Blazing new trails: an editor’s experience on an Alternative Spring Break trip

Jill O’Brien, student life editor. 

Jill O'Brien

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

I’m jolted awake by the sound of my alarm on my windowsill. It’s 4:20 a.m.

As I peel myself away from my warm bedsheets, I take a minute to remember why I’m awake this early, and suddenly I get out of bed with a bit more energy.

I throw toiletries into my shower caddy and fold extra T-shirts into my already packed backpack, all while checking the “Alternative Breaks — Georgia Edition” group chat impatiently. The entire week has dragged up until today, almost like I’ve been holding my breath and now I can excitedly exhale. All I could think was today, I leave Ames to spend a week in the woods.

At 6:22 a.m., the group arrived to pick me up. Our vessel — a 15-passenger van with the university’s name written across it — sat parked about 100 feet from my front door.

I opened the back door, threw my bags in and then got in on the passenger side, where I’m greeted by four or five other tired faces.

We crack a few jokes about where our HR person is or if the driver will be able to see with the mountain of bags decreasing visibility significantly, and then we turn out of the MU parking lot and hit the highway.

According to Google Maps, the drive from Ames to Rising Fawn, Georgia — our final destination — was anywhere between 12 and 14 hours.

However, the combination of running into two snowstorms and a torrential downpour followed by a detour through Illinois due to an accident, we reached Cloudland Canyon State Park around 1 a.m.

After arriving at the “group lodge,” our home for the week, we unpacked the mountain of groceries and rushed off to set up our bedrooms and get what little sleep we could before beginning work in the morning.

If the five hours of sleep I got that night were indicative of anything, they taught me it didn’t matter if I got five or 15 hours of sleep; the days ahead would leave me exhausted no matter what.

I couldn’t wait.


My alarm went off at 7:45 a.m. and I had little to no time to spare snoozing. The Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park — the group we would be serving that week — had made breakfast for us, and we were going down to their shelter to eat and get acquainted with the work we’d be doing.

During the meal, we got to know not only the Friends, but also a bit of history about the park.

Cloudland Canyon State Park spans 3,488 acres and is home to cottages, yurts and backcountry campsites, along with more than 60 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.

One of the big reasons why the Friends care so deeply about the park, and one of the main reasons why we took our Alt Breaks trip there, was so future generations could enjoy the park the way we were.

The park relies heavily on help from volunteers, all of whom were passionate and eager to share the park with us for the week. Our first stop of the week was in the yurt village, at the top of the West Rim Loop Trail.

Our first task? Build a sustainable trail. When we heard that, we looked at one another as if to say, how? The volunteers spared no time telling us not only what we were about to do, but why we were doing it this way.

To be sustainable, a trail must meet the following three requirements:

  • Protects the environment
  • Meets the needs of those using the trails
  • Requires little maintenance

To do this, we had to abide by certain principles of building these sustainable trails.

Since erosion was such an issue with the trails at Cloudland, one of our solutions was creating a contour trail that traverses a hill.

A lot of the time, we had to imagine where water would go on the trail, and then ask ourselves where we wanted water to go to get a better idea of how to do the job.

In the case of the West Rim Loop, we had to start by clearing a space in the woods for a trail head that would lead down to the main trail.

We had three tools at our disposal to assist us: the McLeod, to clear away leaves; the rogue hoe and the Pulaski, for clearing away dirt and organic material. However, we couldn’t just dig away at the tread — there was far more to consider when blazing the trail.

The average trail grade, or slope, should be less than 10 percent to be sustainable. A grade reversal, marked by a small dip and rise, pushes water off the trail.

Our goal was to build a trail that would push water down into the brush beside it, so that excess water wouldn’t erode our work.

To do this, we would use the McLeod to clear away leaves and branches from where we wanted the trail, then use the Pulaski to establish the cuts in the dirt where we wanted the trail and “pizza slice” the dirt so it could easily be pulled up by a rogue hoe and the lighter organic material could be tamped down by the McLeod.

Back home in Illinois, I never had to do a lot of outside work. Whenever my parents were doing yard work, I would stay inside and avoid getting my hands dirty at all costs.

However, when I was handed a Pulaski to begin cutting away at roots buried deep in the ground, I went to town, hacking them in half and discarding them into the brush.

I felt like Paul Bunyan, chopping roots and small trees that stood in our way. Halfway through our first day, I learned very quickly that trails don’t just happen — they’re made.

At the end of the day, at about 3:30 p.m., we found ourselves standing on a stretch of fresh, new trail. Six hours ago, leaves and branches caused us to trip and tangle our way down the hill. Now, the trail looked as though it had been there for six years.

On the drive back up to the group lodge, I was exhausted. Three months after my bunionectomy, my feet were tired and in need of a long night of rest. It was a good kind of exhaustion, though, the kind that made me feel I could take on whatever task the next day brought.


After learning we had no coffee filters in the lodge, I emerged into the kitchen expecting a long, caffeine-free struggle of a day. I found Savanna, our resident former Girl Scout, pouring a freshly brewed pot of coffee into a mug during breakfast.

“I used a paper towel as a filter,” she said. What a relief.

At 8:50 a.m., we piled into the van and drove downhill to the opening of the Sitton’s Gulch Trail, where our leaders, Larry, Bob and Gary waited for us to begin the hike up the trail close to the waterfalls near the end of the trail.

The waterfalls were a common site for accidents or dangerous situations, and people who got hurt had to be driven down by emergency vehicles or an ATV. Our task for the day was to create smooth rock paths for those vehicles to drive down, as well as lay a new pipe in the trail for water to flow out.

Walking up the trail and carrying various tools, my arms grew tired within a few hundred steps or so.

Nevertheless, we found ways to entertain ourselves on the long walk uphill. We sang songs and came up with trail names based around inside jokes that came up during the day’s work.

The seven girls became the ‘Seven Dwarves,’ and we assigned one another a dwarf persona based on our personalities. Being the “one with the attitude” as I was called by Greg, one of the Friends, I was Grumpy.

To the left of us was a stream, peppered with boulders and rocks and clear, rushing water. I was shocked at just how clear the water was — you could see the bottom of the river from hundreds of feet above. We got work at a spot that sloped uphill and would continue upward until we reached the pipe.

One by one, we built berms for water to run off the trail and hauled rocks into place like puzzle pieces to create the smooth trail for a vehicle to drive over.

We continued this pattern uphill until we reached the four guys and Bob, who was operating a small John Deere in place of an ATV. The trail was muddy, but we all had to get our hands on the pipe to lay it in place. Once that was done, we climbed over it to build the rock path.

It was then time for Bob to test out our work. The John Deere drove downhill slowly, then came to a grinding halt on top of the pipe. Bob tried to start the tractor again.

It shifted backward, downward toward the rocks and river. We held our breath, unsure of what was going to happen next. After about 10 minutes, the tractor went back uphill and Bob was safe and sound, but the close shave was a topic of conversation for the rest of the week. 

We worked until 3:30 p.m. again. This time, every part of my body was exhausted. While half the group went for a hike on the remainder of Sitton’s Gulch, I returned back to the lodge with the other half of the exhausted group.

Our evening was relaxing, consisting of card games, dinner and reflecting on the day’s events. One of the common discussion topics, besides the incident with the John Deere, was how beautiful the river was and how it was the perfect spot to take our lunch.

At the end of the day, I was already beginning to understand the amount of work it takes to build and maintain a beautiful place such as Cloudland. Despite my exhaustion, my excitement kept me awake and waiting for the next morning of work. 


“The prettiest part of the park is at the bottom.”

This was one of the first things Greg, one of the Friends, said to us on our hike down the Bear Creek Trail to our first work site of the day. The trail wound downhill to another secluded river spot and was marked by different colored pin flags that had a designated task assigned to them, like re-establishing bench cuts in the trail, installing knicks or building smooth rock paths to act as steps for hikers to get over hills on a trail. 

It was on Wednesday that my hands began to blister and my muscles began to cramp. However, more water breaks and time to sit and rest my feet allowed me to work longer without overexerting myself. 

When lunch rolled around, we had to hike an extra half mile down to ‘the prettiest part of the park,’ another river with boulders to sit and admire the view. I decided to join a few other girls — Jenna, Jayna and Natalie — on one of the larger boulders directly under the sun, so I could stay warm and lay out for half an hour or so.

When it was time to head back to work, we began helping one another across the little rocks we used to carry us across in the first place. I had made it across, but before we were all there, I heard a splash and a gasp behind me. Natalie had fallen into the river, her entire left side drenched in water. While we all laughed — Natalie included — she wasn’t too happy about having to hike back up to the lodge and change clothes in the middle of the day. 

Once again, we finished around 3:30 p.m., but had little to no time to explore, as the Friends of the park would be joining us for dinner at our lodge, and we had to shower and clean the main room before 6 p.m. When they arrived, the kitchen was quickly filled with the scent of cheese, bread and butter and the spare tables were covered with desserts and sweet tea. 

If I have learned one thing from this experience, it is that the South does not play around with its sweet tea. I don’t think I can go back to McDonald’s sweet tea ever again. 

Dinner was full of lively conversation and finding common ground with the Friends. I learned that one couple was from New York — the husband from the Hudson Valley, one of my mother’s favorite areas, and the wife from around the same place my father grew up.

At the end of the night, Greg rounded us all up and asked us a simple question: 

“Y’all going to watch the sunset tonight?”

At first we were hesitant. Then, Greg told us that he lived behind one of the best sunset watching spots in the area and would give us a little tour if we wanted. It was no longer up for debate — we grabbed our shoes, jackets and cameras and piled into the van.

As someone who works with words for a living, I’m not often left speechless. The view I saw that night, however, did. 

The sky was blue, orange, yellow and pink, and we could see not only the entire town of Trenton, Geoegia below us, but the border of Alabama on the horizon. I sat down on a rock and just admired what I was lucky enough to be seeing.

You definitely don’t see a sight like that in Iowa. 


The first of two half days, we had a bit more of a spring in our step on Thursday.

We returned to Sitton’s Gulch to re-establish the berms we had built Tuesday to make them a little more effective in water drainage, and surprisingly it didn’t take us very long to complete the task.

It consisted primarily of using rogue hoes and McLeod’s to clear away and level off the gravel and dirt on the trail. After we had reached the rock path we had built two days prior, we set our tools down next to a tree and headed back to the van. 

Our afternoon was split: half the group went to hike the West Rim Loop Trail, but before that, all 11 of us, including Savanna’s friend Allison who was in the area, hiked down to a secluded swimming hole located just off of Bear Creek Trail.

We almost got lost twice, but when we reached our destination, it felt like we had won a prize we were able to immediately enjoy.

The water was still the same clear blue-green color, and the sunlight hit it at the right angle where it reflected onto the rocks. Jon, our grad student site leader, spared no time in jumping in, but the water was freezing.

Jayna and I decided to walk down the right side of the river in an attempt to cross, but the strong current and freezing water prevented us from doing so. Instead, we sat on a boulder and talked about the week thus far.

I told Jayna about my journey to get on the trip; I was initially placed on the waitlist for the trip and was somewhat apprehensive about going to Georgia, but the week had shown me how wrong I was in doubting how much fun I would have and how much I would learn.

Not only had I made such amazing friends, but I would never look at a trail on a hike the same way again. There is so much that goes into the building and maintenance of a trail that it gives you a new appreciation for the natural world. 

After almost slipping off a rock and falling in, we turned back. The plan was to then head home, cook dinner and plan our final day and our trip into Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was going to be a sad day, but a good distraction for everything we would be feeling. 


The final day. The first three hours would be spent finishing up at Sitton’s Gulch and then traveling to Chattanooga. I wasn’t sad about leaving quite yet. There was still much more to get done. 

After the hike back up to the pipe we had laid, we were given our final task of the trip: dig out a place for an emergency vehicle or ATV to turn around and drive uphill during rescues. It was a dangerous task, so several people played the role of ‘safety buffer’ while others threw rocks down the hill to clear a path. 

Upon seeing me without a task, Larry sent me uphill to clean graffiti off of a wooden kiosk next to the waterfalls. It was the first time I had seen the falls all week, and also the first time I had been alone with my thoughts all week.

Being alone at the falls gave me time to reflect on everything that had happened in the course of five short days. While the beginning of the trip had been marked with what we called ‘little disasters,’ the rest of the week was relatively smooth sailing, with every member of our group enthusiastic and excited to work, no matter what kind of experience they had on the trails.

My graffiti cleaning experience had turned into one of silent soul-searching, but I didn’t care. It was nice to be able to take a step back and see the importance of the work we had been doing. 

When I returned, the task was complete, and everyone began the hike downhill and back to the lodge. I found myself saying goodbye to everything I had seen and worked on, but had a strong feeling I would be back again, blazing new trails and doing work that would help future generations enjoy Cloudland Canyon the same way we were. 

State parks aren’t simply built, and hiking trails don’t just happen. They’re made, and they’re made by people and through experiences like this Alternative Breaks trip.

That’s what the whole week was about — putting in the work to maintain and build the place we get to come back and enjoy for years to come.