The real heroes of the outdoors? The unsung volunteers who build and maintain the nation’s paths. And none deserve thanks more than a group of teens who traded summer freedom for hard labor in Mt. Rainier National Park.
By Ted Alvarez
We’ve switched from moving really big rocks to moving really small rocks,” says Clio Hasegawa, answering my question about the day’s agenda. The 17-year-old from Seattle is mercilessly sarcastic, like a typical teen, but unlike most she’s given up the hallmarks of summer—swimming, video games, maybe the mild empowerment of a summer job at a pizza place—for the tools of trail work.
Marco Gollarza, also 17, a beanpole in military surplus with wispy facial hair, explains this crew’s traditions of naming the heaviest rocks.
“Last week’s were Pain, Sorrow, and Crippling Depression,” he says. Today’s largest stone is red and comparatively tiny—about the size of an extra-large watermelon—gets the milder name Strawberry. “But maybe if we name it Crepe it’ll feel lighter,” Gollarza muses.
The two teens, along with six others from the Seattle area, are part of a Student Conservation Association crew. In bright yellow hard hats and shirts that match the bluebird Cascade sky, they’re loading buckets of gravel on the shoulder of Mt. Rainier, engaged in literal prison labor: moving metric tons of rock and dirt 30 feet down the trail, working their guts out for zero dollars a day. Clouds of dust bathe everyone in a fine gray tint. Lazy summer days and ice cream on a hot afternoon? Nothing but a distant dream.
Every year, The Student Conservation Association organizes more than 4,000 high schoolers into elite trail crews. Teenage life is filled with rites of passage: first kisses, learning to drive, leaving home. I’ve joined a Mt. Rainier-based group of Seattle kids to see how the kids change the trails, and how the trails change them.
Well, that’s my main goal. I’m also here to help deliver a surprise. What the teens don’t know is that Backpacker and outdoor company Merrell have teamed up to create a new kind of trail magic, and they’re bringing it here to Mt. Rainier. But first, there’s work to do. We join the crew at their work site above the Paradise visitor center, and Backpacker editor-in-chief Dennis Lewon announces we’re here to lend a hand.
The kids cheer at the offer of help. There are a lot of rocks to move.
Trails aren’t natural, of course, but the best ones look like they’re part of the landscape, like they’ve always been there. This is by design. Stone steps need to be as rough-hewn as the off-trail boulders around them, but they also need to be level enough to support wobbly children and wedged deep enough in the earth to withstand runoff. Now consider all that feng-shui planning sprung from a teen mind.
“Sometimes you see a trail and think, ‘nature put a rock there,’ but no—a person did and it took three hours,” says Hermela Shiferaw, a 17-year-old with a bright smile. This SCA trip is her first time camping.
She explains how gravel in the middle of a trail travels downslope, so her team uses extra gravel to stabilize the tread and add traction. Later, Gollarza points to a fringe of fir trees gracefully arcing along the trail toward a meadow and explains how such a sublime sight was engineered by her team.
“If you leave all the limbs, they extend into the trail,” he says. “But if you cut it all the way to the bottom, to the main branch, all the visitors are like, ‘wow, look at nature!’”
The SCA’s investment in getting kids working outdoors does more than buff our trails (though with 1.5 million hours of service dedicated every year to public lands in all 50 states, it accomplishes plenty of that). It helps young Americans place the outdoors at the center of their lives: 70 percent of SCA alumni end up in careers related to conservation and sustainability. Even if they don’t, years of study show that the way SCA pairs altruistic service with team dynamics in the outdoors ensures participants come out with greater self-confidence and higher self-esteem than your average teen. Basically, it confirms what adult backpackers already know: Working outside with your friends toward a common goal makes for a happier, healthier life.
“The magic of SCA is that the improvements our volunteers make on public lands are only the beginning,” says Jaime Matyas, SCA’s president and CEO. “Bolstered with new skills and confidence, and guided by the conservation values honed during their service, SCA alumni—the next generation of American leaders—continue to positively influence our communities, businesses, and governments for years and years to come.”
That may be true, but these are teens, so it’s the social life that keeps coming up in my conversations. “The people” is the answer every single member of this crew gives me when I ask them why they like this work, and why they’ll do it again.
But it’s not just a work party. Some teens undergo a radical transformation.
“For the past few years, I’ve been a shut in—I haven’t been outside much, other than going to school,” says Jackie Ma, a 17-year-old from Seattle who grew up with Rainier levitating on the horizon. “During the summer I would play XBox, stay home, not really do anything. But now since I’m graduating high school, I realized I should change my life. This recruiter came to our classroom and talked about SCA, and I just went for it.” When I meet Ma, I never would have guessed he was a former hermit; he jokes with the other kids and talks excitedly about colleges he’s applying to.
Ma and the others also exhibit a non-teen ability to communicate with strangers. They’re like junior rangers—learning to become ambassadors for trails and national parks in a remarkably short time. They give directions, quickly assess any given group’s ability, and recommend trails. They point out where to find water or a bathroom. Some hikers offer a quick shout-out as they walk by: “You guys are doing a great job!”
The mountain pinks as the day drags into late afternoon. Muscles are sore, faces streaked with sweat. And they still have to check for “Starbucks rocks,” which the SCA crew calls the semi-shoddy work done by volunteers who come on corporate service trips. Their efforts, while well-intentioned, often need to be redone.
Fixing half-ass jobs is one of only a few complaints I hear. They don’t love cooking duty. And there are campground mice.
“Every night it’s a gamble,” Hasegawa says. “Will there be mice in the tent? Of course, it’s worse when they’re in your sleeping bag.”
When I ask her if it’s still worth it, she gives me a supremely teen shrug and eye roll—a universal ‘duh.’
“Just look around,” she says, gesturing at the wildflowers at our feet and the glacier-clad peak above.
Thru-hikers know all about trail magic: Random acts of kindness committed by strangers to alleviate the rigors of trail life. These can take the form of a trailhead ride, water cached in the desert, or even an invite into a stranger’s home for a shower, a bed, and a home-cooked meal.
Most of the SCA crew hasn’t heard of trail magic. When they shuffle back through the forest to their moss-covered campsite, they’re still joking, but a little slump-shouldered. It’s been a long day in the sun moving rocks, and mess duty still lies ahead. They play word games while waiting for what they think is the usual camp chow.
When they get within 10 yards of their camp, they go quiet and wide-eyed. They see it: A long table covered in gingham tablecloth and decorated with flowers has appeared as if by teleportation in the middle of a quiet Pacific Northwest forest. It’s piled high with pizzas, fruit, fresh vegetables—the exact opposite of the mushy noodles and rice they’ve become accustomed to. Coolers spill over with ice cold soda.
They’re tired and hungry, and a feast has magically appeared in their camp.
It’s Merrell Magic, a new version of trail magic meant to bring joy to hikers everywhere and thank the hard-working people who make hiking possible. Like these kids. No one deserves a reward like teens who have given up weeks of their precious summer to work on trails.
They sit still, letting the sight sink in. Then Miriel McFarland breaks out into a jig—she’s off kitchen duty for the night. Cries of “thank you so much!” and “no way!” break out.
Pizzas disappear with frightening speed. But the surprise isn’t over. When the ice cream sundae bar shows up, they freak out. Mountains of blackberries and nuts spill off scoops of chocolate-chip and rocky road. There are literal eyeball rolls and swoons.
Whether from the familiarity of sharing a full day’s work or simply the sugar high, the kids finally welcome us into their circle. They have questions—they ask about our jobs, favorite trails, how many times we’ve seen bears. McFarland plots how to balance a career in wildlife science with rock climbing. An enormous peal of laughter ripples through the group as Shiferaw confesses that she loves the outdoors, camping, and this crew—but she hates hiking.
“Sorry, Backpacker,” she says, beaming.
Caitlin Piserchia, 26, one of two crew leaders, laughs along with the rest. She learns something new each day. She explains how she tries to help her team find personal breakthroughs—what she calls “the bullseye.” She’s seen kids share things they’ve never told anyone before—stories of neglect and abuse, hope and joy. And she’s seen the most socially anxious person blossom into a mentor for another kid who needs it.
“Sometimes they say, ‘It’s easier to share because I’ll never see these other people again,’” she says. “But I think it’s because of the wild. It brings us back to who we are in the world, most naturally. That, and knowing we have to rely on each other—if the cooks burn the food, then we’re all eating burnt food.”
As everyone picks at the last bits of melted ice cream by headlamp, Gollarza recalls how new friends became old ones by fighting against an immovable object.
“Remember that 300-pound rock we had to move?” he asks. Crippling Depression, they called it—a stone that took every single one of them working together to budge. But it finally moved, he reminds them, and they cleared a way forward.