"Along the Girard Ridge"
We hitched for nine days
up along the Girard Ridge.
Shasta to our north, giving us looks all day.
Frost over the sixth night.
Along the Girard Ridge we spread
like sinuses on a cold morning.
The crew went through with loppers first
then brush-cutters and pole saws
to widen the trail.
Some dusty tread work with McCloud and Pulaski
to finish the hitch.
Pine pitch to start fires,
a bag of potato chips as a snack.
Merle Haggard just died. He was responsible for my first and only time getting kicked out of a bar, back in 2006. Our trail crew just finished a couple month stint up in the Siskiyou Mountains just south of the Oregon border. It was late October and the snow had finally pushed us south.
We were headed to the desert, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, where it’s always warm and sunny. On our way down the long state of California, we stopped for a night in San Francisco. One of our crew members had gone to Stanford, so we rolled up in our van and spilled out into a swanky co-living space stories high. Haggard, hairy, and hungry for civilization, we set down our sleeping bags in a heap in their entry way and took the train into San Francisco.
After a day of sightseeing, we ended up at a joint on Haight-Ashbury. Reveling in the sounds of other people and hypnotized by the bright TVs broadcasting some football game, we embellished deep into the night. Eventually we found the jukebox. Willie & I packed it full of country tunes. Classic ones that we knew all the words to and had been singing in our heads for months out on the trail, keeping us company far from home. Finally, “Okie from Muskogee” came on and by the third verse, we were pushed out the street, our lungs still filled with those classic lines about hippies, into the gloriously blurry darkness of San Francisco in the deep morning.
Thank you Merle. You will be missed.
“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength” - Kerouac
The saddle between the Lower Devil and Upper Devil peak is a narrow lull filled with old-growth douglas fir that survived the last fire and whirly, hardy Manzanita spread over the scarred landscape in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California. At 23 years old, I had finally grown a thick, unwieldy beard that protected me from the cold lashes of the wind as I set my tent up under an ancient fir. It seems I had grown so introspective that I began to forget to shave, or at least didn’t care so much how I looked or smelled anymore deep in the backcountry. Thousands of miles from home, I thought I had become as isolated as possible. Then, the snow began.
It was the fourth morning of our 10 day hitch when I gently woke up to the softness of snow gathering on the blue nylon of my tent. The first three days consisted of wind, cold rain, more wind, and half baked bread for lunch, dinner and breakfast. During the first three months of our trail crew, we had traveled up the spine of the Pacific Crest Trail from the San Jacintos up into the Siskiyous clearing brush, building waterbars, chewing beef jerky, and cutting out fallen trees. Our last hitch of the northern section of the state before heading back to the desert, we knew the weather risks involved in being up this high this late in the season. We were fighting our misery with a Halloween party, 8,000 feet up in the mountains and miles away from the nearest town. Late October is unpredictable, so we held onto the traditions we knew best; Halloween, fires, morning wake-up songs, hot tea. Anything to keep us feeling connected to the valley.
The night before the snow, like a tattered postcard from some old friend making its way to a post office box on some random route numbered road, an asteroid streaked above our fire, so close that we thought it was a flare. We quickly gathered and hiked to the tip of the saddle to look over the valley to make sure there weren’t any forest fires started. All we saw were the intermittent lights of cars lolling down the back roads whenever they came through a break in the trees – a small reminder of what was still down there. It seemed like we all took a collective deep breath rimmed with gladness for no fire and a yearning for the lost contact with the ball of flame, and slowly made our way back to our tents, in for the night.
I woke up to find a landscape of blinding white where there had been dry browns, deep blood reds, and coniferous greens. Snow fell into my tent when I opened the fly, wetting my already frozen boots. I was mesmerized. Slowly, the rest of my crew started to wake. Most would simply pop their heads out of their tents, take a quick look, and go back into their tents. A few came out to join me: Matt, Tom, Willie, and Prana. We gathered under a douglas fir acting as an umbrella, keeping us out of the snowfall, and quickly came to a consensus.
We decided that if we were to survive this snow, we needed to get back to the basics, back to what we all knew comforted us; we needed heat. We went to work tying a big tarp to four trees. This gave us the cover we were going to need for the fire. It was still snowing as we scattered to try and find any sort of dried wood. Next, we scavenged gasoline out of our chainsaws, slowly pouring it into tin cans as if we were homesteaders pouring bacon grease out of a cast iron skillet, keeping it for next season. We built up all the dried wood we could find around the can and threw a match in. We came to life just as the fire did, whooping and hollering like we had just reached salvation – Hallelujah! We clinked our mugs full of hot tea and did a little dance in the snow, trampling down the few bits of Manzanita left around us.
The four of us stood around the fire all day while the snow blew in from the west, crisscrossing the mountains and covering our saddle. Every once in awhile, we’d make it out to the edge of our camp to have a look across the valley, but we couldn’t tell what was snow and what were clouds. We were socked in.
Having gone through a whole pound of powdered cocoa and two boxes of tea, we resorted to simply sipping hot water. We huddled around each other, shoulder to shoulder, lifting one leg, then another, rubbing our hands together, anything to keep warm. Later in the day, we finally got a call from Bill Roberts, the Forest Service packer that was our only connection to the outside world. He was coming up with a team of mules to start packing us out and to bring up some hot food. Our isolation, unlike the snow, was beginning to melt.
After he arrived and we all had a nice dinner of hot beans and rice, we packed up the gear we didn’t need and I took up with Bill back down the mountain. We’d be up the next morning to get the rest of the crew and the rest of our gear. I rode down from the Devil’s on the back of good old Patsy Cline. As she lumbered from one step to the next and we descended through the snow and the three or four lambent lights that made up Seiad Valley came into view, I felt a warmness seep in through the four cold layers I had on. Maybe it was riding on the back of an old mule, or the thousands of feet of change in elevation, but mostly I think it was a sense of coming into a place where I knew I could get a hot breakfast and make a call or send out a postcard if I wanted – and for the first time in a few months, I decided to trim back some of my beard.
Note: a lot of these photos were taken by my fellow PCT crew members. Apologies for not knowing who specifically since it was so long ago. If you see one of your photos, I'll gladly add credit. Thanks!
Note: I wrote this about ten years ago while working on the Baxter State Park Trail Crew and recently stumbled across it. I figured I'd throw it up here as an artifact and because it was from a pretty influential part of my life. Eventually it might be part of a longer piece about trail work and the amazing experiences it provided me. The BSP Crew was my first of three trail crews I signed on to after college. Looking back, I think I learned more from those three years of working in the woods, traveling the country, and sleeping in a tent than I had in college. Those experiences helped shape who I am today and I am forever thankful for them.
For eight days in a row I wake up, slide on my steel toe boots, drink two cups of coffee, slam down a heart-attack sandwich (bagel, thick slab of cheddar, double eggs, and as much bacon as possible) and head out the door towards Katahdin Stream Campground. From there, my crew and I hike up the Hunt Trail, also known as the Appalachian Trail, to work on the Stairway to Heaven. This project, a series of rock staircases starting right above Katahdin Stream Falls, ascends Katahdin for another mile or so towards the glorious peak, the finish, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Since 1991, the trail crews at Baxter State Park, along with many trail volunteers of all ages, have worked thousands of hours and dedicated buckets of sweat and grit quarrying, hauling, rolling and setting large pieces of granite into the Appalachian Trail. The rock set in the trail becomes an impermeable tread way surface, slowing the erosion of the trail caused by water and usage, creating a beautiful path up the mountain.
There are many steps involved in the process of building the Stairway to Heaven. Our crew splits the work up into different stations, which we rotate through during the week. Because of the size of the project, it works at its most efficient with at least 20 people involved. The Baxter State Park trail crew consists, on average, of 10-15 people, which means that volunteers are an integral part of this project.
The rock is first quarried down in the pit (the “pit” station), which is located in the ravine between Katadhin and Owl Mountains. In the pit, the granite is split into workable, step-size pieces. The larger pieces are drilled with a rock drill, and then split using feathers and wedges. These pieces are then wrapped with chain, hooked onto a snatch-block, which runs on a 500-foot piece of wire rope from one Grip Hoist to another, and lifted 80 feet into the air. Once the load is lifted to its highest point, the crew retrieves the load (the “hand crew” station), pulling it towards the landing zone alongside the Appalachian Trail.
The rigging system our crew uses consists of two grip hoists, one stationed on the side of Katahdin (the “Monster” station), and the other on the side of the Owl (the “Owl” station). These grip hoists, or winches, pull the wire rope tight to lift the load and slowly slacken the wire rope to lower the load. Once all the rock is brought to the work site, individual rocks are rolled down trail to pre-determined areas to be meticulously built into rock staircases.
Some days are long, especially when you’re stuck pulling in the load with your shoulders and arms burning from exhaustion. Some days go quick, wrapping the rock in chain, hooking it up to the system and watching it fly high above and once it’s in the clear, drilling or scoring another large rock. Harvesting and wrapping. Drilling and hammering. Rolling and setting. There is a rhythm, much like hiking, that you can allow yourself to step into.
The entire process, from harvesting rock out of the pit, to moving trail side, to building a staircase out of the material, takes countless hours of hard labor. However, all those hours add up into a beautiful path that, hopefully, will be there for as long as the mountain.
I love how music can take you back to specific moments in your life. Every time I hear this song I slip back into the first time I heard it taking a lonely drive from Millinocket back into Baxter State Park after doing my weekly laundry and making my weekly phone calls on the payphone downtown to friends and family back home or scattered about.
The drive was always bittersweet for I was blessed with a not-so-subtle landscape of Kathadin and its brothers & sisters captivating my eyes while simultaneously feeling subtle pangs of loneliness. Though, that feeling never ventured into disconnect for I worked hard at sending letters and making calls on my weekly visits back into town.
Oddly, whenever I look back at that particular time in my life - living out of my pack, traveling every six or so months to a new place that would most definitely be in the middle of nowhere due to the nature of trail work, finally learning how to cook since no one was going to cook for me - I feel like I was more connected to my family and friends than I've been since. My relationships were more deliberate - laying in my tent at night writing a letter instead of sluggishly scrolling through mindless chatter and meaningless memes, taking a trip to town to find the only pay phone and dialing those 20 numbers on my calling card hoping the entire time someone will actually pick and if not, opening my tattered "address book" to find someone else to call I hadn't talk to in awhile - and therefore kept me more connected to those in my life, even if they were thousands of miles away.
I guess sometimes the further away you are from people the closer you feel.
Random Note About the Song:
This is a quintessential "Maine" song for me. Probably because of the geographical location of the son, but more importantly also the length and cadence.... it's the perfect song to drive down seemingly endless dirt roads in thick forests where you can lose yourself in a beautiful story.
"What a way to ride... ah, what a way to go..."
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.