Life on the Inyo Trail Crew

We woke at 5 in the morning with frost on the bedrolls. Lauren was already up and lit a quick fire with chainsaw gas. Our dogs stood at the ready after defending the camp all night from bears, cats and coyotes. While smoking a cigarette, he had some cowboy coffee boiling and was lost in thought meditating upon the new day.

Steam came off the mules as they threw their feed bags high up into the air to get all the sweet oats from the bottom. All was quiet except for the sound of hooves moving back and forth on the hitch line, chains jingling, and mules and horses snorting.

Just before the dawn the birds started chirping. As we stood around the campfire trying to warm up with coffee cup in hand, we quickly prepared a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee. As the sky began to lighten up, the nut Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers squawked back and forth in the tops of the trees. Soon, other birds joined in and ten different songs could be heard off in the distance.

After a good morning constitutional it was time to pack a lunch, water the stock, and head off to the work site with tools in hand. One guy would cut and prune trees, while another would run a ripper (mattocks) to remove rock from the trail. After him, like a well-oiled machine, came the men with the McLeod (rake/hoe) and the rock bars. It was all assholes and elbows all day long, and the crew got so involved in their work that they often lost track of time. As much trail clearing would be done by hand, and any immovable obstacles were blasted out, leaving a smooth tread of crushed fill-rock.

During blasting maneuvers each crew member guarded all access to the blast zone to make sure the public was safe. Our blaster was a Paiute Indian named, Joe, who had spent a tour of duty in Viet Nam. He chose to spend his summers in the backcountry that he so dearly loved. He was an excellent blaster and rock drill operator. There was really nothing involving trail work or the camp set up that he could not do.

Pruned up old Huey, who was from Arkansas, enjoyed telling some of the best bullshit stories one could ever possibly hope to hear around the campfire.  Like the time he told us he was the only soldier in the army allowed to wear cowboy boots.   He was the go to man, and had a pet burro named, Jericho, to pack around whatever was needed on the trail. He would also tie a rope around the burro and make him haul him up the trail.

Our boss, Herb, was in his 60s at the time and could outwork and outride the young guys. He grew up on a farm in Idaho and learned how to pack mules. After a stint in WWII he returned to the Eastern Sierra to continue his love of trails and mule packing.

These men had been building trails for many years and were experts at it. It was hard work in oftentimes extreme environments, but they lived for it. It was in their blood.

One of the joys of working hard out in the intense heat of the Sierra sun was to be able to return to camp and drink a few ice cold beers while getting ready for supper. Before we could do that, however, we had to water and feed the stock and dogs. The needs of the animals always came first in our outfit.

We would be famished after burning so much energy in that rarified air and relished our meal of steak, potatoes and salad. We lived like kings out there packing in all our gear, while listening to the beer slosh on ice all the way down the hot, dusty trail.

We were the chosen few who wanted to do this work, and in our minds, there was nothing more important than spending a summer in the great mountains. There was nothing more important to us than serving the American public. Hard work, low pay, good health, a nice thank you from the public, and a big smile were our just rewards.


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