“Found out June 3 is National Trails Day!” my friend Cher emailed me on June 2nd. “Didn’t know there was such a thing. Maybe you want to do something?”
I’d never heard of National Trails Day and went online to investigate. Begun in 1993 by the American Hiking Society, it’s the first Saturday of June. Last year 466 events were held nationwide and $2.8 million worth of service was performed on 1,200 miles of trail. Do something? I had to do something. I found a work party beginning at 8 AM at Young Gulch and decided to go. Cher is living in Vietnam now and couldn’t join, but I was grateful for her nudge.
It was a feeling of obligation, similar to when I send money to Wikipedia, accompanied by guilt. Here I am: a user, hiking like crazy while writing “Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range.” Furthermore I’ve been hiking all my life. And never once had I worked on a trail. I’d done plenty of griping though! “Ugh, why isn’t this trail better?” I’ve grumbled many times. Finally I was actually going to help.
First I had to get there, which entailed flying from the East Coast where I’d been visiting and rising after only a few hours of sleep. “What am I doing?” I wondered as I staggered to the car.
I reached the trailhead at 7:30 am and entered a hitherto unseen, parallel universe: the subculture of The People Who Build the Trails. Wow! A team had breakfast spread out, vats of coffee, and a make-your-lunch station. Vans and trucks had arrived and guys were laying out color-coded tools. As a smiling Forest Service representative looked on, leaders of three volunteer groups organized 35 of us into squads. This effort was being run by Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, Overland Mountain Biking Club, and CATS. Cats?
“Colorado Addicted Trailbuilders Society,” explained my group’s foreman, Bob Johnson, who is their field director and vice president. He and his wife have built trail most weekends for the past 15 years. On some weekday evenings they build community trail closer to home.
Wow, I thought, as I hoisted two pickaxes and followed my squad up the hillside. What makes these people tick? I got the feeling they didn’t walk trails much – they just built them. They sure were passionate and enthusiastic.
Young Gulch was wiped out by a 2012 fire and subsequent flood. A new five-mile trail, staked out in 100-foot increments, was being built on a sustainable route higher on the gulch’s sides. After more than a year the teams had reached markers 48 and 49 (just under a mile). My squad’s task was to build a 24-foot-long, two-layer-high rock wall on a poison oak-infested hillside to support the trail.
It was HARD work. I learned so much terminology! The “critical edge,” or outer edge of the trail, was marked by flags and we had to take care not to tread on it. First job was to go “rock shopping” for the first layer, then haul them in by four-person teams using a sling. Rocks one person can carry are too small for the first layer. After getting them in place we’d “chink” each layer, which meant pounding small rocks into the inner edge to further wedge in the big rocks. We did a similar thing on the outer bank only this was called “riff-raffing.” We broke for lunch and got right back to work, racing toward a 3 PM completion.
“Okay, dirt it! Dirt it!” cried Bob enthusiastically at 2:30 as he hopped between our site and another wall being installed a short distance away. We used our own dirt, and other teams brought more in bags. And we did it! We finished right on time: seven people working a day to create a section of trail that took three seconds to walk across. It was beautiful.
“We built it right,” said Bob. “This will probably be here in 100 years.”
I’d begun to understand what makes these people tick. I felt the accomplishment. We’d built it right. Thousands of people will spend three seconds walking across it for a hundred years.
The hike back with my crew was beautiful. I felt changed – like I had a whole new awareness. For one thing I was grateful that at age 53 I had finally lifted a finger to help with a trail. Going forward would not be a question of continuing to help, simply a question of how much. A day a year? Three? Seven? It wouldn’t be zero.
Furthermore, I feel an elevated gratitude for this thing called the trail that has been rolling beneath my feet all these years. Hiking these past two weeks, there has not been a single rock wall I did not notice and appreciate. In some cases I’ve been in utter awe of the execution and craftsmanship, knowing the effort required!
We got back, washed the tools to mitigate poison ivy oil, and sat around drinking freezing soda pops. Many then headed off to drink beer at a nearby pub. Happy and exhausted, I went home, threw my clothes and gloves in the washer to soak with lots of soap in effort to denature poison oil, and put myself in the shower to do the same. I went to bed, rose at 9 PM to eat, and returned to sleep like a rock until morning.
And I never got poison oak!