In my opinion, it is not publicized enough that Henry David Thoreau was a bit of a fraud. However beautifully he may have waxed about nature and wildness in Walden, he wasn't roughing it, not by any means. While his introduction claimed that he lived alone on Walden Pond for more than two years, living "by the labor of my hands only," historians say Thoreau could see a highway from across his field and regularly received goodie baskets of baked treats from his mother and sisters, who lived less than two miles away.
Christine Byl's book, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, quotes from Thoreau in its introduction, but it's clear that she's genuinely rugged. Byl grew up in urban Michigan and got a degree in philosophy before moving to Missoula and working seasonally on Glacier National Park trail crews for several years. Trail maintenance is grueling. Crews spend 10-day hitches carrying packs loaded with shovels, axes or chainsaws, and hiking for several miles through all kinds of weather to get to job sites to build trails, move rock and clear fallen logs.
Byl, who now lives in Alaska, uses her experience as a "trail dog" to talk about the nature of labor, gender and wilderness in Dirt Work. It's a beautifully written memoir that will simultaneously shame anyone who aspires to be outdoorsy or a writer, and inspire them to greater efforts.
Byl introduces each chapter with a discussion of the tools she's come to know, from axes to pry bars to shovels. In trail work, it's the simplest things that make or break a job. Byl spends a few pages explaining the necessity of good gloves and the inevitability of wet hands, writing, "Sliding a cold hand into a colder glove is like ripping off a Band-Aid; you know it'll be over soon, but it still makes you cringe."
Reading Dirt Work feels like a guided hike through Glacier Park, with lessons in botany, biology and geography. Byl can be starry eyed about the beauty of mountains and waters, like when she describes swimming in parts of the North Fork that are so clear they're like "tinted air." She's also frank about pain: "On a fire crew, a woman put an axe through her kneecap, slicing to bone."
- Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, by Christine Byl. Hardcover, 256 Pages. Beacon Press. $25.
Dirt Work is also a powerful account of being a tough woman in a male-dominated field. Her relationship with her body changes. She recounts, with amusement, that she and a friend calculated they ate 6,800 calories a day while on the job. Byl returns from her first season on a trail crew with muscles she'd never had before, writing about her newly buff arms: "... I didn't just look a certain way, but could force something to happen—lid from a jar, hand off my ass—that I could take the world into my own hands, give it a firm grip, kick it in the balls if I chose. Women have long been told that our bodies are to be presented, arranged for viewing, and that our power comes through flirting, a psychological dominance that stands in for physical strength. Goodbye to all that, which had never suited me. I felt power in my body."
Byl skims over details of her relationship with her husband, who also works as a trail dog, but elaborates deeply on her rich friendships with the other women on the trail crew. "We notice each other's bodies—the beautiful angles and the sweaty reek, the smooth curves and the puckered bulges—and we circle each other in the same dance we know from junior high, from office jobs, from locker rooms, these bodies different only because we are so fully in them."
Dirt Work touches on the sadness of inevitable climate change, too, though it doesn't dwell on it. By the end of the book, Byl explains her decision to move to Alaska to get an MFA in fiction and work in Denali Park. Along the way, she talks about some of her problems with how the National Park Service manages areas and what tourism has done to places that are ostensibly wild. Denali is only accessible by bus, a far cry from Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, which, Byl writes, is "choked in summer with bumper-to-bumper traffic and mountain goats licking antifreeze in sweltering parking lots."
I plan to give a copy of Dirt Work to my little sister, Ellen, a burgeoning adventurer who spent last summer tracking grizzlies in the Cabinet Wilderness and will soon depart for Barrow, Alaska, to study sea ducks. Ellen careens around narrow Montana highways on her little Yamaha motorcycle, climbs mountain peaks and dives off bridges into cold reservoir waters without a moment's hesitation. Even though she keeps me awake at night worrying, I still hope Dirt Work motivates her, and anyone like her, to keep going.