A young woman’s account of life on trail crews in two national parks.
In her debut, Byl, who now operates an Alaska trail-design business with her husband, celebrates the satisfying rituals of work in the wild. Right out of college, she spent 15 years clearing downfall, building bridges, sinking signposts and otherwise maintaining trails in Montana’s Glacier National Park and Alaska’s Denali National Park. Initially the skinniest and least-muscled of her cohorts, she was soon able to swing an axe and run a chain saw. She imitated the veteran workers, especially the women: “I studied them, envied their tight-veined hands, tanned wrinkles shooting from their eyes, their easy cussing and the way they strode in their logging boots.” During long workdays that included up to 20 miles of hiking, Byl learned how to work with men, how to fell a tree and how to speak the language of mules. While friends and family wondered when she was going to get a real job, the author was lured ever deeper into the woods by the wild’s siren of impermanence. Much of her evocative book recalls pranks, projects and camaraderie; the tools essential to outdoor labor; and trailside moments, from singing the “Montana Cowgirl’s Mating Song” (“Get it up, get it in, get it out, don’t muss my hair-doooooo!”) to eating her favorite outdoor sandwich (ham, cheddar cheese, heavy on the mayo). Along the way, she found her “inner dirtball,” married her boyfriend and made a home in Healy, Alaska, north of Denali, where she and her husband live in a yurt with two sled dogs, an outhouse and WiFi and often go dip-netting for red salmon on the Copper River.
A beguiling journey of self-discovery.