CHAFFEE COUNTY - High on the side of Mount Columbia, three 21-year-olds come to a rock on their path.
It's large, and they study it for a while, crouching to peer at it from all angles before deciding it's what they're looking for.
Two use iron bars to hoist it, allowing the other to pull out the smaller rocks beneath. The big rock is heavy. They can't hold it for long while the other scrounges for rocks that also are heavy and require the right grip and leverage. They take seven short breaks so as not to smash the scrounger.
Once the smaller rocks are gathered, they use a sledgehammer to make them smaller and collect those pieces to fill the space between the earth and the big rock. Then with the bars, they chip at the big rock's edges to make it a clean square.
After 21 minutes pass from the time they identified the rock, they stand up straight at last. They look at their work.
"Now that's a sexy step!" one says.
It's before 5 a.m., another start to another day for the 11 20-somethings tasked with building a trail for the people who attempt to reach Columbia's 14,078-foot summit in a rather unpleasant, unsafe way: by climbing its western face of scree. Now, for 1,000 feet and counting, that doesn't have to be the case. They can walk up stone steps and stroll on the dirt track that has been crafted this summer.
"Are you the work crew?" a hiker asked the 20-somethings the previous evening, as he was on his way down and they were on their way up to camp. "It's awesome! I love it!"
The group has been coming to camp, in the deep wilderness off the trail, since June 3. And most, all but the few who will be leaving early to get back to college, will continue coming through September.
They rise at 3 a.m., eat a quick breakfast and hike steeply in the dark with their packs and hard hats, their shovels and picks. At the trail, they work for 10 hours. Then they hike back to camp to cook dinner and fall asleep early. They do this for four nights each week. For three, they return to civilization, going wherever they want in their van, a dreamcatcher dangling from the rearview mirror. They find a place to shower, do laundry and camp.
They are strangers from all around the country, brought together by a youth corps after applying for the job posted by Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the nonprofit preserving the state's 54 tallest peaks. With five years of planned construction on a 2-mile trail stretching near Columbia's summit, the project is set to be the longest in CFI's 22-year history. And as is custom for these technical, high-altitude projects, the organization is enlisting the services of youth, able-bodied and cheap - most make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
"It takes a special sort of person who wants to do this," says Lloyd Athearn, CFI's executive director. "They tend to be people who are a bit off the grid."
Out here, it's easy to think they're escaping something.
"I guess we all are in some way," says the crew's soft-spoken leader, Greg Bishoff, 25, from Boise, Idaho. He goes quiet for a moment as he hikes on toward camp, picking up bits of trash along the way, sunset's light streaming through the pines. "It's simpler here."
Last winter, he was back in Boise for the first time in eight years. He graduated high school and went straight into this line of work, which took him most recently to the Sierra Nevada backcountry. He tended to the Pacific Crest Trail with a crew, not leaving the wilderness for four months as supplies came by mule and helicopter.
Before this past winter, this past offseason, he'd been using his earnings to travel out of the country. Before this past winter in Boise, he'd never heard of Netflix.
"We get pretty behind on things," says Shelby Weister, 23, who grew up in Philadelphia but prefers to say she's from Vermont, where she lived the past four years attending a liberal arts college.
In Vermont, she discovered her love for the outdoors. She made friends who were hikers and, as an English and philosophy double major, she delved into Thoreau and Emerson and Spinoza. She wanted her own deep-thinking nature experience. Upon graduating last May, she got work building a trail in Wyoming, camping out near the Continental Divide throughout the summer.
Weister, unlike Bishoff, isn't sure about turning this into a career. The crew is split in that regard. As drawn as they are to this isolation, they think about how limited and low-paying conservation jobs are. Others, such as Josh Smack, 21, don't care about that.
His parents divorced when he was a toddler, and he floated between their homes in California, jumping around to several schools until he stopped caring. In high school, he hung out with the burnouts and partied too much.
A year ago, he got his diploma from a charter school that placed students in work outdoors. And it got him here: lying alone at camp, the breeze hushing through the forest the only sound at dusk.
"This is where I feel like I fit in," he says.
Away from the world
Riley McGinley's favorite spot at camp is beside a gentle stream. There's no explaining those moments when he needs to come here, when he needs to be alone. All he knows is a dark feeling comes over him - the kind of feeling that plagued his youth and led him to self-harm - and he needs to be by the stream.
"It's not really about so much what you're feeling, as much as what the whole world is feeling, you know?" he says. "Like, when you're in the city, you're taking on everybody's emotions, everybody's pain. It's too much."
The city, Portland, was a bad place for McGinley, 21. He left home out of high school to live the life of a junkie on the streets. It started with cough syrup and pills, then he got into the harder stuff like meth. Every night he'd pass out high on the sidewalk, drowning out the lights and the cars and the fighting of other homeless people around him.
Eventually, he found a place at a youth shelter. And the shelter connected him with conservation crews in Oregon. On his first project with a youth corps, he met workers like him, addicts recovering in the wilderness. He came to see the crew leader like the father he never had growing up.
McGinley is not looking forward to the fall, when he'll go back to life below, back, possibly, to transitional housing. On their breaks from the mountain, he and the crew have been alarmed by what they find happening in the world: shootings and political unrest. To them, the world is an angry, confusing place.
"When you're out here, you're away from the internet, away from the news," McGinley says. "You are here with you."
He's here with friends. One finds him at the stream, carrying dinner the crew cooked back at camp.
"I have an order here for Mr. McGinley," the friends says, handing off a plate of tacos.
McGinley takes it with a smile and looks at the friend. "Will you send my gratitude?"
Pondering the future
At 3 a.m., they're nibbling bagels and sipping coffee, contemplating the future.
In the offseason, McGinley wants to work with dogs because, as he says, "dogs are the most loving, empathetic creature on this planet." Bishoff, the crew leader, plans on traveling; he's thinking he'll put names of countries in a hat and pull one out. Weister has been thinking about law school. "But I don't know," she says. "The more I'm out here, the more I love it."
"I'm not 100 percent sure what I want to do with the rest of my life," says Darren Marshall, here with Smack, his lifelong friend from California. "But I know I definitely enjoy building trails for people. It seems to make other people happy."
They think about how they're making a path that others will take years from now. That makes them happy. Working on a path together makes them happy.
On their way up Columbia in the dark, they stop to gather in a circle. They take turns leading a stretch of their choice. At Smack's turn, he crouches, hugging his knees to his chest. Then he explodes up, flinging his arms and legs wide.
"I'm a star!" he shouts, crouching again and exploding again. "I'm a star!"
The others laugh and, one by one, join in.
"I'm a star! I'm a star!" McGinley shouts. "You're all stars!"
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332