Full Metal Shovel
Born to Dig
This is my shovel. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My shovel is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my shovel is useless. Without my shovel, I am useless. I must use my shovel truly. I must dig faster than my enemy, who is time itself. I must dig before it gets me. I will. Before Digger I swear this creed: my shovel and myself are defenders of my trails, we are the masters of our craft, we are the saviours of my life. So be it, until there is no time, but perfect trails. Amen.
I have two shovels that have stuck with me for every trail I have started, abandoned, or completed. These are only shovels, but two of my most prized possessions. These two fibreglass handled beauties were purchased from a local hardware store back in 2005 and have been with me to this day. I have used these two, and only these two, as a paid trail builder, as well as a volunteer who was thrilled at moving dirt.
My shovels were on duty for many landscaping projects in my yard. They partnered with me when I was employed as a landscaper, instead of being sullied with paltry company hardware. These tools represent fond memories - ones from completed projects, as well as jobs that were never finished. These two objects represented a gateway to happiness; a moment in solitude in the forest away from everyday stresses.
Your shovel is only a tool. It is a hard heart that digs. If your building instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not build.
I would often go out to work on my trail, not because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. I built trails as a stress relief. A few hours to live in my head in complete solitude, away from everyone. Most often it seemed, building and maintaining a trail was more important than riding my bike. Even without a plan nor any direction, scratching in a line was my idea of gratification. I tried to justify riding my bike over digging, but the bike usually lost out. One part guilt plus one part obsession equaled full commitment to trail building. Choosing to ride my bike would set me back a day, while two hours of digging got me that much closer to completion.
This is trail building, and it is an addiction. It permeates your thoughts and consumes your time. It affects every facet of your life and the lives of those around you. It takes control of you and destroys your body. You spend an unnatural amount of time looking at maps, examining the hillside, imagining perfect lines through the trees. You spend more time on Google Earth than you do riding your bike. You tell shoppers at the hardware store what shovel to avoid because you have broken almost all of them. The midweek doldrums drag on and it makes your skin crawl. The forest beckons for your return.
You talk the talk. Do you walk the walk?
Writing the first draft of the story is the most fulfilling. The project’s Treatment presented in flagging tape. Taking the time to examine each contour and feature on the hillside, planning the entrance and exit of every corner. Will it be a long sweeping turn or a tight switchback? How will you control riders’ speed without hindering flow? Always in the back of my mind are the time chasers. They will always create cheat lines and braid corners, so I plan my lines to defeat them. If I am foiled by a cheater, the short line becomes the more difficult one and, of course, the quicker option. When turns are built so perfectly, that to braid them would mean that you simply don’t enjoy riding. Deep and steep berms with shallow exits - berms so effective that brakes aren’t needed. I’ve taken half a day to complete one berm to make it perfect. One fucking berm. A single pile of sculpted dirt that can be the crux of the entire trail. Planning your project around one feature can be a challenge, but without incorporating it, your whole trail has a lot less character.
There is almost nothing as beautiful as a completed trail. A perfect ribbon of manicured earth, following the contours of the hillside. It is art in its purest form. The methodical process of bench cutting through gold has no equal. We create something that wasn’t there before. We create experiences for others, whether good or bad. After all, the trail has always been there, we’re moving the dirt away that isn’t one.
A day without digging is like a day without sunshine.
Good trail building takes time to learn and adapt to. We’re all still learning, as we are only as good as our last effort. You can’t dive in and expect good results right away. Make mistakes and learn from them, because even the best builders have produced forgettable trails. I’ve started trails and had to abandon them because I couldn’t figure out the flow. I’ve constructed trails around a single feature, while trying to envision the story.
Your technique requires training because it’s so destructive to your body. I’ve come out of the bush so tired that I could barely walk, and that’s far from hyperbole. I’ve bonked more than once, left my gear on the trail so I could find food. I woke up the next day with shoulders so sore and my back wrecked that I couldn’t think about riding. But what would immediately consume my brain would be finishing my trail.
You write "Born to Dig" on your shovel and you don’t ride a bike. What's that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
I’ve gone three consecutive years without riding a bike, but I couldn’t go that long without trail building. I didn’t own a mountain bike and I was out almost every weekend sculpting dirt. Why? Because it’s a fucking addiction. I missed using my shovels more than my need to ride. The love of the process of building was my motivation. When I used my flatty to bench cut through gold, the results were more rewarding than riding my bike.
My shovels are well used - the steel spades have worn down from years of earth moving. They have outlasted a couple of cheap chainsaws and many more picks. I have tried cheaper alternatives as back ups, but those shovels couldn’t withstand the demands of trail building. I have broken many imitations, but in all that time, my two shovels have stood strong. Never faltering, never giving anything up to the task at hand. They were used as levers to move large boulders, twisted and groaned under heavy loads. They have served as tampers to pound wet soil. My shovels have even served as javelins to scare off packs of coyotes and curious bears.
Although my battle hardened shovels have served me well, they are retired from active duty. They helped realize my desire to help positive experiences for others. These tools weren’t ordinary trail building implements, they were building memories. They allowed me to construct trails for everyone to enjoy, and with that comes a certain level of pride. Years have gone by and priorities have changed. I have moved on from building mountain bike trails and now my shovels sit silent.
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Documenting my experiences and travels through photography.