A woman on the trail

By Natalie Beittel

People make comments if they see you coming up the trail. Your face is raining sweat, and you are carrying a loaded wooden pack frame on your back. On the packboard, they see a shovel, rock bar, boxes of food, tents, and various other gear somehow all tied on with box rope. Afterthought items such as a 10-gallon water jug or tarp dangle haphazardly from your person.

The same people make comments if you pass them going uphill, not knowing that sometimes you strained extra hard gritting your teeth. It’s worth it to see their facial expressions as you outpace them. They are even more likely to make a comment when you see you’re a woman.

I got a job with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Professional White Mountain Trail Crew (TFC) the summer after my sophomore year in college. In less than 24 hours after my arrival in New Hampshire I found myself sitting on a stool in a bathroom. I had my hair buzzed off with a number one razor. A single strip of hair was left down the middle. Of the 24 crew members, all of whom received Mohawks, only four, including myself, were women. After being buzzed, each person admired her/her new haircut in the bathroom mirror and then coolly and confidently walked out. I was not as sure if I had made the right decision to chop it off, but I put on my game face anyway.

I’m often in situations where I’m outnumbered by men; most of my neighborhood friends growing up were boys, and I played in a men’s soccer league with them. However, I never struggled to keep up or felt inadequate. These experiences did not have me so wholly out of the traditional feminine existence as my time spent with TFC.  

My first summer on trail crew was the most physically and mentally challenging of my life (as it is for everyone his or her first year). I did come to appreciate the sleekness of my Mohawk when we began the season by hiking 12 to 24 miles a day through the mountains chopping out fallen trees from the winter storms with our axes at speeds no normal person would consider sustainable. In the back of my mind I felt I had to prove myself, not only as a first year crewmember, but also as one of the few women. I internalized the feeling brought about by the extreme demand the job placed on my body.

I spent the bulk of the summer season in the woods. We split into small crews of four to six people and stayed at bootleg campsites near trail construction projects. This required a weekly pack of all the tools, food, camping and cooking gear, and personal items for the week. When split up between crewmembers it still made for pretty astounding loads.

Although we never weighed our packboards, a full one required the help of two other people hoisting you up from behind to get into a standing position. When we did one week pack in loads of weighed wood for the forest service, trips made with 90 lbs each felt extremely light in comparison to our pack ins. Heading up the trail, hunched over under the weight, each step was slow and calculated, and my thighs, back, and shoulders burned within seconds.

Despite the agony, people took pride in packing the heaviest items., Men and women shoulder equal loads. In fact, it is frowned upon to assume a light load and arrive at camp early.

Once you make it to camp in the woods, the real work begins. We worked on projects like building rock staircases and cutting down trees to construct and install native bog bridges over wet sections. Rock staircases require quarrying for large boulders in the woods and then rolling them down to the project sites. It took me some time to perfect the technique of moving large rocks along the trail, especially when the men seemed to easily toss them this way and that. By the end of the season I felt confident. My muscles adjusted, and I could roll any rock anyone else could.

By the second day of digging for rocks my clothes were covered in dirt. Black flies swarmed around, and the only semi-effective repellent was smearing any exposed skin with mud. The first time I saw a fellow crewmember do this I bent over laughing., He looked like he’d come straight out of a guerilla warfare movie. Quickly sick of being bitten, I too covered myself in mud and prepared for battle.

By the middle of the season my Mohawk grew out a bit, and I adopted the habit of spiking it up using dirt and sweat.  I was feeling confident about my place on the crew.

My crewmates accepted me because I kept up and worked hard. For the most part I forgot about gender. It became an issue only when passing hikers would make jokes about women’s rights, or ask me if I needed a hand while I moved a boulder . Despite the shaved head and soiled clothes, they could tell I was a girl. Maybe it was the set of fake pearls I took to wearing around my neck.

When I finished up my first summer I couldn’t wait to return for my second. I  missed my Mohawk during the off season; my slightly longer hair was feeling overgrown and shaggy. I missed swinging my axe and being covered in mud for days on end. I missed falling asleep exhausted in the tent listening to the wind in the trees. Most of all I missed being judged by my work ethic rather than my style of clothes.

Natalie Beittel is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].