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Land of OZ

Northwest Arkansas finds its own Emerald City

I wasn't entirely surprised to see a restaurant's claw machine game filled solely with plastic pigs after crossing into Arkansas, but walking into Bentonville's 21c–a hotel so hip it can get away with having the moniker of a basement apartment–I'm dumbfounded.

The lobby isn't a lobby, but a gallery filled with artistic works that are the antithesis of color-coordinated couch art. The pieces are curious and beautiful and fairly disturbing–and you can touch it all. I mean, you're not supposed to, but there's no authoritative velvet rope separating Joe Public from the art. Instead, the trust imparted onto patrons creates a surprisingly effective barrier. After pedaling back to the hotel from a trail ride that stretched from morning until late afternoon, I discover the hotel showers have black lights, peppermint shampoo and cilantro conditioner. For the first time in my life, I'm proud of myself for not eating any personal grooming products.

This ridiculously trendy hotel, a $1.2 billion art museum that's free to the public and more than 250 miles of purpose-built mountain bike trails are just a few signs that Northwest Arkansas has plenty of surprises up its flannel sleeve. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that none of this existed 10 years ago, and yet its story began nearly a century before and continues well into the future as generations redefine what it means to build trails around communities–and to build communities around trails.


WHAT GOES DOWN MUST COME UP

Wilburn Powell isn't fit 'for a man in his 70s.' He's just fit. Muscular biceps protrude from his sleeveless jersey, and frankly with arms like his, there's not much point in owning any other kind. He builds trail, mountain bikes and once pedaled more than 70 miles on a stripped spindle, because that's what you do when you're Wilburn Powell and your pedal falls off during a century.

Powell led our group down Arkansas's iconic Womble trail, a 37-mile singletrack ribbon in west-central Arkansas awarded IMBA's first Epic Trail designation in 2005. When the trail necked down to little more than a wrinkle against the forested bluff, advice came from over his shoulder. "If you fall," he shouted, "Try to grab something quick, because it's a long way down." A hundred feet below sat the Ouachita River, a beastly waterway that's drawn people to this area as long as people have lived here.

There are lots of great trails, but there aren't many like Womble, parts of which originated with the Civilian Conservation Corps–a Great Depression-era work relief program created in the 1930s when labor was cheap and craftsmanship was priceless. Throughout the country, young men toiled away in dirt and stone, leaving quiet legacies for an unwritten future. Many modern trailbuilding principles began with these proprietors of hard work, long before riding on dirt was ever called mountain biking.

A guttural shout of luck-gone-bad broke the evening silence as shadows of elongated riders skittered to a halt next to our wheels. Powell's crumpled body tumbled down the steep slope and dirt crumbled as I careened down to meet him. Gripping a sapling with one shaky hand and Powell with the other, his overly alert eyes met mine. "I guess I should have listened to my own advice," he said and scaled the hillside as though falling down a bluff is an everyday occurrence. The next morning, Powell got up and taught his 8 a.m. spin class.

Powell is a Traildog, and it takes a lot more than a little spill down an embankment, quadruple bypass or double-knee replacement to keep a Traildog down.

 


 

OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS

The old-fashioned diner at Mount Ida's Shangri-La Resort isn't the kind of place you'd expect to be at the heart of three IMBA Epics, nor is the group of retirees sipping coffee, comparing surgical scars and busting each other's chops like only good friends can. They talk about the first ride after Powell's heart attack a few years ago. "That's the ride where we tried to kill him. We call it the Wilburn Powell Memorial Ride, but he survived." The table erupts with laughter.

Mount Ida's version of Shangri-La is an old-fashioned diner; Wilburn Powell and Ron Mayfield at the Womble trail; the Traildogs have been building and riding together for 25 years; swapping stories over banana cream pie.

The Traildogs are a ragtag mix of around 30 retirees who spend their days mountain biking, hiking, building trails and making the world a little better than it was the day before. As they trade stories, it's hard to know whether to be more impressed by their collective trailbuilding experience or the fact that they're all having banana cream pie for breakfast.

In addition to helping other volunteer groups maintain the Womble and Ouachita trail's 250 miles of singletrack, the Traildogs put in more than 12,000 hours of volunteer work to create the 45-mile Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, known affectionately as LOViT.

"It all started with Jerry Shields," says Derwood Brett. "He's our Alpha Dog." Shields envisioned a trail for mountain bikers and hikers that skirted the south shore of Lake Ouachita, connecting lakeside resorts and campgrounds. Of course, a vision without support is another daydream destined to be forgotten, but Shields isn't some schmoe with an idea; he's a Traildog. So he got to work.

Starting in 2002, Shields' penchant for relationship building brought together enough agencies and volunteer groups that listing them all is a tedious exercise in acronyms. Every winter, the Traildogs put in a few more miles of trail. As the vision gained traction, grants and donations allowed the Traildogs to bring in professional trailbuilders to complete the system in 2014. Since then, both LOViT and the Ouachita trail were designated IMBA Epics, bringing the state's total to five.

"There are very few times in your life when you get the opportunity to make a difference," Brett says. "At the end of the day, we feel like we've had an impact that will be around long after we are," adds Robert Cavanaugh.

The sentiment hits close to home. Shields would be here too, but he's in the hospital. It's pancreatic cancer and, well, cancer sucks. There's a lot of worry hanging at the forefront of everyone's thoughts, but the reality is that life has always been a finite experience, even when the vigor of youth tries to convince us otherwise.

After more than a decade, Shields' daydream winds through forested valleys traversing five mountains and dances along drainages that entice riders to stop for a swim in the lake below. With LOViT completed, the Traildog members turn to endeavors like supporting the nascent Arkansas High School Cycling League, building shelters for bikepacking the Ouachita trail and running the longstanding Ouachita Challenge that draws 500 riders to the rural area annually.

During a rare moment of seriousness, Ron Mayfield speaks of the vacancy at the table. "We stand on Jerry's shoulders," he says. Heads nod in agreement when Brett interjects, "Which is easy because he's so short." Amid a diner alive with grown men giggling, a Traildog asks, "Back in '91, would any of you thought this would be here?" Heads shake sideways answer with a unanimous 'no.'

"Well, Jerry did."

 


 

WELCOME TO OZ

Back in 2005, Arkansas was noted in mountain bike circles almost solely for the Womble. But today, chatter focuses a few hours north as the nation's most rapidly expanding network spreads through the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas.

 

 

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BENTONVILLE AND BEYOND

Can you create a cycling community from scratch? What if there aren't any trails? What if it's in a state that ranks among the nation's most obese?

It turns out you can, as long as you start with a long-range plan and the support of people who can answer the question, "What would you do if you had a gazillion dollars?" Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, are both avid mountain bikers who believe trails can change communities. Together, they have used their interest in mountain biking to help direct $13 million of Walton Family Foundation funding toward singletrack throughout the region.

The Oz Trail boom began a decade ago with just 5 miles of purpose-built trail accessible from downtown Bentonville, the city Walmart calls home. That first phase of the Slaughter Pen trails in 2007 cultivated municipal and community buy-in, and became a rallying point for volunteer organizations like the Friends of Arkansas Singletrack (FAST). With a groundswell of interest in developing more riding opportunities, matching grants from the Walton Family Foundation helped create more than 50 miles of trails accessible from downtown Bentonville, resulting in a veritable mountain-bike Disneyland. Unlike the Ouachita's backcountry experiences, trails here entice even the most navigationally challenged users to explore dirt to their heart's content.

The original Walmart is a landmark in Bentonville's Town Square

These are the types of trails that create mountain bikers, with features like path-side water-dispensers that perfectly fit water bottles and, incidentally, heads also. Designed with the intention of giving new riders a place to start and experienced riders a place to go, wooden stunts and rock obstacles add salt and pepper to the flowy trails. The beginner-friendly All American Trail threads next to the famed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, exposing Picasso and Warhol seekers to mountain biking.

A quick pedal from a city park featuring a cement pumptrack and kid-friendly skills course leads to a berm-tastic jump trail and in-town freeride park. Downhill runs at the new Coler trails provide big-bike fun, with a bevy of cross-country loops planned for the future. Ten years ago, Bentonville didn't have a bike shop or brewery, but expanding trail opportunities brought bike-inspired businesses to town, like Phat Tire Bike Shop, Bike Rack Brewing Company and Pedaler's Pub.

Dale Bailey passes on his passion for riding and altruism to his daughter, Tandie.

FAST founder Dale Bailey and his daughter Tandie's excitement for riding began as a product of the trails in the area, but as their passion grew, they too became part of Oz's recipe for success. Watching them together, it's easy to get lost in the beauty of two generations finding different homes on the same trails. Dale's clad in spandex with wheels that stay happily married to the ground, while Tandie prefers baggies and hucking off drops. Dale's worked on trails as long as he's been riding them; Tandie helps new riders by coaching clinics and leading group rides.

"It's amazing how many people are on the trails now," Dale says, but without the annoyance Coloradans have when talking about California transplants. He's happy. Actually, he's downright giddy. "We are tickled to death," Dale says with a childlike grin that somehow feels right at home next to his deep voice wrapped in an Arkansas accent. "If the riders stack up, we'll just make more trails," he says in a way that lets you know this would be a dream come true.
Dale builds trails. Tandie builds community. Together they build the foundation of the future.

 


 

YELLOW BRICK TRAILS

Just up the road from Bentonville, connected via the Razorback Regional Greenway, are Bella Vista's Blowing Springs and Back 40 trail networks. Unless you're an endurance junky, you'll need more than one day to ride the 40 miles of singletrack at the Back 40. You'll also need more than one spare tube, thanks to shark-toothed limestone slivers that serve as one of the only clues that these trails didn't exist a year ago.

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Don't let the speed with which these trails were constructed fool you. These aren't rake-and-ride routes, but bench-cut giggle-tracks carved into darkened loam soils and cut into shale-laden limestone as part of a herculean yearlong effort by six trailbuilding companies. The trails create an impression of being miles from anything resembling a city, as slowly chosen lines through rocky outcroppings suddenly dip into another world, and spring-side alcoves create tangible drops in temperature. Cars with out-of-state plates are parked at the trailhead less than a week after the grand opening.

Thirty miles south of Bentonville, Fayetteville's prolific trail systems include Mount Kessler, where riders hone slow-speed handling skills lurching through Rock City's namesake outcroppings. Together, Bentonville and Fayetteville form the Northwest Regional Ride Center, IMBA's only such regional designation.

The real magic of the Oz Trails is that whatever kind of riding you're after, you'll find it. The awesomely quirky town of Eureka Springs integrates steep in-town riding with nearly 25 miles of trail at Lake Leatherwood, including the region's first downhill trail. Farther south, Upper Buffalo offers a decidedly backcountry feel while being the kind of place where you pull up mid-week to a trailhead miles down a dirt road and find a Prius already parked there.

"This isn't just about building trails for 25-year-old guys," remarks Steuart Walton. "It's about building a happier, healthier community."

 


 

THE TRAIL TO TOMORROW

It's easy to pick up on the fact that Clayton and Nathan 'Woody' Woodruff are brothers, and not just because Woody 'shares' his Clif Bar with Clayton by giving him exactly one crumb. They have the same smile, the same sharp wit and the same big ideas. Progressive Trail Design (PTD) is one of those ideas. In 2006, at a time when few had heard of professional trailbuilders specializing in mountain bike trails, Woody stumbled upon the chance to build singletrack in his backyard.

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Ten years later, PTD's fingerprints are on nearly every local trail system in the form of elaborate stonework, sculpted features and an eye for clever solutions. When a matching Walton Family Foundation grant helped the city of Rogers develop an in-town bike park, The Railyard was born. The first fully lit bike park sends riders through an old train car in homage to Rogers' historic railways. "The opportunities around here ultimately gave us a way to express our art," Woody says. Clayton nods in agreement.

Josh Hardy and Clayton Woodruff.

But the truth is that Woody created many opportunities himself. When municipalities shied away from building bike parks due to ongoing maintenance costs, he partnered with a skate park company to form Progressive Bike Ramps and now cities are embracing the enterprise's modular pumptracks, skills features and trail structures. Progressive Playgrounds specializes in installing bike features and trails at area schools where cycling can be incorporated into everything from P.E. to after-school programs. For today's trailbuilders, their work is a labor of love that allows them to pass the torch on to future generations one experience at a time.

 


 

THREE 3-NAPKIN BURGERS, SIR

The Burger Barn called to us in the darkness.

After a full day of riding with too little food, the dimly lit shack's appearance wasn't just convenient–it was a miracle. Flickering amber lights illuminated a sign advertising a '3 Napkin Burger' next to a phone number without an area code. The Burger Barn's hours were listed as "Open 7 days a week–unless I'm gone," and though it was almost 9 o'clock on a Tuesday night, the man in the window looked like he'd been waiting for us all evening.

We poured out of the car with grins as large as the hunger raging inside us and stared down the list of burgers, each sounding more delicious than the one before. "What do you recommend?" we asked the silver-haired proprietor.

He looked at us like we'd ordered Pumpkin Spice Frappuccinos with fat-free whipped cream and answered, "It's been too long of a day for questions like that." His graveled tone let us know we better not plan on any more malarkey if we want 3-napkin burgers. We adopted a military school's affection for the word 'Sir' and submitted our order while anxiously flattening crumpled dollar bills into something that would fit in a register.

As we sat beneath a canopy of Christmas lights, the couple next to us looked amused. "Don't worry, he's always like that," they assured. Surrounded by tchotchkes and a dozen roaming kittens, we chatted with strangers while devouring the best 3-napkin burgers and fried pickles ever served from a shack in the middle of nowhere.

After a few weeks in Arkansas, you stop being surprised by the torrential rains conjured from crystal-clear skies, the simple beauty of fall leaves surfing waves of rolling hills or the juxtapositions of old and new around every corner. The fact that Arkansas is home to a trail renaissance stops being surprising as well. After all, this renaissance has been underway for nearly a century.

Northwest Arkansas's legacy of trails is in safe hands, even if the hands tasked with shaping the future are still too small to understand the power they will one day hold. Passion from generations past and present echo through the woods, passing along the love of nature from stranger to stranger. And therein lies trails' greatest gift: Though the names of those responsible for trails are forgotten in time, they're forever etched in dirt.

 

 


 

 

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