To answer the question burning on the minds of the majority of passerby while Alex and I were on trail this summer working as Ambassadors: no, we did not find gold. We were not digging a mine start. We didn’t find the Mammoth bones at the bottom of Mammoth Lake, either. I’m sorry to disappoint.
On the plus side, we did find (and remove) nearly 200 lbs. of trash. We built rock steps. We taught half a dozen volunteers how to use an antique crosscut saw. We cleared at least the first couple miles of nearly every trail from Big Pine to June Lake. We took out hazard trees suspended over trails. We interpreted for dozens of hikers the present and remnant ecology, glaciology, and volcanism. We one-upped each other weekly regarding who concoct the superior trail snack.
And on particularly arduous projects — digging out a whole for a step to be made from a 300+ lbs. boulder we’d excavated from the slope above, or sawing out a downed Jeffrey that was 3’ thick and had a top bind — , people would notice. On those days it seemed like every hiker that passed by commented, “Now that’s some real, hard work.” And every time, I wished I could respond that more than hard, it’s necessary. That their (and my) recreation was predicated on someone doing the hard, important work.
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In addition to hauling our tools around and tromping up trails, Alex and I spent this summer talking. A lot. Alex is chatty and I’m outspoken. Our interests have an uncanny degree of overlap. Perhaps more importantly, we spent between 20 and 40 hours a week hiking together. And so we talked.
On one of our many long-winded chats, we were waxing poetic something-or-other about the world order. A hiker walked by and overheard us. He chortled, “Even out here you two are talking politics? Ya must be a bunch of masochists!”
I remember Alex and I laughed. And then we kept talking, caring, and engaging in every way we could. We are embedded in this place; its well-being is inseparable from our own. In this and so many other ways, being an Ambassador reaffirmed that there can be no apolitical land ethic.
To the approximately 698 visitors we’ve spoken with about trail work this season as of the time of my writing (mid-August), I say: you’re welcome, and how would you like to join us?
As my last-ditch attempt at seasonal stewardship, I offer this suggestory formulae so that you, too, can be an ambassador of the land. It is informed by this season, as well as my time working with seven other trail crews in years past.
First, be humble. We learn with every encounter how to better care for each other, and this place. Our place in this landscape will always be secondary to the animals to whom it is the only home. Learn from their presence, and mitigate the scale of your own. Second, be grateful: to the people stewarding, but to the flora and fauna that do so much invisible work to preserve the ecosystems we play in, too. Third, be diligent. Pick up trash; stay on trail; educate every other recreationalist you can, every chance you get. Fourth, be active. Use your words, your body, your mind, your heart, and your network to disrupt when necessary, and inspire when possible. The least we can give these mountains is everything we’ve got.