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Know the West

Real work


Depending on your perspective, my partner Laurie's resume is either impressive or disturbing. In her 20s, she worked as a wilderness ranger, hiking miles with a too-heavy pack, digging drain dips and toilet holes. In her 30s, she worked on a trail crew, chopping roots, sawing logs, clearing brush. Nowadays she works in an historic apple orchard, pruning, weeding, thinning. Not surprisingly, she's often in pain. But like most people who do real work, she rarely complains. She didn't, at least, until last year, when her wrists got so bad -- stiff and sore and bone-achy through sleepless nights -- that she could no longer work. Then she faced a dilemma.

She could go to the doctor on her own tab, or she could put in a worker's compensation claim. The problem with paying herself wasn't the cost of the visit; it was what the doctor might say. What if it was carpal tunnel syndrome? What if it required surgery? What if the condition was degenerative, debilitating?

"You have to make a claim," I said.

She groaned.

Among bureaucrats, an injured worker is too often presumed a faker, greedy, lazy and tricky. What's worse, among other workers, a claimant is too often seen as a failure, not tough enough or careful enough. Real work is about bucking up. Endurance is a source of pride. But Laurie had been bucking up long enough. So she sighed and filled out a dozen forms. She took a day off, had X-rays taken, and finally sat in a swivel chair to explain her job to an overweight orthopedist.

He waited impatiently for her to finish.

"You aren't going to like what I have to say," he began. "Your frame is too small for what you do. Your muscles and your skeletal structure are overtaxed."

She shrugged. She'd heard it before. We all had.

Laurie and I have lots of friends, men and women, all over the West, who do seasonal work in the woods. We came to the mountains from the great ubiquitous suburbs of America -- products of sitcoms and state universities -- because we wanted to be outside. Not just some of the time. Who knows where the desire came from? Maybe it was something in our genes, all those farmer ancestors. Or maybe it was plain middle-class privilege, the freedom we had to say: To hell with upward mobility!

You can see it on our faces in photos: the glee, the luster, the passion. We loved the pretty places we landed -- who wouldn't? -- and we loved the work: the independence, the challenge, the chance to use both brain and body. Tools, skills, results.

At first, even our parents glamorized it. A summer in the woods seemed like a healthful way to sow some wild oats before heading home to a mortgage, a marriage, a commute and a cubicle. None of them saw the change coming, the slow shift toward permanence. None of us did. Ten years passed. Then 20.

After a while, our families began to ask us gingerly: "But what do you plan to do with your life? What about when your body wears out?"

We didn't answer. We didn't even listen. Or most of us didn't.

My friends still stack rocks and saw trees and sleep in the dirt. They get laid off in the winter and save their money. Some have health insurance, and some don't. They are stubborn as hell. They will not quit.

But I did.

After 15 years maintaining hiking trails, I was restless and sore, and I had the chance, as a writer and an online teacher, to eke out a living in the woods less painfully. Nowadays, when I run up against a problem at my so-called job, someone always quips: "It was a lot easier sawing up logs, wasn't it?"

But it wasn't. Not by a long shot. Sure, real work is more straightforward: a task you can see, a task you can finish. But nothing, not one thing, you do in front of the computer is as hard as physical labor. The fact that labor is harder than you ever imagine, harder maybe than your body can endure, is what makes it so satisfying. 

Laurie glared at the orthopedist.

"What can I do about it?" she asked. She was thinking rest, ice, physical therapy, maybe as last resort, surgery.

"You can get some Mexicans to do that work for you," he said.

Now she was angry. Not just at the doctor. It's no secret that, anymore, non-whites do all the physical labor for Americans, whether in a Chilean vineyard or a Washington apple orchard. She was mad at the truth: that labor is undervalued. What's galling isn't that she's underpaid or underinsured, only that as a white American woman, she is expected to expect more. 

Real work is too dirty and difficult. Real workers are disposable.

"I think I'll just try some exercises and see how it goes," Laurie said.

Laurie's claim was rejected. The cause of her pain, wear and tear over 25 years, was apparently too hard to pinpoint or verify. She started an appeal, but eventually she gave up. The whole ordeal, she said, was taking time away from real work.

Giving up the claim was indulgent and probably stupid. We have friends who have succumbed to chronic pain, to clerking part-time at the mini-mart, to depending on a spouse for income. But she didn't care.

She stood to leave the orthopedist's office, to head back to work, to the orchard where she belonged, pain and lasting damage be damned.

You're going to look like hell in 10 years," he said.

She didn't say what she was thinking: You already do.