Sunday, June 19, 2011

All the live-long day

So what makes for a tougher, more physically taxing day: An eight-hour trail run or eight hours of hard-labor trail work? I got this question a few times during our Saturday stint with the Tahoe Rim Trail work crew. And honestly, unless you're better trained for the effort of guiding 600-pound boulders down a 50-degree sandy slope for 100 meters without losing them in a clattering tumble while screaming "Rock! Rock!" ... I'd be inclined to say the latter is the harder effort.

We met up with the crew in a casino parking lot in Stateline, Nevada, and made our way up a brand new, yet-to-be-opened connector trail to the TRT. We donned hard hats, work boots, and leather gloves and marched up the beautifully sculpted trail until we reached a point where it resembled more of a mountain goat track along a rugged sideslope. This is the point where we set up shop. The only trail work I've participated in the past all involved minor maintenance — clearing away brush, chopping out limbs, moving deadfall, that sort of thing. I've never actually built a trail. So when I was assigned to the "rock wall crew," I didn't think anything of it.

As it turns out, the on-trail construction of rock walls is nothing like I imagined it, which was admittedly more in line with laying perfectly symmetrical bricks in pre-mixed mortar. No, in real on-trail rock wall construction, you are given a pick ax and a very heavy iron prying tool, and pointed in the general direction of a very steep slope were you must gather all of your building materials, which you must move using brute force with a little help from gravity. And you can't use just any rock — they have to be rectangular, with flat bottoms, solid granite, and about the size of a carry-on suitcase. Eventually you have to go very far up the mountain to find such rocks. Then, not only do you have to guide them safely down the mountain, you also have to position them perfectly in place, somehow, without straining your back or scraping your arms or bruising your foot or jamming your finger. Beat and I were both unsuccessful in this regard, and sustained a number of small injuries.

Once all the big stones were in place, we had to gather up piles of smaller stones and crush them into fill for our trail. I dripped sweat and gasped for oxygen as I skittered up and down the steep slope gathering rocks, but Beat really had the tougher job with the sledge hammer. At least he looked good in the process.

Sweaty and completely coated in dirt at the end of eight hours, our crew of five paused briefly to enjoy our creation — about 50 feet of new trail. Fifty feet. I tell you, I am never going to look at a rock-lined section of trail the same way. It's truly amazing how much labor goes into trail creation, and I'm glad I had this fun experience to give me a new appreciation for trails and the people who build them.

The evening brought a beautiful summer sunset over Tahoe Lake that we were almost to knackered to enjoy. But we did rally for a short walk near the beach.

On Sunday morning we set out to enjoy miles of other people's labor on the Tahoe Rim Trail near Castle Rock. I saw an uncountable number of rock walls along the trail, and could only shake my head in disbelief. The trail was perfect for running — rolling and smooth with just enough rocks and boulders to keep you on your toes. The fact that this trail is so runnable, yet still fairly steep and somewhat technical, is going to make for a uniquely tough challenge for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 next month. I'm probably going to be tempted to run more often than I should over that distance. Not to mention the elevation averages about 8,000 feet. I could feel the thin air more during the trail work yesterday than I could running today, but still ... this is going to be a fantastically tough race. I really need to log some running miles this week and start working on getting my head in that game.

Finally, I was amazed to come back and see how many people commented on my last post over the weekend. It was really fun to see the different connections — it seems a large number arrived here either through fat bike interest, my 2007 NPR commentary or the Fat Cyclist, and it's awesome to see so many of you stuck around all these years, even after I moved away from Alaska. It was also fun to see greetings from old friends and also familiar names from the "way back" days of my Homer posts. Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment. I used an online random number generator to draw three names for the book giveaway. I listed the names and comments below. If this is you, please e-mail me at with your address and I will send you a copy of my new book, "Be Brave, Be Strong: A Journey Across the Great Divide," which, incidentally, just became available in paperback on Amazon. I'm awaiting my own shipment and expect to have signed copies available by the end of the week. Check back!

Winners of the book giveaway:

KB: "I found your blog in 2008 via a link on another mountain biker's blog. You probably don't remember but you helped me decide to buy a snowbike by answering my questions about how well one *really* works. I've adored it (a Fatback) and ride all winter long on the Colorado trails."

Carol: "Hi Jill, I found your blog the summer of 2009 while doing a Google search on Alaska for places to live. I was wrapping up nursing school at the time and live in the brutally hot city of Phoenix. I was overwhelmed with endless assignments and clinical rotations and unable to make the trek to the mountains in Flagstaff to cool off. I found your blog while you were riding the Divide. I went back and read every posting you had written. Being stuck in school at the time I was so envious of your freedom and sense of adventure and was able to live virtually through your blog. Thank you so much for sharing the incredible stories and photos of your adventurous life with all of us!"

Shannon P: "I've been following your blog since um, not sure really! it was still "Up in AK" back when I found it, and I was researching fatbikes (aren't pugs grand?)...loved the pics, attitude, and exploits and have been reading every since!"


  1. Hi Jill,

    I'm one of the book winners (Yay!) and attempted to email you at and received a rejection/failure notice. I tried using both my personal and business email and was rejected both times. Is the address correct? Or is there another option to get my address to you?

  2. A very heavy iron prying tool - isn't that a pry bar?

    Lots of work moving rock by hand, for sure. Now consider the efforts that went into building railroads and stone walls before fossil fuels became our slaves...

  3. Anon ... Whoops! I meant (not .net) Also try if that e-mail does not work. Thanks!

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I've done trail work most of my life (for my day job) and I don't think people realize what hard work it is. Now, I have an opening on my trail crew this summer.. Interested? :)

  5. The trail work sounds very interesting. I feel a bit spoiled in Juneau with all our great trails that I haven't done much to support besides give $$$ to Trail Mix.

    I'm sort of glad I didn't win your drawing because I will have an excuse to order another copy of Ghost Trails when I order the new book. I gave my old one to a friend, she loved it so I let her keep it. Thanks for writing!

  6. Oh darn I didn't win a book - I will just order one - can't wait to read it. Keep up the good work on and off the trails.

  7. If you want to do trail work in some incredible places, check out

  8. Hi Jill,

    I've been following your blog for years (I'm guessing since 2007-ish) and have always enjoyed your writing, and been motivated by your adventures.

    I fell behind on your blog over the last week or so, because I bought both your books and couldn't put them down!

    Just wanted to say thanks!

  9. peter e. schumacherJuly 1, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    Liebe Jill, lieber Beat,

    Eure Fotos sind einfach von überwältigender Schönheit! Es muß großartig sein, dort zu laufen. Das würde ich auch gern!



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