There was a time in my life when I felt strong emotion toward a 5-foot-long forged steel bar with a bevel on one end. It weighed 18 pounds and I had recently lugged it, along with a lot of other not-quite-so-outrageously-heavy tools, a number of miles up the side of a mountain. I groaned and cursed. I wondered, repeatedly and out loud, what sort of use a huge, heavy metal stick was on a mountainside. And then I grew to love it.
A rock bar, as the tool is known to people who build trails, is a magical force multiplier. (It’s just a lever, really, but we all know what Archimedes said about those.) It allows small people, like me, to make truly enormous rocks dig themselves out of the earth. It allows groups of people, rowing with the bars as though they were oars, to maneuver those rocks with what I’ll go so far as to call precision. Even though you may be deep in the wilderness and beyond the aid of power tools, with a rock bar you are mighty. You can bend the raw materials of the earth to your designs.
The summer I first fell for rock bars, I was 18 and volunteering on a crew rerouting a popular access trail leading to the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Before, I thought I knew trails: I’d grown up 20 minutes from Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where hiking and camping were … pretty much all there was to do. But before long I felt like Mark Twain after he learns to captain steamboats and can never look at the Mississippi the same way. What once looked like simple tracks through the woods revealed themselves to be complex marvels of engineering, the results of the careful designs and grueling work of a whole cadre of people who live in the woods for weeks at a time and speak in their own vocabulary of pick mattocks and McLeods (both tools), of French drains (gravel sluices for managing water in moderately wet spots) and Griphoists (hand-powered cable ratchets) and corduroy (a stopgap measure of laying down a bunch of logs to give hikers a dry place to step when the mud is too overwhelming).
The most iconic trails have become such fundamental parts of their home parks that they can seem like natural features, part of the patrimony of the park alongside waterfalls or vistas. The best trails, woven gracefully into the landscape, don’t feel built at all—the carefully constructed steps and drains seem as though they’ve always existed. And many have existed quite a long time: Angels Landing was cut into the rock of Zion in 1926; the Wonderland Trail, finished in 1915; the John Muir Trail, begun the same year. During the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a golden age of trail building, crews built more than 28,000 miles of trails, nearly the length of 13 Appalachian Trails laid end to end.
It took us some time to get the hang of hiking trails. Surprisingly, the National Park Service was 17 years old when, in 1933, the U.S. Forest Service’s annual report first listed “hiking” as a possible recreational usage for the parks. Especially in the East, a lot of early hiking trails, built by outing clubs such as the “Fresh Air Club” in New York City, ran straight up mountainsides to the nearest view, with nary a meander or switchback in sight. They were magnets for severe erosion and only accessible to people who were up for steep scrambles. Lightly on the Land, a leading guidebook for trail builders, describes the change after a former president of the Appalachian Mountain Club began to import techniques he’d learned in the West, where more gradual trails designed to accommodate pack animals were also more inviting to people: “His trails hugged the contours of the land and rose gradually up the slopes. He removed rocks, smoothed the tread, and built stone cairns to show the way. The work was done so meticulously that some of the trails are still in use today.”
The general method is, too. Today, trail crews working on public lands learn that their main job is to manage two stubborn forces: keeping water off the trail and keeping people on it, thus reducing hikers’ impact to a thin ribbon of tread rather than a whole trampled, eroded forest. Rock and wood structures are good for this, and so is laboriously grading the trail. Cutting trails into a hill sideways makes it easier to get down to firm mineral soil and to find places for water to run off (Lightly on the Land suggests that, if it’s not currently raining, you can roll an orange down your trail’s tread to make sure water will flow the way you want it to).
Trail builders strive to make their work invisible. You’ve succeeded if the path is dry and inviting, and no one pays attention to the drainage structures or retaining walls that keep it that way. And though helicopters and ATVs and mules sometimes help drop off supplies, often you’re more or less on your own for work whose whole point is being in the middle of nowhere: just some very dirty, sweaty people depending on mechanical advantage and their own strength.
In Virginia that summer, a steep section of our reroute demanded a staircase for comfortable walking. With no access to lumber, we needed to make it out of local rocks. Unfortunately, there were none large enough nearby, so we quarried 400-plus-pound boulders—two dozen of them—on a high hillside, wrapped them in webbing, and belayed them down the mountain on a cable strung between trees. Then we maneuvered the rocks into place and set them into deep holes, so they rested on top like scoops of ice cream in a cone. We did it all with simple tools we’d packed in ourselves, and when we were done we ran up and down, up and down, up and down the staircase, and not a single rock wobbled. Sure, I didn’t shower for a month, but it’s still probably the most satisfying work I’ve ever done.
After college, I signed up to teach high school kids to build trails. In the Catskills, at training, trail builders with decades of experience showed us a photo slideshow of their best works, often trails built or cut into foreboding cliff sides that most people would despair of ever traversing. They showed us how to turn a tree into a bridge with crosscut saws and adzes, how to survey a forest for the best place to cut a path that can last. In Alaska my crew rerouted a trail that had been flooded by a beaver dam, fixed water bars broken by the freeze and thaw of the tundra, and tried to create drainage through mud so thick the students despairingly dubbed it “the elephant poop.” One day we asked some horseback riders to try out a section we thought we’d finished, only to find out that, when their steeds’ hooves sank more than a foot into the trail, we hadn’t yet dug past all the fluffy organic soil. At night, I moved massive rocks in my dreams.
Some of my friends stuck to the trail building life for years, cycling through crews and seasons and parks. Some are still in it. I moved on, but I can’t hike quite the way I used to. Along with the view, I’m checking out water bars or turnpikes or cleverly positioned stairs—imagining all the work that it took some anonymous person to build and maintain them, and feeling jealous that that person probably got to use a rock bar.