October 11, 2020|Ten days deep into the Bankhead National Forest working with the tread of this planet, I became witness to myself in a room of all mirrors, standing in total exposure to the desires and fears that initially drove me toward trail work. I sought out a job that challenged my tired mental & physical boundaries and met my match during the first hitch.
Before leaving Florida to travel deeper into the South, I felt I had checked all the boxes of preparation. Packed clothes for all four seasons, accepted the shift in my work from customer service toward physical labor, and starkly arrived into a very novel sense of reality.
What did it mean to live a life outside, then? To become entrenched in the workings of six people who began as six strangers and now coexist as part roommate, colleague, friend? To spend nine hours a day either chucking metal tools into the Earth or unearthing trash from the dying summer leaves? At the time, these were simply things I couldn’t envision.
I also had difficulty conceptualizing the ins-and-outs of how routine chores would be accomplished, or how everyone’s emotions were accounted for by the end of the night. Then I learned more about Expedition Behavior, this attitude in the wilderness where, naturally, everyone gets recognized through actions that benefit the whole as opposed to the self. It extends past the campsite and into the work that we do, projects large and small, that might feel minuscule on a grand scale, but only create space for healthier forests, future enthusiasts.
I explored the idea that this term of service transcends the visual fruits of our labors. The first, naïve ideas I had of building trail probably looked closer to a Zen Buddhist meditatively drawing a labyrinth through the sand. What I quickly learned is that trails are complex and architectural creatures that function properly when each section is intentionally set, the path organically riding the Earth. There are a multitude of drain types alone, things I previously glanced over as off-shoots toward forest oblivion. I learned that the tools we use on the trail are the same tools our conservation predecessors used to pave the original paths now always requiring of a loving maintenance. I feared the tools more than I realized, not from doubting my own strength, but because of the gendered stereotypes these tools can sometimes conjure up. This is a fear that the women and queer folk on my crew helped me make a fool of, as the diversity in our little circle created a safe space for ever more learning of the trails and each other.
It’s important to respect that everyone enters this experience with staggering levels of outdoor knowledge and experience. When I arrived a novice, I was quickly filled with imposter symptoms as my fellow crew members handled the tools and terminology of the trade with a fluency I’ll be striving to attain all season. I just as quickly found that we all brought this to the table: a basic willingness to expand our knowledge through listening, sharing, and remaining inquisitive and open toward those things we’ve yet to learn, experience or master. Nightly check-ins grew more vulnerable as the plethora of moods to manage doesn’t simply disappear because you’ve found yourself in the woods. Gently, you’re brought back over and over to the vividness of the experience, always requiring full attention to operate at best.
With the first hitch behind us now, I think lightly about heading back out there tomorrow morning. As for preparation, I know who I’m working with, what I’m working with, and that this season will be more physically and mentally demanding than I understand it to be now. Then I remember that the uncertainty of this experience was all I originally had and what excited me the most when I got hired. I go forward taking stock of what I’ve already learned and aim to use it effectively to be better for all of us, continuing to leave wider room for more uncertainty and surprise offerings on the trails.