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Sledging the Hammer


"You could have a steam trainIf you'd just lay down your tracks..."---Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer' lyrics. This is not the tune that lay in my mind this morning as I reminisced about yesterday's volunteers to help on trail crew.   

However, as I looked up the proper definition of sledging that song popped up. I say sledging, which is my own take on swinging a hammer that we call a "Double Jack". The Single Jack is six pounds. I know that because our regular crew of five including me and one staff supervisor are handling Harriman State Park Trails, and have to carry about four of those, two shaping hammers, along with a hoist, belay bag with heavy equipment, first aid kit, double Jack, three 18lb rock bars, a lopper, three buckets, three eye to eyes, two burlap straps, two green wrapping straps, two pick Mattox, a roe hoe or two, a bar for either the two ton or one ton hoist, the feathers with pegs for splitting rocks that we drill... speaking of drilling, the Honda generator, fuel, lubrication, the drill (that weighs 50lbs) Also, all have to be carried up the side of the slope we work on. And of course we each have our own backpacks that carry 2.5 to 5 liters each of water, then our food, deet, PPE, hand sanitizer. All that in our packs, I know that my backpack weighs anywhere from 20-26 pounds at the beginning of every workday. Thats just with my water and personal items alone.

I digress... my point here is swinging a sledge hammer, a.k.a. the Double Jack. I've been able to swing an axe and sledge hammer since I can remember. As I spoke with the volunteers and watched how they maneuvered their bodies in a work setting I could tell they were outdoorsy. Yet, not all or any perhaps had laid down sod or destumped trees with any regularity. Or with any experience at all.

I knew to approach this with delicate understanding. I wanted them to enjoy the labor, and desire to volunteer once again. After lunch I knew our supervisor would decide to introduce heavier labor. And so it occurred. I was psyched. 

I love it all, building drains, working the belay, digging, shaping rock, etc... But my favorite I think aside from drains is sledging. Swinging the Double Jack, tiring yes. But great brutal yet ballet like motion of the swing, bending your knees and allowing the bar of the hammer to slide through your upper hand, only to smack rocks over and over again to make what we call Crush. Crush is mostly used to make certain the platform, base, rises, and gargoyles we put in are so in the ground solidly that the big rocks 300-650 pounds don't move for hopefully 15-20 years. That is for the safety of the hikers, and preservation of the nature of the parks and trails.

So, my supervisor suggested I show this one volunteer how to make Crush. As well, have him swing the Double Jack to make Crush. I was so happy. My favorite thing to do I get to demonstrate. I felt like I was eight years old again, that enthusiasm that fills you. Showing a friend your favorite thing to do.

So, I did a demo and explained the sizes of rocks we want as a result for Crush. The volunteer was excited. He was chomping at the bit. 

He began, he struggled on the swing. But I knew he'd never done this before and he was about thirty something years old. I saw a verge of bewilderment. After he swung 20 times awkwardly. I said, "You ever wrestle? Or play tennis?" No was the answer. He was just finding himself in long distance and soon UltraRunning. 

So, I said, "Okay. I'll tell you how we learn how to wrestle. It's just like swinging the Double Jack. Every time we learn a move we fail over and over again. Most of us who've wrestled, know that. And then a coach or partner seeing that tell us to take a sip of water. And after we do that, we try again. But yet this time, we now gave our neurology a chance to come in sync with our physiology. And the second time we take a sip of water and get back to the mats; all of a sudden the light bulb goes on. And we get it. So, sip water and let your vision flow. Watch me again. We will trade. Okay?" 

He nodded. He was captivated as a Math guy could be. It was about Math and Physiology. Brainy stuff, all good.

He got excited when I splinted and then broke rocks in the sizes we needed. 

Again I handed him the Double Jack. " I'll go get you some better rocks to smack. Hold on." I scurried down thirty feet below and found few good sized boulders and creeped back up to him and placed them in the rock pile in front of him. I got up and out of the way and said, "Okay, go to it."

He swung again awkwardly. I told him to check his foot placement as he stood on the slope, it was the only option and he knew it. He swung about 10 times again and didn't exactly hit pay dirt, but he did splint some. "I'm going to get you more rocks. Hang on. You need more big rocks." He paused as I went down to retrieve rocks. I repeated the task another time. "Okay go to it."

He began, still awkward, yet he had some success. I then offered to give him a rest. Again I smashed rocks. Every time he or I broke rock we got excited. I handed him the Double Jack once again. I could see he was getting tired. Yet he focused and all of a sudden he not only was making Crush, he looked like he'd been sledging the hammer since he was a kid. I told him so. It was like watching a flower blossoming to its best possibility. And too, I think he recognized his own incredible accomplishment. ---Jody-Lynn Reicher 


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