I picked up Dirt Work by Christine Byl for various reasons: I liked the cover and the title, I enjoyed reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and thought that this would be something like that, and I like the idea of going to national parks for work. In Dirt Work, Byl recounts her early years as a trail dog. After graduating college with an English degree, Byl didn’t really know where her life would take her so she decided to give herself some time to figure it all out by taking some seasonal work at Glacier National Park. She entered a man’s world, hauling rocks, building fences, marking trails, and felling trees; she fell in love with the land and the work and the challenge of physically exerting herself in ways she never did before. Seasons came and went and Byl remained a trail dog, moving up the ranks, with her husband by her side. Byl’s piece of work is not a memoir per se, as it doesn’t really have a storyline. She warns readers about this very early on in the book. Her writing of this piece is not to satisfy readers, but instead to satisfy herself and to pay homage to the land, her youth, and this period of her life.
Although Byl’s writing is beautiful, it is also very time consuming. The whole book reads more like a poem than prose and at times it became heavy and disconnected from the raw, physical subject matter. Half way through the book, my reading pace slowed as I found myself unable to breeze past Byl’s extensive use of metaphor, four-letter-words, and lists of trail dog words that make the reader feel like they’re on the outside of an inside joke. At times like these, it became apparent that Byl was writing more with herself in mind than with the reader in mind. I had to keep reminding myself that at least she did give me fair warning that this would be the case.
All things aside, however, Byl is able to create mental pictures for the reader where the language is almost as beautiful as what I expect the real sight would be. She is also talented at connecting her trail work to everyday life at various points in the novel. Below are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
When you’re dead tired and in love with the world, the shabbiest trappings can make for home. -46
The optimist in me hopes that people will always have the good sense to protect this place, and feels lucky for what I’ve received here. The pessimist in me knows that eventually, we kill what we love. -167
Nothing stays the same. The old days always seem like the good ones. From far off, it’s easy to mistake rust for gold. -224
Overall, I think that if you are interested in the subject matter and have some time to dedicate to an intricately written book, you should give Byl’s Dirt Work a try. If you are looking for something leisurely and light, this isn’t the read for you.