FOR a season I worked for the National Park Service as a laborer on a trail maintenance crew for Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park. The job entailed grueling work in heat and hail, dust and mud, and more dust, much more.
Each morning - shining, exotic mornings - our crew would descend on mules into the Big Ditch and work with picks and shovels, pry bars and jackhammers, and even dynamite to repair the trails. We removed stray boulders, repaired water bars, filled holes; we tried to make it all pretty and functional. But we would always stop our labors to allow the trail guides, and their mules and tourists, to pass by. And to smile for their cameras.
For a few minutes every hour, our crew, dressed in shorts, Hawaiian shirts, and heavy work boots, was a strange, new entertainment for them. We enjoyed it. After the tourists had passed by we would resume our toils. We'd suck warm water from our canteens. Feel the sun blast into our mostly exposed skins. Sweat and pant, and blow caked dust from our nostrils. Smell fresh mule dung.
Many tourists thought that the crew was part of an old-fashioned chain gang; it seemed improbable to them that people would enter into such an activity voluntarily. I did. Others still do.
That was an interesting if exhausting and underpaid job. But what I found on the Grand Canyon's trails was even more provocative. Riding down the trail each day was like following a path of desperation to a secret nether world - a path littered with objects like a costly but damaged hiking boot (not a pair, just a single boot). Sets of keys. Photographs of young lovers. Credit card receipts. A tennis ball. Foreign coins. Underwear in a variety of colors, designs, and fabrics. Cigarette butts. Drugs, lega l and illegal. Candy wrappers. Soiled bandages. I also encountered people of all types: an occasional exhausted and waterless hiker, friendly and unfriendly strangers, and dehydrated, mildly crazed trail runners. So many people and things, but so few explanations. But no matter: I certainly had plenty of time to concoct my own explanations - day after day, pick strike after pick strike, breath after breath.
My Grand Canyon days were, however, merely another point along my twenty year span, and thousands of miles, of following trails, and other people's refuse, in the American West. I am no longer amazed at what I find in my travels, just as I am seldom amazed at so many other aspects of human activities: our politics, occupations, recreations, wars.
T seems that human beings visiting National Monuments and Parks simply enjoy discarding things, etching symbols into stone and wood, attending to bodily functions at will, photographing everything they do, exaggerating, over-extending themselves, becoming sunburned, taking on new although not always pleasant memories.
Memories, of course, are all I have remaining from my work stint for Grand Canyon National Park, the money earned there having been spent quickly. Memories of nature raw and lovely. Images of coworkers, also raw and lovely. Memories, too, of the debris left behind by strangers. And the mule dung. They are, thankfully, mostly good memories.
I remind myself that trails, whether they be in parks, in national forests, range lands, or wherever, are merely narrow threads of rock and dirt twisting through hundreds or even thousands of square miles of mostly wild lands. They are but a tiny portion of the bigger, mostly unseen, chunks of land they traverse. They are necessarily where most visitors venture. Trails are also where people leave things behind. I am no longer as indignant as before at human artifacts left behind, and I am still willing t o listen to the recanting of past hiking adventures, even from strangers. Certainly they are more amusing than the spiels of politicians.
I no longer work outdoors, although there are times when I miss those days. And when I am on a trail now, I always notice how it was created from nature's wild extravagance and how it is maintained. Sometimes I simply step over the trash I encounter; sometimes I pick it up. I smile. I talk to strangers, or I allow them their privacy if they seem to want it. At other times I simply stare into the sky, especially on late summer afternoons when storm clouds thrash out of the seeming nothingness of blue skie s like gigantic puffs of popcorn.
The Grand Canyon's skies are known for their delightful clouds, divine storms, and monstrous sunlight. They are gorgeous, although often polluted and laden with dust. They are filled with the shapes of a million unknown beings and possibilities. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to them while on the Bright Angel Trail but that would have been difficult as I worked my shovel against the trails' rocky dirt.
Meanwhile, my neck and arms broiled in the sunlight. And more mule-riding tourists, many who could speak no English, aimed their eyes and cameras at me and did what tourists feel impelled to do. They, too, continued their treks, either down to the river or back up to the cool, pine-shaded rim where ice cream, cheeseburgers, trinkets, postcards, and new underwear could be purchased.
Fortunately there are still other skies to gaze into, and dreams to go with them. Love those clouds. Let the debris fall where it will; it is all part of the show. But if you and I pick up some of it, and dispose of it properly, even happily, so much the better.