The sun burned through to the bottoms of the trees as we marched in silence down the switchbacks, our faces and once-khaki-green uniforms coated in black ash, our necks greased with sweat. On both sides of the trail, thousands of burnt-up trees lie atop scorched earth. In fall of 2020, the Creek Fire tore through this part of Califronia's Sierra National Forest and nearly half a million more acres with the ferocity of a hotshot freight train, torching large swaths of trees until they resembled used matchsticks.
As a US Forest Service Widlerness Ranger intern, it was my job to help get the well-loved trail clear again.
Like other trails in the forest, the path that leads up to the Devil’s Bathtub, a sub-alpine, tub-shaped lake atop a steep climb, was closed due to down trees and fire damage. And so, for eight days we chopped, cut, and rolled over two hundred downed trees off the trail. The tread was still eroded and in parts, there wasn't one living tree in sight, but the trail was clear and could now be opened for the approaching influx of summer visitors. This job was done, but the gig far from it.
So I hiked in front of our group and balanced the long, hundred-year-old crosscut saw under the strap of my pack. Behind me was Solomon, an intern like myself. He was no slouch, and didn’t need this job to teach him about labor or discomfort; by twenty-one, he’d built hiking trails in Denali and battled Dengue Fever in the tropics. Pulling up the rear was Tim, our crew leader, who tossed rocks off the trail with the head of his shovel.
"In the mornings he’d recite a passage from Muir or Abbey as we laced up our boots."
Tim came to California from Virginia at 20 and had spent the last eighteen years working on the forest. As do most wilderness rangers, Tim works seasonally—on the trails in the spring and summer and as ski patrol at China Peak, the local mountain, in the winter. And like most rangers I met, Tim was rangy and athletic, though he had developed an early case of arthritis in his back and shoulders, a common malady for those who work the trails as long as he has.
Every night he'd retire to his tent to read a novel about a rebellious cowgirl, and in the mornings he’d recite a passage from Muir or Abbey as we laced up our boots.
By early afternoon, we were back at the same trailhead we had set out from a week ago. Our Forest Service truck still sat alone in the parking lot as if no time had passed. I climbed into the cab and let my tired body melt into the seat as Tim navigated through the potholes of the one-lane mountain pass road that served as a rough transition between the seclusion of wilderness and the relative chaos of civilization.
After a couple of hours, we arrived back in the small mountain town of Shaver Lake and parked beside Hungry Hut, one of the few options for hot food. White smoke poured from the top of the little wooden building and mixed with the July air. Sweaty tourists in swim trunks and cheap graphic t-shirts swarmed in and out of the restaurant and, as we stood in line, I felt as though I had a million eyes crawling all over me. Even after eight days in the forest, I’d never had a stronger urge to return to its solitude.
"We carried ourselves and our tools over the top of 11,000-foot passes to secluded lakes, up and down manzanita-lined switchbacks alongside raging creeks, and into the deepest, most mosquito-ridden arteries of wilderness."
We sat around one of the plastic tables and scarfed down a couple thousand calories of carbs and grease, then continued down the mountain to the foothills and arrived at the ranger station in Prather that evening.
On the rare occasion when we weren't in the backcountry, myself and seven other wilderness ranger interns shared two dilapidated double-wide trailers that sat above a mellow creek in a forest of yellow pines and incense cedars. There were holes in the walls and in the roof and you could hear rats run in the ceiling, but the air was fresh, the rent was free, and we were all quite happy to be there, together.
For two months Tim, Solomon, and I hiked hundreds of miles throughout the John Muir Wilderness and beyond—The Silver Divide, Humphrey’s Basin, Margaret Lakes, the Mono Recesses. For eight days at a time, we’d venture away from the double-wides and live only from our packs, food and all. Since we burned twice as many calories as we could stuff into our packs, we always returned from the backcountry starving, and down a couple more holes in our belts. I heard stories of rangers who had lost as much as forty pounds in one summer. By the last few days of each tour, our uniforms were stiff and putrid and seemed to be made more of dried sweat and dirt than cotton.
But that was the job. We carried ourselves, and our tools, over the top of 11,000-foot passes to secluded lakes in the shadows of towering granite peaks, up and down manzanita-lined switchbacks alongside raging creeks, and into the deepest, most mosquito-ridden arteries of wilderness.
Throughout the summer, especially while on the Pacific Crest Trail, we crossed paths with humans from every land and every stitch of life—local horse packers, trout fishermen, deer hunters, young couples from New Zealand and Korea, plump old British men, a Girl Scout troop. We even met barefoot newlyweds who carried sheepskin bedrolls on their backs and had paid for their wedding supplies and an ordained minister to be packed in on mules for a ceremony deep in the John Muir Wilderness.
Nearly everyone we met told us they had never met a wilderness ranger before, but most seemed to be expecting us. We were enigmatic; people seemed to pass our whereabouts down the trail like a game of backcountry telephone. Most conversations were short and simple. We checked their permit, told them to camp 100 feet away from any water and the trail, gave them information on fire bans, and fielded any questions they had about weather, wildflowers, trees, bears, or the best lakes for trout fishing.
In the evenings, we’d swap our uniform tops and Forest Service hats for down jackets and beanies, sit on whatever rocks or logs were available for seating, and let our dinner pots warm our hands. Sometimes we traded stories or told jokes, but most often we just sat and contemplated in solitude.
"The true meaning I found was in the opportunity to live simply and freely to a degree that is unattainable anywhere else."
Each day Solomon and I earned a stipend of $48, and at the end of the summer, we both agreed that between food, gas, and an occasional luxury, we had spent practically as much money as we had earned. Even the lead rangers like Tim earn an hourly wage, a relatively meager living.
I didn't take the job for its pay though. Nor the ease of the work, or even the incredible beauty I had the privilege to immerse myself in. The true meaning I found was in the opportunity to live simply and freely to a degree that is unattainable anywhere else. To do the job of a wilderness ranger is to be outside of most norms of society, particularly those of occupation. Not in protest or contempt, but simply because that's the nature of the job.
But like all jobs, this one had its rhythms. When the sun rose we woke and began to work, and when it set, we slept. We used a few modest tools and knew each one well. We took our water only from the current of rivers and the pools of lakes. We ate the same few foods, and for the most part, only wore the clothes on our backs. We spent much time in silence, spoke sparingly, and received our only news from the mouths of passing hikers.
We didn't work within the confines of walls or sit hunched behind desks; we just packed up our tiny shelters, placed them upon our backs, and hiked into the mountains to complete our simple and honest tasks. We would've been the envy of kings, if only they knew.