Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bicycle Memories Part 5, Making a Single Track Trail

After months of a double transformation—my hybrid into a true mountain bike and me into a mountain biker—an idea slowly took shape in my head. I was tired of constantly looking for decent trails to ride; so, why not just create my very own off-road trail right there where I lived on the base?

Why not indeed! Well, there was one very obvious reason why not: I knew that getting authorization would be next to impossible.

From my years in the service, I knew that asking permission to do such a thing would bring a big fat “No!” And even with a “yes” the red tape would have been overwhelming. I knew that the base commander, or more likely one of his minions, would be consumed with knowing the “risks” of such an undertaking. Risk aversion is the motto of the U.S. Air Force—"the royalty of risk aversion.”

Truthfully, the idea of actually trying to get permission was but a fleeting notion anyway. I decided to just go for it.

I knew exactly where I wanted to put the trail. There is a mostly undeveloped area right in the middle of Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB). It’s a fairly large block of land, just over ½ square mile, consisting of fields and woods. One side of it borders the flight line, while the opposite side is delineated by a main drag called Arnold Drive. Base housing, where I lived, was directly across Arnold Drive from it. The only structures in this, my chosen trail-making-area, are on its perimeter; the most notable being the base commissary, Arnold Drive Elementary School, the “cop shop,” Wing Headquarters, and the Base Lake Shoppette.

The exact route that the trail would take was still hazy to me. I didn’t even know how I was going to make it. Most trails exist in nature because of constant traffic, either by humans or animals. Therefore, natural trails exist more by accident than by design. So, how was I to form one artificially? I didn’t have a clue.

On a cold overcast afternoon in mid November ‘91, I took a ride on my mountain bike out to the area that overlooked the flightline. That was as good a place to start as any. There was a natural opening into the trees from a grassy area right next to a massive patch of blackberry canes that I thought would be a good place to experiment with trail building.

I pedaled to the spot by coming up a steeply meandering access road used by base police vehicles on rare occasions—I say rare since I’d never actually seen a vehicle on it. For years I had used that road to train on by running up and down it’s 150-yard length. I’d sprint to the top, recover my breath while jogging back down, and then sprint back up. I would do that for about an hour. Except for the very bottom, trees and foliage obscured me from view as I ran; yet it was just a few hundred yards from the organized chaos of the busy LRAFB flightline.

The trees, mostly oaks with assorted other broadleaf types sprinkled in, grew thickly in that area. The ground was covered with a layer of fallen leaves. They rustled noisily as I walked. The leaves gave me an idea: Could I use them to mark the intended trail?

But first there was the course of the trail to figure out. As a trial run I mentally mapped out a short segment of the intended path. For now, "as simple as possible" seemed to be the best bet. I knew I wanted to route it from point A to B, so now, how to do that so I could actually see it to ride it?

Scraping my feet along the ground, I spent hours kicking the leaves out of the way. If you can see a trail then it exists, or so I thought. As I progressed I realize that the course’s track was developing its line mostly as the terrain would allow. I hadn’t expected that.

At all costs I wanted to steer clear of cutting down trees or hacking off limbs, and over the next five months I never did. But from the outset there was a problem—many of the branches and saplings were simply in the way. Avoiding one set of problem branches and saplings would just take me into the path of a new set. Solving this “knotty” problem without reverting to sawing or hacking turned out to be fairly easy. The answer to my problem was what I came to think of as “tree shaping.”

The “tree reshaping” process I came up with resulted from the old “necessity being the mother of invention” thing. If branches poked out into the path of the trail I folded them back, taking care not to damage them.

Of course, green wood tends to snap back; to prevent this, I had to bend and braid them. Over the weeks and months I developed three or four different techniques to do this. For instance, sometimes I’d take branches from two adjacent trees and weave them together out of the way. For others, if I couldn’t weave them, I would tie the branches together.

Saplings were usually easy to deal with. For them, I’d pull them back behind other trees or saplings, and to make sure they didn’t return to their original position I’d combine that “pull back method” with weaving to lock them in place. In late April ’92, by the time I finished with the last leg of my trail, I easily accomplished that kind of “reshaping” several thousands of times.

But much of that was in the future. On that first day, all I really managed to get done was to kick a few leaves away down to bare earth for about 70 feet of pseudo-trail.

I wasn’t able to return for two days, but finally I headed back out to my 48-hour-old trial trail to see how it looked. But there was a problem. For the most part, I couldn’t find it. The trail had disappeared from sight. The blowing wind along with more fallen leaves had completely reburied it. All that leaf kicking had been for nothing.

So, it was back to the drawing board. Leaning against a massive 75-year-old oak tree I balanced on the seat of my bike with arms folded and pondered, ‘How do I make a trail?

The answer was surprisingly easy once I found it...

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