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5 Life Lessons I Learned on the Trail

After she graduated from college, Christine Byl joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors the park draws every year. What began as a summer diversion became a decades-long career. The backbreaking labor—clearing trees, moving boulders, blazing and repairing trails—has been more than she could ever have foreseen that first summer on the trail, and she details this journey in Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods. Here, Byl reflects on some of the lessons she’s learned during her seasons on the trails.

1. Rituals make life easier. There is no way to overestimate the importance of food to a traildog. Intense physical labor demands a constantly stoked furnace. I need at least a little food every few hours, which requires an array of calorie-dense, easily munch-able options. I make it a ritual to pack my lunch the night before. If I put it off until morning, I run the risk of under-packing because I’m running late, or worse, forgetting it altogether. This necessity offers another lesson: If you postpone boring, repetitive tasks (of which there are many in manual labor), they get much worse. Diving in and making it a ritual is best.

2. When faced with an arduous situation, stay in the moment. I have had so many times at work—especially as a new laborer, or early in the season before I’m “roughed in”—where the feats required of me seemed totally overwhelming. How am I ever going to get to that pass with a pack this heavy? What if I can’t stay ahead of the pack mules all day? I’m almost out of water and it’s only 2 p.m. But without fail, if I focus on the immediate—one step at a time, get to the next switchback, drink one swallow per hour, take a deep breath—it always surprises me: The task gets done. The goal happens.

3. There’s no monotony a good word game can’t fix. Despite our reputation as brutes (“wood apes” is a common nickname), traildogs are, on the whole, pretty smart folks who like mental stimulation in addition to physical challenge. One crewmate and I worked together for years; we were both English majors in college, and we whiled away a lot of long, dusty miles and rainy days digging drains by playing word games. Sometimes staying in the moment is best, but other times, a little distraction is the ticket.

4. Learning from others is a great pleasure. My relationship with crewmates has been one of the biggest pleasures of wilderness labor. I definitely feel I am in a lineage—an apprenticeship tradition of woods-workers doing very old tasks together. I started as green as could be and stuck it out for a long time, and it seems that every season in some way I go from learner to teacher to learner again. This has carried over from the woods to the rest of life as well—how to seek out mentors and be receptive, to cultivate that balance between expertise and a beginner’s mind that keeps me engaged and curious and thriving in any setting.

5. My body is my home. During the first season of the most rigorous work I’d ever done in my life, I watched my muscles get stronger, felt my endurance increase, noticed the way my body changed in relation to the tasks I was doing, and it became clear in a very embodied way: I am a physical creature. I need water, food. My mind and my self are inextricable from my limbs, my heart, my lungs. Watching and being with animals also helped clarify this. From the most glamorous mega-fauna (grizzlies, lynx) to the commonest critters (sparrows, squirrels), animals became familiar to me over years in the field. I started to see how much like them I am, how animal myself. Same needs—food, water, air. Same world that we depend on. Same home.

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'Dirt Work: An Education in the Wood' by Christine Byl
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