One Month In with Montana Conservation Corps

Article, written by Brendan Allen, appears in The MCC KCrew Blog. Published June 30, 2014. Image from National Park Service website.

June 19th marked the first full month of my service with the Montana Conservation Corps, and the day struck in the midst of my crew’s second hitch, a fast paced, cut-and-run slam of a trail clearing in Flathead National Forest. We were helping open up some the area’s integral trails before hiking season really took off, and it was quickly evident that we had our work cut out for us. We met 72 hours of straight rain, a frigid stream crossing, and switchbacks covered in blow down from a winter season avalanche. Once daylight set in, however, it was there to stay. We camped less than a dozen miles from the Canadian border, so sunlight stretched out to nearly 11:00 PM, with a sliver of dawn breaking only four or five hours later.

At first, I was too swept up in the actual work to note the occasion. When I’m working on a trail, my brain tends to prioritize the physical goals and stimuli around me before allowing any time for introspection. Hours fly by, and all I’ve thought about are what branches need to be lopped; what tread looks uneven; what trees are going to fall where; and how I need to hike, hike, hike to the next patch of work. When we pause for water, the crew trades a few jokes to keep up morale, and then we keep moving.

This single-mindedness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It keeps me happily grounded in my work – I’m able to consider every gradually completed step as an accomplishment, and I focus more intensely on my physical surroundings. Potential risks, ones that I might have daydreamed past otherwise, become more evident. I’m able to discern the unspoken needs of my fellow crew members more easily. It keeps me from getting too wrapped up in my own thoughts. It keeps me safe.

That being said, once I returned to camp on the 19th, the realization that I was already nearing the end of my second hitch blew me away. It wasn’t that I felt shocked by any abrupt changes in my life; instead, the surprise came from just how easily I had slipped into my new role. As I thought about the past month, I watched my fellow crew members slip into the little roles of domesticity that emerge in camp life: Courtney and Jacob were just finishing dinner while Dorian and Geoff stoked the fire, Amanda cleaned her chainsaw, and Aneesa gathered water from the nearby stream. And, like that, I understood why my transition into crew life had come so easily. It was having this crew around me – this rag-tag jumble of cross-country conservationists – that made such backbreaking work seem so easy and warm. I stood, stepped forward, and moved to help Aneesa with the water.