To top the list…Musings of a Pacific Crest Trail volunteer

By Cristina Risa

A plant that has not been deliberately planted — one definition for the word ‘volunteer.’

In a trail-work sense, the definition above seems especially apt for one who grew up on two wheels, spent her first earnings on a bicycle and has pedaled thousands of miles on tires—skinny, nubby, and spiked.

In late summer 2012, I was facing two life-changing events: divorce and employer downsizing. Reeling just slightly from an unknown future, I cancelled a much-anticipated September cycling trip and stood very still for 10 minutes. I thought of a work conference’s round table introductions, where I once stated: “I take pride in my ability to accept the challenge of change.”

These words echoed clearly as I stood there reflecting. Change. Ha!

The PCTA’s volunteer vacations have taken Cristina to incredible places such as the beautiful meadows below Mount Jefferson, Oregon. Photo by David Phipps.

About this time, an invitation came my way: Forest Service trail work projects. Pack supported. Obsidian area. Rerouting an overused stretch. PCT. Backpack in. A few days or the entire hitch.

What language was this?

Translated, the U.S. Forest Service was building a new section of the Pacific Crest Trail to reroute hikers away from a water source area needing rehabilitation. The trip, scheduled to last a full week, allowed participation by volunteers with less free time.

Decision made, I was given directions, a parking pass and a list for my backpack. Backpack? Oh, I knew about backpacks—I just didn’t have one.

The new bike I purchased for one hundred and seventeen dollars at age 12 was slightly less than the (used) backpack purchased 40 years later. Both have profoundly impacted my history. A funny thought occurred to me while hiking on that initial trip. The one who refuses to use cycling jersey pockets because she doesn’t like the feel of the weight had a great big pocket on her back with some 30 pounds of stuff in it!

I live on wooded land bordering the Willamette National Forest. An amazing place to call home; I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with trail work. Technically I haven’t. Do I love the overall experience? I do.


The amazing landscape? Wilderness stretching as far as one can see inspires acquiescence to action or inaction. Certainly the landscape is a huge why factor. Giving to the world in my one-person way? Definitely. Succeeding at a task assigned and learning a new skill? Satisfying.

Cristina’s group gathers before a day of trail maintenance. Photo by David Phipps.

However, if I were to top the list it would be with “the connection to like-minded folks.” The people have fueled my trail passion every bit as much as the wild spaces have.

What follows are a few memories among many from work days and down days, short trips, day trips and week-long trips. For each one there are many more woven into the tapestry of my trail experience.

Tall Sam. Bicycle based. Young enough to be my kid. Nearing the top of the South Sister on a break day, I was feeling a wee bit weary with a long way yet to go. Sam was heading back down, as were most in our loose group. He briefly rested his hand on my shoulder, saying, “you’re almost there.” I made it.

Donna and Linda! We met on a PCTA volunteer vacation. Best trail friends since. Donna’s goal is to finish hiking the PCT this year. Linda and I are honored to be on board to hike with her through her final leg, Washington.

Barney, trail name “Be Hope,” the break-day expedition leader to a forgotten lake. It was Barney who, without missing a hiking step, broke the news about a slightly melodic sound I’d been puzzling over. “It’s your water bottle, probably tapping a carabiner.” Oh.

The A Team: Andrea, who after my “oh,” told Barney and me about hearing mariachi music on trail. Olé! Andrew: the leader who gave me a hard hat. Andy: his kindly offered suggestions made a world of difference.

Patrick, the only person I’ve met who knew about San Blas, Mexico, (a story in itself) because he’s originally from there! He was consistently delighted on his first ever trail working trip, which delighted everyone else. When it began to snow, undaunted, he said, “Wonderful! Now I can test my new waterproof jacket!”

Patti with ultralight Yahtzee & Farkel. Entertaining when snow confined us to the camp’s kitchen tent.

Steady Morris and Barbara, his animated wife. It was Barbara’s animation which captivated the circle of listeners to her most creative story regarding a found piece of rubbish. It was Morris’s look of incredulity that clearly said there are still surprises aplenty after 50 years of marriage.

Retired, soft spoken Jo developed the ‘Alabama Rock Stomp’ for the last day’s safety circle. She had the collective group performing goofy dance steps as best we could while doubled over laughing.

The awesome volunteer packers with your mules and horses and llamas. You carry in supplies and tools facilitating the work. You are so appreciated!

Awesome llamas. Photo by Cristina Risa.

Blue Jay. Spunky AT and PCT thru-hiker. She came off the trail near the lava fields where Donna and I were working. She was signed up to join a week’s worth of PCTA trail work. Needed a ride. I was signed up for the same trip! Christmas still brings a card from Tennessee.

Jeanine, who taught me there is no shame in removing your boots, rolling up your pants legs and walking a stream crossing clinging to wet rocks instead of using them for stepping stones.

Bill Carpenter! A great trail blessing. Unquestionable dedication, volunteer extraordinaire! One indelible memory is of meeting Bill some 5 miles from a trailhead. We were outbound, our work trip ending, Bill was coming in to continue the work. Hot day, we were tired. Bill suggested a lunch break. In due course he produced a large bag of peanut m&m’s from his pack. Revived as much from the break and good conversation as the chocolate candy, we parted ways.

JT, who made fry bread for a dinner of Indian tacos on a camp stove after a long day’s work.

Rockette, one of the Outward Bound group I mentored on a project. Gutsy and incredibly talented with rock, though she hadn’t worked with it before. I was unsure of leading a work trip but glad afterward. Incredible group.

Dana, I like you Dana. I admire the way you inspire people to do things they might never have considered doing in a million years. Like LEAD a group of Outward Bound folks, ALONE! Thank you for believing in the trail mission and in people.

Paul. We all pitched in to search for Paul’s lost wedding ring. I hope he found another one just like it.

A project in September of 2017 near Mount Adams got snowed out, but Cristina and the other volunteers remained in good spirits. Photo by Justin Brimer.

Thierry, the very nicest Frenchman, who despite obvious enjoyment of his trail work experience, when asked what he missed most of all, said it was not the conveniences of non-trail life. He missed his wife.

Chicago Mike, who added his jar of Nutella at breakfast and his strength to mine, using rock for armoring a horse crossing.

Wayne, who encouraged this adventure and still goes over to read with my kitty when I’m away.

On that first Forest Service hike out nearly seven years ago, I thought: we are so little under an open sky; in the almighty embrace of something unfathomably huge. Suddenly overwhelmed with the sobering thought of leaving this nurturing haven, of returning to the “real” world, I stopped to sit for a bit.

To the unknown one who gently inquired, “you okay?”

Yes! A bike or a pack. Life’s trail beckons.


You, too, can join one of the PCTA’s volunteer projects. Go to our volunteer page to sign up and find a trail project near you.