Feature: Trail Crew Stories

Feature: Trail Crew Stories

By Hannah Truby

This story was originally featured in the Mountain Gazette Sunday email — our weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here

At 12 years old, Joe Gibson’s dream was to become an  “Imagineer”. Trademarked by The Walt Disney Company, an “Imagineer” is in charge of dreaming, designing, and building fanciful Disney Park attractions, the ones you can see and touch and smell, the ones that make you feel as though you’re walking into another world entire. Joe says that, in many ways, his career in trail work is a lot like Imagineering. In his essay “Imagineering Cultural Landscapes”, Joe writes.

"As an adult, I find myself working not as a Disney Imagineer, but as a trail worker for the National Park Service. Both the Disneyland visitor and the National Park visitor are deceived about the landscapes into which they enter. While the Disneyland visitor is willfully and happily deceived, however, the National Park visitor is, more often than not, oblivious to the subtle deceptions at hand. We trail builders play a key role in that deception, as we engineer the paths from which most visitors view and experience a park.”

Historically, trail work was about finding the quickest way between two points. Of course, the very first trails in the country were used and built by Native Americans. Then by the U.S Forest Service in the 1890s. Soon after it was westward pioneers, followed by hunters and trappers, and then ranchers.

For most of us, trails as we know them today are for scenic walks and hikes, and are indeed gateways to the Great Outdoors. But behind the scenes, there is a whole world at work, dedicated to the building and maintaining of these trails. 

Obscure to many and rarely seen, the tradecraft showcases a piece of historical and cultural legacy, continued and upheld with skill and care by the many crews across the country. The general management and upkeep of these trails, known as “trail work”, is often misunderstood – even unknown – by the general public.

In his eight seasons of trail work, Joe noticed the general lack of awareness when it came to the craft.

Joe says, “A lot of what you see in the media is about recruiting volunteers and recruiting conservation corps workers, which is great, but I think it also creates this sense that trail work is something that just anyone can pick up a shovel with on a weekend and do; there's actually a high level of skill to it.”

Joe’s realization led him to embark on Trail Crew Stories, a personal project that worked to document the ongoing culture, techniques, and history of trail work. 

“I think there's some pretty incredible work happening out there being done by some pretty incredible people, and they’ve got stories to tell,” Joe tells me.

Analogous to the widely popular Humans of New York photoblog, Trail Crew Stories is a collection of the stories, methods, writings, and art of the community of trail workers. The website ‘About’ page reads ‘Some parts practical guide, some parts oral history, all parts content to inspire and educate both seasoned trail workers and casual hikers alike.’ 

“I've always had a passion for writing and photography and storytelling,” Joe explains. “Throughout my trail career, I was constantly meeting people who were insanely impressive, and interesting, and quirky, and skilled that I really wanted to somehow document that story. So I bought a camera and started bringing it to work with me.”

He began by taking portraits of his fellow crew members, and snapshots of them engaging in their work. Joe already had strong rapport with each of them – a natural symptom of spending many consecutive hours outdoors with another – which led to him start asking questions.

“I’d ask pretty much anything. Like, why do you do this really hard, underpaid, kind of weird job that requires a lot of personal sacrifice? And I've just been going from there. A lot of the folks who you see interviewed are folks I have worked with or currently work with, or have been suggested to me. To have buy in from the trails community and having people willing to talk to me and share their story has been super humbling.”

While rewarding, the job can be rough, and the physicality of it is mirrored by the personal sacrifices many crew workers have to make. 

“They'll talk about how much pain they're in, and how they've lost relationships, how they have no savings and no health care for 20 years,” Joe recounts of his interviewees. “It's this very fascinating sort of double-edged sword for a lot of people. But there’s no end to the skills you learn, and for those who do stick around long enough, it’s those beautiful moments in beautiful places that keep people coming back to it.”

Joe says trail work is all about two things: getting water off trails and keeping people on trails. To accomplish this, workers are consistently building or maintaining structures like drains, fences, and staircases, and actively work to keep the trails clear by sweeping the path, mowing the shoulders, and logging out fallen trees, all of which demand heavy lifting, and hiking long distances with tools and full packs.

“It’s challenging, and you’re learning constantly,” says Joe. “Most days, I feel like an idiot at some point, and I've been doing this for years. But it’s nature, and you’re constantly humbled, not only by the construction that needs to happen, but also by the environment itself. Because you could spend all season building a beautiful wall, and then a tree falls on it and destroys it.”

In his many interviews, Joe found that many find this line of work by accident, or on a whim, stumbling, rather than diving, into the profession

“People don't usually expect to wind up in this career. You kind of stumble into it and fall in love with it - but it can be a pretty fraught relationship. I think most people who do this job long enough have a very love-hate relationship with it, which I think is also really intriguing. In a lot of these interviews, people will talk about being completely overwhelmed by the beauty and humbled by the places they work in and the joy at being able to give back, in a sense.”

In addition to the many features of Joe’s fellow crew workers, you’ll find a wide variety of stories, essays, art, and how-to’s whilst perusing Trail Crew Stories, with titles such as “Liberal arts education in trails”,  “The Trail Worker’s Essential Reading List”, and “Laure Aldrich: Hardass to Badass” .

More than celebrating the legacy of trail work, Joe hopes that Trail Crew Stories gives regular trail-goers an appreciation of the thought and design that goes into the craft, to understand that the ground beneath your feet has a lot more of a story to tell than what meets the eye.

“There's an expression that says good design is 99 percent invisible, so I'm trying to shed a little bit of light on that invisibility and I think that's something that you don't have to be a trail builder to appreciate.”

Disclaimer: Although Joe works for the National Park Service, and his experiences with the Park Service inform his personal project, Trail Crew Stories does not speak on behalf of the agency.