Reflections of a seasonal trail worker

By Ben Barry

Roughly two years ago, I signed up with the PCTA for a four-month term as a Technical Advisor. My job was to coordinate and oversee trail maintenance and reconstruction along the Pacific Crest Trail. I worked with youth and volunteer trail crews, supported corps crews and taught top-notch trail maintenance techniques, all while spending time outdoors and on the trail.

I never imagined the series of funding extensions, scheduling bonuses and vacancies that would turn my four-month stint into 19 months of trail work all along the West Coast. As my final weeks wind down, I’m thinking about the work, the people, the hikers, my colleagues, the trail itself and the PCT community, all of which makes moving on bittersweet. But such is the life of a seasonal trail worker. My last month on the trail has prompted a great deal of reflection not only on my time with the PCTA but also on the life that seasonal workers lead.

Training volunteers on proper rock bar technique. Photo by Mike Lewis.

Training volunteers on proper rock bar technique. Photo by Mike Lewis.

I started my career while still in college. Humboldt State University required Natural Resource students to complete an internship prior to graduation. With significant ambiguity, I signed up for the Montana Conservation Corps and the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation. My experiences were similar to those corps crews that work with the PCTA. In The Ranger, The Cook and a Hole in the Sky, Author Norman Maclean mused that you make enough money in a season of trail work to buy a new pair of boots and get drunk a couple of times. Hundreds of seasons after the story takes place, this still rings true. I spent my early winters doing many a strange task, or really, whatever happened to come my way. I’ve moonlit as a bicycle mechanic (good winter) and a dishwasher (bad winter).

Maclean’s comments also bring up another constant theme among any and all trail dogs: boots and pants. You will not find a seasoned trail worker who does not have their own righteous opinions on these objects of treasure and toil. Why? Because trail work ruins everything you own. Have something nice? Don’t bring it on the trail with you. And, of course, be willing to glue the soles of your boots back on intermittently (I did this last week) and patch your pant holes when they occur (I did this last month).

Despite the soles being literally screwed onto the bottom of the boot, they continue to separate.

Despite the soles being literally screwed onto the bottom of the boot, they continue to separate.

I wear White’s Boots and Dickie’s Carpenter Jeans. My favorite thing about my boot and pant choices? They last more than six months before they rip and fall apart! And although I often wear a western pearl snap, I have not yet graduated to the level of two of my favorite cowboys, PCTA members and volunteers Mike Lewis and Tom Firth, who regularly sport a Canadian Tuxedo. For the record, only grizzled trail aficionados can wear a Canadian Tuxedo.

Lesson learned. Always wear your gloves.

Lesson learned. Always wear your gloves.

As my seasons on trail continued I eventually progressed from washing dishes during my winter to traveling around in the back of my truck, fly fishing everyday with my dog.  I caught many fish. I also spent countless nights alone on the river. Different from life during the trail season, where I spent nights alone in my tent but during the day, I had humans to talk to instead of a dog. Which brings me to one of my other conclusions on seasonal work: it’s inherently lonely. Particularly if you do it as I did, as an excuse to travel the country.

Welcome to my office.

Welcome to my office.

The scholar Ibn Battuta said: “Traveling – it gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” Life on the road often can seem like the only place that’s home, which consequently can also lead to an existential crisis where you think you might be crazy. Whoops! This seasonal trail work lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Of my crews in Montana and Idaho, a few stuck around for a second season and others stayed in the conservation community as rafting guides, interpretive rangers and wilderness rangers. Most left the seasonal lifestyle and none have continued in trail construction. But when it does fit, this life lends itself to a sometimes-terrifying range of experiences, which I’m pretty sure I enjoy.

Thanks to the fantastic volunteers and corp crews who joined me on the PCT.

Thanks to the fantastic volunteers and corp crews who joined me on the PCT.

When I came to the PCTA and stuck around for more than a summer, there was still plenty of time traveling, but I also got used to the familiar faces of volunteers and colleagues. And like many others, the PCT came to feel like home. (I also came to the realization that I’m addicted to cake and donuts.) Most importantly, while on the PCT I was graced with spectacular corps crew members, some of who really took to trail work and started their own careers and journeys as seasonal trail workers across the country.

Leave no trace training before starting trail work. Photo by Sophia Efremov.

Leave no trace training before starting trail work. Photo by Sophia Efremov.

But alas, the seasons change and the snow starts to fall. Now that I’ve given up on finding winter travel and fishing options, I just do trail work year-round. Which is why this winter you’ll find me building bridges over alligator infested swamps for the Florida Trail Association!

Bye PCT! I’ll miss you!

(Hello open road!)

– Ben Barry

Teaching corp crews how to bring big rocks uphill. Photo by Sophia Efremov.

Teaching corp crews how to bring big rocks uphill. Photo by Sophia Efremov.

Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.