This is the sort of topic you start with a disclaimer, and a sensitive subject for many. I will try to keep things as factual as I can. I worked for the AMC trails department from 2001-2005 (2001- 2002 as a Camp Dodge volunteer crew leader, 2003-2005 on TFC). That was 20 years ago, which at this point is almost half of my lifetime and I do not remember everything. Trail Crew can be a dramatically different experience from person to person, and I can only give my personal perspective. And, I may not the best person to write about hazing; I was never actually a 1st year on trail crew. Since I had worked for 2 years at Camp Dodge, I was considered a 2nd year the first year I was on TFC. Those were the days when Camp Dodge leaders spent time patrolling and a week or two in the woods with TFC at the beginning of the summer. By the time I got to TFC, I knew exactly what a pack-in entailed, some acceptable standards for rock-setting, and how to take out a huge blowdown alone. I had even been thrown into a wrestling match at the first stomp I attended and happily went home with a black eye. I started with a really good idea as to how it was going to go and what I needed to do, and I can very confidently say that I never felt hazed during my time on trail crew.
But given the recent upheaval, which seemed to be related to “hazing” and its place in “TFC culture,” it seemed like a good idea to do some research on the matter. So I checked in with Google and learned about some common and not-so-common hazing practices. Let’s see how these practices stack up against my concept of hazing, and whether any of them happened during my time on Trail Crew.
Demeaning names: Uh oh. Yes, this happened. My trail name was “Oliphant the Savage.” The first part of the name came from embarrassing things about me: my sometimes cartoonish-sounding voice, my floppy mohawk, or the fact that when I was young I wore a hobbit cape to school on the regular (I am honestly not sure where the “Savage” part came from). I LOVED the name! I thought it was so cool, and I was happy to be “Oli the Savage,” even if it originated from embarrassing aspects of my existence. My perception was that most trail crew nicknames were a bit demeaning, but similarly embraced.
Expecting certain items to be in one’s possession: Yes, again. My Axe. It was an extension of my arm. Its sharpness, functionality, and beauty were a point of pride right from day 1. Our axes were used almost daily as a tool, a part of the job, and we were obsessed with the history of axes, axe manufacturing, axe use and maintenance. I heard tales of inappropriately unattended axes, left in a vice in the bay at dinner time or in a van, getting stuck high in trees, on roofs, or other embarrassing locations. I can’t remember if my axe ever went missing, but I do remember keeping very close tabs on it my entire trail crew career. I gave away my trail crew double bit years ago, but I know exactly where my current favorite axe is.
Requiring physical exercise or calisthenics, such as push-ups: Oh geez, yes. Poster children (long rounds of arm circles), “earning it” with push-ups, push-ups during certain songs, constant wrestling; we were in our 20’s, incredibly fit and strong, and the whole job was physical. Push-ups were easy compared to what we did “on the clock.” And while you could argue that no one was forcing anyone to do pushups, you looked pretty silly if you weren’t doing them while everyone else was.
Stealing others’ property or performing pranks and raids: Again, yes! I remember playing a series of pranks on other camps during the building of the Grafton Loop trail, a sweet prank on a pair of goofers involving a “bear” (I don’t think the goofers ever realized it was a prank), and small pranks amongst ourselves were very common. Like turning off the hot water while someone was in the shower. But I sort of consider pranks as a form of affection, and part of a normal existence for someone who enjoys life.
Asking new members to wear embarrassing or humiliating attire: Well, one might consider a mohawk haircut (and all its variations) to be embarrassing or humiliating. I was never forced to wear anything I did not want to, I was excited to get a mohawk, and I do not remember forcing anyone into a new hair style. Some first years refused the sweet ‘hawk, it was not “mandatory” from what I remember. But again, hard to refuse when it looks so cool and everyone is doing it.
Being dropped off somewhere and forced to find the way back: Isn’t this the definition of “patrolling?” But add “forced chopping of trees, notation of trail conditions, and carrying sometimes enormous signs out so the AMC could auction them for big money.” Yes, some people got lost on patrols, but that was absolutely not the goal. We worked hard to make sure everyone took the right trails and did their share of chopping. I remember some upper years waiting at specific junctions to make sure we all went the right way.
Requiring the consumption of spoiled food, unusual food combinations, and noxious fluids: Anyone who spent a week in the woods with certain crew leaders would FOR SURE be forced to eat unusual or burnt food combinations. We can’t all be 5 star Coleman stove chefs. One woods week the crew leader unintentionally forgot the pot kit and stove, and we cooked a meal of bare chicken breast on a rock over a fire (it was less than successful). And does goop count?
Expecting members to be deprived of maintaining a normal schedule of bodily cleanliness: Seriously???
Public nudity: Oh yes. For sure. There was a lot of nudity during my time on TFC. We took showers together and had shower parties together (the more the merrier!). We swam naked. We had sweat lodges. We were half naked ALL of the time. I packed out naked on 2 occasions, once because the pack board weighed more than I did and was pulling my pants off and it was more comfortable without them. The second was crew naked pack-out during the building of the Grafton Loop trail. I don’t remember forcing anyone, or anyone being resistant or uncomfortable (besides for some chaffing). We were naked a lot, I was naked because I wanted to be, not because I felt pressured to be. And some people were a lot less naked than others, not partaking in group nudity, wearing undergarments in the sweat lodge or while swimming, and shower parties were not attended by all.
Forcing, requiring, or endorsing consumption of alcoholic beverages or other drugs: I was never EVER forced or required to consume alcoholic beverages or other substances. I was underage and did not consume alcohol for the first 2 years that I worked for Camp Dodge or the first year I was on the trail crew. Not once did I feel left out, embarrassed, peer pressured, or uncomfortable being around others who were consuming. I was offered MANY beers, many swigs from flasks, and other forms of recreational drugs, but never felt obligated or obliged to partake. Alcohol was part of the social life of TFC, just as alcohol can be part of social life away from TFC, but it was not essential and we did a lot of fun social things without alcohol.
Beating, paddling, or other forms of assault: I mean, we wrestled each other all of the time. We were like a group of adolescent puppies. I guess that could be considered “assault.” Morning wake-ups in Hutton involved someone wrestling you out of bed and very loud music, but there was no intent to harm or subjugate, it was meant to be energizing and motivating. We are all motivated by different things, however, and it can be quite jarring to be dragged out of bed by a half-naked ball of muscle (as I mentioned earlier, we were all fit and often half naked).
Endangerment, any activity where there is a potential for danger: Taking a hike in the woods could be seen as endangerment. Swinging axes, carrying heavy loads, and digging holes are potentially dangerous activities. Not to mention anything having to do with rocks. The job of a trail worker is inherently dangerous. Did we take extra risks? Yes. Did that allow us to perform at a high level of efficiency and productivity? Yes. Were some risks unnecessary and did we force other crew members to take unnecessary risks, on the job or off of the job? This is a tough one to answer. “Unnecessary risk” is hard to define and hindsight is 20/20. I don’t think I knowingly made anyone else take a risk I was not also willing to take or thought was superfluous or just for entertainment. We took “entertaining risks” but from my perspective they were not used for hazing or initiation, usually happened later in the summer after we had “bonded,” and were separate from work time.
Of the things I took away from my time on trail crew, the process of assessing and balancing risk has been one of the most applicable and essential. Deciphering necessary vs. unnecessary risk is a very important lesson to learn, and my time on Trail Crew provided ample opportunity to work through real risk and challenge. Some risks I would not take again. Appropriate risk can build confidence, independence, and competence, and I feel lucky to have been able to build those characteristics to a degree that is unique in today’s world of caution and comfort.
The goal of our “trail crew culture” was functionality, inclusion, and trust. The job was hard and demanding, we needed to trust and rely on each other, and we developed that trust on and off the job. We functioned better and performed more, higher-quality, 100-year work, as a tight-knit group that worked tirelessly and lived life to the fullest. We enjoyed being around each other, clothed or not, and looked out for each other, drunk or not. It was a unique group across the board, doing a unique job, in a unique style, and it was absolutely not for everyone.
While I never felt hazed, a lot of trail crew traditions seem to fall into commonly held definitions of hazing. Can I see how someone else may have felt hazed on the AMC trail crew? Yes, I can see how our activities could have felt like hazing, and from the outside may have looked like hazing. And I can imagine that someone who had no idea what they were getting into might be very uncomfortable during their first week on the job. I can also understand how such a strong group dynamic might have made it hard for someone to go against the grain and speak up about their discomfort. Do I think that TFC social culture was “broken” and needed to be razed and rebuilt to be less… TFC? No, but I do think we could have built the bonds and the crew we needed/wanted without some of our more outrageous activities and attitudes. Hindsight is 20/20.
Carrie “Oliphant the Savage” Childs