Young crew member gains perspective working on the Backbone Trail

By Martha Groves

Irvin Centeno’s tagger friends would hardly know what to make of him on the Backbone Trail.

Wearing a hat, bandanna and sunglasses to protect against the blistering sun, he used a power hedger to mow down yards of buckwheat and smilo grass crowding the path. Hours earlier and miles away, above Chicken Ridge Bridge, he and two other California State Parks workers had bent over shovel, mattock and rake hoe to dislodge years’ accumulation of parched soil to fill a rut carved by mountain bikers and rainwater.

It’s grinding work, especially for a recovering troublemaker who grew up glued to his Xbox, snacking on bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

Like the uniformed Civilian Conservation Corps workers of the Great Depression, Centeno and his trail mates labor outdoors from dawn to dusk, breaking to eat and rest in temporary overnight camps. They rise in time to hit the trail by 6:30 a.m. and knock off 10 hours later, earning not quite $10 an hour.

Some early recruits couldn’t hack it. They complained about the heat, the food, the work and the overnight spike camp accommodations, and they didn’t stick around.

Centeno, 22, wasn’t one of them. “This work brings me a lot of peace of mind,” he said. “It gets me away from where I live.”

See Martha Groves’ story: New vantage point