Charge of the heavy brigade


They tell me dirt bikes cut this trail sometime in the mid-’70s. A couple pioneering spirits blazed open this and other doors to the Durango backcountry. The irony runs deep. Motors paved the way for bicycles and hiking boots. On any other day, thanks would be in order. Today is different.

Exhaust is burning in my nose, the whir of motors is whining in my ears, and I’m not riding. No, I’m standing on the side of the singletrack with my bicycle in hand. And I’m watching a trail roughed in by dirt bikes being torn up by a motor of a different color. An all-too-familiar sight is playing out before me.

Two four-wheelers, gas tanks colored in heavy camo and plumes of exhaust trailing them, are chewing up a trail formerly reserved for long-distance hikers, trail runners, horses, mountain bikes and dirt bikes. The larger of the two machines has a good sized cooler lashed to the back, and its rider sports fairly unusual backcountry apparel. A waxy pair of Hush Puppies cover his feet. A cotton Member’s Only jacket and pair of fresh Wranglers are his sole protection against the elements. A pair of large, boxy sunglasses rest atop a smaller pair of prescription lenses.

Judging from his clenched jaw and the heavy perspiration in the Member’s Only’s hinges, the rider is reasonably gripped.

You see, he, his companion and their technological terrors are only half in the singletrack. Their other two wheels are outside the trail, hanging off a steep embankment and spitting dirt, rocks and wildflowers out behind them. As they proceed, one of Durango’s singletracks is moving into the realm of double. A legendary trail is being unmade.

I watch in a state of shock as the two old timers approach. “How could you … ,” I start to shout. But the two are blinded by fear and cruising in a state of deafened, two-stroke oblivion. I move to a wide spot and let the cooler carrier pass.

“Th-Thanks, pardner,” the lead rider waves and wipes his sweaty brow. “Whadda ride, huh?” The loose hand jerks quickly back onto the handlebar and his jaw reclenches, as the fog of fear falls again. I search for words, still utterly speechless. They putter on up the trail, picnic site still many miles away. The dust never seems to fade.

And the dust hasn’t faded anytime this summer. That day, I got just my most recent glimpse of the new breed that’s taking over the Colorado backcountry. They come from the farthest reaches, riding on beasts with names like Banshee, Wolverine, Brute Force and Rhino. Like many of us, they’ve been drawn by one of our greatest strengths, a boundless trail system set on more than a million acres of public land, and they long for a taste of something wild. And I’m sorry to report that just like all of us, they have the right to be there. Our back yard is a shared heritage, belonging to motor-loving accountants from Kansas City as well as bike-crazed newspapermen in Durango.

However, that same right is sucking the wild out of our wilderness. The ATV is quick-and-easy embodied. A cozy seat, twist of the throttle and a full cooler are all you need. You can practically hear the salesman’s pitch. “Anyone can learn to ride one of these. Hell, my great aunt Vera’s been tearing up the Colorado Rockies for nearly a decade.”

But when Vera’s gone home and the hum of the engine has vanished, the damage remains.

This year alone, I’ve seen dozens of relatively pristine areas ravaged by Banshees, Wolverines and Rhinos. They range from the obvious, Farmington’s Road Apple and Aztec’s Alien trail, to the more obscure Stoner Mesa trail and Durango’s pride and joy, Hermosa Creek. They all have one thing in common, heavy tread has left a deep mark, a mark that won’t be undone for many years.

ATV use is exploding in Durango and everywhere, as the aging baby boom discovers its ticket to ride. Meanwhile our public lands managers seem powerless, wielding limp rhetoric like “strongly discouraged” and “travel management.” It’s a situation totally devoid of enforcement and the violators are wielding big guns.

As much as I wanted to tell those Hush Puppies to flip a U, pack it out and leave the cooler behind, I did not. And I cannot. But I also made a conscious decision that day. I’m done with standing trailside in a state of mute disbelief. Four-wheelers have their place, and it’s not on singletrack. If they’re not going to hear it from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, I suppose I’ll be happy to step in.

– Will Sands

 

 

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