Rolling rocks with the ACE crew

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of the PCT Communicator magazine.)

By Max D’Amato

Blue Gatorade, cheese sticks, fresh socks and underwear — these are some of the things that made a lengthy workday on a long hitch go by fast. In between moving granite boulders and laying down tread, we swapped stories, told jokes and shared opinions. And at the end, we completed a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

I wound up working on the PCT via the AmeriCorps program, in alliance with American Conservation Experience. I wasn’t supposed to work on the PCT, but I was temporarily assigned to Crew #2, which is specifically designated to the PCT, for what should have been one eight-day stint on Echo Summit. The work captivated me, and I stayed for six hitches. All our projects were rock work, which is like a life-size game of Tetris. This, combined with the opportunity to move throughout the Sierra Nevada region on one of the country’s most famous trails, was an opportunity I could not pass up. From then on, the theme of my work would be rocks — big rocks.

Moving rocks was the name of the game. Photo by Alice Su.

We did projects on Echo and Donner summits and in the Sierra Buttes. Our work consisted of finding rocks, moving rocks and building retention walls with those rocks. These walls, sometimes multi-tiered, support the trail. The general rule when searching for rocks: If you can pick it up, it’s too small. More often than not, the rocks we used to lay the foundation needed two or more people to move. We used rock bars — 5- to 6-foot metal rods weighing roughly 20 pounds — like levers.

The time it took to move one of these rocks, which weighed 500 pounds or more, varied. At Echo Summit, we moved boulders downhill directly above the worksite. This required utmost caution, and quite often we halted work below to ensure safety. Searching for the proper rock, known as quarrying, rarely took long in the Sierra, where rocks are abundant. Finding the right rock for a wall depended on its shape and depth and the other rocks it would be placed against. The soundtrack to moving a rock would be a countdown from three accompanied by grunts and the occasional curse word. Repeat.

Upon reaching its final destination, the great discussion of how to insert the rock begins. Rocks are set against the trail to form retaining walls that will support the tread. This often first requires digging holes for the rock to fit into. It’s expected that the rock will have to be rotated and shifted repeatedly before it is set. The rule: The rock must have zero movement when weight is placed on it. Usually this can be determined by jumping on it and/ or kicking it. Once set, the rock will be “crushed” into place. This means that smaller rocks that have been crushed into gravel are pressed against it using double and single jacks (sledgehammers). These smaller rocks cement the boulders in place. This is all then covered with a layer of dirt.

Hiking to the worksite in the Sierra offered stunning views. Photo by Max D’Amato.

At the end of the day we returned to our campsite tired and dirty. But it didn’t seem to matter how long or hard the day’s work was. Challenges and frustrations were left behind at the worksite. Our first priorities when we reached camp were to change into fresh clothes and grab food (cheese sticks were a crew favorite). Going eight days without showering was a given. For me personally, baby wipes came through in a big way, helping me feel a bit more human.

The work we did on the trail is challenging and rewarding. The elevated setting of the Sierra put us that much closer to the sun, so we gained a profound appreciation for shade. On our later projects in the Sierra Buttes, the cold was a major factor, with freezing rain and lightning impeding our work one day. This was an unfortunate time to discover that my rain gear was ineffective. We stopped work. I dried out in a diner with my crewmates and happily ate two meals in one sitting.

Steep hikes into and out of worksites carrying tools were typical. On the flip side, we were rewarded with stunning views of the Sierra Nevada and many lakes. It was always refreshing, in the midst of strenuous labor, to look up and see something most people only get from their laptop screensaver. Moving boulders in the baking sun with little shade was grueling. However, when it was set, we knew it would be there for decades. It’s undeniably gratifying to know that work we’ve done will benefit countless hikers for years to come along one of the most popular trails in the country.

Time flew by when I was working on the PCT, and yet my first hitch in July 2019 feels like it happened so long ago. Being in the wilderness, away from cell phone service and a bed, exercising my body and mind while taking in pristine beauty, forced me to be in the moment. Now that I’m back in the real world, the gulf in time feels extreme, much greater than a few months.

Photo by Max D’Amato.

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