I remember picking out shoes as a grade schooler. “Gription” was my overriding concern. Whether playing soccer on the grass or dodgeball on the concrete, I wanted posi-traction. I was color blind and brand unconscious- just give me purchase for my purchase. I want good tread!
As an adult, when it comes to analyzing boots, I’m probably as clueless as most buyers and not much smarter than I was at 10. Sure, a boot has to feel good. But after that? I grab the boot, twist it, hold it at arm’s length and try to look pensive in regarding my potential purchase. But I really don’t know what I’m looking at: stitch patterns, optimal buttressing bits, tongues, rands, eyelet configurations, heel cup depths?
I queried my personal insole provider on these mysteries, being that he’s had the unfortunate position of not only getting up close and personal with my mangled phalanges, but those of thousands of others as well. And he’s not an engineer, ready to provide a treatise on any and all of these singular topics. He gives it to me straight but obtuse, “All those things are important to some extent, but it’s all about the quality of the materials and the care taken in engineering and manufacturing.”
So it is with the trails we love. It’s not just the tread. It’s all the big things, from the mouth-agape, more-than-words-can convey destination or a set of steps near the summit that are just a wee bit lower and flatter than what you had bounded up 1,000 vertical feet ago.
Often, your everyday enjoyment is dependent on those little things that we don’t often recognize—care and craftsmanship.
From conscientious brushing back of the trail edges in the spring to the forward-thinking trail design that doesn’t hold or carry water and become muddy morass or a v-shaped trench, there’s a good bit of thoughtfulness in a good trail. Trail builders, like boot builders, are crafting experiences for us.
Whether they are an army volunteers on a Saturday morning, a youth corps “learning the value of physical labor”, that kind of creepy guy you see carrying a pick mattock on his hike, or the people that are paid to do it, developing, caring for, and managing our recreational experiences entails a crudely nuanced but very educated outlook on the land.
Good trails depend upon insights regarding the cumulative factors of the simple kinesiology and physics forces of movement, to more variable local geology, hydrology, and ecology. Matched with the more difficult-to-predict climatology and environmental responses and the sometimes impossible group psychology of recreational use and motivation, and you start to believe that this trail building thing is a bit quixotic- unheralded, doomed to well-intentioned failure, and maybe even a bit ridiculed.
But just like the boot that “works”, many of the magical moments outside wouldn’t happen without these trail builders’ devotion to their beautiful Dulcinea.
In a season of giving thanks, let’s give a boot full to the engineers, designers, and crafty folks who kept our feet protected and happy and our eyes on the beauty of being outside.
Huzzah to you boot makers and trail builders! You do your work without a bunch of eyes admiring your craft, and your toils are not often the fodder for cocktail party banter. You smell of strange things, least offensive of which is dirt-caked sweat. And you may be a tad over sensitive about the arcane quality details or hardships endured to make your creation happen.
Stand tall craftspeople! Your work, as an old BASF commercial stated, is done to make the rest of our work better. And we appreciate you! You may unknowingly be the best mental care providers available, even if you don’t see many of your patients.
Unfurl your brows, take some credit, and go back to the drawing table, the lab, and the trail. We trail lovers need you, and your product testing weeks on the trail, your sunrises and sunsets that seem to evade the rest of us too often, and your primal ties to the weather, seasons, and wildlife.
And when someone asks about work at the next cocktail party, just let them know you work with a bunch of likeminded people in a great office setting… it’s really all about the tread to most of us.
Scott Linnenburger is a trail builder and co-founder of Kay-Linn Designs, based in Boulder, Colorado.