Hard Labor Is Thoughtful Labor

August 24, 2017
Connor Moriarty, Sweet Water Crew Leader
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


Hard Labor Is Thoughtful Labor
Sweet Water Trail Crew proudly sitting on their stone steps built on the Ramapo Valley County Reservation Vista Loop. Photo by Brayden Donnelly.


Whenever I have friends from college visit me here in Bergen County, the first place I take them is the "Res." As they cross the bridge at the entrance and look out over Scarlet Oak Pond, their eyes expand as they drink it all in. I play along with their excitement, knowing that they’ve only scratched the surface. After a hike up the Vista Loop, they stand at the top of Hawk Rock and just…look. In a town as populated and close to NYC as Mahwah, it’s genuinely inspiring to see the vast and sprawling green below.

Having grown up here, Ramapo Reservation is as close to my heart as my first rec league home run. It possesses an innocent form of nostalgia, one that has the ability to simultaneously excite and calm. Needless to say, if you’re trying to impress a date, the Res is definitely a safe bet.

In the summer before my senior year of college, I worked in a corporate office and couldn’t find much time for the trails. So that fall, when a friend at Ursinus College told me he’d spent his summer working on trails in New York and New Jersey, I knew exactly how I was going to spend my post-grad summer: working on the Sweet Water Crew building trails at Ramapo Reservation.

At first I found myself hyper-focused on a long list of worries; lack of experience and leadership held their own at the top. Luckily, the Trail Conference is full of experienced, professional trail builders. The training they provided was indispensable. But as my old worries faded, a whole new species of issues popped up. Thunderstorms, transporting heavy stones, finding appropriate stones–you can expect all this and more serving on a Conservation Corps crew.

It’s all part of the fun, though. Thinking of ways to adapt to every challenge and shortcoming is, of course, stressful at times. However, no matter how many gray hairs a given section of trail may give us, the sight of a beautiful, finished product yields an uncommonly sincere feeling of satisfaction. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, philosopher/mechanic Matthew Crawford speaks on contemporary society’s ever-growing and misguided separation of thinking from doing. The ultimate goal of pretty much every parent is to send their child off to college. Make no mistake, it’s a great goal, and the benefit of higher education is undisputable. However, the educational agenda of turning everyone into a “knowledge worker” isolates those workers from the sense of satisfaction we felt building trail.

Work and production in a corporate setting is abstract and difficult to form a connection with–no matter how creative and challenging it may be. Interaction with the material world promotes a unique sense of self-reliance. For instance, on the Sweetwater Crew, we rely on minimal machinery to complete our tasks. Try getting a 200-pound rock level and measured with just a metal bar and a grip hoist! Building our staircase would likely be infinitely easier if we were to use cement or a forklift or something of the sort, but the result wouldn’t be the same.

The natural look of trail the Sweet Water Crew has built is evidence of our commitment to the standard of excellence put in place by the Trail Conference. It’s also undeniably charming. So much so, that anything artificial would just look heinously out of place. The sweat and dirt that almost consumes us by the end of the work day is a reminder that we’re making something that will last. And for someone who has roots planted deep within the soil of this place, I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.  

Want to learn more about trail building? The Sweet Water Crew is looking for trail lovers who are eager to contribute to the Vista Loop trail repair at Ramapo Valley County Reservation. No experience is necessary! Give a few hours of your time, and they’ll teach you everything you need to know to help build awesome trails. Find out how to get involved.