Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness is a blast to explore until you smack into two uncomfortable facts:
- You’re as far as you can get in the continental United States from the nearest paved road.
- A big pine has crashed across the only trail that can get you out of there.
“I got this,” said Patrick Brown, handing me the lead rope of his mule. He unknotted a few ropes on the mule’s pack and carefully pulled out his lumberjack saw: six feet of shark-toothed steel known to old-timers as a “misery whip.” Patrick was a mule-packer for the National Park Service and ran into this kind of logjam all the time. I’d never seen a crosscut in action before, so I settled down for what I thought would be a long wait. Within seconds, I was back on my feet, riveted.
Patrick had that thing singing. He threw his whole heft into each stroke, making the teeth growl on their way in and ting-ting-ting like chorus bells on the pull back. Every bendable joint in his body was getting a piece of the action. Patrick would rear back with his fists high in his right armpit, then lunge like a fencer, following through in a grunting thrust with his back and arms. Sawdust was rocketing out of the groove. Within minutes—15 maybe? no more than 20—he’d taken a chunk out of that beast and we were on our way.
When I got home to Pennsylvania, it took only one afternoon with a chainsaw before I was scouring eBay for a crosscut of my own. I couldn’t stand the chainsaw’s scream anymore, and after watching Patrick cut loose with his backwoods Pilates, it suddenly felt stupid to just stand there and let a machine do all the work. Luckily, I found a ton of old crosscuts for sale, which I guess shouldn’t have surprised me. Crosscuts have been around forever, while chainsaws aren’t much older than boxer briefs. The first one-man chainsaw was invented in the 1950s, and that brute was so heavy and wildly dangerous that it took nearly 20 years before a homeowner’s version was available. Until then, just about anyone who had a fireplace had a crosscut hanging out back in the shed. It was only around the time your dad was giving up on bell-bottoms and suede vests that backyard machinery took over for manpower.
You know what that means, right? For thousands of years, some of the cleverest designers in the world were working to make the misery whip a perfect extension of the human body. They had to, because before we could do anything else—before we could raise pyramids, plant crops, hammer together homes, build the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria—we had to take down trees. Crosscuts settled the West and fed your great-grandpa. On the Hot 100 of Top Tools, they’re up there with spears and fire. Even Leonardo da Vinci dabbled in saw design, sketching the first known teeth that could cut on both the push and pull stroke.
I understood in a flash exactly what all those centuries of R&D were about when I got my hands on my first crosscut. (Yes, “first.” Once you get hooked and discover you can buy a beaut for around 60 bucks, it’s a quick ride from beginner to collector.) I hoisted a locust log into a sawbuck I’d built out of a few two-by-fours and, with a few short strokes, scratched out a preliminary cut. With a groove established to guide the blade, I began to relax into it, letting the saw do most of the work, until I was gliding back and forth in a motion not much harder than pushing a kid on a swing set.
Only when I stopped for a break did I realize my shirt was soaked through. For pure functional fitness, the misery whip is a one-stop gym; it requires good posture, range of motion, endurance, and pacing. Jack Dempsey knew that: before his title bouts, the Manassas Mauler always brought a crosscut and an ax to fight camp to strengthen his grip and lengthen his reach. Know who else trained with a crosscut? The stars of Boys in the Boat, the underdog amateur rowers from Seattle who defeated the world’s best to win the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics.
Here’s why: sawing by hand is harder and way slower, no argument, but it’s also irresistible. Once you get started, you don’t want to stop. Even after your arms are fried and every muscle in your back is urging you to call it a day, you’ll be tempted to push through one more slice. It feels like real work, not just a workout. Something true. Important. How often can you say that about exercise? When you walk out of the gym and someone asks you what you did, what can you say? Just a bunch of numbers. Ten reps of this, 20 minutes of that—nothing especially memorable for you or useful for anyone else.
Now try answering that question after hanging up your crosscut for the day. You don’t have to say a word. All you have to do is jerk your thumb over your shoulder at the stack of fragrant oak waiting for that first frosty evening. And the best part is you don’t even need a fireplace. You don’t even need your own trees. Because someone close to you does—a neighbor or a buddy who’s been too busy with work and his new baby to clear the deadfall in his backyard. There is no bottle of wine or box of Omaha steaks they’ll appreciate more than the cord of firewood their buddy cut for them.
And when it comes to sweat equity, you won’t find a much better way in your daily life to live up to the Ancient Greek definition of a hero: applying strength and skill in pursuit of xenia—compassion, or just plain old usefulness. It’s been 14 years since I began cutting our winters’ wood each year with a crosscut, and in that time, I haven’t once stumbled across a burning door that I needed to kick down to rescue a toddler. But the opportunity to “be fit to be useful”—as George Hébert, that old French fitness guru, put it—arrives every weekend.