How the California Conservation Corps feeds its trailblazers
“Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!”
That’s the actual motto for the California Conservation Corps, the state program that puts young adults to work in emergency response, park improvements and fire protection. In Marin, many corps members do hard physical work building and maintaining the world-class trails in Point Reyes, Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods and elsewhere.
Because these young people burn thousands of calories a day, food plays a crucial role for a CCC crew, and their menu has barely changed since the '30s.
After hiking a couple miles up a wooded path, 20-year-old Willy Parker shows me the huge drainage area he and the rest of the crew are shoring up.
“It’ll last for a couple hundred years,” he tells me. “I think that’s pretty awesome.”
We’re on a section of trail near Devil’s Gulch Camp in West Marin. I’m trying to understand this puzzle of huge rocks that crew members maneuver to fill a huge hole.
Parker tells me we’re looking at about 30 rocks, each as heavy as 100 pounds. Crew members roll rocks down the trail and work in teams, using long metal poles to place them correctly. They mark and chisel the rocks to get the perfect size, so they’ll fit snugly.
“They all have to be contacting, one edge to another edge,” says Parker.
That’s to support the tens of thousands of hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders expected to use this trail. If you hike this trail in a year or two, Parker says, you won’t be able to see the work that went on here.
“Over time, the dirt, the leaves will fall over it to make it look natural,” he says.
Parker is part of what’s called a spike crew: Members will be working this site off and on for over a year. They spend eight days working, then six days at a residential center near Lake Tahoe. There they get time off and take classes.
Like Parker, many work on their GEDs.
While these corps members prod heavy stones into place, Samantha Pack and Gabino Lopez have left the trail early to report to KP.
“KP stands for kitchen patrol, or kitchen police as we call it,” says Lopez. “It’s the person whose duty it is to take care of the kitchen and camp, all the chores like start the fire, clean around the kitchen.”
The kitchen’s really clean, but it’s not much to look at.
“Basically, it’s an old burlap tent,” says Pack. “It’s set up with our two stoves, both powered by propane. Two chests are filled with our pots, pans, dishes, and the top is our serving table. It’s a tight space!”
Lopez is getting creative, chopping onions and slicing oranges and lemon for the fish they’re serving the 20 crew members and two supervisors. “For us KPs, we try to make something delicious, just to make the crew feel like they’re at their house.”
Each year, the California Conservation Corps hires about 3,000 men and women between 18 and 25. Each has his or her own reasons for joining, but many here, like Samantha Pack, told me they needed some direction.
“Everybody has their different problems, but I was very defiant,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted. I was always taught to run from my problems. When I started to realize that running wasn’t getting anything done, my mentality changed.”
An alumna told her about the program, and the Bakersfield native found she really loves hands-on trail work.
“I had never done any labor at all. I grew up not going to school, sitting on the couch,” Pack says. “Then all of a sudden being told, ‘Dig this hole, move this there,’ it really gave me what I guess I always needed. Not only that discipline, but having that urgency to get things done the right way.”
“It’s like we’re a big machine as a group, and the KPs are the batteries to the machine,” Lopez says.
Since they’re out here for more than a week, the food for each meal is planned and packed ahead. KP's can use ingredients creatively, but they have to consider coming meals. Lopez pulls out the eight-day food calendar, labeled for breakfast and dinner.
“Today, we’re having fish fillet, rice pilaf, carrots and salad,” he explains. “Day four, we’re having pork chops, red potatoes, with broccoli and salad.”
A few miles away, in his office on Mount Tamalpais, I meet Victor Bjelajac, who oversees maintenance of state parks in Marin. He’s flipping through pages in a binder, looking at old food orders.
“This was a group of Civilian Conservation Corps members that were working at Mount Tamalpais. This one was from 1939.”
And guess what? It sounds a lot like what the KP crew is making tonight.
“For supper, there was fillet of sole, mashed potatoes, creamed carrots, bread, butter,” Bjelajac reads.
The similarities in the menu aren’t sentimental. Camp food has always had to fuel large groups for hard labor.
Launched in 1933 as a response to the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps employed millions of young men, many of them veterans, to work on remote, government-owned lands — planting trees, building roadways, updating parks.
In Marin, they built trails and camps and a beautiful amphitheater, still in use today. The Corps accepted only men, and the crews were segregated by race.
"It seems inconceivable today when you look at California Conservation Corps," says Bjelajac.
The California program is about a quarter women, and very diverse. But he says what the two organizations, separated by decades, have in common is young people doing important work as a group for the public good.
That, and the food.
“Part of the culture that’s built around a camp gets built around meals,” he says.
Back at camp, Gabino Lopez tends a fire as his fellow corps members start to come off the trail.
“I would honestly rather sit at the fire and watch it for three hours than sit at home on a couch and just watch TV," Lopez says. "I’d rather bathe in a creek than shower in a bathroom. It makes me feel more alive, I think.”
And he’s happy pan-frying fish and sauteing carrots in a tent. Willy Parker says that after working all day and hiking down, KP is a life-saver.
"Just to get to camp, and the food is smelling good, and everybody just be walking around the KP tent ready to eat," he says. "So it’s pretty good, we got that right there."
Like a lot of this crew, Parker never went camping or fishing as a kid.
“Camping is amazing,” he says with a laugh. “It’s amazing. I hadn’t done none of that till I joined the CCC.”
But it’s not just about trying new things. Parker has a 2-year-old daughter at home in Sacramento, and he says being a C gives him purpose, and pride.
“To me, I feel like it’s a great experience,” he says. “I can bring my daughter up here when she gets older to understand, and be like, ‘I built this.’ It just opens my heart and my mind. I can do something I never thought I could do.”
He says he used to look at trails and ask, “I wonder how you build this? Or who built this? Now, I find myself actually answering my own question.”
This story first ran in 2015 as part of the series California Foodways which is supported in part by Cal Humanities. Reporter Lisa Morehouse produced it during a fellowship at Hedgebrook, a residency for women writers.