Sometimes, the old ways, are the best ways. Backpacking is uniquely a modern sport, but it is deeply grounded in the idea of “returning to nature.” Granted, human beings have been walking the earth for millions of years. And it could be said that Cro-Magnons were the first official “backpackers.” But unlike our distant ancestors today’s modern adventurers typically carry a wide variety of high-technological devices to aid in their trek. The walk may be old, but we do it in contemporary style.
Building the trail itself is no different. The earliest trails followed natural wildlife corridors. Where the game went, so did humans. Natural geography also encouraged trail formations as humans sought out the paths of least resistance. Cumberland Gap is perhaps our most obvious nearby example. In modern times, the first and most prolific effort in intentional trail-building and development of natural resources in the United States was accomplished by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Instituted in 1933 under the New Deal, and enacted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the CCC endeavored to put young men to work in the post-Great Depression era.
By today’s standards, this must have been incredibly grueling and labor intensive work. We are extremely fortunate to live in an era that provides us with technological innovations such as the battery powered hammer-drill, precisely manufactured lumber, power generators, pre-measured bags of concrete mix, water coolers, and heat efficient water-wicking clothing.
But even in the midst of all these high-tech advancements, mother-nature still has a way of throwing us logistical hurdles. And even conventional construction projects in urban areas still use rudimentary tools such as hammers, shovels, and post-hole diggers. One of my “coworkers” had the clever insight to cut footholds into a precipitous mudslide at our worksite (which I saw many workers using by the way).
Perhaps my favorite “old-timey” method used this weekend was the mule team. Mules are often employed in areas that are inaccessible by ATVs. They are nimble and powerful creatures capable of hauling tremendous loads. In the American southwest in places such as the Grand Canyon, mule teams are still used to pack in supplies and tourists. Just as you would expect, they are slow, and sometimes stubborn, but they did a tremendous job. We loaded up our mules with 160 lbs of concrete mix to cross a slippery stream, around a drainage, and up a sketchy muddy trail to our worksite. We would drop the metal panniers and simultaneously load 80lbs on both sides. I had the pleasure of occasionally leading the mules by hand to our dropzone (of course, I’m an animal lover so naturally this was fun for me, maybe not someone else).
Starting early in the morning, members of an architectural firm who were graciously donating their time, dug post holes, made measurements, cut wood, and gave the structure its initial form. Slowly over the course of Saturday and Sunday the shape of a staircase, with three platforms begin to emerge on a bluff-line opposite Vanhook Falls.
Most of the remaining volunteers spent time running supplies back and forth via the 1/8 mile trail back to base camp. Much like the moonshiners who used to operate in the area, we also drew buckets of water from the falls to mix the concrete.
On Sunday I was able to get a little more hands on. For several hours I placed stringers for the stairs, cut platforms with skill saws, and trued up the structure.
Temperatures were brutal all weekend. In the few moments I had to venture into the open field where our cars were parked the heat would soar twenty degrees. In the forest it remained cool and damp, but the humidity was viscous enough you could almost cut it with a knife. I spent the entire weekend drenched in sweaty clothing.
I think volunteering for trail work is something everyone should consider. Not only does it give you a direct understanding of the hard work that is put into the maintenance of trails, you can achieve that same level of camaraderie and accomplishment that you experience on a normal community hiking trip. You also gain an incredible appreciation for all of those old-timey bearded fellows who toiled in cotton or wool britches in the past!
I was happy to volunteer this weekend. Much like backpacking the Sheltowee, we would all come “home” to base camp in the evening. The STA provided a kitchen, mess tent, three meals a day, and even a toilet. At night after getting our fill we sat around and told hiking stories, and laughed about silly things that have happened to us on the trail. The work was hard, but I was still outside, and it was enjoyable. The next time I take a girlfriend hiking I can say "I built that!"