As It Lays, As It Lies

New England’s woodlands are crisscrossed with stone walls, the remnants of a time when these forested acres were farmland. It’s a curious fact of our history that there are vastly more trees here than there were 250 years ago. Some walls are still in use as property boundaries, while others shamble through the woods at random angles, moss-covered and time-toppled. Some of the best obstacles on my mountain bike rides are old stone walls.

What you find sometimes is that dirt has piled up against the base of a wall, making what was a three-foot wall, into a two-foot wall, more easily forded by an agile cyclist. Other times, the very trails that lead to the walls take the course they do, because there is an opening, maybe once a gate, in an otherwise unbroken boulder pile. And then of course, you get to spots on the trail where opportunistic cyclists have taken stone from an old wall and constructed something they wanted to ride. This can be done tastefully, appearing mostly organic in the setting, or unartfully, looking like a bit of historical vandalism.

I’m pretty ambivalent about trail building and how it happens. One part of me loves a pirate trail, some ribbon of dirt a bunch of kids cut through the woods near their house. The other part of me thinks we need to screw a lot less with what remains of wild habitat for even the most prosaic wildlife, like squirrels and deer. I love to watch the latest MTB videos with crazy jump lines built into rugged mountainsides, but I also kinda cringe at the idea that a bunch of backhoes and other equipment is getting dragged into those forests to disrupt the natural growth.

Those trails are lies, in a way, right? Someone has removed all the actual obstacles to craft something optimized for riding.

For myself, I prefer to deal with the trail as it lays, in other words, with minimal impact on the woods and without too much shifting and moving of trees and rocks. I realize I’m in a vast gray area here, and my personal ethos on this subject is hard to define and harder to follow, especially when you spy a big, rideable rock twenty yards off the existing trail.

This all bubbled up in my brain recently when someone altered a trail I ride all the time. It was a New England classic, a rooty, twisty entry to a narrow aperture in an abandoned stone wall. As it sat for all the years I rode there, the gap in the wall was difficult to navigate, both high and jagged, with a blind exit. To get through, you needed to roll up fast, lift your front tire and place it in between two sharp, unpturned rocks, and then do a little hop to clear a small gap on the backside. Even if you were brave enough to do the first part of the move, you could catch your front wheel in the gap and still go over the bars.

On a good day, I could ride it. Any day I was off my game, I’d walk it. And so, it was a spot I loved a lot, one of those rare and dependable tests of your form. Every time I made it through I felt happy with myself.

So you can imagine how irritated I was when someone pulled all the stones out of the gap, leaving it clear down to the dirt. A simple roll through. A little shimmy of the handlebars. I could not imagine who would think they were entitled to make a change like that to a public trail. Of course, I felt entitled to the thing as it was, so I’m not standing on any moral high ground here.

But these are things we, as cyclists don’t talk about enough. For example, I know that, if I’m riding a descent and I come upon hikers moving up the incline in the opposite direction, I yield to them. I know that if I agree to ride with a group, I agree not to drop anyone for the aggrandizement of my ego, unless that’s one of the stated terms of the ride. But I’m not really sure what I am allowed to do with/to an existing trail, and I’m not sure who is communicating the social contract on this, who’s documenting the zeitgeist on trail building/maintenance.

Are we leaving no trace still? How much trace is it ok to leave?

The other day I went by the obliterated stone wall, and saw that someone had put it back together, albeit in a simpler, easier-to-ride configuration. The person I was riding with told me they’d come by when the guy was working on it. Like me, he’d been pissed off to find the obstacle removed. Unlike me, he felt empowered to fix it.