Book Review: Dirt Work

Book Review: Dirt Work

The Down and Dirty


Written for Washington Trails magazine


Visit the published article here


It’s an intoxicating thought: trade in an office for a forest, a suit for a hard hat, a computer for a shovel. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to quit your day job and do trail maintenance for a living, you’re not alone. Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods tells the true story of Christine Byl. She forewent graduate school in favor of trail work and has since made a career out of 16 seasons spent building trails.

Byl’s narrative begins before she ever holds her first Pulaski, back when she’s just a new college graduate who’s broke and looking for a life change. Moving from Michigan and an intellectual upbringing to Montana and manual labor seems like an improbable solution to her problems—and a temporary one at that. After all, it is Byl’s intention to do seasonal trail work for just one summer and then head back to the “real world.”

That first season at Glacier National Park isn’t easy. Byl is a woman in a male-dominated profession and an outsider in a forest fraternity. But slowly and surely, she masters the art of taking a ribbing, starting a chainsaw and brushing a trail. At the end of the season, Byl is faced with a choice: go to graduate school or continue with seasonal trail work. She chooses trail work.

Over the next 16 years, trail maintenance becomes the tapestry around which Byl’s life is built. It takes her from Montana to Alaska, from Glacier National Park to the U.S. Forest Service’s Cordova Ranger District to Denali National Park. Under the tutelage of eclectic mentors and often-brash personalities, Byl experiences a slow transition from student to teacher, from green-hat to crew leader.

Byl’s transition and her education in the woods are compelling stories on their own, but the book’s real magic comes from her incredible talent for waxing poetic about the ordinary things she loves most: the pride of hard and dirty work, the feel of a wheelbarrow handle in a gloved hand, the sing of a saw.

Before you know it, Byl’s descriptions will leave you aching to quit your day job and head to the woods, to busy your hands with something raw and real: dirt work.

Recommendation: 3.5/5

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