Book Review
Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw
by Ana Maria Spagna
Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2004

Reviewed by Betsy MacGowan
IMAGE: Book Cover

Now Go Home is one woman's reflection on the meaning of life, of community, and growing up in America. It is also an ideal companion to tuck away in your backpack for a springtime trip into the Ventana backcountry. At seven ounces, it won't add too much to the load, and should you happen to be caught in a rainstorm, you will have many happy hours of thought-provoking reading while you wait for the sun to return.

Why is this a good book for the Ventana? The author, Ana Maria Spagna, grew up in a typical southern California suburb, and later worked on trail crews in the Pacific Northwest. In the series of essays that make up this book, she describes her experiences of growing up and going off to college. The essays include her reflections on appropriate land use, our relationship to undeveloped areas and the concept of wilderness, and some blunt opinions on politically correct environmental thinking. But several of the essays focus on trailwork: the work itself, the people she works with, the whole cultural ecosystems in which trails have been created and must be maintained.

For anyone who has spent time hiking in the Ventana, whether day hiking, car camping or backpacking, it has probably been their experience that most of the trails tended to be somewhat overgrown. Since the opportunities to actually see a professional trail crew have been vanishingly slim, an intriguing substitute might be reading about a trail crew.

Some Los Padres National Forest background is helpful. Without paid crews, how do Los Padres National Forest trails get cleared? Certain groups might have adopted certain trails, mostly unofficially, and maintained those favorite routes, but generally in the past twenty years or so the official trail crew visits were few and far between. At several locations where fire crews are stationed, the first mile or two is beautifully maintained. But beyond that, you could expect to wade through poison oak or brush. Brush is a term that is inclusive of nice little grass-type brush all the way to in-your-face sticky ceanothus and way-taller-than-your-head chamise dropping dried brown things in your hair. Brush growing on both sides of the trail meeting in the middle so you have to push to get through it. Brush growing on the uphill side so you have to drop three feet down to get around it. You would consider yourself fortunate to be able to even find most backcountry trails, without getting lost.

The 1977 Marble Cone Fire burned through large parts of the forest — and where the fire killed the pines, oaks, and madrones, dense thickets of brush took their place. Not only did the brush take over, those dead trees remained standing for years, before falling across the trail. Finding a route over or around eighty-foot pines or giant oaks can present significant obstacles to hikers. Commonly hikers would exchange advice about spots here the trail became particularly obscure, and pass along hints for locating the routes. Some of this advice (for example, that at Pat Springs, the Double Cone Trail continues up the hill through what seems to be a campsite, from the junction just before you get to the spring itself) is still applicable today.

Then the Kirk Complex Fire of 1999 swept through the Los Padres. To cite one example of its effect, take the upper reaches of the Pine Ridge Trail. In 1990, you could hike to Pine Valley, or even hike the entire length of the trail from China Camp to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, without too much trouble. The four-foot diameter Ponderosa pines that were killed in the 1977 fire, both near China Camp and on Pine Ridge itself, remained standing for years, and you could depend on several of them falling across the trail every winter. But generous volunteers returned year after year to clear brush and saw through the trees, making the hike reasonable. By 1999 most of the snags had fallen and been cleared, and the trail itself was in decent shape. And then the Kirk blaze came through and burned everything to the ground again, including not only some of the same sections that had burned in 1977, but areas that had been spared in the Marble Cone Fire. What sprang up in the next three to four years was a dense, thick re-growth of chapparal. Brush grew back in the sections of the trial that had always been chapparal, and in previously forested areas where the tree canopy had now been removed by the actions of the fire.

There are typical hiker responses when the trail becomes increasingly difficult to hike. People seem to experience something like the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is easy to deny there is a problem with the trails — it was just a wet season, it's just a little bit brushy, it's just that the Forest Service is strapped for funds and can't hire a trail crew. Then there is anger that our tax dollars can fund all kinds of programs but not trail maintenance. Then bargaining — you think that if you call someone and complain then something will be done. Or maybe next year the trail will get cleared. But after a few years of working through these emotional stages, many regular hikers came to the conclusion that the trails are in terrible shape and that is not going to change unless they personally go out and work on them.

As a veteran of quite a few Los Padres trail ventures, I've enjoyed working with different groups who have come to precisely this conclusion. There has been a range of approaches to the work. From informal and relaxed to serious and focused. Which brings me back to the book that inspired this discussion. If you decide to join up with one of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance work groups, you may find yourself immersed in a world of loppers, tread tools, and crosscut saws. You will never again be able to walk along a trail without noticing where someone has clipped the brush in a way that could poke someone's eye out, or sawed a fallen branch so that it ends in the center of the trail. You will become aware of how water will flow once it accumulates on the tread, and you will be fascinated to discover a book about trail work.

Now Go Home details the adventures of a California girl who somehow strayed from a typical career path and became a professional trail worker. Pick up this book and you will learn about the other professionals who do this kind of work, and the pleasures and pitfalls of seasonal employment year after year. You will appreciate that someone comes through and clears the trail, whether it is a professional crew or volunteers.

You will most likely reflect on your own life, too, and the series of choices that brought you to where you are now. And that is one of the pleasures of a few days in the backcountry. Because the trails are so difficult, you may see few other hikers, and have plenty of uninterrupted time for reflection. At the end of the day it will feel great to sit down and rest.


Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw is available from Powell's Books at http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-0870710095-3