On Sunday, the team climbs to the top of MacIntyre Falls for lunch. The hummus is showing signs of fatigue, and the remaining bagels would be considered inedible in most environments, but the laughter is fresh and abundant. The crew tosses the food back and forth over the gap between two granite shelves, taking in the view of the western High Peaks.
I ask an open question: Why does the job bring folks back year after year?
"People see how we act and think we’re savages," says Ed. "But it’s like a second family, these dirty woods monkeys. You spend a day moving boulders with nothing more than leverage, muscle, and skill, and you get a feeling of achievement that’s beyond belief."
"Yeah," says Jeff. "I’m only 22 years old, and I’m putting stuff in the ground that will outlive me."
On the way down, we stop to inspect two staircases that Adam and Woody built earlier in the season. In half a lifetime of hiking, I’ve stumbled up many a clumsily built stairway, but these are works of art. Approached from the bottom, they sweep the eye upward with graceful curves. Yet these collections of rocks, with their coat of green-gray lichen, blend perfectly into their north-woods environment. Broad at the bottom and flanked by tapering borders of scree, they seem to promise nothing less than a lift up the mountain.
Late in the afternoon, a hiker stops to watch Woody and Jeff expertly flip a 500-pound hunk of stone into a cavity. After 3 days, Woody and Jeff have hit their stride; they’ve set six rocks since lunch, and their stairway is making its way, in an artful arc, up the mountain.
The light is fading fast when Ed and Adam’s "Fooo!" echoes down the mountain. As Jeff and Woody gather up their gear, two girls stop and ask the trailbuilders if they would mind posing for a picture. The hikers position themselves on either side of Jeff and Woody, and I frame the shot. The flash seems to stop time, burning into my memory an image of two enchanted girls flanking a pair of playful Adonises, their faces framed by white birches and backed by a fairy-tale staircase. In their eyes I can see the spark of nature and youth, with its promise of summits within reach, summers without end, and friendships without fail.
A minute later, the girls slip on headlamps and are skipping down the mountain. Jeff and Woody turn and make their way toward the campsite, walking with a bounce that one wouldn’t associate with the tail end of 11 hours of hard labor. At the turnoff, Jeff pauses briefly. Over his shoulder, an orange glow hints that dinner is well on its way. Ed, presumably at the fire, is grunting like a bear, and Jenny is laughing at something Adam said. Jeff turns to me and grins.
"This," he says, "is the best summer job in the world."
Tom Clynes aspires to build some quality trail of his own near his home in southern Vermont.