When you’re a flatlander up on the Continental Divide in the mountains of New Mexico and you’re pounding on a stubborn rock with a 20-pound sledgehammer, it doesn’t take long to run out of gas.

So U.S. Forest Service ranger Annette Smits and I were taking turns, 20 whacks each, on a basalt boulder that was in our way. It was smack in the middle of what we were turning into the Continental Divide Trail, 8,800 feet up in the Tularosa Mountains, about a three-hour drive southwest of Albuquerque.

“Swinging!” we’d shout as we commenced a turn, keeping others away from flying shards. After 10 minutes, I was out of breath but the rock had succumbed, smashed to smithereens. Victory was ours, at least for a few feet. I raked dirt over the hole we had created and moved on.

One of the badges of wilderness travel in the United States is to hike the big border-to-border trails. Thousands of backpackers have cached supplies to make multiweek treks. Authors like Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed have written bestselling accounts of the transformative nature of hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail (respectively).

I get weary thinking about the possibility.

But spending a week in the wilderness swapping tales, surprising wildlife and wielding hammers with some like-minded campers to help build one of these trails, that’s another matter.

So there I was last June, muscling through a new section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a footpath that runs 3,100 miles up the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada. I camped out in an open forest of ponderosa pine, watched the occasional elk mosey past and created a path for those hikers who demand more of themselves than I do.

There were seven of us, volunteers from around the country organized by the nonprofit Wilderness Volunteers and under the direction of Smits and another Forest Service ranger.

The concept was simple: Each of us paid $299, brought our own camping gear and agreed to help with food preparation and cleanup. Wilderness Volunteers brought the food and kept us organized. The Forest Service gave us the picks, rakes and hammers, trucked in 100 gallons or so of drinking water and told us where to dig.

The Continental Divide Trail has been designated for years, but parts remain incomplete. Hikers either take to roads in those areas or bushwhack cross-country. Our goal was to extend a portion of trail where it runs through the Gila National Forest.

Each morning, we’d eat a breakfast of eggs or hot cereal, pack a trail lunch and hike up the ridge that forms the divide. Once on the job around 9 a.m., we chopped through bunchgrass, rolled rocks away, raked dirt and once in a while took out our aggressions on an unmovable boulder. We got very dirty.

At the workday’s end, around 4 p.m., it was back down to camp to clean up under a solar shower that had been warming all day. Dinner — pasta, soup, shepherd’s pie, pound cake and the like — typically turned into a gab session. Early in the week, someone declared the “hour of honor,” after which you could justify heading for your tent. Given the labor and the subsequent aches and stiffness, it was 8 p.m.

New skills and friends

The obvious question here might be: Why?

First, odd as it sounds, you do learn some new skills. I now know which end of a pick-mattock to use and for what purpose. And, after hiking for years, I have a better appreciation for what constitutes a well-built trail. In our case, we were aiming for a rock-free walking path at least 24 inches wide and sloping no more than 5 percent from the high side to the low. It’s harder than it sounds.

And the beauty of the place was stunning. We saw nary another human for days. From the ridge we worked, we could see for miles, range upon range and out across the Plains of San Agustin, a huge, ancient dry lake bed (notable for some as a UFO landing site and for others as the home of the Very Large Array radio telescope). Bluebirds and butterflies flitted. We startled a black bear out of a pond it had been cooling in. Two elk looked majestic one morning as they serenely crossed the divide (from the Pacific side to the Atlantic side). A full moon, crisp in the clean air and creating silhouettes of the pines, lit our camp through the night.

But most memorable was the camaraderie as we thumped and scraped at the trail, as we ate dinner, as we took a midweek day hike to an old lookout tower site on John Kerr Peak.

One volunteer, an accountant from Laramie, Wyo., brought a week’s worth of beer under dry ice, a strategy that overperformed the first night by freezing a six-pack solid. Another, a woman from Portland, had opened a new wilderness world for herself after the death of her husband. A medical technician from Kentucky was working on his life goal of visiting every national park. A Scottish chemist working in Berkeley, Calif., recalled fondly the cold days of his postgraduate work on the University of Minnesota campus.

One of the rangers insisted he had recently eaten a live cicada on a dare that netted him $22 (yes, he chewed before swallowing, finding the insect juicy and a little sour, he said). Someone suggested marketing a Buddhist flyswatter with a big hole in the middle.

Familiarity grew, and by Saturday morning when we broke camp and bounced back down the 16-mile, four-wheel-drive road to the highway at Apache Creek, there were hugs and hearty handshakes and exchanges of e-mail addresses and promises to share photos. Parting and getting back on the road, we all had experienced and learned things that are easy to miss when you travel more conventionally or, for that matter, slog up the trail under a 40-pound pack.

We built almost a half-mile of trail that week. Better yet, we didn’t finish. So there’s a good bet I’ll be back swinging a sledge sometime soon.


Dave Peters is an editor for Minnesota Public Radio News and a frequent traveler to the American West.