Dirt Work – Book Review

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl, published by Beacon Press, 2013. $24.95

Dirt Work - book coverI’ve been maintaining a piece of the Appalachian Trail as a volunteer  for longer than Christine Byl has worked on trails. However, I’ve never done the kind of work she’s describing. Her book, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, is a look into what it takes to build and maintain trails out west so I can hike to a scenic spot. This is tough work.

Byl started working as a traildog after college. For sixteen years, she was a laborer who worked in the woods designing, building, repairing, and maintaining trails in Glacier National Park and later in Alaska. Unlike the A.T. and other long-distance trails in the East, major trail work in National Parks is done by seasonal employees and not by volunteers.  

BylsymphonylakeA.jpgIn the book, Byl recalls long days of clearing brush, digging ditches, building bridges, cleaning up after forest fires, and blasting snow. She learns how to use unfamiliar tools like a crosscut saw, Pulaskis, and chainsaws. She needs to deal with the harsh living conditions and injuries that are part of the job.

If you’re looking for a plot or a narrative arc in her story, you might be disappointed. However, if you want to get a feel for hard, physical work done so you can hike in the National Parks for your two-week vacation, you’ll enjoy the book.

Hiker to Hiker is part of a blog tour. So I had a chance to ask Christine Byl a few questions. So here’s Christine in her own words.
1.    What year did you start as a trail dog? When did you leave for good?

I started on my first Glacier National Park trail crew in 1996 when I was 23. I worked in Glacier from ’96-’02, with a season off in 1997. Then I moved to Cordova, Alaska and worked for the Forest Service, in 2003. Up north to Denali National Park from 2004-2008. After that, I started my own trail contracting business with my husband. So, I haven’t been on a crew in 5 years, but I’m still a trails professional. Haven’t left for good yet!
2.  Did you ever try (or dream) to get a full-time career job with the National Park Service?

I’ve always had the strong sense that for me, trail work was a great seasonal job to augment other pursuits and passions, but I did not want a career with the NPS. My husband had a term job for a few years before we started our business, which came with health insurance—that was pretty awesome. But, a six-month season suited me perfectly. As I say in Dirt Work, “I’ve never wanted to climb any ladder for the NPS except the one leaning against the tool shed.” This is just a personal preference though—I know and admire a lot of career NPS folks who do excellent work in parks all over the country.

3.  If you had to pick out an (one) experience on the trail that said to you “this is what I’m meant to do. This is why I’m doing this”, what would it be?

More than one experience, it was a generally growing sense, over time. But my first season, I do remember that I felt more like I  fit somewhere than I could ever remember feeling before. Or, at least, that I wanted to belong to this group, even though in many ways, I didn’t really fit yet. Over the years, I have developed a real sense of community with trails people. We don’t need to have everything in common, but we share this intense bond that comes from doing hard work together and knowing the same places deeply. I do have moments every season, in all kinds of situations, where I’m struck by the fact that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. (Usually this happens in sunny weather, though!)
4.  Do you know of any trail dog that does this as a long-term career? Until they retire and collect a pension?

I know of both long-term seasonal traildogs (who don’t retire and collect a pension) and also some that are permanent, with all the benefits that come with that. Most of the permanent positions are foreman jobs, so they get out in the field less and are doing more logistics, planning, budget, office stuff. But one really close friend has been in the trails world for 16 years, the last 4 in a permanent job, and still gets out in the field often. Another friend has been a seasonal for almost 30 years, leading crews for most of that time. He won’t get retirement, but he’s had one of the “realest” trails careers you can imagine.
5.  When you were a seasonal and before you went to grad school, how did you support yourself? How do most seasonal traildogs support themselves?

Generally speaking, I’ve supported myself for the last 16 years from seasonal trail work. Even during grad school, every summer I went back to the field when school let out. Sometimes I’ve had other jobs in the off-season—from temp work to college professor—but the bulk of my income is trails/field based.

Seasonals vary widely in how they make money. Especially in the NPS, the wages for trails jobs are decent enough that many people just work for 6 months and live frugally on that income, doing whatever else they love in the winter—traveling or volunteering or writing or ski-bumming, whatever. Some people go back to school. Others have off-season jobs, everything from working in Antarctica to construction jobs to teaching. Still other traildogs work trails all year long, moving to parks in different climates in different seasons. So, you might work in Alaska in the summer and in Saguaro in the winter. I’ve never worked in a southern park, though I have heard great things about them.
6.  Do you have any lasting injuries or aches that will be permanent?

Oh yes. I don’t think I know anyone who’s been doing trails this long that doesn’t have at least some minor complaints, except one friend who I swear is bionic. I had carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists that healed pretty well but can flare up if I’m not careful. I had two hernia surgeries from which I have scar tissue; I will always have a weak spot there and have to be really careful because they can often recur, I’m told. And then, I have the myriad little dings that most field laborers have—creaky knees, a couple of broken fingers that get stiff and cold easily, lots of scars. So far though, I think the consistent exercise, the high level of fitness and strength, and the mental health benefit that I get from working outside has outweighed any health downsides. But ask me again in ten years and we’ll see how I feel about that!

Check out other reviews on Christine Byl’s blog tour.

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