It was the summer of 1990 and I had just finished my third year of teaching at White River High School in Buckley, Washington in the foothills of Mount Rainier. A picturesque setting with a community based primarily on logging and agricultural work at the time. That has changed as it has become much more of a commuting town for Seattle and Tacoma. We were living in a two level duplex in a town called Enumclaw. The views of Mount Rainier were staggering. A truly beautiful place to live. Can’t get much prettier, although it was cloudy and rainy too much of the year. I was teaching biology to 10th graders and also coached girls softball. We event went to the state championships one year.
My first wife was commuting an hour per day to a town called Kirkland on the shores of Lake Washington where she sold swimwear, windsurfers and sailboats. I was about to turn 30. Naively, I thought I had mastered teaching completely at the time and had become bored with teaching biology five times a day. Imagine teaching the same course back to back to back five times per day to approximately 30 students per class with five minute breaks in between. I was very good at it, but when I asked myself, “Is this all there is in life?” I knew the answer. I had to leave.
My best friend’s father in law owned a trail building company. He lived in Idaho, but would bid on jobs that were needed by the federal government. Fascinating way to make money. They would bid on the jobs and then build trails all around the country. He was hired to build a 14 mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in the Norse Peak Wildnerness area at Government Meadows. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Canadian border in the north to the border of Mexico in the south. The work started by the Naches Trail and ended up near the ski area called Crystal Mountain, a place I had skied many times in my youth, particularly with my father who had introduced all of us to the sport. I accepted the job to help build the 14 mile stretch of trail in the mountains in the wilderness and it truly was a special experience.
To get to the job I had to drive about 45 minutes from home, then go up a logging road for another half hour or more to reach the trail head. It was a dusty, gravelly, bumpy road, but my little late 70s Honda Civic made it each time. It was sketchy at times as huge logging rigs would suddenly appear around a corner. I loved going up the road as it meant another week of simply working in the wilderness. I was being paid 17 dollars per hour, which seemed like a lot at the time. My first morning there I woke up to Elk outside my tent and a marvelous sunrise. One of the quirks of building trails in the wilderness is that the laws make it illegal to use anything that has a “mechanical advantage” like a chainsaw, wheelbarrel, etc…a bit odd as I could argue our other tools had mechanical advantage. We also could use dynamite if necessary to blow up rock. Crazy! We had many different hand tools. We had picks, something like a pick called a “grubber” that was more designed for dirt and a variety of rakes. We had many hand saws and clippers as well. The work was incredibly physical and it was the most chiseled I had ever seen my body. Muscles everywhere. Unfortunately no photos available. In building the trails we would have to make the angle of the paths just perfect so rain would drain off without destroying the trail and would also have to bury logs in a variety of places to guide the run off of water. We built small bridges to cross creeks at times. Our materials for living were brought in by a mule team. They brought tents, light sources, food, beverages, sleeping bags, etc….As we worked down the trail each day,our camp would be further and further behind us, eventually requiring us to walk well over an hour just to start work. I loved the physical nature of the job. That is just how I am. I also became quite close with my co-workers even though we came from such different worlds. I loved putting on my Walkman headphones and listening to music when taking the long hike in or out at the beginning or end of the week. I recall Bob Marley, Anita Baker, Tom Petty and more.
In my tent, I would set a lantern up on a round piece of wood and read the magazines I had brought in for the week. I knew every story of each magazine…The USA was invading Iraq for the first time about then and I remember reading how the US ambassador to Iraq had told Saddam Hussein that we would not interfere in Arab to Arab affairs such as that between Iraq and Kuwait at the time. So essentially we had given them the green light and then attacked them for doing so. Not surprising, but what is surprising is how few Americans know that. It was in Time Magazine. The trails were not without hazard and Darren, the lead on the job carried a gun with him for potential run ins with bears. I am not a gun person, but I fired the gun once and was astonished by the power and the sound. I should have been wearing ear plugs and have been warned about the kick back when firing. Dangerous stuff! There were scratched logs everywhere which were the telltale of bears. We saw lots of marmots as well.
I enjoyed everything about the experience. I loved breakfast around a fire, I loved the physical work, I loved the results of the work, I enjoyed lunch and dinner as well. I also loved the weekends when I would go home and my wife would bake wonderful calzone with pepperoni, sausage and cheese. I became a bit of a Pepsi addict on the trail. I had almost forgotten that I would fuel myself with chocolate covered espresso beans. I would bring a certain quantity out on the trail with me during the day and eat some at a 10 AM break, at lunch and then the afternoon break. Great stuff! One scary event that happened was an encounter we had with a man on a horse. We saw horses on the trail, but this was different. His horse was very jumpy and his gun was hanging off his belt. He said he was breaking in the horse because it was still a bit wild. Horses are huge animals and I do have a healthy respect for them. They do unpredictable things that end up hurting or killing people. We were on a narrow part of the trail that cut across a very steep mountainside. I went down below the trail and got behind a tree. My co-workers thought I was being silly. Suddenly the horse turned and started up the steep hill fast. It then went high on its back legs only. The horse tumbled with the rider attached for half of the fall and the horse went all the way to the bottom of the hill around 100 meters below. The horse got up and escaped into the woods. The man was motionless. I ran down the hill and from far away could already see blood. He didn’t move. I was certain he was dead. All of a sudden he moved and his hand went to his gun. I was frightened. He asked where the horse was and I pointed to where it had run. I told him he should maybe rest for a moment but he got up to chase down his horse. We were many miles from any assistance. Remarkably we saw him walking his horse the next day.
I had resigned from teaching at this time and truly had no intention of returning to the profession. However, I had a one year leave of absence that provided that option. Next…living out of a van.