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Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most people do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding–more real–than she ever imagined.
During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works–the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life–along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations–including her own–that she would follow a “professional” career path.
Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, and discusses a career in stewardship of the national parks. The work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts offers her an education in ecology and the environment. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor and the challenges of conservation.
“Christine Byl adeptly intermingles stories of life as a trail dog–‘a laborer who works in the woods maintaining, repairing, building, and designing trails’ –with reflections on her natural surroundings…Byl’s expressive and descriptive prose opens the doorway to a hard but fulfilling way of life that few people notice or get to experience firsthand.” –Shelf Awareness, Best Books of 2013
“[It] blends beauty and crudeness, grit and grace… With language that is lyrical despite the earthiness of its subject, Byl turns the words of work into found poetry (“brake on, choke on, pull, pull, fire”), offering a bridge for readers to those “who would not speak like this themselves”–a beautiful memoir of muscle and metal.”–Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“A beguiling journey of self-discovery.”–Kirkus Reviews
“Here is a love story that encompasses wild country, skillful labor, hand tools, crusty workmates, and lingo formal and foul. As a woman, and a small one at that, the author must persuade the males on her crews that she can more than hold her own at hiking, trail-building, and swearing. She begins by convincing the man who becomes her husband, and ends by convincing the reader. You'll find plenty to relish here, in a narrative that's gritty, witty, and wise.”–Scott Russell Sanders, author of A Conservationist Manifesto
“Every denizen of wild places from Lao-tse to St. Francis to Rachel Carson to black bears to field mice has depended upon trails. But rarely have we considered the people, tools, or toil that lay our favorite trails down. Dirt Work is a spectacular correction of this omission. Imbued with a tough-minded, ribald reverence for honest labor that brings to mind a female Gary Snyder or Wendell Berry (if you can imagine that!), Christine Byl does epic justice to the whole-bodied satisfactions that come of staying out in the weather, staying alert, and working one’s ass off for others with love, tenacity and skill.” –David James Duncan, author of The River Why and Sun House
“Byl’s is not a world of groomed nature, inert tools, or nostalgic rituals, but a vibrant landscape inhabited by people and animals and layered by idea and history. She means this book as a love song, she writes, and it is, not only from her to her fellow laborers, but from the mind to the body, the hand to the tool, the human to the wild.”–Sherry Simpson, author of The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska