In 4 weeks, we built a bridge and ten steps, cleaned up three miles of trail, rerouted a section that was crumbling into the bayou, survived a two-week heat wave of 110+ F degree days, formed a great connection with a new SCA agency partner, survived poisonous snakes and spiders, mosquitoes, chiggers, scorpions, wild boars…shepherded 8 teenagers, some of whom had never camped before and most of whom had never worked before, through a month in the life of SCA, canoed with alligators, ate spicy Cajun food, danced Zydeco with the locals, attended the Louis Armstrong mass at St. Augustine’s cathedral in New Orleans, ambled down Bourbon Street, criss-crossed the Mighty Mississippi, battled 50-foot tall grapevines, stayed healthy, made new friends, avoided any significant disasters, learned to speak French, drove 4,000 miles in a van dubbed “the pimp-mobile,” learned about the Acadians, worked with an inmate crew, solved riddles at lunch, ate $3,000 worth of food, baked bread every day, made pancakes and birthday cakes and French chocolate banana cakes, sweated 81 metric buckets of sweat, visited the laundr-o-mat twice, went to Wal-Mart 23 times, escaped a lightning storm like strobe lights in the sky, visited a 200-year old plantation, designed a shower out of tarps and a hose, hiked and worked in Louisiana’s only Wilderness Area…
Finishing our work on the bridge was the best thing that happened during an amazing 4 weeks. We almost didn’t finish. In fact, the bridge almost didn’t happen at all. All month we cajoled our agency to let us build structures on the trail to deal with drainage (not typical practice in the LA swamp where the trails are under three feet of water for part of every year) but were reminded consistently that they wouldn’t last, would wash out the following winter, that we shouldn’t bother. We wondered whether what they said was true or if our training in NH had taught us something they didn’t know: if you can get the trail up and out of the water, drainage won’t be such a problem. But the bridge was different. It has been conceived before we arrived and the NEPA permitting had already been done.
The spot in the trail where the bridge would go had been an ongoing problem for hikers and horseback riders ambling along the bayou and finding this section completely impassable. It was steeply sloped on either side, a V-shaped chasm with a 30-foot span that eroded more and more every time it rained. Despite the permission we’d been given to go ahead with the project, at the last minute our agency contact got nervous and started trying to spook us out of it: he’d seen a gator in the water nearby, he said, and the snakes and bugs were horrendous down there. But after two weeks of brushing trail and a crew that couldn’t bear another clip of the loppers, we pushed ahead and said we wanted to do it. We had one week left of our crew.
We spent two days measuring and cutting lumber, bolting pieces together and designing the placement of the bridge and steps that would lead down to it on either side. Then we started digging. We dug in the bridge’s sills and laid the stringers, finishing the bridge within a day, but then the real work began. For a horse trail we knew we’d need each step to have at least a four-foot run, but with 5-6 feet of rise needed on either side and only 9 inches possible for each step, there was some dirt that needed moving. We started cutting the slope down, from 60 degrees to 15, hauling all the dirt up and out, one bucket at a time. A crew of inmates also working in the forest delivered our materials and, seeing us struggle to move enough earth in time, pitched in a day’s work digging alongside our crew. After 5 days we had the site ready to lay the steps. Time was running short and the weather, predictably, was not cooperating. After weeks of heat and relative dryness, the summer storms began rolling in. Every morning around 11 we’d start hearing calls on the Forest Service radio. The radar, they’d say, was not looking good. We’d scan the cloudless, sunny sky and exchange glances of doubt and keep working. Within 20 minutes the sky would be dark and the clouds would open up. Lightning crashed on top of us before we heard it coming from a distance. We’d run for the vans and wait out the storm.
By our last day of work we’d lain 6 steps out of 10 and were facing the question of what we’d do if we didn’t finish. Would the agency do it for us? Would the trail sit here, incomplete, until next year’s crew (if there is one) arrived? Should we delay our rec trip, or work til dark, or just decide it wasn’t worth it? We’d been warned that our work might not last. We’d seen some rain, but never the floods we’d heard about. Maybe after all our work, our bridge and steps would be the next thing to go.
But then the crew stepped it up, and their determination startled us and gave us our answer: we’d just go for it. We moved more dirt in one day than we’d moved in the last four combined. We dug all morning until our clothes were drenched and beads of sweat slid along the rims of our hardhats and dripped from our chins. We were filthy, covered from head to toe in dust, now caked to our arms and filling every last pore and fiber. By now we should have expected the storm, but when it came up around noon we were taken by surprise. We ran for the vans, getting drenched along the way, where we sat for an hour watching the rain fall in sheets and blur the world through the van windows. We called for a weather update and were told what we couldn’t hear: this was it for the day. The radar showed splotches of red right over us, and they didn’t seem to be moving. The crew was crestfallen. With gritted teeth we turned the vans toward the ranger station in search of a dry spot to reformulate our plan. But on the half-hour drive the sky lightened and by the time we’d arrived, the rain had stopped. We pulled into the parking lot and got out, shaking our heads and fists at the sky. We loaded back up, drenched but determined, and rode back to the work site.
We worked until 4:30 that day (a normal day started at 6am and ended by 2 to try and “beat the heat”). We mused about our recreation trip the next day and what we wanted to see in New Orleans. We dug the deadmen* into the hill before filling the last steps with gravel, then soil, then leaves and pine needles to make it look more natural. With the sun streaming through dripping, heavy branches we laid our tools down and stood back to look at what we’d done. We posed for a group photo, signed our names on the side of our bridge and trudged up the trail to the vans for the final time. Our work on the trail might not stick; only time will tell. But this bridge and ten steps, this crew of eight kids and two leaders, this month in the bayou in the heart of blazing hot Louisiana will be with me forever.