Dominic Alhambra – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Red Crew)
Service Programs of American YouthWorks
Dominic Alhambra – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Red Crew)
“Welcome to west Texas, where everything bites, pokes, sticks, or stings,” chuckled our project partner, John.
It was the first morning of our two ten-day hitches to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. As our crew surveyed the territory, it was easy to see what John meant: dense patches of Prickly Pear Cactus were scattered throughout the land, as well as an array of Mesquite trees, all in different stages of growth. Colorful moths and butterflies flew overhead while gigantic ants and beetles buried themselves in the dusty, coarse earth. Rocky mountains, several hundred feet above us, surrounded the small but bustling town. We were only seven hours from Austin, but it felt much farther.
John welcomed us to the town of Fort Davis, built throughout the mid-1800s to guard west Texas and allow safe passage on the San Antonio-El Paso road, a journey of 600 miles that took pioneers to California to mine for gold. Named for the then-Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, the fort served as a fully functioning town, with a store, chapel, jail, and family housing.
Our job for the next twenty days was to cut mesquite along the old road in order to restore it to how it would have looked in 1850, with small patches of grass here and there and a few bushes. We were to use herbicide to kill the Mesquite after cutting it. After a few hours of work on the first day, we realized that this was no easy task. We had only brought a few chainsaws with us, for we were unaware we were cutting Mesquite, which has denser trunks than most trees we cut. Brush cutters were no worthy opponent for this stuff. Frequent cries of “ouch!” and “oww!” stood out among the sounds of machinery, as Mesquite has a way of grabbing onto one’s skin with its thorns, as if retaliating in anger for being separated from its roots. A quick fix to the recurring stabbings came in the form of a pitchfork, my personal new favorite tool. Our other project partner, Bill, literally saved our skin by bringing us three shiny pitchforks and a wheelbarrow. We were immensely grateful and more productive, for the pitchforks made it easy to carry a clump of mesquite almost the size of a person.
A few days into the project, the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. A large thunderstorm rolled through, depositing hail throughout the fort. Our project partners agreed to let us stay in a renovated historic house in the fort as a reprieve from the unpredictable weather. Originally a house of a high ranking official, this house now served as a storage unit and a place for re-enactors to get dressed in the finest 19th century military garb. Of course, one mention of the possibility of ghosts had us scared but excited, which led to pranks galore. We stayed at the house off and on throughout our time at Fort Davis, for which we were immensely grateful during the cold nights and mornings in the mountain air.
Despite our hopeful attitude, our chainsaws had issues throughout the trip, which slowed us down considerably. Even though we brought our favorite saws, they didn’t agree with the heat of midday and continual use, and one by one they began to fail. We doctored them as much as we could in the field, even switching out parts and eventually ending up with one completely broken saw and two kind of working ones. We vowed to bring as many saws as possible the next time around to avenge the fallen brethren.
As we made our way farther down the road, we had plenty to look at. It seemed like everywhere we looked, there were artifacts. Some were clearly recent deposits, like soda cans and bits of plastic (so, actually trash), but we found some pretty amazing things. Pieces of plates and glass, a uniform button, and even an old stove was located around the site.
Nights at camp were a lot of fun. We played card games and read books, and we discussed various fan theories about the outcome of Avengers: Endgame. Crew member Sophia and I listened to her playlist of aggressive orchestral music as we completed a nature hike on top of Fort Davis at dusk, stopping every now and then to look at plants and cacti from the Chihuahuan desert. Javelinas and deer strolled around our camps frequently, and a particularly happy skunk ate dinner with us one night (he was uninvited, and would not leave). At the fort, our two new horse friends, Soldier and Dudley, greeted us every morning with pleas for forehead scratches and pats.
On the second hitch, we arrived to work armed with six chainsaws. We had our method down to muscle memory at this point: a sawyer would saw through a mesquite tree, their swamper would rake the remains away with a McLeod, a pitchforker would come by and scoop all the remains up and take it to the side of the road, then someone would do quality check with loppers, then lastly, the herbicider would come by with a backpack sprayer and coat all the cut ends.
The bad weather continued throughout the second hitch, and we had several days where we were able to work for half the day and then take a few hours for education. We went to the Star Party at the McDonald Observatory where we learned many constellations and got to look through telescopes, and on another day we went to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and tour their collection of cacti and desert plants with Bill as our tour guide. We also met a visiting high school group and learned how to make adobe bricks to go on the restored structures, which was a muddy but satisfying experience. Lastly, we took a full day to assist the museum technician in cataloging artifacts! We cataloged original pieces of pine wood from the structures as well as little items like books, oil lamps, and bullets. I was overjoyed to be able to assist in museum work and view artifacts up close!
Overall, this experience was something I will never forget. To be able to spend so much time at a place we all enjoyed was a blessing and I gained a newfound appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into historic preservation. Many thanks to my spectacular crew for all the laughs, including but not limited to the Porter’s voice, gender bending photo filters, low budget horror movies, and the endless jokes.
Love you, Purple!
Caroline Fangman – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Purple Crew)
Caprock Canyons State Park was beckoning us for our 6th hitch to do maintenance on the quickly eroding trails there. Waterbars, check steps, rubble walls and drainages needed to be built, put in, and touched up. Few of us had experience doing that and some of us have never been in the desert or seen a canyon before. We were excited for red sand canyons, bison, primitive camping, higher elevations, and the desert!!! Far away from home in Austin, as enchanting as it looked in photos, (with its rugged rocky terrain,) the desert provided only heat, and no access to drinking water. The absence of other amenities like showers and outlets, designated flat tent pads, and a nearby town showed how spoiled we were at Guadalupe River State Park. Some of us have never primitive camped before, but we are TAT. With our knowledgeable leaders, (Amber, who had extensive backcountry living and trail building experience in California with CCC, and Sam who has built 800 lbs granite stairs on the Appalachian Trail in NY), we had justified confidence that we are going to not only survive but thrive on this hitch solidifying our tribe’s bond and learning cool new trail building techniques with just a bit of extra planning this time. We were stoked to do good work and looked forward to exploring new territory.
After a full long day of driving, we entered the park at sunset. Wow! Mountains! Bison strolling on the road! As tired as we were after a whole day of driving, we all crawled out of the van at the visitors center and limped on our half asleep from the drive legs to the edge of a cliff to snap photos of the setting sun behind the towering canyons and grazing bison in the distance.
The next morning we chewed on our breakfast and watched million of stars fade away, the early sun rays illuminated the vistas all around us. Red, orange, brown cliffs with splashes of green on the towering canyon walls were aglow all around us! Whoa! Everywhere you looked the red giants guarded us, giving their morning salutations to welcome us. These gorgeous lands and canyons were going to be our home and walls for the next ten days!
We had two set work sites going on Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail, which is about 600ft of elevation gain from the trailhead to the top. One worksite, which was at the very top, needed rock steps and a rubble wall built. The other site, about 300ft below that point, needed waterbars and check steps built and a few features reinforced. Our legs protested carrying all the tools up the steep with loose rock and way over 8 percent grade trail. The two-ton griphoist was extra nasty to the knees, but our hearts and minds loved it.
Some of us struggled with the steep hike to the worksite in our bulky workboots and pounds of water in our packs. The heat was excruciating, the red sand was in every nook and cranny of our clothes, gear, pots, and bodies. A few of us got away with just scratches from spikey desert plants, some of us sunburnt, and some with smashed fingers, but the tribe persevered and we not only completed the planned work but did extra maintenance, fixing up eroded waterbars and junk walls in many areas. We put in 6 new huge check steps, 4 waterbars, repaired a check step, cleared 3 existing waterbars, and installed 8 rocks stairs!!!
Our strong team bond helped us excel, work well together, and exceed our set goals on this hitch. Heavy winds and epic thunderstorms broke one of our tents and everyone was glad to have helped rebuild and come up with shelter solutions. Instead of retiring to our tents after dinner, like we were used to (maybe because of the heat), all of us stuck around after dinner and hung out together playing games or just cracking jokes and just lounging in each other’s company. It was a whole other camping experience with the crew this hitch. We were closer because of our isolation from the public and being in a new territory, everyone got along brilliantly. We were eight people working and camping just a few feet from one another on daily basis and all was well. Caprock is truly magical. It brought us even closer together.
A few days before the end of our hitch, our off-highway-vehicle, Ranger, got a deflated tire. We waited for the park’s staff to come rescue us. Dennis from maintenance showed up to save us and fixed the Ranger’s flat only for the other one to get another flat later in the day. Dennis helped us with numerous back and forth rides to carry out our camp stuffs and tools back to the parking lot. He helped patch the injured Ranger up and answered our trillion questions about the park. Dennis is officially a trail angel and a good relationship advice counselor. We think you should meet him when you visit Caprock Canyons before he retires.
This hitch has been a productive adventure. We did good work, grew as a team, and explored together. On behalf of TAT, I want to thank everyone who planned our work hitches, this one and previous ones, and who made it all possible. Such exposure to skills, people, parks, and new regions of Texas are tremendously valuable experiences, making everyone a better person and the world truly a better place. I wish many future TAT teams to have amazing hitches and mind-blowing, life changing experiences like we are continually having this season.
P.S.: Oh, and we like eggs and high fives! ☺
Red Crew has been working in Buda, Texas for about a month cutting Mesquite and Ashe Juniper to help maximize the amount of water reaching the Edwards Aquifer to help recharge the City of Austin’s water supply.
We have been using herbicide to minimize the growth of the Mesquite to help inhibit growth and prevent future encroachment. The tools used to for this project have been chainsaws so progress can be the quick and fast with minimal impact to the area (unlike heavy machinery).
The project so far has been fun for crew bonding time and has made Red Crew closer. So far this project has been great because Red Crew has the honor to work for the City of Austin Wildland Conservation Division, which Texas Conservation Corps has not worked except for as a training site in years. We’re happy to build and develop a good partnership for future projects.
Grant McKenzie – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Red Crew)
Sophia Tong – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Purple Crew)
Purple crew was charged to do some work on Harper’s Branch watershed, off of Kenwood Avenue in our beautiful home city of Austin, TX. We removed invasive Nandina and Ligustrum as well as cleared an area near the road for folks in the neighborhood to enjoy their little slice of nature. Pulling up to our work site, I think that it’s safe to say that we weren’t expecting a whole lot, being in the middle of a block of houses, but what we got in such a small space was something special: a particularly beautiful and diverse strip of sloped, verdant land running parallel to a small stream. We found non-venomous snakes, lizards, various birds including a Coopers hawk that visited daily, pretty Texas Redbuds, Primrose Jasmine, and Lantana.
Spirits were high and the work flowed like we were doing it for fun, not even a relatively heavy shower on one of our days could damper our mood. Of course, no work is without its irritations, in our case it came in the form of a dense patchwork of poison ivy which left half of the crew welted and itching; nonetheless, we worked on. And when we were finished each and every one of us were proud of the work that we had accomplished. I, for one, am proud to be working for TxCC with such amazing, hardworking, caring, friendly people by my side. I wouldn’t change a thing (of course that may be because I’m not one of the members who had a reaction to the poison ivy)! Much love to Elijah, Richard, Crystal, Sofia, Caroline, Kim, Francois, and our amazing crew leaders Alex and Michelle! Purple Crew 4 lyfe.
Jacob Walters – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Purple Crew)
You join a conservation corps with expectations. Expectations like meeting a bunch of interesting people, forming your own little community, discovering things you never knew about yourself when faced with adversity in the face of the seemingly endless expanse of nature. People quit because it’s too much! The proximity of camping with the same people was too intense – thrust into a community; the work too exhausting. the wilderness inconsiderate of the physical comforts and the proximity inconsiderate for the emotional. And when you overcame that you felt like you won something, like you overcame a weakness you didn’t know you had and you walk with your chin up, ready for anything.
Now reverse that. What happens than. Take the boulder from Sisyphus, what does he do the rest of the day? When your crew hears about your tales from hitch, the drama, the intensity. You use that as the carrot to get them excited for the first 2 weeks of cutting Ligustrum – the unforgiving expanse of nature replaced with the hum of passing cars, the intimacy of the group replaced with 9 other people who you complain about money with while doing menial labor. And it works… kind of – every week they ask ‘when will we go on hitch?’, because you’ve built it up so much – this is why people do corps. This is why we come back even though the our backs hurt and our cars are falling apart. Why our bank accounts are bare and we don’t care. Because we do something not everyone can do, and that’s what we want.
Robert Ryan – Conservation & Disaster Crew Leader (Silver Crew)