The millennials who live and work on the Pacific Crest Trail: AmeriCorps NCCC

By Sophia Efremov

Several months ago, I wrote about my experience on the Pacific Crest Trail as an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) volunteer. I wrote during the beginning weeks of my immersion in trail life. I am currently on the tail end of my three-month journey from “squeaky-clean-hopeless-city-girl” to “what in the hell did I sign myself up for?” to “definitely-still-hopeless-but-loving-it.”

My team went on a handful of different hitches (typically 10 days in remote areas working on the trail) in Southern California accompanied by PCTA Technical Advisor Ben Barry. Each hitch brought a variety of hurdles that we conquered as a team, and in the process we gained some of the fondest memories in our year of service.

Our first hitch was in Silverwood Lake, close to San Bernardino. I started with a giant military bag filled with all my uniform items for trail work, a few dresses, and of course, a heaping container of baby wipes. Just because I wouldn’t be able to shower for the next few months didn’t mean I was going to let myself get dirty. Plus, there was no way I could possibly relax in my tent covered in dirt and sweat from working all day, right?

We built the Pacific Crest Trail.

We built the Pacific Crest Trail.

Our nine-hour work days consisted of Ben repeatedly showing us the ins and outs of trail maintenance. What do you mean it’s not just scraping the dirt so that the hiker knows where to go? Trail eyes? Oh, you mean the way a hiker looks at a trail, and not the dirt that rings around your face from lack of showers. No, Ben, the water won’t run off at 15 percent out-slope, because I have no idea what that means. At one point I spent an entire day on one section of the trail that we named “Rock City” because each time I swung my McLeod (popular trail maintenance tool) it unearthed a rock that left craters in my tread. Off to a great start already.

Mealtime was a race against the sun. Each day at 5 p.m. we scrambled to whip up enough food for the five ravenous teammates. Pots were routinely scraped clean by our plastic sporks. Dish washing was a black bucket filled with ice cold, hypothermia-inducing water. Strap on your headlamp and hover over the bucket while you lose feeling in your hands for the next twenty minutes, all to the sound of Ben plucking his banjo.

Cooking in a parking lot. We're ravenous.

Cooking in a parking lot. Living the life. We’re ravenous.

My teammate, Abby, and I were on a mission to preserve our cleanliness. We had both given up shampoo for the entirety of the three months, but each night we brushed out our hair and wrangled it into nice, neat French braids to keep out of our faces for work. More ice water to wash our faces and 10 grimy baby wipes later, we were ready to crawl into our tents and do it all over again the next day.

Town days are for eating. Eating it all.

Town days are for eating. Eating it all.

Hitch number two was in Whitewater Preserve, close to Palm Springs, California. With my military bag purged of dresses, I was getting closer to acclimating to my new life. Each morning was a one-hour, stunningly beautiful hike to our work site. At this site we constructed several check steps (large rocks set in the ground to prevent erosion) and a massive retaining wall. The 1964 Wilderness Act does not allow the use of mechanized equipment in wilderness , which means we had to move 600-pound rocks ourselves to construct these steps and walls. Ben grabbed a complicated looking rock sling, pointed his tattooed hand toward a deep ditch next to the trail and motioned for us to circle around and grab a corner of the sling. One… Two… Three… And heave a few feet before the rope yanks off your arm. Despite my obvious lack of experience in hauling monstrous boulders, this is where Ben dubbed me “The Russian Muscle.”

Using a rock sling at Whitewater on the PCT.

Using a rock sling at Whitewater on the PCT.

Gradually, everyone started getting accustomed to the workload and the strenuous lifestyle. The boys on the team were smitten with the rock hauling, upping the ante each time by picking bigger and bigger rocks in order to get “gains” and beefier arms. One day after a day of rock hauling, I attempted to keep up with Ben’s six–foot, four-inch tall stride to camp, earning myself a week’s worth of waddling like a cowboy because of the searing, red chafe marks on my legs.

One day it started to rain. I thought Southern California didn’t have this issue, but there we were, an hour into the workday, and everyone was completely soaked to the bone. We began to shiver, unprepared without rain gear, and immediately felt the repercussions. I couldn’t feel my hands while they were sifting around in the mud trying to assemble a check step. I like to look back on this moment as the time my brain snapped. Of course I look back on it fondly now that I am dry and warm, but in the moment I was simultaneously crying and maniacally laughing. I dropped to my knees in the middle of the shivering circle of crew members and raised my arms up and yelled out and asked to no one in particular, why anyone let me do this. It was a weak moment in my life. All the while, Ben sat and watched my performance while nibbling on his sandwich. He sent us home early that day.

Soaking wet on the day that I snapped.

Soaking wet on the day that I snapped.

Despite my mental breakdown, I knew I was getting better at trail life. My baby wipe use decreased and I found that sleeping with ear plugs allowed me to sleep through wind storms and the noises made by thieving raccoons.

We spent our third hitch on the Manzana Wind Farm in Tehachapi, California. Ben nicknamed this site “Mudslide Chaos.” We drove our truck into a patch of dirt surrounded by enormous wind turbines. It is difficult to describe just how dramatically strong these winds were. Cooking food in a wind storm isn’t as grand as it may sound. Tossing some spinach in a pan? Not going to happen. One green blur later and your dinner is miles away. We got creative and started cooking in our truck. We were getting better and better after each hitch.

NCCC crew members cooking in the wind at the Manzana Wind Farm along the PCT.

Cooking in the wind at the Manzana Wind Farm along the PCT.

During my stay on the wind farm, I was introduced to the “Cat Hole.” When nature called, you strode to the middle of the camp, grabbed a Pulaski (another popular trail maintenance tool) with a roll of toilet paper attached, walked off into the desert, dug your hole, and tried not to remember all the gas station bathrooms you turned your nose at during your lifetime. Baby wipes were in the low single digits now. Pajamas? None of that nonsense, just sleep in your uniform, that way changing in the morning is a breeze.

Hunter Campbell rising early for a full day of work on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mazama Windfarm.

Hunter Campbell rising early for a full day of work.

Mill Creek Summit in the Angeles National Forest is where we spent most of our final days. We pitched our tents next to a fire station that had a loudspeaker positioned outside. Luckily for us it was never turned off, so just before you could drift off into the fantasies of showers and refrigerated food, you’d be reminded exactly where you were from the deafening feedback crackling at any given time during the night. We called it “the voice of God.”

During our stay at Mill Creek, we moved around a few times because of weather. One morning, the team awoke to find the tents halfway buried in snow. Although packing wet tents during a blizzard (or thunder snow as we called it) was miserable, it usually meant a trip to civilization where we would attempt to put an all-you-can-eat restaurant out of business.

NCCC crew on the Pacific Crest Trail Waking up in thundersnow was an incredible experience.

Waking up in thundersnow was an incredible experience.

Each day on the trail was a gradual process of disconnecting from the things that I always felt were necessary. I may have gotten giddy when text messages would flood my phone, meaning I had service for the first time in however many days. But despite the reminders of my past life, I was content with having each day serve a purpose. Each morning, I rose at 5 a.m. with no alarm and happily ate my cereal with sliced bananas. I’d then grab a tool and spend the next nine hours on a trail that has made real difference in thousands of lives, mine included.

I know that every step of the Pacific Crest Trail has a story. Future hikers will not know the memories I made while working on these sections of trail. Whether it was finally figuring out how to create a 15 percent out slope or my tears fertilizing the soil, it all was magic. I may not be what some picture as “The Russian Muscle,” but I’m definitely not a hopeless city girl any longer. As for the baby wipes, the container still sits in my closet never having been finished.

Sophia Efremov, NCCC crew member, Pacific Crest Trail lover, and author of this essay.

Sophia Efremov, NCCC crew member, Pacific Crest Trail lover, and author of this essay.

Read Sophia’s last article, I am an AmeriCorps member and I will get things done PCT style. To Sophia and the rest of the team: Thank you. Keep the PCT close to heart for the rest of your life. Be proud of what you’ve done. It means so much.