I came to California from northern Illinois in 1986 with the vague ambition of working in the mountains and forests. I found myself in the best possible place to realize that ambition. I joined the California Conservation Corps. For the next three years, I found myself repairing salmon creek habitat, building trail, fighting wildfires, restoring historical landmarks, planting trees, and clearing brush alongside some of California’s most beautiful highways. And there are thousands of people out there with stories just like mine. However, I could not find any CCC memoirs in print anywhere I looked. Somebody has to start writing this stuff down. So here’s a start…
Here is the plan I am following for writing about my 1987 Backcountry experiences.
The first day of the Backcountry Trails program is called orientation. All of the crews assemble in one place (sometimes in two places if there are crews on opposite ends of the state; California is a big state!) and given an orientation to the program. The Backcountry Trails program director goes over backcountry rules (absolutely no class 4 or 5 climbing!), tips for success (1. Wake up early; 2. Hike fast!), and more than a little motivational speaking. On orientation day, each Corpsmember is also issued a journal. Ours were 8.5×5.5 inch hardbound artist’s sketchbooks with blank pages. Corpsmembers are expected to write regularly in this journal over the summer. The supervisor, or C1, is supposed to collect these journals periodically. This is mostly just to ensure that the Corpsmember is writing. Some Corpies write in their journals more than others, but everybody has to write something.
I think that I started off strong, and then became less consistent in writing as the summer went on. A summer on a Backcountry trail crew can turn into a grind with one day blending into another of hiking, rolling rocks, breaking rocks, and building with rocks. At our orientation, Backcountry Director Peter Lewis warned us that at some point in the season, each one of us were going to hit a ‘wall’. ‘The wall’ is one particular point in the season when a person just gets bone weary and not sure whether he/she will be able to get it together one more time and hit that trail. Some people hit the wall and quit. Most people hit that wall and push through to the other side. I can tell you the exact day that I hit my wall. It will come up in the journal. My journal entries became less frequent right around that time, and for some time after. In fact, my journal from that summer does not quite fill up half of the book. The second half of the book are all blank pages.
One thing that I have noticed as I have gone back through the journal is how much I left out from that summer. For instance, I did not write about the time we thought I had pink eye and had to hike out to the Yosemite Valley clinic to be checked. Or about the crew having to drive from Tuolumne Meadows to the Yosemite Valley clinic for measles immunizations. That event was big enough…but there were other very significant incidents tied into that trip. Not a mention of any of them in the journal. I think I know why. I’ll get to that later. (This summer, not in this post!)
The good thing is that I was able to write about enough key events or incidents that I can use those to reconstruct what was going on at most any particular time. I am also still in touch with Diane Brown, our C1, and some of the other Corpsmembers from my crew. I am hoping that I can recreate that amazing summer in enough detail to find a publisher for it. I wish more Corpsmembers would do that. Every one of us has an amazing story that deserves to be heard.
I am transcribing all of my journal entries. Like I have said before, I plan to post them here on the date they were actually written. These entries will be titled by the date in 1987. There will be gaps in these entries, and on those days I plan to post other memories from around that time to fill in what the journal leaves out…or editorial notes like this one! The titles of these entries will not have a 1987 date in them.
One of my most valuable possessions in the CCC was my camera. It was just a simple Canon Snappy-S fixed focus point and shoot. It shot 35mm film. The most valuable feature was the belt pouch that came with it. I had my Canon with me pretty much all of the time for the first year I was in the Cs. It was handy enough that I could whip it out for a picture almost any time. I took a lot of pictures that summer in Yosemite. However, 35mm film was not digital. I could not see how good any particular shot had been until I got the film back from the developer. I wound up taking a lot of bad pictures that summer!
The good pictures I assembled together into an album. There
are were some pretty good pics in there. A few years ago, I took the best of the best out of the album to have copies made. When I was done, I put them in an envelope…and then misplaced the envelope! The pics never made it back into the album. These missing pictures would be a great asset to this bog, but I’ll have to settle for the pics that I do have, and I will be adding those to entries whenever possible. Meanwhile, I just hope the good ones turn up!
Addendum: I should probably say that these are based upon my journal entries at the time, my memories, and discussions with other people who were there. It is entirely possible that I could be confused on some facts, or other people might not remember events in quite the same way that I remember. All I can say is that I am doing my best to be as honest as I can to what I remember. If you remember it differently…then write your own book! 🙂
Hello GrinningDwarf, I found out about you from whitefeatherfloating. You are a really good writer and I enjoy your stories! I was especially fascinated by the inside view of dealing with fires. I live in the area that was devastated about 10 years ago, here in the southern CA mountains. I have heard many stories from the citizens who survived and decided to return. (Although many never returned). And so getting the view from the other side of the process was amazing. Keep up your excellent writing and posts!