The Backcountry Trails Program is not for everyone. It is not an idyllic romp through the woods. As I was planning to apply for the program, I told my friend Brian Royer that I was planning to take a week off during the summer to explore on my own. Brian looked at me a little cockeyed.
“I don’t think it works that way. We go back there to work, not for vacation.”
Brian had been on a Backcountry crew the year before in Kings Canyon. He was applying for a job with the NPS there the next season. He knew the program.
I saw a drawing by a Backcountry corpsmember that illustrated the program well. It showed a corpsmember sitting on a rock, tools laying on the ground beside him, just staring into space. From out of the frame, someone yells “Get back to work! This ain’t no self-actualization program!” I was led to understand that this was a Tim Ludington quote.
Corpsmembers have to apply to get into the program. That eliminates most corpsmembers right there. Backcountry recruiters and staff are honest about the program. The work is grueling. The conditions can be harsh. Most people don’t want to put themselves into that kind of a situation. It’s good that they know themselves that well.
Every corpsmember who applies is interviewed and screened. This weeds out a lot of people who think they have what it takes but really don’t.
After selections are made, crews are assigned and everybody meets up at orientation. There is still one more opportunity for corpsmembers to back out with honor. A corpsmember could quit the Backcountry in the first week and go back to his/her center, no questions asked. After that, if a corpsmember quit the Backcountry they were also quitting the CCC.
Yo2 started the season with 18 corpsmembers. By the time we left Wawona, we had lost 6 corpsmembers and had gained 2 alternates. This was before we had even hit the Backcountry! By the end of the season only 9 original corpsmembers were left. None of the 4 alternates we received made it through the season.
Most people who leave a trail crew quit. They hit that ‘wall’ that Peter Lewis told us about at orientation and never make it through to the other side.
Some people just aren’t physically strong enough to get through. Jen was one of those. She had the right positive spirit. She participated with the community. But it was painful just to watch her try to crush rocks with a 10-pound hammer. I believe she gave it her best, but she realized that she was not going to make it and left.
Others aren’t temperamentally suited for the Backcountry. You have to be community oriented to succeed back there. There isn’t much room for lone wolfs, or anti-social behavior. I don’t mean ‘destructive’ anti-social. I mean ‘refusing to be knit into the group’ anti-social. One thing I notice when I look at the roster of Yo2 members who made it through the season is that every corpsmember who made it is a corpsmember who enjoyed the campfire camaraderie, who stepped up to regularly wash dishes or other camp chores, who purposefully joined themselves into the camp community and the Backcountry culture. Most of the corpsmembers who didn’t make it were corpsmembers who separated themselves from camp life. They dodged the dish line as much as possible. They tended to hang out in a smaller clique on the edge of the camp perimeter. They never knit themselves into the crew.
Sometimes people had to leave due to injury. Wayne Vanderleest had to be packed out on a horse because he developed stress fractures in a foot. Wayne was lucky, though. He healed up well enough to rejoin us a few weeks before the end of the season.
Sometimes people just did something stupid and got themselves fired. Two Yo2 corpsmembers hiked down to Yosemite Valley, where they proceeded to get drunk, beat each other up, and get thrown in jail. That will get a corpsmember a one-way bus ticket home.
Every crew is different when it comes to attrition. Yo2 ’87 lost a lot of people. Kings Canyon ’89, who I worked with as an NPS trail worker, didn’t lose anybody. It can be hard to predict who will make it and who won’t. Each person just has to go through the trial by fire and see if he/she comes out on the other side.