The nature of the 2020 American Conservation Experience Crew season

By Sandra Plato, PCTA Trail Crew Technical Advisor






Honestly, I should make a 2020 word search with all the words that keep being repeated to me either by work colleagues, the news or the internet. These words are starting to lose their meaning. I want to ignore them and just get back on the trail and get to work. I am very grateful that I get to work while many are still struggling to find work or get comfortable working in a safe environment because of COVID-19. I am even more grateful that my office is outdoors on the PCT.

The commute to work

When hiking with tools to do physical labor or driving alone for long stretches to get to the work area, sometimes I lose sight of where I am. I am so lucky to call the Pacific Crest Trail my office while others sit inside staring out the window dreaming about their next great escape. I’ve already made it out!

This season I went from a crew member on a trail crew to the Trail Crew Technical Advisor for the PCTA. I am living the dream. I get to hike for work and breathe fresh air (when there aren’t wildfires raging through California) and enjoy the scenery of my most beautiful office. Instead of sitting in a meeting in a stuffy room, I work in a place where I get to hike with incredible regional representatives and scout the trail to see what areas might need maintenance. Although this is my first year as a Technical Advisor, my voice is heard, I am asked for my opinion and respected by my coworkers and supervisors. Of course, not everyone in the world is like that but I am so lucky to not only work outside but work with people who value and respect me.

My commute to work doesn’t include city traffic, aggressive honking or stressful drivers. Instead, I drive through beautiful landscapes, park, then hike through them. I’m not used to driving alone for hours at a time. At my old jobs I’d always bike to work in order to get a dose of the outdoors before being stuck inside. Now I drive hours to get to a trailhead.

Sandra in the Sierra Buttes, northern California.

While this can be hard to do alone, being alone has allowed me to notice new things. Every time I look in the rearview mirror of my trusty (well it gets me from point A to point B most of the time) 2001 Subaru named Jesse, I see the most beautiful postcard-worthy views. Something about the frame of the mirror makes whatever I’m seeing look like a mystical far off land. But then I catch a glimpse of my own face in the mirror and see the dirt lines around where my safety glasses were sitting on my face. None of the crew members told me all day how ridiculous I looked! It’s not quite as mystical!

The nature channel, but it’s real life

Hiking with heavy tools, especially with rock bars, does not treat your body as well as hiking with a day pack. Sometimes I’ll be trudging along hot and miserable just wanting to take a break. Then I look up and catch a glimpse of the Sierra Buttes or Castle Crags or a Joshua tree in the desert distance and realize how cool it is to be where I am. I’ll see a road runner jog—yes jog—lazily across the road and I just laugh. Once I saw a mamma bear with all her cubs in tow run across the trail 20 feet in front of me and make a beeline up a tree. I’ll catch a deer staring at me. I’ve seen jack rabbits run across the road at speeds I believe to be faster than a cheetah. These all make trail work very exciting.

Trail memories

I’ll stop to pick a blade of sweet grass in the Sierra to chew on my hike out at the end of the day. Who needs toothpaste?

I like listening to the Forest Service radio during lunch if I’m alone to hear what everyone in the area is up to.

The best is taking my socks off at the end of the workday and having a ridiculous tan line but it’s actually just dirt.

I love waking up in the middle of the night to a moon that’s brighter than a spotlight or the stars later in the month.

When I go into town, I’m usually fairly dirty looking in my men’s Carhartt’s and salt stained PCT shirt. I’ve been asked if I’m a ranger or a firefighter and I love answering that I am the technical advisor for the PCTA, which to me is equally as cool.

The work

This year’s work with the American Conservation Experience crew has included constructing new trail with several reroutes completed in the Sierra Buttes, brushing out densely overgrown hedge maze at Castle Crags and maintaining the dessert trail at Bird Spring Pass. What’s crazy is that it’s all one trail! My feet haven’t connected the whole thing, but many have thru-hiked and connected all the places the crew and I have worked, which is pretty incredible.

Desert living.

The crew this year has come together to work through the pandemic and wildfires to ensure that the PCT will be available for hikers and equestrians to enjoy for years to come. This season started late because of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of bringing seven strangers together to work in proximity. Luckily, we were able to start the season and have remained healthy throughout. With the late start, we were excited to finally be underway. Then the fires started here in California. We have woken up to an orange-red sun and hazy skies, had to end a project early and postpone others. While we want to work, we also have had to keep in mind the effects of poor air quality while working outside. Hopefully, the smoke subsides, and we are able to get back to a more normal work schedule.

Although the smoke does not make for ideal working conditions, it often creates a rather beautiful landscape. Other times it is eerie and apocalyptic. While the mountains are rather beautiful when they are hazily layered in the distance like a painting, it’s also usually an indicator that the workday will end early. With all the obstacles this season, the ACE crew has helped complete many of the PCTA’s objectives on the trail but there is always more work to be done!


Editor’s note: Sandra Plato is one of PCTA’s two seasonal trail crew technical advisors in 2020. She worked on trail maintenance projects in California with crews from the American Conservation Experience, a national corps crew program for young adults.

Thanks to our partners and corps crews who make this work possible, including the U.S. Forest Service. To get involved, fill out a volunteer application and visit the online schedule to find upcoming opportunities.