In old Forest Service photos, a trail crew was always young men with crew cuts, their white t-shirts tight against their lean bodies. What would those men make of us, a mother-son team swaying together over a crosscut saw?
My ponytail is going gray and 19-year-old Lee wears a stained shirt with the sleeves ripped off. Ours is a “family contract,” and we are hired to clear trees and maintain drainage on 100 miles of trail in central Idaho’s Lochsa River basin in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The job is both simple and complex: Get the trees out of the trail -- all of them, even the enormous downfall cracking with tension -- and do it with hand tools, ones that can be carried on the back.
My son’s trail-crew friends back East in the Adirondacks were puzzled by his decision to work with me this past summer. They wanted him to return there for his fourth season, to share in their youth, drink cheap beer after work, blast hip hop from a truck tape deck. They were incredulous: You want to work with your mother?
I wish they could have seen us working together in the burn a couple days’ walk from the nearest trailhead. Every tree in the drainage was dead, and most of them were horizontal. The largest of the massive silvered trunks took hours to cut through. With no shade and a burning sun we sweated through each log, eager flies circling our filthy necks.
We left the three most difficult trees for the next day. In the morning we hiked into the burn, discussed our options, predicted outcomes, then sawed for hours, our tired arms shaking with fatigue. When we finally moved the last tree, an elephantine chunk of an ancient spruce, our faces were black with char, our mouths dry as cotton.
We stood in the opened trail and grinned at each other, admiring our work. Though it was long past lunchtime and our food waited at a clear alpine lake, we lingered in the burn, savoring the pleasure of a job well done. We were not just mother and son but problem-solvers working together in the wilderness.
I know there were times when Lee wished for a trail partner his own age, someone who would go bouldering with him after a 12-hour workday, someone who could banter about “indie” bands and Greek philosophy. And at times I wished for the intimate chatter of a woman friend instead of the hours we walked alone with our thoughts.
But somehow our odd pairing worked. When I was discouraged by the number of downed trees in a recently burned stretch, fretting that we didn’t have enough days to cut our way through the mess before our food ran out, Lee helped me stop worrying. “Let’s go for a swim before we start on this,” he suggested. And when Lee grew frantic, driven mad by the heat and the biting flies, I found some lemonade mix in the bottom of my pack and as we sipped taught Lee the Japanese phrase, “Shikata ga nai,” it can’t be helped?.
For lunch we’d find a shady spot, gobble down a few crackers with cheese, then dive into our books for half an hour. In the evening while we stirred together powders and pasta from plastic bags as we shared conversations about what we’d read -- thick Russian novels for Lee, Willa Cather for me.
We even managed to deal with our generationally opposed internal clocks. I woke up early and wrote for an hour while Lee slept. I’d leave camp first in the morning but he would catch up quickly, his young legs much faster than mine.
And one thing we completely agreed on -- the value of a summer spent outside working in the wilderness. For days at a time we saw no one while we walked in the calm symmetry of lodgepole forests and hiked through silences filled with sunlight and birdsong. We worked surrounded by a sky so blue and wide it seemed we could throw ourselves off a ridge and lift off, soaring on the wind with the hawks and ravens.
I don’t know if Lee will want to work with me again next summer. He may travel, hefting his backpack on another continent, replacing his ax with a guidebook. I’ll miss his calm good humor, his sharp mind and his strong back. I’ll miss that rare pleasure of working in the wild with my son.
Betsy Kepes is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). When not out West clearing trails in national forests, she lives in Colton, New York.
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