What To Do With A Life

I’ve been corresponding with Claire, a graduate student in environmental writing and also a seasonal trail worker. She interviewed me about my work and life, and this came as a follow up question: “You wrote in the PCTA blog that this career ‘pursued you’ as opposed to the other way around. At what point did you realize that trail work (or working for the FS in general) had become your life’s work? You talked of having been unsure of your direction very early on, and of finding your niche in art school and later pursuing your art career in the off season. What kept you coming back to trails?”

Hm. The best questions are the ones that make you stop and think. Some questions are existential. Asking why I keep doing trail work is like asking “Why are you here? What is the meaning of life?”

I had to go out and dig in the garden and ponder. I pondered some more while I sewed masks, went for walks, returned to digging. Where to start? How to state my answer succinctly? At last, I came in the house, booted up the laptop and opened a document. I made a timeline of my life, starting with wanting to be an author/illustrator at age 7. Documented various events that led to the Forest Service, to art school, to a balanced life, to an out-of-whack life, up until now. I could see that there could be no succinct answer. As I continued to write, it’s almost as if I had to explain things to myself in an essay.

I never had any expectation of a “career” in the sense of making a plan, going to college, and ascending a professional ladder. My family are all rural working folk, and I had no role models for a career. You just went to work and hoped to make a living for the rest of your life. I am the first among them to complete a bachelor’s degree, and the fact that I went on for a master’s in fine arts is a complete tangent. In my teens I was strongly discouraged from following any sort of creative path. The authority figures in my family were horrified that I wanted to be a writer and predicted I’d starve to death. I had to be practical, get a real job, and save art for a hobby. I was unwilling to compromise, in that I wanted work that I had aptitude for and cared about. In my confusion, I drifted for a while, but it was a good day when the Forest Service hired me for the trail crew in 1980.

After that first season, I attended community college to complete an associate degree in forestry technology. This was practical and met my needs as far as aptitude and caring. And to suit myself, I took an elective art class every quarter. My painting instructor told me that the Forest Service would never be enough for me. I should go on to a bigger school for an art degree and then get my MFA. With the ignorance of youth, I figured I could make the Forest Service be enough. I even tried majoring in forestry at the University of Washington a few years later, but was defeated by higher mathematics and living in Seattle. After community college, I worked seasonally on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and desperately wanted a permanent job. I thought I had found my place there in the remote valley of the St. Joe River. During the 1980s, the mission revolved around timber sales and reforestation. I liked the sense of purpose, even though I couldn’t toe the company line all the way. I did forest inventory, counted trees in plantations, cruised timber, laid out skyline profiles, inventoried fuels and burned slash. By the time I was 25, I saw the futility of the traditional Forest Service career. In order to move up, you had to leave the field and spend most of your time in the office. Not an option for me. I had been away from family influence long enough to hear what had been clear from early days: creativity would never let me go. With much trembling and trepidation, I enrolled in the College of Art and Architecture at the University of Idaho. What a relief to live the dream at last. In order to be practical, I focused on graphic design. It took a trip to San Francisco to visit museums and design firms to help me see that to do the most interesting work, I’d have to live in a city. In order to freelance in a smaller place, I’d need to change from a shy introvert into an extraverted hustler. Again, not an option. When I switched to drawing and painting, my professors started saying things like “When you’re in graduate school…” My community college painting instructor had been right.

Ironically, as I finished my undergraduate degree, the Forest Service offered me a permanent position. They were actively recruiting women to work in the fire organization, and I had been a fuels technician my last two seasons in Idaho. I accepted. But I soon tired of measuring and counting after ten seasons of data collection. The data I painstakingly gathered was used in ways that didn’t accurately reflect what I saw happening to the forest. This was during the Spotted Owl Wars of the late 80s-early 90s. After two seasons, I was disgusted and disillusioned enough to resign and go to graduate school in fine arts.

Life really is like a trail. It doesn’t run in a straight line from Point A to Point B. It has to follow the terrain, climb ridges and descend into valleys. When there are junctions, choices have to be made about which way to turn. Sometimes you have to thrash through the brush, wade rivers, climb over obstacles. Sometimes you can stand on a summit and look at some other direction you might have gone. But choices once made, are made. And once in awhile, serendipity pops up.

As I was finishing my first year of grad school, thinking that I might be done with the Forest Service, my partner came home with news. He was setting up his own thesis work on Forest birds and had visited the nearby Forest Service office in Cle Elum. He said that if I wanted work on the trail crew that summer, I should talk to them. So I did. It was a good summer. I noticed how elated I was to walk in places that hadn’t been logged over or were about to be logged over. There were no politics or controversies. I learned to run a chainsaw. I renewed my acquaintance with the crosscut saw. I liked my coworkers and boss. I went back the next season and the next. I finished my graduate degree and spent the next ten years making and showing artwork, teaching, and being a partner in a marriage. Every summer was spent on the trail crew, which kept my memory and imagination well-supplied with ideas and experiences.

For the first time since childhood, my two callings were not in conflict. There was no career, only a way of life. This is what I meant by the work finding me. The sweet spot is where the hands, head, and heart are all in alignment. You want to keep that going for as long as you can. I have a clear memory of the summer I was 40, hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail between Deception Pass and the Mt. Daniel Ford. It was one of those euphoric summer days in the subalpine where there isn’t much to do on the trail except get from one place to another. I was thinking—I’m 40. How much longer am I going to do this? The answer came immediately—for as long as I can.

When I first started out in the Forest Service, my crew mates and I used to joke about growing up and getting a real job. Seasonal work was fine but what if one day you grew up and wanted a real job that lasted year-round so you could get married, have a mortgage, and start having babies? We saw other people doing it. Some of my friends saw it as inevitable, doing the expected thing, living the American dream after they tired of this adventure. To me it felt like giving up, giving in. For women, the whole kid thing seemed like the end. Once you did that, your days in the woods were over forever.

If growing up and getting a real job meant leaving the woods, then I wasn’t willing to do it until I was ready. The woods are home, where I belong. My partner and I had reached one of those junctions in our path together. We were in our mid-forties and he wanted me to stay home. He wanted me to be someone I was not. In the midst of the crisis, I went to the backcountry with the trail crew. One evening after work I laid on my back on sun-warmed mountain rock to watch the stars emerge while my mind whirled: What am I gonna do? Give this up?

I chose my path. Took the ring off my finger and stayed in the woods. In the hard times that followed, the woods were home, where I belonged. The woods held me. The trail crew kept me company. And I accompanied them. The closest I’ve come to a real job was the permanent seasonal position that I got in 2002 and still have. I entered what I call my “Emily Carr phase”. She was a Canadian painter of the forest, coast, and First Nations villages. She was a single woman of great promise but was artistically ahead of her time. When she tired of the struggle to support herself as an artist, she stopped painting and ran a boarding house. Late in her life, her work was rediscovered and she experienced a creative renewal before her untimely death. Trail work is the boarding house which makes my living but doesn’t leave much time and energy for artistic flowering.

What keeps me coming back to trails (besides the health insurance and mortgage payment)? The refusal to grow up and get a real job. The knowledge that I am unsuited to the clerical, the managerial, the academic, the domestic and maternal, the computer screen in the cubicle and so much more. I’m a dirt person. I need those physical euphoric days in the subalpine sun or deep old growth shade. Those less-than-euphoric days of rains, snow, clouds of bugs, mind-numbing zombie hikes on an overly familiar trail, breathlessly hot days with sweat trickling down my spine, covered in dust or pitch or bar oil—then coming home to rest, knowing I can get clean, warm, cool, dry then eat, drink, scratch, and feel unspeakably glad to be alive. Laughing. The hardest I have ever laughed in my life has been out on the trail. I like the challenge of solving a trail problem by rebuilding it in a way that will keep it stable for years in spite of the increasing difficulty of getting work done in an underfunded bureaucracy. The joy of continuing to master the crosscut saw, the ax, the explosives. The sometimes painful opportunity to bear witness to the changes in the environment and society. The privilege of working with like-minded others. The lifelong friends. I never want to give up that feeling of congruence of head, hands, heart. The feeling of being where I belong, the place that feeds the outpouring of writing, images, dreams, and memories. I still check in with myself from time to time. How much longer do I want to do this? When will I be ready to stop and go do something else? The answer is—Not quite yet. But soon.

There are many good people in the Forest Service, people who have dedicated their lives to the mission and idea of stewardship. They are serious and solid. But literal-minded and focused. Given my broad curiosity and interests, penchant for metaphor and oddball connections, preference for the hands-on, obscure old tools, and staying outside, I’m an outlier in the agency culture. You don’t have to be an over educated weirdo to work in trails, but it kind of helps.

In the end, creating a career and being practical about making a living has mattered as much as finding what I love and being true to it. Knowing what I wanted was made easier by having a clear idea of what I didn’t want. I wish I had realized sooner that the notion of conventional success is an illusion. If I hadn’t spent my working life I the woods, I would have wished I had. If I hadn’t gone to art school, I always would have wondered what it might have been like. If I hadn’t been married, I would have wondered if I was capable of commitment. If I had grown up and gotten a real job, maybe I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of knowing that I have truly been of service by caring for such treasures as wilderness areas and National Scenic Trails. I have been part of something larger than myself, which has given my life purpose even when I have been cynical and bitter about certain aspects of it. The trail of my life has had plenty of switchbacks and bushwhacks, but also some smooth ridge and valley walking. I know this—woods are big and I am small. The woods endure. That’s what matters.

2 thoughts on “What To Do With A Life

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