The cool, thin mountain air stabbed my lungs with each breath as I lumbered up the trail at over 10,000 feet elevation, carrying the weight of my day pack, loaded with lunch and snack provisions, water for the day plus a little extra, rain gear, binoculars, plus a slew of extras for "just in case", and, I was carrying a Pulaski, with which I would work all day, building a stretch of the Colorado Trail.
The morning sun and the physical activity was beginning to warm me, and I removed layers of clothing as I, along with around 20 other volunteers, progressed from our campsite at 9,800 feet to our work site at nearly 11,000 feet. Through clearings in the trees, traversing a small meadow, the view stretched out for miles and miles, and I felt like this mountain was the very top of the world, and I was on it. "This", I said, "is a vacation!"
Being flatlanders from Oklahoma, adapting to the thin air at this altitude took some time. But we had come up to Breckenridge, Colorado two days early for my week long stint as a trail builder. I had read about the Colorado Trail, a 490 mile stretch of hiking trail which roughly follows the continental divide from Denver to Durango in southwest Colorado, and I was impressed that it was built primarily by volunteers, with the support of the U.S. Forest Service. The Colorado Trail Foundation was formed to build and maintain the trail, and it was through that organization that my wife and I signed up for a week-long "trail crew".
Our fellow crew members were from all parts of the United States, along with two people from Great Britain. Each were volunteers, and each brought their own tent and sleeping bag, their own eating plates and utensils, some good hiking/work boots, plenty of sunscreen for the high altitude sun, and a good attitude. We each paid thirty-five dollars to join the Colorado Trail Foundation, and the foundation provided the food for the week, which we cooked as we each took turns doing kitchen duty. The Forest Service hauled in potable water for us.
Setting up camp on Saturday was a team effort as we dug a latrine and erected the kitchen and community tents. On Sunday we learned to use the trail building tools properly and safely. We worked on the trail Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday was a free day for hiking, fly fishing or just resting, and Saturday morning was spent tearing down camp and restoring the site as best we could to lessen the effect our presence for a week had on the environment. All in all, we built nearly a mile of fresh trail to the exacting specifications of the Forest Service. It is proud work, something that countless hikers and backpackers will enjoy for years to come.
Each night around the campfire was a delight, making new friends, telling old jokes and recounting the days' activities. There were no telephones, no television or radio, no newspaper, no computers. The troubles and tribulations of my everyday world were at least a million miles away. I was on vacation.
We repeated this volunteer vacation and worked on the trail for five summers in a row. Now we just proudly hike on it, every chance we get.
For more information on this volunteer service contact the Colorado Trail Foundation website.