If you think hard enough about it, everything is built incrementally.
Each piece doesn’t have to be the same size: Sometimes it’s a gathering of tiny movements, a big bang, a world unfolding. A feeling, a conversation, an aftermath. You can punctuate the timeline from the first spark, from somewhere in the middle, from 10 minutes ago.
It all depends on what moments you’re measuring.
For dirt trail-building in Sioux Falls, time began more than a decade ago, and it advanced another 1,000 feet this summer. You’ve seen it if you’ve run along the bike path near Yankton Trail – about a mile of dirt track peeking through the trees, entire families of cyclists veering off for a stretch of urban mountain biking. Or if you’ve gone to Leaders Park to get in a few miles of trail running or dog-walking.
It’s all part of the growing off-road recreation movement in Sioux Falls, one supported by volunteers and used by anyone interested in getting off the paved road, if just for a little while.
On a recent Friday, I sat down with Michael Christensen and Clay Austin, two of the founding members of Falls Area Single Track (FAST), to talk about what they do and why they’re doing it. The first thing you should know about these two guys is how gentle they are – soft spoken, wide open and down to earth enough to answer even the most mundane questions.
Their mission is simple, best summed up later in a text from Michael: “If we don’t have something that other communities have, I try to make the something.”
These are the people who are going to city council and parks board meetings, who had a vision, along with Chris Pierson, and then slowly and methodically knocked down barriers and red tape, addressed the concerns of neighborhoods and then hauled in machinery and hauled out stumps to build, slowly build, opportunities for recreation in the middle of the city.
Once they build the trails, they take care to maintain them, too – it doesn’t fall to the city. But the trails are open to anyone who wants to use them. I first came across them as a runner, wondering what that ribbon was alongside the bike path.
Then this summer, I dragged out my college mountain bike and took it to Leaders Park, where I remembered how you have to just get over whatever is holding you back when you try to mountain bike. It doesn’t matter if you ride the brake the entire time like I do, or if you slide all the way around a corner and lay there staring up at the sky, or if you have to stop for a moment, just wait with me, for a minute, while you try to slow your breathing down and remember that everything usually works out and everyone has to start – or restart – somewhere.
Clay and Michael don’t care. They want you out there. On foot. On your old bike. With your kids. That may be what makes them happiest.
“Just go for it,” Clay says. “You don’t need a $7,000 bike to make it work. You don’t need clipless pedals. You don’t need all that fancy stuff.”
Michael says they get a huge turnout every year for their Take a Kid Mountain Biking event. “That shows that any bike will work,” he says.
It’s true. Both my kids have been out there, bouncing along on their heavy kid bikes. They don’t know they could be lighter, or wearing fancy shoes or doing anything. They just know that they’re riding their bikes in the woods.
When you let go and do it as an adult, you know the same thing.
A decade in, Michael and Clay and the rest of the FAST board realize they’ve got something – and the city does, too. That’s why they’ve joined forces with the International Mountain Biking Association, become a nonprofit, and have set their sights on developing a few miles of single-track along Tuthill Park.
The city said yes.
They consulted with a trail-builder out of the Black Hills who can help craft a plan for the trails, follow the contours of the land, watch how water flows, avoid erosion and make it a park that’s fun to ride and reasonable to maintain. It’s one of the lessons that came out of their work on Leaders.
“The path of least resistance is not the right path,” Michael says. “People go wherever the trees aren’t, but if you want something you don’t have to maintain all the time, you have to look at terrain and make sure it isn’t too steep and water isn’t always flowing down the trail.”
“At Tuthill, everything will be 5 percent grade or less,” Clay says. “At Leaders, we have some really steep stuff.”
“Those are the mistakes,” Michael laughs.
“Yeah, you’re going to give someone a rough day,” Clay says.
They were learning.
That’s part of what the mountain biking association and the professional trail-building can help with. Then they can help do the manual labor – with help from volunteers – of pulling out stumps and clearing brush. To do that, they’re trying to raise money.
An event this past weekend touring the opportunities in town with stops at all the bike shops raised a few thousand dollars. They need about $20,000 to make this project happen. The more money they raise, the faster it can go.
But speed isn’t the goal – though everyone would prefer to be running or riding the trail rather than clearing it. They know it can be a process, and incremental is OK with them. It took three years to convince the city and the neighborhood that Leaders Park was a good spot.
People have stopped them to thank them for a new place to walk after dinner. For providing entry points to the park. For bringing in different uses for the park, different people to experience it.
A few weeks ago, I was out running at Good Earth State Park and heard someone call my name. It was Michael. He and his family were out there hiking for the first time.
“That place is great,” he told me later. He’s finding out what the rest of us on our feet have known for a while now.
“We need to get better at recruiting,” Clay laughs at the end of our meeting.
Maybe. It’s hard to get folks excited about helping carve a terrace into the side of a hill. It just sounds tiring. But we’ll be there. Because we run the trails. Or take our kids out on their bikes. Take ourselves out. Because the off-road movement is as big, if not bigger, in the running community.
It’s all recreation. It’s all of us. And it’s all in our city.
How to donate:
Visit Falls Area Single Track at http://www.fallsareasingletrack.org.
Donate here: http://www.fallsareasingletrack.org/donate
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at email@example.com. Story ideas are encouraged
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