The Optimist Club

A week in the life of an MCC volunteer.

I love my job, but like everyone else, I have my days. I live in a tent community with four other members and their idiosyncrasies.

It’s not that I find making my tent a permanent address difficult. Nor is not showering for consecutive days, or digging a communal poop hole—I happen to love these things. What I find exhausting is the amount of sweat and blood that goes into this kind of work. I work for Montana Conservation Corps (MCC), a non-profit out of Bozeman that focuses on outdoor conservation project throughout Montana. Here's what a typical week looks like.

Sunday Night
We’re staying at the trail dog’s lodge in Canyon Village. The air is a frigid 50°F, a 40-degree setback from only a few days ago. I’m giddy-nervous about the hitch because I’ve been told if we get wet we’ll stay wet. It just so happens dank wet weather takes a toll on me emotionally.

It’s a 10-day assignment. We’ll be 14 miles in, off of Shoshone Lake (6 miles by canoe). Our assignment is to dig a trail reroute that will be a part of the greater continental divide trail system that sprawls from Canada into Mexico.

We get dropped at the canoe launch where we pack food boxes and our personal gear into three canoes. I call steering position—which quickly becomes a joke as Hannah and I finagle our way up Lewis Lake sideways. Eventually we reach Lewis River where we roll up our Carhartts, step into the creek, and begin the great canoe drag. We finally reach Shoshone Lake and Moose Bay Campgrounds around 3:30 pm where we work as a team to set up camp. It’s late and we pass on digging a group latrine. A giant red sign in the shape of an arrow points towards the brush informing us “there’s a toilet out there somewhere.”

The next step is setting up our tent commune. I hide my pathetically patched, duct-taped tent under a bushel of shrubs in a futile attempt to keep my head dry at night.

This morning I wake to the sound of my alarm screaming at 6:00 am. I turn it off instead of hitting snooze in a dire effort to avoid the wind and wet. I’d barely caught a wink as the walls of my tent thrashed all evening.

I hear Hannah outside my tent asking if I’m awake. I’m not really, but yell, “Yes,” in a fabricated, raring-to-go voice. Flipping on my headlamp, I dig through garbage bag after garbage bag searching for warm clothes. I’m thankful I double-wrapped everything before we left.

I walk groggy-eyed over to the wall tent where a fire blazes in the stove, water and coffee are brewing, and everyone looks pretty dog-tired and inconvenienced for having to be up when it’s still black out and windy-wet with rain. I myself share in that unspoken feeling.

An hour later we begin our hour-long bushwhack to the job site that includes a member falling into a creek, the discovery of a 7x7 elk rack, and a massive pile of hair-filled bear scat—nothing too out of the ordinary for a morning commute to work. Eventually we reach the work site. The unscathed hillside is marked with neon pink flags.

This is the first tread I’ve dug from scratch. I stare listlessly at the mound of earth, unable to visualize a carved path. I look around at the rest of the crew merrily digging away. Their artistic abilities at earth-sculpting, combined with my lack thereof, gnaws at my ego. “I should be able to do this,” I say under my breath, all the while hacking away and wondering if I’m doing anything close to what I should be.

I look over at Joe. He’s got the most technical experience among us. “Advice please?” I ask, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

He sizes up my work and answers, “looks good for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” That feeds me for a couple of hours until I reach a steep incline. I become frozen with frustration. All the staring in the world can’t fix this geometrical puzzle.

Jay notices my blank stares and offers that he’ll explain it on paper when we get back to camp. I’m thankful he knows I’m a pen-and-paper girl.

We pack our tools and begin our hour-long hike back to camp. We cross through two leg-numbing creeks. I imagine my legs cracking off at the ankles. Pebbles bite at my frozen extremities like pushpins in a pegboard. I cross the creeks stingy-eyed and chanting, “only 20 more paces…19, 18, 17, ouch, 16.”

Back at camp Jay draws a diagram of trail-digging, which includes peeling the wall away at a 45-degree angle until you get an 18” flat surface. I’m relieved at learning this simple, yet profound concept.

Our morning commute to work is a bit different today. Instead of hiking, we canoe a mile in, beach the canoes, and continue on foot.

It’s wet and gray again. My back aches with the weight of my pack. Everyone seems to be in awe of the hike, except for myself. I keep quiet, not wanting to fill the air with negativity while I slide and stumble over branches and roots—all the while cursing silently to myself.

Once at the job site I hike up to the unfinished tread where I froze the day before. With the help of Jay’s diagram, and time removed from the situation, I feel more confident. “Not as bad as I thought,” I think, while looking at the outline I created yesterday.

That night at camp I melt M&M’s in my mouth with hot cocoa and listen to a story featuring Ike the Headless Chicken who survived for several months beakless and brainless until his demise at month nine after choking on an eye-drop portion of food. My eyes wet with laughter. It’s the saddest and funniest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s these kinds of absurdities that keep a person sane in the backcountry.

We’ve been doing much of the same work as that of the previous days, along with raking mounds of dirt down the hillside.

I fell my first two trees, a fact that inadvertently makes me a tree-killer despite my normal tree-hugging tendencies. It’s the kind of paradox you note but tuck away because after all your job is to conserve, and to do so sometimes means having to take away. It’s a lesson I learn early on in the program.

Later I reveal an intimate detail to my crew: “I’ve been wearing the same socks for the last five days.” The conversation morphs into foot rot, a condition where layers of skin peel away in sheets. That night I change my socks.

Saturday Night
We return to camp and see Jay and Hannah standing on the shoreline dripping wet from head to foot. Apparently the whitecaps were so large they chose to jump ship and abandon the canoe down shore.

That’s when Jay points to a tree and says, “there’s your tent Brett.” And there it is, hanging over a stump oozing with water. The wind had sucked it into the creek, along with his sleeping bag, a garbage bag full of clothes, and a journal. James and Brett go over to the creek to fish out the remainder of these items.

The incident doesn’t seem to taint Brett’s mood as he lays his waterlogged journal atop the metal stove. I ask him if he’s bummed out. He says no, what’s done is done. I’m impressed at his ability to surpass the killjoy party and jump instead right into the optimist club.

It’s 5:25 pm and I’m already in my sleepwear ready to crash out. I feel kind of burnt on this whole project, or sick of the cold at the least. Being camped out between the lakeside and creek doesn’t make for the most serene campground. On the bright side, at least it’s finally sunny.

Somehow Joe discovers my coping mechanism of not wanting to know what day it is—
an attempt to make the hitch go faster—so he makes a point of telling me it’s Saturday, and that we still have Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to go.

I retreat to my windy tent where I daydream of far-away places—like my hometown—the irony striking me that when I am home I want to get as far away as possible. Daydreaming becomes one of my coping mechanisms, along with mind-numbing techniques like reading People.

The thing is, this is really draining work. I feel like I should be part of a sideshow named “the claw lady.” My hands are in a permanent grip. My wrists ache from pounding away at thick stumps with a five-pound tool. In fact, my body is so wracked with pain I’ve invented a back-stretch called the “tree hug” where you lock your hands around a Lodgepole Pine and lean back as far as you can. It’s to me what a scratching post is to a cat.

My hair hurts, my tent smells like thrice-dried socks, my daydreams are getting longer and more involved, and I feel I’ll lose it completely if I have to spend one more sleepless evening listening to the violent murmurs of my tent trying to fly away. I notice I’m isolating myself more each evening.

The last days are usually the most difficult to get through. Mentally I’ve packed my tent and washed all the imaginary bugs out of my hair, yet realistically I’m still wearing the same winter hat I donned five days ago. Mentally I’m finished with this project, but realistically there’s always the last day.

Brett left the project. He’s replaced with a new supervisor. Unlike us, the new boss man hasn’t been out here pounding the hell out of the earth for the past eight days. He’s only just shown up. We’re worn, and he’s fresh. To make matters worse, he’s a man of detail.

I assumed we’d be working until 3:30 pm like we had been for the past week, given our hour-long commute back to camp. In fact, my mind is hyper-focused on the end time while I swing and slash and carve with sweat pouring out of every pore reminding myself that I could because I only had a few more hours to go. That’s when the new boss casually mentions that we’ll be working until 4:30. That’s the sentence that got me. Six hours down and only 1.5 to go, and haphazardly another hour is tacked onto the day. I stare up at him in bewilderment while snowflakes pummel my glasses.

I bring up our shortened lunch in a vain attempt to improve the situation. “Shouldn’t we account for that?” I ask. He answers coolly, “I contracted you for nine-hour days, and that’s what we’re going to do.” When you’ve exhausted all reserves, an hour longer can feel like two more weeks.

Physically exhausted, I sit myself down on the muddy bank, lean back, and stare blankly up at the sky. Hot tears seep out of my eyes forming muddy streaks down my cheeks. “I hate being so emotional,” I say to Jay. “Just call me Old Faithful. I’m just as regular.”

And being that MCC takes pride on team moments, here’s one of the best I’ve experienced all season. Jay says, “Let’s go for a smoke.” We walk up the newly carved trail towards my cigarettes. On the way up the hill he reassures me that we’ll survive.

“We’ll all probably be inside after this hitch, so try to enjoy the time that you have outside,” he says. He then speaks of his personal growths throughout the season while I listen and chain-smoke. His personal accounts are the kind that inspires a person to muster up the motivation to keep driving on.

Getting on my feet again, I slide off the four-foot bank, a splash of dirt billowing around my feet. I turn to Jay. “Thank you for being an optimist.”

“I didn’t get the optimist award in 4th grade for nothing,” he replies.

“There’s a such thing as an optimist award?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he answers. “They sent me to this dinner, gave me a certificate, and took my photo. I didn’t even know what an optimist was.”

I’m only just realizing that MCC is one of the most challenging experiences I’ve had because it forces me to stretch. I have stretched a lot, and have unstretched even more. As I always say, the only way out is through—and that day I made it through. And only because I sat by an optimist.