Common Ground

Dorms were a luxury that evening, muddy floors and all. My hankering for the last Hershey Bar in camp led to desperate things: 100 push-ups later, it was mine—a simple pleasure hard-won through sweat equity, perseverance, and a dose of crazy, cheering buddies.

As a Crew Co-Leader for Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), based in Bozeman, my days varied from planting willows near Warm Springs to clearing dangerous trees in the Rubies. Our six-person crew had done everything from revamping the Brink of Lower Falls trail in Yellowstone to spending hours hand-peeling tepee poles to dancing to funk hits like “Shake Your Pants.” The only thing I have left of my Carhartt uniform is the back pocket.

We traveled to the backcountry of Montana in a white Suburban that didn’t exactly specialize in get-up-and-go. The office had an account at the local mechanic shop, so we did the most logical thing we could think of. We took it in for a quote to bore out the engine. However, it was decided that since our safety was not in sincere jeopardy, this was an unnecessary expense. To this day, I question whether the scaled-back approach of racing stripes would have eased our woes. 

I was recently able to take my husband and two small children to Yellowstone Park for the first time as a family. As we walked down the steep asphalt toward the Lower Falls, I couldn’t stop looking at the concrete that I had mixed years ago. It was still solid, left for generations more to use. My only regret was that I had been too rule-abiding during those construction weeks to leave my handprint hidden on the last switchback in the wet cement. Nonetheless, I was beaming with pride from those memories by the time we had our family photo session at the bottom.

Those memories almost didn’t happen. Ten years ago, my parents nearly pulled out their hair when their college-educated daughter child threw herself into the world of an AmeriCorps salary, living on Ramen and completely shutting off power to the tiny apartment to save a buck while on hitch for weeks at a time. (Fortunately, the complex owners managed to convince me to “turn the heat on just a tiny bit” during that thing called Montana Winter.) Since I was farm-raised and chasing two degrees in agriculture, the MCC experience was supposed to serve as my capstone internship, falling under agricultural education. However, a daunting flood of college paperwork, combined with questioning of my non-traditional trajectory outside the classroom and agriculture offices, led me to fly the coop without completing the internship factor.

It was a learning experience for everyone involved. During training, it was widely assumed by my peers that I could ride a horse (I couldn’t without a really good insurance plan), that I must be Republican (kind of true) and that farmer and conservationist didn’t belong in the same Venn diagram circle (false).

My own assumptions were proven suspect as well. I had long believed that conservationists hated farmers (false), that someone with dreads equaled a really bad hair day (also false) and that all my peers would be Democrats (somewhat true). Pretty quickly, it went from Conservation Corps to Conversation Corps.

During this time, I made some amazing friends. The kind of friends with whom you can have a spirited conversation, with opposing views, over a beer, and you know that you’ll still get along the next day. The kind who, when things hit the fan in your personal life, will offer you a couch and a meal. The kind that last a lifetime. No matter what your background or beliefs are, at the end of a long day with a chainsaw, a beautiful sunset means the same to everyone.

Years later, I still own a Pulaski. I still have a distinctive brand preference of chainsaws (and yours should begin with an “S” too). A majority of my meetings do not involve a morning stretch circle and I can wear makeup without worrying it will attract bears. And while it may freak people out to see me in Ann Klein one day and Carhartt the next, fitting the mold doesn’t bother me anymore. I am more concerned that a rainfly really only fits one way on a tent and that I may never travel to visit all my MCC alums in my allotted vacation time.

Living in a tent can really warp your viewpoint. It can make you salivate for chocolate like you would for water in a desert. It can reduce every dimension in life to the following list: compass, clean underwear, tent, food, water, tools. It can make you bang coffee beans on rocks when the grocery shoppers that week didn’t read the labels. It can make you open-minded and reflective. It can make you rely upon your friends. And, most of all, it can make you realize that the world is much bigger than the camps of thought.