Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature a piece by Writers Forum member and newsletter editor, George Parker. Welcome, George.
by George Parker
Rock work comes easier for some people than others. Some people pick it up right away. A few never get the hang of fitting rocks together without the benefit of concrete or mortar into an immovable wall. Most of us only get it after a long hard struggle learning how to talk to the rocks.
Ella was a Corpsmember from Del Norte. She had been on John Schwabe’s ‘Fishhead’ crew. Schwabe was a fisheries biologist, and most of the projects his crew was assigned were salmon habitat restoration projects in the north coast watershed. Ella had thrived at Del Norte. She had a hippie spirit that appreciated the concept of ‘giving back to the Earth’. Her ambition had been the Backcountry Trails program from the day that I met her at Del Norte. I had already worked my two years as a regular CCC corpsmember. When I met Ella I, I was a staff member. I was a fisheries special corpsmember, liaison between the CCC and the Department of Fish and Game sponsor, and technical adviser on fisheries projects. I frequently worked with Schwabe’s crew on fisheries projects. Ella was outgoing and sociable and friendly and really wanted to make a difference in the world. She was a hard worker who always pushed her five-foot-two-self to be better, faster, and stronger.
Ella was chosen for the Backcountry Trails program and assigned to one of the two Kings Canyon National Park crews. I had decided that it was time to move on from fisheries and had applied for trails jobs around NPS. I was hired by Kings Canyon. Ella turned out to be on the CCC crew that I was going to work with. This was a good thing!
Ella fit in very well with the camp life and culture of a Backcountry trail crew. She worked as hard as anybody on the crew. Her high spirits saw her though the trials of a first season on a Backcountry trail crew. Ella had only one thing dogging her. She just could not get the hang of rock work.
Laurie Church, our NPS foreman, and Eric Vanderleest, our NPS maintenance worker, spent a lot of time with Ella, trying to teach her how to fit rocks together that did not look like they wanted to fit together. Ella would appear to understand, and Laurie or Eric would leave her to finish the section, but when they would come back to inspect the work, the rocks would be too loose and unstable to be acceptable. When a section of rockwork was finished, you needed to be able to kick the rocks and jump on them and not have them budge. Ella wasn’t getting there. Eric would test kick her work and rocks would move. Ella started getting frustrated with her progress. Eric started getting frustrated. Words were exchanged. Tempers flared. Life did not feel good around Ella’s rockwork.
By the August dog days of the season, our trail maintenance had progressed above Rae Lakes and was heading towards Glenn Pass. Crewmembers by now were getting enough experience with rockwork that the good ones could be left more or less on their own. Eric and I were running corpsmembers in several sections of the trail. One morning Eric and I hiked out of camp ahead of the crew and he lined me out on what he wanted done that day. One section just needed eight or nine feet of single tier wall. Eric told me to have Ella just piss-ant the rock down for the project, but he expected me to build it.
“I don’t know what else to do with Ella,” Eric said. “I’ve tried showing her every way I know how. Laurie has tried everything she knows. I don’t know. Maybe Ella is just a person who is never going to get the hang of rockwork. She just might be piss-anting rock for the rest of the season.”
Eric and I continued up the trail around the bend about thirty yards, and he showed me where he wanted a multi-tier wall on a switchback. Eric continued up the trail to his worksite. I went back to the first worksite, where I met Ella on her way up the trail.
“Eric’s got a section here that needs some single tier wall.”
Ella mumbled “Sure”. She looked like an exhausted late season corpsmember. For the most part, she looked like everyone else on the crew at that point of the season. ‘Clean uniform’ had become a relative term. Dirt was ground in to her khaki uniform shirt under her daypack straps, leaving black lines around her shoulders that were never going to come out…not even when we got back to washing machines. Her blue CCC hard hat was on her head but pushed back off of her forehead, sweat damped hair peeking out across her forehead. She had leaned out over the summer. She was more solid, and could perform feats of strength and endurance she had never thought possible for herself.
One thing was different between Ella and the rest of the crew. I could tell the difference in the sloop of her shoulders and the exhaustion in her eyes. Her face was drawn. Her eyes had a vacant stare. I had been in the same condition before in Yosemite. I think she had hit her wall. The wall is that point in a trail worker’s first season when you reach a point of exhaustion at which you are not sure you will be able to physically finish the season. You are emotionally drained. The muscles protest at being pushed so hard. The stress of living with the same twenty people or so all summer takes its toll, and all you can think of is returning to civilization, to showers, TV, and restaurants. Ella displayed all of the symptoms on that day.
“Okay, Ella. This section here is just gonna need some single tier wall. While you’re piss-anting the rock down for that, I’m gonna be up around the bend piss-anting the rock for another wall section. I’ll be back to work the wall, okay?”
Ella nodded wearily as she dropped the rock bar and shovel off her shoulder.
“You okay, Ella?”
Ella nodded again and started up the hill to gather rock.
I hiked down to my section and started rolling likely rocks down the hill to the site. By the time I had all of my rocks together, I decided that it was time to go check on Ella.
Not only did Ella have all of the rock gathered, she had already laid three rocks for the wall. I was surprised because I hadn’t told her to build the wall. Then again, I hadn’t told her not to build it, either.
Ella was on her hands and knees chipping a rock with a single jack as I approached. She looked up, and when she saw me, she straightened herself up and stretched her back as I inspected her work. I expected loose rocks and lousy contact. What I found were three good rocks in a wall. Good contact all the way around where the rocks touched each other. They had a good foundation back into the trail tread. I kicked the first two rocks. Solid. They didn’t budge. I didn’t kick the third rock because it wasn’t tied in to a fourth rock yet. That was the one Ella was shaping to fit.
Ella sipped water from her canteen as I looked at her wall.
“Do you know what you have here, Ella?”
“You have a good looking wall. It’s solid. It looks good.”
I thought the compliment would cheer Ella up, but it didn’t seem to. She just nodded and took another sip of water. I looked the wall over again, and considered Eric’s instructions. He hadn’t expected Ella to be able to pull this simple wall off, and he had expected me to build it. But Ella was doing a good job here. I decided to let Ella finish.
“Okay, well, it looks like you have this under control. I’ll be right around the corner up there if you need anything.”
Ella just nodded again and put her canteen down. She began chipping away again at the next rock to go into the wall. I went back to my project.
I checked on Ella a couple of more times during the day. She built a good wall. At the end of the day, Eric and the corpsmembers working with him came back down the trail. Eric gave Ella’s completed section the kick test. It passed. He said, “Good job, Parker.”
“Cool. Can you guess who built it?”
Eric looked confused for barely a moment, and then his face lit up. “Ella?”
Eric kicked the wall once more. “Damn! That’s good!”
He looked around for Ella and brought her over to the section. She looked just as fatigued as she had that morning. Same sagging shoulders. Same drawn face.
Eric said, “Ella, this is good work. A good solid wall. Nice job.”
Ella just nodded.
I am certain that on that day Ella burst through her emotional wall by building a good rock wall. Her spirits picked up after that day. She laid more rocks. Good rocks. As a testimony to how good Ella became at rock work, Kings Canyon National Park hired her the next season as a regular trail worker. Yep. She got my job.
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