May 12, 2000
As the crew leader for the year 2000 WODC trail season, Iím supposed to write a letter of introduction to the four of you. Why on earth the Club wants you to know that youíll be stuck on a remote mountain top with a raving lunatic before we have you stranded in the tiny burg of Wonalancet is beyond me, but whatever Peter says, I do. So here goes.
Now, I suppose I could recount how in the 60's and early 70's I protected the American way of life by fighting the evil communist scourge, and how my actions ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Or maybe I could regale you with my later exploits in environmental guerilla warfare, both with the Coalition for Direct Action and as a freelancer. But in the interest of protecting state secrets, the remote chance that not all the statutes of limitations have expired, and brevity, I will limit my bio to trail-related matters.
In the early 80's I decided it was time I gave something back to the pastime that had given so much to me. I joined the Appalachian Mountain Club (New Hampshire Chapter) Trail Crew, a statewide group of volunteers that do about a dozen work trips a year. At that time, the Crew was divided into two groups: the Smurfs, who skipped and pranced up the trail, snipping a protruding branch here, and kicking a fallen limb off the trail there; and the Hogs, who would seek out the muddiest, buggiest spot on the trail and stay there all day, rooting and wallowing to their heartís content.
Ever since I was three years old, when the cat taught me how to unlatch the screen door and I discovered the freedom of the outdoors, Iíve loved mud. Naturally, I gravitated toward the Hogs. As I learned what these Hogs were actually up to, I discovered a new concept that intrigued me to no end: the paradox of making a god-awful mess in the interest of protecting the environment from the hikers. I love a paradox almost as much as I love mud. I was hooked.
For two years I collected rocks for Ed. Ed was amazing. Late fifties, taciturn, practical and efficient. He would turn over a dozen rocks I had collected, studying and memorizing every corner, every cleft, dimple and nub. Then he would hand me a shovel. "Dig there." I would dig. "Stop at that root." I would stop. "Deeper there." I would dig deeper. When he was satisfied that I could do no better, he would take the shovel, scrape some here, fill some there, and turn to the rock pile. He knew exactly which rock to pick first, where it was going and how it would be oriented. In no time at all steps or a retaining wall would materialize before me.
I never tired of watching his magic, nor did I ever learn his secret skill. I believe it was innate. His maker wired him for stacking rocks. For a long time after working with Ed, I shied away from setting rocks, preferring to do the quarrying and digging. But after working with others, I learned that the trial and error method was more the norm, that even I could master it, and the results were satisfactory as long as you had a little patience. The grace of execution was lacking, but the finished product was much the same.
In Ď86 I made the move. My heart had been in Wonalancet ever since I first visited ten years earlier. It was time to permanently plant the rest of me there. Then, situated in the shadow of my favorite mountains, it made no sense to go running all over the state to do trail work when there was so much that needed to be done in my own back yard. There were a number of trail organizations to choose from. I chose WODC partly because of location, but mostly because of the members. Thereís a lot of respect and commitment in this club; respect for each other and the mountains, commitment to caring for our corner of the White Mountains the best we can.
Half-way through last yearís trail season, we found ourselves in need of a replacement crew leader. Having already cleared my work schedule for other reasons, not wanting the crew to fall apart, and most importantly, knowing that the crew didnít want to quit, I volunteered to fill the spot. It was a hard five weeks, and I was relieved when the season ended. But a couple of weeks after dropping the crew off at the bus station and saying goodbye, my head stopped spinning and I was able look back on the experience with what at least for me could be considered marginal lucidity. I had spent most of the summer doing the work I love, in a setting I love, with four motivated, idealistic, young people.
I know it sounds corny, but I experienced a spiritual renascence. If you do the same thing for 18 years, the task is likely to become perfunctory and mechanical, no matter how lofty your original motivation. Itís good to see things through a new and un-jaded perspective. It helps rejuvenate your basic motives, or at least it forces you to acknowledge them; and I say itís good to be aware of why you do what you do. Thatís what last yearís SCA crew did for me.
So now you know the true purpose of the trail crew. The rest of the Trails Committee think the purpose is to repair trails and maybe inspire a few college students to stay involved in backcountry issues, but the true role of the crew is to serve as the Chris Conrod Summer Camp/Therapy Session. Itís awfully nice of WODC to invest so much time and money towards my state of numinous well-being.
I think Iím also supposed to pass along some advise to help prepare you for a summer in the White Mountains. I reviewed the woodcraft and camping book I read as a boy to see if there were some gems of wisdom I could steal but I think itís a little outdated. Building shelters out of mastodon hides has gone out of vogue in recent times.
Anyway, the four of you have a wide range of outdoor experience so it would be hard to address any issue without the risk of either boring or confounding one or more of you. You all have an idea of how prepared you are for a summer in the backcountry. If you think you need a little more knowledge, there are plenty of good (and current) books available, and I will be happy to tackle any questions you have.
However, I would like to give you an insight into my own frame of mind, the perspective I will take in approaching this coming season. Having lived through it once, I think Iíve learned some useful coping skills. I offer them for you to do with as you wish.
You are apt to hear frequent references from the Trails Committee concerning quotas, structures built per day, feet of trail covered per week and other nonsensical statistics related to our "job performance". Thatís their job. They have to deal with justifying expenses to the club membership and convincing those organizations funding the project that they are getting their moneyís worth. Being also a member of the Trails Committee, I may even utter this foolishness myself. If I do, you have permission to whack me on the knees with a shovel handle.
The truth is, no-one can predict how long it will take to complete a given section of trail. There are too many variables; availability of rock, slope, weather, hidden ledge just below the surface, you name it. When this subject is raised to me, I will nod earnestly and turn my attention back to the rock I am trying to set at that moment. Thatís the only way you can do it: one rock at a time. Donít worry, if we go out and do an honest dayís work, the WODC is getting a heck of a bargain. They know it, and they will show their appreciation to you, no matter how much they are fretting about things beyond our control.
On a related matter, we will be spending virtually the entire summer doing one continuous project on one trail. Chances are good that you will develop a sense of proprietorship and want to see the job through to the end of the season. Beware, there is a strong likelihood that one of two things will happen: 1) Sometime about two weeks before the end of the season the Trails Committee will take a look at what weíve done and what remains (there is no way we will finish Walden Trail this year), and decide that the crew is at a good stopping point, pull us off the Walden Trail and put us on another smaller project. They are not being mean, they are just trying to use their resources as efficiently as possible. 2) About half way through the season, when the TC has a good idea of how we are doing, they will designate a stopping point that they think we will reach at the end of the season. We will end up completing all the work a week before the end of the season. Thatís what happened last year. Believe me, the crew wasnít happy about being pulled off Walden and put on a preventative maintenance detail. All they knew was major reconstruction and couldnít believe that preventing erosion damage was more important than addressing it after the fact. There was a definite let-down after reaching the goal early and then immediately being thrown on another job.
So hereís the way I look at it. I signed a contract for ten and a half weeks to do trail maintenance for WODC. Believe it, the Club is going to use me for the full term of the agreement. Itís nice to have a goal, to know when youíve crossed the finish line, but Iím going to approach this season with a "task oriented" attitude; deal with whatís in front of me and not be too concerned with what lies ahead. If there is a goal, itís 5:00 PM, Sunday, August 20. The route to that goal will be decided as we go along.
But rest assured, at the end of the season, there will be a significant stretch of Walden Trail that will be yours, ours, more than anyone elseís. We will know that everything good and proper about that trail came from our hard work. Call me crazy, but that gives me a good feeling.
PS: Itís time you started meeting some of people that Zack Hasse, one of last yearís crew, labeled "Trail Fanatics".
For information on our current crew openings please see the "Jobs" page.
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