Print Friendly

Earth, Rock, and Craft on the Grand Canyon Trail Crew

 

 

LTB was grunting. He always grunted as he moved stone, just as he muttered as he shaped it, but this was ridiculous. I looked up, annoyed, then awed—he was heaving an oven-sized block of limestone end over end, grunting with every push.

“Jesus, LTB.”

“What?”

Trail crew at work

The author and his crew mate wait for rock to be conveyed by cables to the worksite. This wall was blown out by spring melt-induced slope failure.
Photo courtesy Grand Canyon National Park.

“That thing’s gotta weigh 300 pounds.”

“Yeah,” he said happily, looking down at it.

LTB stood for Little Timmy Beale, though he was little only in a squat, muscular, troglodytic sort of way. Even among all the characters that made up Grand Canyon National Park Service Trail Crew, LTB stood out. He wore a black bandana headband to keep his stringy-long, sun-blonde hair out of his eyes; he braided the rest behind him. He never wore a hat because he feared it would bald him;  his hair receded all the same. His moustache overhung much of his upper lip; he trimmed it with his teeth. He wore short shorts that showcased his tanned, trunk-like thighs; he didn’t wear underwear. He rarely wore work gloves, begrudgingly pulling them on in the bosses’ presence. He preferred his bare hands, his stubby paws, good for grasping a single-jack sledgehammer or breaking apart a mastodon femur to best suck out the marrow.

His block of limestone was to be a foundation stone in the reparation of an old dry-laid retaining wall that supported a section of trail that wound along the lip of the South Rim. Some 20 linear feet of the six-foot tall wall had sloughed into the abyss of Bright Angel Canyon, taking with it most of the trail.

Piñon and juniper roots dangled into the open space once occupied by stone, roots that had wormed between the wallstones and wedged them apart as they fattened with age. Soil spilled from the breach. The Civilian Conservation Corps workers who’d built this wall sometime between 1933 and 1942 had used dirt instead of rock as backfill, and all that soil, year after year, had been inundated by snowmelt, frozen, then thawed, then frozen again—the pulsing, sodden earth working against the wall’s weakest connections. The wall rose out of a steep slope of decayed rock; we could see, where the wall still stood, how the slope had slipped from beneath the foundation, undermining the entire structure.

The CCC were generally phenomenal craftsman, but this particular wall was a barely coherent aggregation of unevenly stacked plates and chunks of weathered Kaibab limestone. LTB and I referred to it as a “cowboy wall,” as though some cowpoke-turned-miner had thrown it together over a century earlier, as they had on many of the trails that plunged from rim to river. But we also knew that it didn’t matter who had built the wall, or even how well it had been built—we’d both looked long enough across the Canyon’s vast expanse of exposed rock to accept the essential futility of our attempts to staunch the greatest active example of erosion in the world.

The Colorado River cut through 5,000 feet of the Kaibab Plateau in six million years, a geologic heartbeat. As the river cut, the walls of the forming canyon crumbled into it and were swept away. As the river cut deeper still the walls crumbled still, and receded from one another, and the canyon widened. As the river ate further into the earth the streams running from rim to river had more energy to eat headward, into the rimrock—these side streams gnawed great scalloped bays into the rims, further widening the Canyon, until, by the time LTB and I attempted to prop up the disintegrating rock, the river ran more than a mile beneath us and ten miles of naked rock lay between us and the forested plateau of the North Rim.

 

Company 818 of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Company 818 of the Civilian Conservation Corps building the Grand Canyon’s Clear Creek Trail, 1934.
Photo courtesy Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.

As to propping up the disintegrating rock, LTB and I would replace the blown-out section of the old wall with a better, burlier wall. We’d replace the flakes and chunks with solid stone blocks. We’d dry-lay the stone so that the wall would weep water, so that it could shift and settle against the slumping earth. We’d use the rock from the not-yet-sundered sections of the old wall as backfill for the new. We’d make sure that each course had at least one “deadman”—a wallstone extending deep into the retained earth, riveting the wall to the slope. We’d position each stone’s “batter,” or the intrinsic cant of the rock, its unique center of gravity, so that the wall as a whole reclined at an even angle. We’d make sure that each stone broke the joint in the two stones it rested upon; that the stones of the new wall intertongued with those of the old wall like fingers fitted together in prayer. We’d bless the wall with blood and sweat and curses and laughter.

All this was routine. Our method of procuring stone for this wall was not. We usually worked on trails within the Canyon, and looked for loose rocks on slopes above the worksite, or split boulders into usable blocks with a rockdrill. We’d roll these rocks by hand; occasionally we’d convey them with a rigging system of block and cables, straps and manual winches. Once we had a stone we’d winch it down to those doing the masonry. Or we’d pull up the stone from the wall’s previous incarnation to reuse. Winching stones inch by inch upslope was a pain in the ass, but fitting, too, in that headstrong human way: not for nothing did Robinson Jeffers refer to stone masons as “fore-defeated challengers of oblivion.”

But the cowboy wall was perched on the rim itself, right above the South Rim Village. All we had to do to get stone was drive a stake-bed truck eight miles to the quarry, select good building stone, load it onto the truck with a Bobcat, drive back, roll the stone out of the truck into a pile by the side of the road, then use a rock-dolly to roll them the few hundred mostly-paved yards to our worksite. It was a carbon-intensive process, and almost embarrassingly easy, but we got great stone, and great stone was not easy to come by even in the world-of-stone Canyon.

The Colorado carved the Canyon out of a remarkable diversity of rock: sandstone, limestone, mudstone, shale, schist, gneiss; lumpy chert nodules on the rim and glossy schist flutings along the river; basalt slabs scabbing over western cliffs and cardeñas lava vomited forth in the earth’s infancy. But the majority of that rock is choss—friable and rotten, wasted by up to a billion and a half years of geomorphic activity: supercontinents formed, melded with others, ripped apart; thousands of millions of years worth of strata laid down and scoured off even before the Canyon’s current sedimentary layers were deposited; hundreds of millions of years of strata laid down and scoured off the top of the Canyon’s current strata. The strains of the restless earth shattered the Canyon’s rock into faults—gravity faults, growth faults, reverse faults, thrust faults, anticlines, monoclines; faults that strain, shear, slip, heave, throw; faults that if traced across a map of the Canyon would resemble the crazied glass of a broken windshield.

One of the things I loved most about working trails in the Canyon was this diversity of rock, no matter its variable quality. I loved how the material of the stone structures supporting the trail corresponded to the strata through which the trails thread—Coconino riprap as I moved through the Coconino, stacked shale retaining walls as I passed through the Hermit shale. So when the Trail foreman decided to helicopter some 240,000 pounds of quarried Kaibab limestone into the “Red and Whites,” a steep section of trail ascending a cliff of Redwall limestone, I shook my head. I understood the reasoning—there wasn’t enough available loose rock along the trail to rip-rap an entire series of switchbacks—but I disliked the act of flying 50 pallets of rock into the Grand Canyon, not only because of the astronomical cost, nor because it vindicated what I had always thought was one of the dumber tourist questions (Where’d you get the rock?), but because, aesthetically, it seemed a shame to have Kaibab limestone inlaying a section of Redwall cliff.

Nathaniel Brodie with tools

The author repairs a wall on the North Kaibab Trail, 2008.
Photo courtesy Kelly Gleason.

More so, the helicopter-delivery betrayed the artistic pride I drew out of our work. Though on occasion I’d envy trail crews in the Sierra Nevadas, working all that beautiful, sectile granite, I agreed with David James Duncan’s paraphrasing of the Mahabharata: that one of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials. Duncan was referring to fly-fishing with a beater pole, but that’s how I felt about working the Canyon’s stone, the limestone in particular: the Redwall limestone iron-hard and damn near impossible to shape, the Muav limestone capable of absorbing a hundred sledge blows before a crack shanked straight to the closest edge, the obdurate rock popping off in awkward, unusable pieces. The Kaibab limestone, a friable mix of sandy limestone and calcareous sandstone, often fractured unevenly around its exceptionally hard chert nodules, but it was still the best of the lot, and prolific along the rimlands.

 

LTB, no longer grunting, was standing next to his block of Kaibab and looking about, trying to figure out how he was going to roll his stone around the huge pile of the old wall’s rock that we’d crush and use as backfill for our wall. I was standing down at the foundation level of the wall, I tossed up a flake then scrambled after it to help Tim maneuver his stone. He was staring vacantly at the pile of white rock, some of it speckled with lichen and black moss, some of it bearing the marks of a chisel.

“Yeah, too bad we don’t have the rockcrusher down here, huh?” I asked.

LTB looked at me, snorted, reached behind his head to adjust his bandana.

“That thing is dumb.”

The rock-crusher was our bosses’ latest investment: a 2,200-pound, six-foot wide, caboose-shaped rock-crushing machine. It could digest bowling-ball-sized rocks and spit them out as chunks and chips. The thing was a monster, so much so that it seemed as though they’d bought it as an intentionally over-the-top response to the barely-veiled insults we’d receive on a daily basis: the tourists who’d watched LTB and me roll rocks off the truck by hand and shouted, Surely there’s a better way; the ubiquitous Isn’t there a machine for that?; the snide or incredulous comments implying a young man in his prime spinning a sledge in circles against a rock was not a beautiful act but a crude throwback, a primitive means of production yet to be replaced by progress.

Even if that was their intention in buying the beast, which it certainly wasn’t (having more to do with end-of-the-fiscal-year-budget-splurges), LTB was right. It was dumb—too wide to drive down the Canyon trails and too heavy to be flown into the Canyon by the Park Service’s helicopters. We’d have to wait until a sky-crane flew into the park for one reason or another. The rockcrusher was incredibly loud and incredibly dusty, necessitating a half-face respirator, which in turn necessitated a clean-shaven face, which few of us were in the habit of maintaining.

“Besides,” Timmy said, squatting beside his boulder, “I like crushing rock.”

I grinned. Of course he did.

I considered many of us craftsmen. We regarded crappy rockwork with the same disdain we reserved for an opponent who wished to play “slop” pool—where any ball hit haphazardly into any pocket counts, rather than the precise, intended shot of a devotee of the game. Trailwork mirrored the desert it crafted; it stripped you bare as its own rocks: you couldn’t hide shitty work anymore than you could hide from the sun, the cold, the wind in the pines. You embraced the work just as you dedicated yourself to the Canyon. That or you left. Most stayed. And, after awhile, the work defined you.

The Red and Whites

The Red and Whites.
Photo courtesy Grand Canyon National Park.

Every spring I returned to the Canyon after a winter away and my body would shift in phases, with and like the seasons. My muscles fatigued in spring, tightened in summer, and diminished back toward bone in winter. My neck, forearms, even the webbing between my fingers shifted from white to beige to brown then back to white. My hands and heels blistered then callused. My lungs acclimated to the hikes and heights. My nosebleeds would stop after the first week back; my eyes would stop rasping in their sockets; I’d need to drink less and less water. I knew, as I maneuvered large rocks onto my tabled thigh before straightening up to carry them, that where the rocks had rested bruises would blossom and fade like mariposa lilies, that the fronts of my thighs would be chapped hairless by hiking in denim pants.

Nor was it just physical, this personal phenology. Working trails became the lens through which I viewed the Canyon—there came a time I couldn’t see a rock without immediately evaluating its batter, couldn’t see a reiterating juniper tree without counting how many checkdams I could cut from its candelabra trunk. At times, deep in the backcountry, I’d pass the snout of a rockslide and assume, in the instant before logic set in, that the randomly stacked stones were an old rubble wall.

This last wasn’t entirely illogical. Humanity’s spoor, its deep permeations, were everywhere evident and inescapable, from Anasazi granaries tucked under overhangs to miners’ blast-marks in bedrock, from motorhomes on roads to rafts on the river, from the squat concrete plug damming the Colorado to the industrial haze that obscured the once glassy views. Always a mark—the chisel marks in the old-wall’s stones, the sun creases inscribed on my face. The Canyon and crew scathed alike. And we liked that, liked our unique and exclusive relationship, how our work was one of the last ways we could know the Canyon by working the Canyon, as humans have done for some 10,000 years, before the Canyon was set apart as a park that essentially relegated humans to onlookers.

 

Of course, the reason LTB liked crushing rock had little to do with it being part and process of high craftsmanship or a life-defining activity: he liked it because shattering a rock into separate pieces with a single blow was immensely satisfying to cavemen like Little Timmy Beale. It was immensely satisfying to us all, for the same reasons, but also because, like most of trailswork, even the brute act of crushing rock contained a deliberate rhythm, an intentional calm, an edaphic joy, as Robert Frost put it, in the “grip of earth of outspread feet.”

Take carving stone, hewing it to shape so that it fit against another rock like pressing together one’s fisted knuckles. Chisel in my left hand, hammer in my right, I exploit the stone’s existing seams, shave its ridges and flakes. I angle the chisel in various degrees; at certain angles the spalling rock peppers my face. I pop off knobs and nubs with single blows or I scour a groove then rain hard, rhythmic blows along the line, the inert rock absorbing blow after blow until cleaving along the intended line like a sudden smile.

Old CCC retaining wall on South Kaibab Trail

An old Civilian Conservation Corps retaining wall on the South Kaibab Trail.
Photo courtesy Nathaniel Brodie.

After a while I’m lost in the work, lulled by the percussive beat. The periphery of my consciousness flickers with the progress of the rock, but mostly I drift into suspension, islanding occasionally on a stray thought or memory, but then drifting again into the widening stillness. Everything funnels into the particular and specific—a point off here, a nub there, the smell of hammered rock and the ring of hammer in air—and at the same time expands into a greater engagement: I can identify the birds overhead by the way their shadows flit across the ground in front of me: the quick-dart raven, the bent-wing turkey vulture, the darkening of the sun condor. Their sounds too: wind ripping through condor’s braced wing feathers; the dull whup whup whup of a raven’s wing beats.

The rockcrusher—gigantic, loud, industrial—offered no such moment. It violated such moments. It was a needy machine, and demoted us to the assembly-line auxiliaries we’d always set ourselves against. It reminded me of Thoreau’s response to a woman who offered him a mat— “I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” This was stretching it: we were well-versed in mechanical evils.

We didn’t mind the helicopter long-lining logs to our worksites. We scoffed at the suggestion to use cross-cut saws rather than chain-saws in clearing the North Rim’s forest trails. As long as they were running smoothly, we adored our rockdrills. Some of the same meditative characteristics that flowed from the heft of hammer and dig of chisel also arose out of rockdrills and chainsaws. Take felling junipers and limbing them into logs we’d use as check dams: whether it was the earplugs that deadened the world or the risk posed by both saw and tree, I’d enter an almost hypnotic state. The sight of sawdust spitting out the chain, the cloying smell of the exposed pitch, the incrementally widening kerf as the whorled trunk began to hinge, the dusty whump of the anticlimactic crash, all seemed accentuated, distilled.

These crystallized moments were not day-dreamy epiphanies or catch-the-eye flashes of the unexpected in the otherwise mundane. They didn’t arise out of the good work: they were the good work. The slivers of shaved metal flashing in the morning sun as I sharpened my chain and the needles shuddered loose from the tree’s uppermost branches as it began to fall were aspects as intertwined in the work and life as the ring and piston and clip components of the saw.

Perhaps there could have been similar such attunements while manning the rockcrusher. But I doubted it. It was too much. Offensive, even—from no aspect of its use could we derive pride. And, in the end, this pride was all we had.

I know where lies or stands every wall, waterbar, switchback corner, section of liner or riprap I’ve ever lain. If time has passed since I last hiked past, I’ll stop and study the structures, how they’ve shifted and settled, how the Canyon has worn around them. I’ll search out individual rocks, and if the anthropomorphic attributes I assigned to the rock as I worked it have faded—the obstinate bastard, the easy beauty—the pride or shame of the fitting and placement remains.

We couldn’t sell what we crafted. We owned only the hours we put into the construction. Hell, we didn’t even own those—we sold them for a bimonthly paycheck. No one profited from the placed stones but in the profits of hiking and experience. These profits—benefits, really—are not to be dismissed, but I can’t help but feel it’s a stretch to think: I helped people see and experience something greater than themselves, and maybe they will, in some way, contribute something to the Canyon, or places like it.

Trail crew member drills into wall

Trail crew member Damon Portillo drills holes into a cliff to insert anchors for safety gear.
Photo courtesy National Park Service.

No, our work was our own, and our most important reward.

For though we let go of the hours and the product, we were not alienated as Karl Marx may have feared: the loss of our product a loss of ourselves. The work could be monotonous and labor intensive, but Trails was no assembly line. Our work wasn’t stretched out across thousands of miles, strangers, machines, and meetings. In working these rocks I was invested in every step of the process. I knew what needed to be done and I did it. I knew what type of rocks I needed, I searched for them, I found them, I rolled them into place, I shaped them to fit one another, I dug them a berth and I placed them, all by hand. When I used a machine—a rockdrill or chainsaw—I used the machine, not vice-versa. If it broke, I knew enough about it to fix it in the field. So rather than losing the self, the work empowered.

 

LTB and I grappled his stone to the edge of the trail then carefully flipped it into its berth. The earth shook as it thudded into place. Marx was right: to be human is to shape the world around us. To be happy as a human is to appreciate that process, to be invested in it as work and art, to embed bits of ourselves in the earth with every rock. Though we knew that in time even the best-built wall will slide into the Canyon, I’d come to see our work in mythological terms, the loss of the wall as sacrifice, an offering celebrating our place in a system, not of the capitalist market or of national parks or even of human endeavors, but one of even greater continuity: order and entropy.

 

Order and Entropy Gallery

Grand Canyon trail crew photos by Nathaniel Brodie, National Park Service, and others. Click any image to view slideshow with captions.

 

Nathaniel Brodie served as an agricultural extension agent in the Peace Corps (Paraguay), and has worked as a carpenter, farmer, journalist, and beekeeper. His essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, High Country News, The Humanist, and other publications. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

One Response

  1. Scott Calhoun

    In May of 2012, I hiked down Bright Angel Trail with my 20 year old daughter and her boyfriend. What stayed with me almost as much as the geology and flora of the canyon was the trail itself. It seemed an impossible squiggle of switchbacks, and retaining walls. I took many photos of the trail and silently wondered how such a graceful ribbon was crafted. Now that I know a little more about it and those who worked on it, I’m even more impressed and proud of this inroad into backcountry. Thanks for writing this Mr. Brodie–this is now one of my favorite Terrain essays.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*