I volunteered on a trail crew for a few months after college, and when my first backcountry project appeared my schedule, I was thrilled. I wanted to be out there in the wilderness, nothing but my small crew and the elements, proving to the world and myself that I was nitty gritty and “one with nature”. (Cue eye roll).
I had prepared for this – gotten all the gear, read all the brochures, and gotten in great physical shape. After all my preparation I was fairly confident that I was going to be one of the fittest girls in my class. I suppose that could have been true, had there been other new recruits. But as it turned out, my crew was a group of people who’d already been serving for a few months at least, and I was the freshest of the batch.
On the first day of the project I realized that I was NO match for these people. Weighted down with an oversized and heavy pack, I struggled every leg of the trip up the mountain. The first day was spent hiking up 5 miles to the campsite, sorting out all the food we’d brought, and setting up camp. I was the last one to arrive. Though the hike was pretty short compared to other trips, it was a very steep trail that wound all the way up the mountain. We turned off the trail below the ridge and hiked another half-mile to a small canyon where the camp was located. My legs were shaking by the time I got to camp.
The first day of work, we had to hike all the way up to the ridge. It took about an hour to hike all the way to our work zone on the ridge. That first day was grueling, and I was in the very back of the line, sometimes completely out of sight of everyone else. One of the safety tips we had was to “hike at your own pace”, but that means nothing when you’re used to being in great shape. As I said, I was no match for these people. My crew leader basically power-walked up the entire mountain, which wasn’t that surprising considering he’d been on this same project for five months. He’d done this hike dozens of times already.
Before this project, I thought I was physically fit. I had considered myself to have an active lifestyle. Now though, drenched in sweat and doing my best to continue breathing in the thin air, I was at first incredibly annoyed at myself and then truly humbled. I came to realize that although I was accustomed to being in the best shape of many people I knew, this was a whole different ball game.
I wasn’t the best; I wasn’t even mediocre. I was literally at the back of the line, last to arrive, gasping for air and covered in dirt. I believe everyone should be at the back of the line every once in a while, and not by choice. It helps keep that swelling ego under control. It certainly did a number on mine. It was exhausting, painful, and seemed never-ending, but eventually the experience got easier. I never got to the work site first, but that thought evaporated from my first day on that trail. My goal was simply to get up that mountain without feeling like my heart would spontaneously combust.
I gained strength I didn’t even know I needed, and I gained it all from the back of the line.