Butcher Paper: Dig the Dirt

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By Kristin Butcher
Photo by Jordan Manley

It’s still dark, but the alarm yells at us to get out of bed anyway. After a week like the last one, a long day on the trail is exactly what the doctor ordered. With breakfast in one hand and a much-needed cup of coffee in the other, we traipse around the house collecting gear for the big day ahead.

We walk past cycling gloves. Jerseys remain lifeless on the floor. Rooting around the garage, we dig out Carhartts forever stiffened with dirt, well-used leather gloves and, most importantly, a big, stupid, floppy hat. Sure, it looks
exactly like the one our grandmother wears, but we put it on anyway so the next week won’t be spent sloughing off remnants of sunburned skin. We already learned that lesson. Twice.

Finally in the car and ready to go, the garage door lowers and eclipses the bikes behind it. It always feels odd to head to the trail without a bike, but today is not about riding. It’s about digging the dirt. The weekend crowd has already flooded the trailhead. Bikes appear from everywhere, often accompanied by the contented sighs of riding on a beautiful Saturday morning.

With no bike to be ogled, we walk through the crowd invisible to everyone but the usual suspects. Next to the familiar faces is a pile of equally familiar tools—pulaskis, McLeods and a bevy of custom tools made late at night by folks who have worked on trails long enough to prefer a rogue hoe with an extended fiberglass handle and have a favorite pocket chainsaw.

Chatter of volunteers infiltrates the quiet morning air as trains of tool-laden trail fairies wind through the woods. Compared to riding, the walk seems painfully slow, but the unhurried pace reveals parts of the trail that usually go unnoticed. Shimmering flecks in the big, craggy rock have always been obscured by the speed necessary to clear it without losing a derailleur. And the root on that ledgy switchback seems way too small to be the same one that makes most riders dab.

Arriving at the worksite is like opening the last present on Christmas morning and wondering whether it will be an official Red Ryder lever-action 200-shot range-model BB gun—or bunny pajamas. Some days we see piles of rocks and a section of trail that desperately needs armoring; there’s talk of throwing in a new rock-over if there’s enough time. Other days we walk through the woods with increasingly full garbage bags, pissed at the jerkfaces who lose gel packets or leave bags of dog crap on the side of the trail.

But on the best days, we show up to a sinuous line of flags winding into the distance before disappearing through the trees. Our bodies move ever so slightly as we ride it in our heads. Jackpot. We become question marks hunched over working in the dirt. It’s not long before the camaraderie of the trail fairies takes over. Sweat, grime and a ridiculous love of trails.

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