Over the past 10 months, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working with the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps Roving Trail Crew based out of Philadelphia. A few things to know before we get into it:
- My team was made up of five adults ranging in age from 20-25
- “Roving” is the fancy label my team gets for traveling to, and staying overnight at, worksites all over the state
Through the season, we’ve experienced the wonders of multiple state parks and forests, exploring the breathtaking landscapes Pennsylvania has to offer.
The natural beauty -- rivers, creeks, forests, mountains, hills, waterfalls, and abundance of rocks -- has been a constant source of awe.
As an avid hiker, stepping onto the other side of the trail has been perspective shifting, in more ways than one.
My favorite projects often involved scouting new routes, like my crew’s month-long stint at Laurel Hill State Park in May.
My team constructed a connection trail from the Lake Trail to their breathtaking Scenic View.
We dove into the intricacies of sustainable trail design armed with the necessary tools:
- Clinometer to measure the trail’s slope, grade, and elevation
- McLeod to clear brush and compact mineral soil
- Pick mattock to carve a flat “bench” trail into the hillside
We spent our first morning meandering around the forest, each flagging out a potential route. As was typical for our crew, the final route was an amalgamation of everyone’s vision.
Sometimes trail construction is repetitive:
- Clear the duff with the McLeod
- Cut the bench with the pick mattock
- Out slope the tread (slightly!)
- Tamp and compress the soil
But our work site was never dull. Overlapping humming would turn to loud harmonizing. Word games would occupy hours, obscure riddles, days.
Our lighthearted attempts to name the trail reflected our unique spirit. Unfortunately, “Snowy Hill-Cabbage Patch-Double Possum Skull-Trail” didn’t stick.
Working with the land and against erosion, we left Laurel Hill State Park confidently wearing the label “Trail Crew.”
Crew Life in the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps
Meet the crew:
Brian (better known as Lucky): An Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who earned the name as a badge of honor for accidentally stepping on a rattlesnake and living to tell the tale.
Lucky is a skilled sawyer and hammock camping enthusiast. His specialties include somehow knowing what song is stuck in your head and singing it better than the original.
Spencer: A lover of mushroom coffee and getting a laugh out of the team. Self-proclaimed micro-topography champion, his specialty is tread work (the part of the trail you walk on).
He can always see the future trail hidden beneath the forest duff.
Ally: Fearless like her idol Taylor Swift, is the resident critter picker-upper. As an aspiring wildlife biologist, she provided the team with close-up and personal lessons in entomology and zoology.
Her eye for detail kept our trail edges crisp, and her creativity turned us all on to crocheting.
Vince: Ultramarathoner and Pennsylvania’s number one fall foliage fanatic. When not working with the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps, he can be found elsewhere in the woods, most likely northcentral Pennsylvania.
Specialties include puns, wordplay, and more puns.
My trail crew became a transitory family, embarking on our eight-day stretches away from home in the field. The challenges of distance were swiftly replaced by the joys of shared experiences.
Evenings were filled with laughter around Lucky’s tiny phone screen, the antics of Madagascar providing a familiar comfort.
Dutch Blitz and King-in-the-Corner competitions, crossword-solving endeavors sans Google (or cell service for that matter), and Jolly Rancher tarot readings became traditions.
Our campfire culinary adventures of stuffed peppers, soup, roasted veggie bowls, and cookies brought us close.
Though the secret sauce of our success were the distinctive personalities within the crew.
Outdoor Corps is the Perfect Place for Growth
One of the first phrases of wisdom given to us in the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps was, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” I remember hearing that and thinking two things:
- “Perfect is the best…” and
- “What the hell does Voltaire have to do with conservation?”
As a self-confessed perfectionist, I grappled with the idea that anything less than perfect was synonymous with failure.
During our Laurel Hill trail-building expedition, I found myself staring at a supposedly imperfect section of trail.
I was tempted to bring out our level and smooth the tread to an exactly five-degree out slope (the textbook-perfect outcome for this location).
As my vision began to tunnel to one square-foot of our trail, my crewmate Ally came to check in and brought some much-needed perspective.
“Hey! Can you believe we’re almost half of a mile in?” Woah. At that moment, the first piece of Outdoor Corps advice came ringing back to my ears and clicked.
Part of me always believed that to be proud of myself and my work, it had to be “perfect.” But perfection is subjective (just ask my crew on breakfast-for-dinner night, when we each make a different version of the “perfect” fried egg).
By focusing too hard on making one section perfect and losing sight of the route at large, you may never finish the trail.
And a perfectly half-finished trail doesn’t serve anyone. Voltaire, though likely not on a trail crew, would surely have appreciated the analogy.
The larger lesson learned is not an acceptance of mediocrity, but an understanding that excellence lies in working hard and doing good.
A trail worth walking doesn't demand perfection in every step but embodies the effort of its creation.
Reflecting on the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps
I consider myself fortunate to call the great outdoors my office. Yet, the essence of this experience lies in the remarkable individuals I've had the privilege to call my crewmates.
They've not only inspired and supported me, but have empowered me to forge my own trail. Armed with my metaphorical McLeod, I'm ready to embrace the unknown, knowing that every step is a part of a perfect journey.
Find more information about the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps on the DCNR website.