Motorcycles, hiking and chain saws: The perfect job
The typical motorcycle has two levers on the handlebar, and one day I managed to break both of them.
Actually I’m being too modest.
Snapping off those levers required little more than an hour of basically effortless ineptitude on my part, as near as I remember.
If I’d had the whole day I might have dismantled the machine altogether, like one of those exploded view pictures they put in repair manuals so mechanics can figure out which washer goes on first.
Although to be precise I can’t claim sole credit for the damage.
The ground helped.
I didn’t, you know, grab the levers and wrench them off, as though they were turkey drumsticks.
What I did was crash the motorcycle.
But not on purpose.
This was a recurring problem for me.
The trouble with motorcycles, and more particularly the trouble with their levers, is that the handlebar ends jut out farther than any other part.
And so when you put a bike over onto its side, the lever, like as not, is the first part to hit the ground.
Which is unfortunate because the levers, being made of flimsy metal, or worse still brittle plastic, are not designed to support the weight of the motorcycle.
At least not when that weight is bashed against a chunk of granite or some other object that’s as unyielding as a nervous mother’s curfew.
Several years have passed since I owned, or damaged, a motorcycle.
But just recently I was reminded of my experience with, and occasional mistreatment of, that sort of vehicle.
The cause for my reminiscing is the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest’s announcement that it intends to hire contractors to fix up more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails the next two years.
That was my job for a couple of summers, and it’s how I got mixed up with motorcycles.
The major difference is that I worked directly for the Wallowa-Whitman rather than as a contractor.
Which was lucky for me because it meant that the motorcycle I rode — and in particular its levers — didn’t belong to me alone.
Anyway, the subject of trail maintenance has afflicted me with a case of nostalgia, albeit nostalgia that is in the main pleasant.
The comforting cushion of 18 years, for instance, has transformed my destruction of those levers from a disturbing feat of incompetence to a trivial blunder — which of course it was even when it happened, in the summer of 1991, an era so distant that hardly anybody outside of Arkansas had yet heard of Bill Clinton.
What I’ve been remembering mostly, though, is that working on the trail crew was the best job I had ever had.
Still is, come to that.
Never before and not since have I drawn a paycheck for riding a motorcycle, hiking in the mountains and wielding a chain saw.
Which sounds like the basis for a pretty fun summer camp, now that I think about it.
I like to do all of those things, but except for those two summers I’ve always had to pay for the privilege.
(And for the busted levers.)
Which is why, I think, the job always seemed to me almost like cheating.
I suppose my ambivalence was similar to how rock stars or professional athletes feel as they bank their millions while doing what they’re best at and love most.
Except I didn’t make much more than minimum wage, and nobody ever asked for my autograph.
As with any rewarding job, though, while working on the trails I hardly ever paused to tally hours or calculate dollars earned.
I tried to convince myself, when the alarm clock blared before dawn, that I wasn’t going to work that day.
No, I was going hiking in the Elkhorns.
To be honest, I was quite amenable to being deluded in that way.
It wasn’t just that aspects of the job were fun (steering your motorcycle through a tricky section of trail and emerging with both the clutch and brake levers intact, for instance).
Maintaining trails also afforded me a mixture of freedom and sense of tangible accomplishment that’s unique in my working life.
We were supervised, of course — but only to the extent that we knew, in a given week, which trails we were supposed to clear.
The choice on any given day, though, was ours.
When you maintain trails you see, with unusual clarity, the products of your sweaty and sometimes blistered toil.
In the morning you start up a trail that’s littered with downfall from the past winter’s gales.
In the afternoon you hike or ride the same trail in reverse, and even though you’re weary you’re also content because there are no logs or boulders in your way.
Ever since those two summers I have paid particular attention to the condition of the trails I hike. When the trail is free of obstacles I wish I could thank the people who cleared the path, maybe buy them a cold beer.
I’m fortunate that most of the trails I hike regularly are the ones that I worked on.
My wife, Lisa, is not so fortunate.
She has to endure, while we’re hiking, my pathetic boasts about how I sawed through this particular log.
Probably I ought to keep quiet. These logs, having long since been bleached dull gray by all the years of heavy weathers, are more a testament to my advancing age than to any noteworthy achievement.
Still and all, it never fails to give me a little thrill when I walk across the turnpikes we built along the Dutch Flat trail during July of 1991.
(A turnpike is a sort of bridge designed to keep hikers out of boggy ground. To build one you lay a pair of de-barked logs parallel, one on either side of the trail, brace the logs with rocks and then dump fill dirt in between the logs.)
I’ve misplaced most of the details from those two summers in the mountains. But that week when we built the turnpikes remains vivid, and the person I was then, hefting boulders and shoveling granitic sand, seems scarcely different from the person whose words are scampering now across the monitor’s flat screen.
I remember how the mosquitoes came on during the sluggish air of afternoon, and how it was stifling even in the shade of the thick old spruces.
My oldest daughter, my first child, was due later that summer but you never know about first babies, and we had a radio so I could check in each evening with the ranger station in Baker.
As it happened, Rheann was late rather than early, and so it was all right that I was gone for that week.
I remember that we sat around the campfire each evening and sometimes we talked about my impending fatherhood.
When I ponder that period it seems to me that not so much time has passed.
Except then I remember something else.
I remember that my college diploma, which during that summer I was still almost a year from earning, sits today on a closet shelf, bearing the dust of nearly two decades.
Just a few days ago I watched Rheann drive away in her own car, off to earn her own degree.
Perhaps one summer I can persuade her to hike with me up into the mountains.I’d like to show her what I helped to build on those torpid July days while I waited for her, excited and scared and elated.