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November/December 2006

Gods Of Rock: The Adirondack Mountain Club trail crew

Sharpen your double-bit axe, get your pecs ready for action, and shoulder the biggest pack you've ever seen. Then dive into the trenches with a screwball trailbuilding crew, fixing the neediest hiking paths in the Adirondacks. Assuming you're not afraid of some very heavy lifting, this just might be the ultimate summer job.

Among the most important jobs, due to the immediacy of the payoff, is that of making hors d’oeuvres–"derbs," in this crew’s parlance. Jeff begins by laying a whole box of Ritz crackers onto two platters. On top of each cracker he plops a hunk of sharp cheddar, a dollop of ketchup, and a splat of Tabasco. "Derbs are up," he says, starting the platters around, one in each direction. In less than 30 seconds, the plates are back, empty; Jeff is already working on the next round.

"Mmmm," says Woody, cheeks puffed like a chipmunk’s. "Good derbs, Jeff."

Ed has both stoves fired up and is working on the main course: tuna glop (tuna, noodles, and cream of mushroom soup). Provoked by the rest of the crew, he pauses to bark out some realistic-sounding bear grunts at a pair of straggling hikers who are feeling their way down the trail in the twilight.

With cooking under way, talk and laughter resume. The conversation ranges from music and literature to gossip about other crew members, updates on the work itself, and unprintable jokes. Clearly, there is no holding back with a woman present. I ask Jenny, who grew up in a household without brothers, if she minds.

"No," she says. "The only thing hard to get used to was the wrestling. You get these nights of madness, with people rolling around and furniture stacked up in the living room and 2 inches of water on the floor."

"Sometimes it’s pretty insane," says Woody, who admits he often instigates the wrestling bouts. For the past six summers, the 10 weeks of intensely physical work has served as a balm for 9 months of academic work.

"Those last few weeks of school, I can’t wait to get out to the woods," says Woody, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in French history at Johns Hopkins University. "Now, after 10 weeks in the woods, the prospect of going back to study doesn’t seem too bad."

Yet this season would be the last for Woody, Ed, and Jeff. "Six summers is pretty old in trail-crew years," Woody says. "Now it takes longer for the pains to go away. It’s time to retire."

This week is the last of the season, and the crew plans to celebrate with a going-away party on Wednesday. Held outdoors rain or shine, the shindig typically draws far-flung alumni and often includes the Trail Crew Olympics, a mix of Greco-Roman tests of strength and drunken lumberjack circus. In past years, the roster of events has included mattock-tossing, tree-chopping, rock-hauling, and van-pushing, as well as breath-holding (with head submerged in a water bucket), and sumo wrestling with sheet diapers.

By 9:30, everyone is heading to their sleeping bags, leaving dishes and pots laying on the forest floor. My offer to wash up is greeted by puzzled looks.

"Over many years of trail work, much careful research has been done on the topic of washing dishes," says Jeff, as he digs his toothbrush out of his pack. "And we have determined that there’s no point–they just get dirty again."

Wake-up call (Ed’s loud "Foooo!" followed by five equally spirited responses) tears through the mist at 6:00 a.m. Above my tent, sunlight has reached the tops of the birch and balsam firs, which glow a mellow green against a clear sky. Within minutes, everyone has converged, wearing stocking caps and untucked wool shirts. Ed is already firing up the stove.

Jenny begins unloading the raw materials for breakfast from the food barrel. Ed announces that he’ll be making French toast.

"Wait a minute," says Jeff. "Is there some confusion here? It’s Saturday. That means eggs-in-the-hole, oui?"

"Then you cook ’em."

"I will cook them, and I will make some sausage for you, Ed."

"There’s some wicked duff in this coffeepot," Adam says. "Anyone got a fork?" Ed flings a fork, then turns his stove over to Jeff. Adam tries to light the other stove, nicknamed "the circus stove" due to its propensity for spectacular malfunction. Sure enough, the feeder tube falls off just as Adam puts a match to the burner, causing the igniting fuel to spew out, flamethrower style. Adam directs it away from the others.

"Hmmm," he says. Adam, an upstate New Yorker, is the quietest of the bunch. He gets the coffee brewing and, as the others trade wisecracks, leans back in his pack-chair with his newsboy’s cap on and feet outstretched, looking quietly entertained.

"Adam!" Jeff says, "You look ready for eggzinda." Adam holds out his plate. "Send it," he says.

"No, don’t send it," says Jenny, seated below the line of trajectory. Jeff flicks the spatula, propelling the welded egg and bagel in a 12-foot arc to the center of Adam’s outstretched plate. The sausage is the next to fly, followed by salt, pepper, and Tabasco.

By 8 a.m., Nalgene bottles have been filled and drops of iodine added, and everyone is heading for their worksites. Yesterday wasn’t particularly productive, so Ed proposes they work until dark–a motion received with unanimous enthusiaism. But as Jeff carries the highline gear up the hill, the frame of his pack begins to wobble and sway. An inspection reveals that it is cracked in four places.

A few minutes later, Jeff’s axe handle breaks. In late morning, the blackflies come up, an annoying incentive to keep moving. But at Jeff and Woody’s worksite, the pace is slow. The pair has piled large rocks next to the trail, and has begun laying their staircase. But the enormous second step, with its flattest side up, is too large–by an inch–to fit between the first step and a truck-sized boulder at trailside.

"I think we’re going to have to explore flipping options," Jeff says. "There’s another fairly flat side that might work."

Woody is getting frustrated. "Usually a good builder on his own can set seven or eight steps a day," he says. "I think this is the longest time I’ve spent on a single rock in 3 years."

Just before lunch, a bearded 40-something hiker approaches, tapping his way down the trail with ski poles.

"You’re making the trail too narrow," he gripes. "And there’s too many rocks sticking up." Jeff does his best to explain the conservation ethic, but the man is not impressed.

As Jeff and Woody struggle to rotate the rock, a party of French Canadians approach.

"Dose guys up dere above ask if yoo can send down two log peelers," one of them says.

"Two?" Jeff asks, eyeing the party of one woman and two men. "I wonder why they need two."

"Yes, first dey ask for one, but den dey call back and ask for two." As he speaks, a straggler catches up, wearing short-shorts and a tight-fitting blouse.

"Oh yeah," Jeff says. "On second thought, maybe they do need two."

The two women confer in French. They have a question for the trail workers, which the man translates.

"My friends, they want to know," he says, "what is a log peeler?"


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