s and early 90s I made many trips up through Owens Valley to go backpacking on the east side on the range. Just spectacular. The alpine lakes and glaciers are...well, words can't really do it justice. Those were experiences I will never forget.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

Ummm, which is more scary? A woman with power tools or a woman with a pick axe?
You don't sing any old timey negro blues tunes when you swing that thing, do you?
We may have to start a "See Kasmira in black and white striped overalls fund!"

9:52 PM  
Blogger Kasmira said...

Watch out, Gary. You aren't too far away...

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Laurie said...

What a wonderful summer it was! Somewhere I am sure I have some pictures of you in action... I'll have to dig them up!!!

10:27 PM  

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