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The Forgotten Trails - an essay by Dillon Osleger

The Forgotten Trails

Riding towards a sustainable singletrack future with Rapha athlete and Sage Trail Alliance director Dillon Osleger.

25 February 2022

Sustainable trail advocacy starts with a deep love for the land. Dillon Osleger knows this all too well. Between his day job as Executive Director of Santa Barbara’s Sage Trails Alliance and his work as a leading voice of mountain bike land stewardship, he still finds the time to move dirt – both as a skilled digger and a truly ripping rider.

Dillon is very much the mountain biker version of Seuss’ Lorax; a passionate and hopeful advocate for the lands we love to ride. In fact, it’s hard not to feel inspired about the future of trails – and the future of this Earth we all hold so dear – when reading his words. In his Forgotten Trails essay, Dillon explains how we needn’t always build new trails, just uncover old ones.

The Forgotten Trails

Words: Dillon Osleger

I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. The result of my toil is not mine, and not theirs, but representative of the place that we all strived to travel through. The patch of earth I dig, the trees I hew in half and the streams I lay bridges across are marked on some maps, but not on others. And not all of the trails I build are of my own design or hand.

Like anyone else, I grew up and found bikes because they brought joy. I didn't care if the dirt ribbon I followed was built by human hand or by other means. My first mountain bikes were made of steel, had at best 100mm of elastomer suspension in the fork, and sure as hell didn't have a computer mounted to the stem.

If anything stood out, it was the sheer number of trails I found on old maps. They no longer appeared on any application or in planning documents for trail building. But it didn't take long to realise that these forgotten trails were much more to my liking than those found online.

Trails from the Civilian Conservation Corps era (1930s) were steep, rocky and led deep into the backcountry. Trails made by indigenous people (3000 years old+) followed sinuous paths through valleys to peaks and meadows. Booster map trails (1800s) led to dilapidated cabins and gold rush mines. And as the destinations of these trails fell out of favour, the government simply erased them from published maps and stopped maintaining them.

Over decades, government spending on trail maintenance dwindled and public interest in trails and the outdoors faded, leaving these trails to be swallowed back up by nature. Today, there are over 160,000 miles of trail in National Forests in the US, yet only 50,000 miles are maintained. The remaining 70% of trails? The government has declared it is $313 million short for what it needs to repair them.

And that's why I find myself out here digging a line no longer plotted on maps. From the top of Pine Mountain I face north towards the Mojave Desert, the foreground a mix of pines and firs, some burnt long ago and some generations younger. The trail here lies under a few inches of dirt, its path only discerned by old crosscut logs every few hundred feet.

But beneath the dirt it runs for five miles, meandering between cacti, swooping under pines and scratching a path through chaparral brush. With 3500 feet of descent, steep loamy corners, ridge line traverses and burly rock gardens, it can be linked with two other restored historic trails for a ride of 20 singletrack miles and 12,000 feet of descent.

All these years tracing maps under stove light and searching for new trails on my bike haven't been acts of charging forwards, but circling, going deeper with each pass. Cyclical like the seasons. Whether it's a fast track to a new route or finding deeper meaning in the trails themselves, there's a plethora of forgotten lines in the dirt out there, just waiting to be found.

Dillon Osleger has a M.Sc. in Earth Sciences from the University of California Santa Barbara, a B.Sc. in Geology and Snow Science from Montana State University, minors in both Hydrology and Astrobiology/Physics, and serves as the Executive Director of the Sage Trails Alliance, which Rapha is proud to support with funding.

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