Finding a New Calling on the Trails

December 01, 2017
Samantha Hirt, Sterling Forest Trail Crew Member
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


Finding a New Calling on the Trails
Sterling Forest Trail Crew working on the Appalachian Trail in Bear Mountain State Park. Photo by Tori Welch.


If you were to ask me 10 years ago, 18-years-old and a recent high-school graduate, where I saw myself in a decade, building trails with the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference would have never even crossed my mind.

You see, I hated getting dirty. I was not the “outdoorsy-type.” And I had a plan—I mean, doesn’t everyone? I was following in a path that I thought was expected of me: high school, college, get a job, you know the deal. Looking back now, I can’t actually say that I knew what I was doing or who I was doing it for. I can comfortably say that I had no idea who I was or what I truly wanted out of this life, and that is more than okay.

Fast-forward 10 years: I've got a college degree plus some extra, moved to California (and back), spent too many hours behind a desk, made a promising business attempt that took a piece of my heart with it when it fell apart, and suddenly, I am 28-years-old and feeling like I am starting my life over. It's both scary and incredibly liberating all at once.

A lot of change happened in my life over the last 10 years, but hands down, the best was adopting a dog while I lived in California. Layla, a crazy German short-haired pointer/pitbull mix, had more energy and required more attention than I ever anticipated, so we started hiking. Layla has made me fall in love with nature. She has taught me to find comfort in the outdoors, to appreciate adventure and exploring new places, to find excitement in the simple beauties that are everywhere around us, and yes, she even taught me that getting dirty is pretty fun! These days, we are out on a trail every day and always looking for new places to explore and travel to. So when I found myself applying for a position to build trails through AmeriCorps and the Trail Conference Conservation Corps, it felt right.

Now I am in the final weeks of my season with the crew. I’ll admit—I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into when this season started, but I can confidently say that this has been one of the best experiences I have ever had. In three short months, I have been part of a crew, dubbed the “winter crew,” that has built a wooden bridge in Wappinger Falls, and helped finish moving and setting stone steps on the Platte Clove Preserve Trail in the Catskills. We have helped to move and set stone steps on the original section of the Appalachian Trail on Bear Mountain, but most significantly, we have been working to complete a multi-use trail in Sterling Forest, one for mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians to explore and enjoy. I just cannot say enough about what coming to work on this trail every day has taught me.

First of all, I started this season with two field managers, Erik and Tori, who both have such a love and passion for their work and the outdoors. To have had the opportunity to work and learn from them has been inspiring and valuable beyond words. Our crew leader, Olivia, is one of the nicest, most patient and genuinely helpful people I have come to know in my life, and Holly and Ryan, the two other members of our crew, are two of the most hard-working individuals I have ever had the pleasure of working with. We settled into a groove early into our season, communication came easy, and with a lot of learning, hard work, and a healthy mix of me being the "trail clown," we have laughed and sweat our way too quickly through this season. With each day on the trail, I not only found myself becoming more and more comfortable with the tasks in front of me, but I also felt myself falling into a routine that felt so natural and gratifying.

Don’t get me wrong—it certainly hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows out on the trail. Every day has been very physical. I have gotten more bruises than I can count (yes, I know, there are worse things), days when I thought I would never be able to get all the dirt off my skin or out from under my nails, days when the heat came close to unbearable, days when I was certain my arms were going to fall off from grip-hoisting rocks and carrying tools, torrential rain, and freezing mornings. But when we see mountain bikers out on the trail almost every day, all with big smiles, excited about the new B-line we just put in, or the crazy-but-awesome, 25-step rock bridge that took us (seemingly) forever, and they are thanking us for all our hard work, immediately, all of the struggles seem insignificant. It is because of this that every day I continue to wake up excited, and every morning when I drive to the trailhead and get out of my car, I’m smiling. 

So what have I learned this season? I have learned that there are few things that will make you feel as strong as drilling into a rock using a drill that is almost the same size as you, or moving a rock slab that is 12-feet-long and almost 3 tons (!) because Erik saw it out of the corner of his eye somewhere off-trail and thought it would make a good slab for a rock bridge. I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. I have learned that with good support, effective communication, and a positive attitude, you can do basically anything. I have learned that help is always available when you ask for it, and two rock bars are often better than one. I have learned to find comfort in the uncomfortable, to push myself beyond whatever limits I had set for myself, because the growth waiting on the other side is well worth any struggle. I have learned that doing work that benefits others is truly gratifying and feeds my soul unlike anything else I have ever done. I have learned the power of a smile and not taking yourself too seriously. I have learned that packing a good lunch and hot coffee are some major players on the path to success. I’ve learned that dirt (almost always) washes off, but the memories made while getting dirty will last a lifetime. Most importantly, I have learned that it is never too late to start over. It has taken me 28 years to find a field where I genuinely feel happy to get up every morning, where I am excited to keep learning, growing, and testing my physical limits. I get to wake up and work outside all day. I mean, what is better than that?

If you were ever looking to try something new, to test your limits and your strength, or maybe you are an outdoor enthusiast looking to volunteer some time and get your hands dirty, come out and spend some time on the trails. I can confidently say, you will not regret it. You may even learn a thing or two!

Looking to learn more about trail building and the Trail Conference Conservation Corps? Find out how to get involved.