When I lived in Brooklyn I used to frequent an Italian restaurant. The proprietor was quite proud of his neighborhood bona fides and lifelong tenure, and he’d always make sure new customers understood that he’d been there long before the yuppies arrived. One day, as I dined, I listened to him regale a table with the tale of how he’d contributed to the charming character of the neighborhood. “You know those hedges around the corner?” he asked rhetorically, as his indifferent customers attempted to eat their antipasto. “I planted those hedges!”
The diners were not impressed. Brooklyn is a place of many world-famous landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge, Prospect Park, and the Coney Island boardwalk. The hedges around the corner from the Italian joint are not among them, and are of interest to virtually nobody, with the possible exception of the neighborhood dogs. Nevertheless, I can now relate to his wildly overblown sense of pride, because recently, I helped to do some trail work.
If you’re new to mountain biking—or even worse, a roadie—it may surprise you to learn that trails don’t just magically appear in the forest like fairies and toadstools. Rather, they are generally the work of indefatigable volunteers who tend to them in their spare time. When a tree falls, or a storm washes away a section of trail, or some high school kids have a beer-fueled pukefest on prom night and don’t clean up after themselves, it’s your local trail stewards who deal with it all. As the busboy clears your table well before you’ve even had a chance to sit down, so do your local volunteers see to it that the trails are tidy and rideable for your weekend hammerfest.
When riding off-road, I strive to be scrupulous and considerate, and I’m well aware of the consequences of poor deportment. I try to stay off the trails when they’re muddy, I yield to both hikers and their ill-behaved dogs, and I refrain from blasting butt rock from my handlebar speakers at all times. However, I’d be lying if I said I go the extra mile of, you know, helping to build or maintain trails. In this sense, I’m like a responsible high school student who went home after prom instead of joining the puke party, and got a brand-new Mercedes for graduation: sure, I may be getting good grades and stopping at all the red lights, and I suppose that counts for something, but deep down I’m troubled by the knowledge that I haven’t paid my dues.
Nevertheless, despite this faint sense of self-awareness, I’d probably have cruised on in luxurious leather-swaddled comfort indefinitely if it weren’t for my son. See, he’s recently become involved in scouting, which means he’s got to find lots of ways to be helpful. (I was never a scout, which could explain why my helping muscle is woefully underdeveloped.) He also likes to ride bikes. Thinking about potential volunteer opportunities to feed his relentless hunger for patches, it occurred to me that helping with some trail work would be a great way to teach him about mountain biking, earn him some new embroidery, and most importantly, assuage my nagging guilt. So we joined the monthly trail maintenance party at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.
Highbridge Park is tiny and contains just a few miles of trails, but I’ve long marveled at its sheer improbability and the huge amount of work it took to create Manhattan’s only legal mountain bike spot. And while I’ve ridden there, and written about it, I’d never actually done anything to help physically sustain it. This is a considerable failure on my part, because Highbridge Park feels like it’s constantly on the verge of being subsumed by the urban environment that surrounds it. The trails themselves are etched into a cliffside that sits below street level, which means that not only does rainwater inundate them with natural debris, but people also dump all manner of trash onto them. Auto parts and sundries comprise the majority of the refuse—imagine the aftermath of a Pep Boys explosion and you’ve got the idea—but building supplies, clothing, sporting goods, and spent intoxicant containers also account for a fair share of it. In two hours of combing the trails, along with a group of schoolkids who had also signed up to help, we filled enough garbage bags to put up a roadblock on the Harlem River Drive.
After we were finished, my son and I got on our bikes, and for the first time I rode the Highbridge trails with the knowledge that I’d actually played a tiny role in nurturing them. The pride I felt was grossly disproportionate to my minuscule contribution, but I basked in the afterglow for the rest of the day. Even better was my son’s declaration—“I like mountain biking”—and the knowledge that he was learning the rudiments of trail maintenance and riding technique simultaneously, meaning his mountain bike foundations will potentially be much more sound than my own.
Trail maintenance is a lot like bike maintenance: when the sun is shining and you have a few hours to spare you’d much rather ride than work. However, once you roll up your sleeves and get to it, it can be just as engaging as a ride itself, and the swelled head you’ll have afterwards is just as rewarding as a pair of sore legs. As my son and I left Highbridge that day, I took a parting glance at the contractor bags lining the curb on Fort George Avenue: See that trash? I thought to myself. I bagged that trash.