GROWING UP IN WILDERNESS

By Che Rousell (2015 Wilderness Conservation Corps Intern)

 I had a pick mattock, but that does not mean that I knew how to use it. The summer before I had stolen it from a local campground with a good friend of mine, a move I do not regret. The pick sat in my car for a year before it was more than a conquest. It took time for the pick to become something to me, something more than a stolen good and more than a tool. Even when I finally learned to swing a pick correctly and with purpose I did not understand where it would take me. Now I look at that pick and I am reminded of who I am and why I am here and where I am going, and what all of that means.

The first day I arrived at the ranger station I was fresh off the trails of British Columbia, spending the better part of a week with some of my oldest friends and a girl, or as I might have referred to her, the girl. The trip was my first true backcountry experience, something I had failed to mention in my interview with Rebecca earlier that year. That was my first taste of the raw catharsis that is found on the trails, and a preliminary test for the season ahead.

Returning to Montana had been disorienting and I was not ready to leave everything behind for a responsibility I had assumed on a whim months before. So when I saw a fresh facedA.J. Baesman waving to me from outside the office with his trademark (and at times slightly unnerving) enthusiasmI was not entirely sure what I had gotten myself into. My first encounters with the crew were uncomfortable. I was younger, less experienced, and quite frankly a good amount more awkward. The better part of the last month the four of them had come to know each other at least to some extent, I had never spoken to one of them before, besides from a brief conversation over the phone with Courtney on the way back from Canada. To suddenly be alone with them and only them made me feel like I was out of place, in over my head, and a stranger to them and to myself. It would take time.

It was on the first hitch that Mike Cotton taught me how to swing a pick. When I first watched him attempt to rebuild a section of trail which had been nearly decimated in a slide, I began to understand the nature of the work we were undertaking and the disposition of the “trail dog.” Anger is not the right word, but it might be mistaken for it if you didn’t know any better.  Mike moved with an intent so fiery that one could easily assume the ground had crossed him in a bad way, and Mike had decided to exact his retribution swiftly. Of course there is more to swinging a pick than just passion, I find that it's all in the knees.

I am not sure how many crews I will be on throughout my life, I hope many. Regardless, I will always remember Courtney, Mike, Claire, and A.J. as the people who were there as I grew up in the woods, as the people who guided me and nudged me both in building trail and building myself into the person I wanted to be. Because out there you define who you are and how you present yourself. There are no distractions. There are no predispositions. In the real world, every day you are reminded of what you have done and what you have said. What other people think of you. What other people think that you think of yourself. In wilderness it isn’t that you find yourself more, than it is that you choose who you want to be. I chose to become the person I am now. Calluses on my hands are more important than the calluses on my ego.

It's easy to forget all of this in the day to day. Hands grow soft, feelings grow hard. You lose sight of the windows and keep staring at the girl across the room. I start to define the Wilderness Conservation Corps as a job experience rather than an experience. I start to define the wilderness as the woods rather than as the place I grew up. And while yes, it was good work experience and a necessary start for a career in wilderness conservation, but it was also what I needed to define myself as a boy becoming a man in the modern age. So everyday after school I look at the pick in my car. I remember Mike and his fire. I remember the trail I built and the country I’ve seen. I think of all the country I am going to see. And I remember all the times I had no idea where I was, and yet I knew exactly where I was because I was finally home.