Wilderness Ranger Ryan Lawrence updates us on his and Andrew Post’s adventure on a Pacific Crest Trail Association volunteer project:
I’ve been real lucky to see the places I’ve seen this summer. As a wilderness ranger in the North Cascades, it’s an expectation of the job to go slackjawed at the sight of jade water and golden light, to be dumbstruck by the depth and stillness of the woods, of the night. I’m not sure if my senses, dulled by age and abuse, can fully appreciate the pureness of their stimuli, but bless their heart, they try.
What I didn’t anticipate when I got this gig and turned my wheel northwest, what I didn’t even consider because I was so jazzed about tramping my tender feet through new trail, was that I was going to meet some amazing people. Andrew and I just finished working on a Pacific Crest Trail Association volunteer project organized by North 350 Blades, and we were both blown away by how rock’n’roll our group was.
As we headed east back to Entiat, slabs of mountain getting small in our rearview, I pitched Andrew some questions about our time in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, where we were doing restoration on the PCT. I’ve transcribed our conversation below.
Ryan: Tell me about your expectations for this project and how your expectations held up?
Andrew: I was excited going into it, but I wasn’t really sure about the group of people I’d be working with, who we were going to be spending all this time with. But sometimes you meet those characters that you think only exist in movies, people that you’ll never forget, and that’s exactly what happened.
R: Yeah, what a cast of characters, but we’ll get back to them in just a second. Let’s talk about some of the specifics of the project and our camp. Our goal was to restore a section of trail along the PCT, which included clearing brush and redirecting wayward tread. There were nine of us including our crew leader, Barry, and our camp host/cook, Sonja. All of our supplies and tools were packed in by horse and mule.
A: I actually brought some supplementary food rations —
R: You mean the whole hog you packed in?
A: Well, I brought a couple pounds of bacon with me. After the first day, though, I was convinced I was not going to have to open that bag anymore. We had some phenomenal culinary skills out there.
R: That we did. Sonja, wow. What a job she did.
A: Great dinners, great breakfasts, great snacks.
R: I actually started referring to her as “Lord God Sonja Mother of Light and All Things Tasty”. I definitely carried some of her food babies to term. Tough burden, gotta say.
A: Mad props to Sonja and our crew leader, Barry, for organizing all of that. Barry did some fine cooking too. Two words: apple crisp.
R: And he was captain of the coffee beans. He won my loyalty when I saw him manning the French presses like his life depended on it. Might have.
A: I’ve just never had that much fun working.
R: Yeah, good way to word it.
A: Being able to share experiences with like-minded folks, that are all there on their own time, shifting their schedules to be able to get out there and contribute to the beauty of nature. So many thru-hikers passed through, and they were so appreciative of our work out there.
R: Thru-hikers are kind of like the celebrities strutting down Broadway, aren’t they?
A: Kind of. It definitely felt good getting acknowledged by them. Don’t think I’d ask for any autographs though.
R: How about the whole shebang in general? Can you put any greater significance to it?
A: Well for one, it gave me a longevity perspective. There were some there in their 60s, pushing 70 —
R: 80, 90 maybe.
A: — it showed me that no matter where my life takes me I can always come back to the trail and find good groups of people. We were just nine, but there’s groups like this up and down the PCT, and other trails, being outside and experiencing the tranquility that nature can bring. We were working hard, but it was peaceful too. You just stop, look around, and say “daaamn”.
R: Good point. That reflects Barry’s leadership skills. He kept us motivated, but never in a whip-cracking way. Well, maybe like one of those velvety adult novelty whips. You know, the ones that make a nice slap but don’t hurt.
A: Uh, okay.
A: He was very encouraging, I think that’s what you mean. “Don’t work too hard.” I heard that a few times. Enjoy yourself so you’ll want to come back and bring people with you. That was his motto.
R: And have fun and don’t get hurt.
A: And we were enabled by wonderful food, wonderful leadership, wonderful company.
R: Andrew, you’re a wizened summer nomad, so how does this rate among your experiences?
A: Honestly, it’s a highlight of my summer. Feeling like you’re part of something bigger than yourself, something that you can come back to years later and feel proud about. I helped do this, I made a contribution. I made a sacrifice. What about you?
R: Well, eating three pounds of lasagna and washing it down with a pound of Italian cheesecake ranks right up there, not just this summer but possibly my whole entire life.
A: What was that Sonja said? She was “horrified” by how much some of us ate.
R: I’ll take that as a compliment, and she should too. But let’s talk about some of the other volunteers? How about Jim?
A: That guy had so much experience —
R: He looked like Popeye.
A: — first night at camp, he already had the crosscut out. He’s been working with crosscuts for years and years, the man just wanted to share his knowledge.
R: Fair bet he sleeps with that thing.
A: He was a steadying presence, and he was great at letting you work through problems, talking them out.
R: Yep, I definitely learned a lot from him. How about David?
A: Good ol’ Dave. Man, he has so much backcountry experience. Leads trips all over the place, thru-hiker —
R: I don’t think that anybody mentioned a spot in the United States that that son of a gun hadn’t been to.
A: Twice. And he was full of all those little tidbits that bring a place to life, which he’d toss at you. Really helpful. Really cool.
R: Funny guy, too. Seemed he always had a half-eaten sandwich in his hand. A Promethean sandwich if you will.
A: Didn’t notice that.
R: It’s true. I got to know him pretty good, felt like I could write his biography, or at least tell you what’s in his medicine cabinet. Great guy, hope he finds whatever he’s looking for on eHarmony.
A: Then there’s Tom.
A: Man, that guy —
R: He’s the guy you want at your barbecue, NC-style of course.
A: Kindred spirit, hard worker. Everybody really clicked with Tom.
R: How ’bout Ruby and John? What a cool couple of kids. Just awesome people.
A: Ruby’s got a lot of trail experience, so she brought that to the table. John’s got a background in climbing so we kind of connected on that. I’m really hoping to meet up with both of them in the future.
R: Right, I hope that I get to meet up with all of them in the future. That speaks to the camaraderie that came so doggone easy at that camp.
A: Exactly. I feel like everyone was all on the same page. From the get-go. No bad apples. And we had some big personalities, and none of them were clashing.
R: BIG personalities, and everybody just fit together. Lowlights?
A: Hmm, not really, no.
R: Well let’s see, Barry almost sprung his back trying to transport a Dutch oven packed tight to the rim with lasagna. Ruby almost choked on a horse fly.
A: Oh, there was your episode.
R: Yeahhhh. That sucked. My stomach rebelled against my gluttinous ways. Felt like a small marsupial got lost up my gut. That was your fault.
A: My fault? How was it my fault?
R: You should’ve eaten those last slices of salami that sent me over the edge. No hard feelings though. I recovered quickly to plunder Sonja’s next feast.
A: Anything else?
R: Yeah, Barry got the Phil Collins song stuck in his head. That was bad.
And that’s pretty much how our convo ended (I think we were afraid if we went any further that the same Phil Collins earworm that mercilessly bored through Barry might infect us). It can’t be overstated: we just met and worked with these people, a group of trail volunteers, and we both left with the feeling that we made best friends, lifelong pals, folks that’d brighten any room and lift our spirits soaring sky high when they walked through the door. It’s an obvious thing, isn’t it, but it’s good to be reminded that when you take that leap of faith past the edge of your comfort zone, when you engage in great endeavors, more often than not, you engage with great people.