A renowned authority in trail conservation, Dillon Osleger blends his extensive roles as a scientist, trail builder, and environmental advocate with a deep commitment to conservation. Osleger's work, centered in California, focuses on enhancing trail conditions and promoting environmental stewardship. This unique perspective to the discussion of trails in the intersection of nature, history, and outdoor activity is introduced in the first part of his nine-part series, “Terroir of Trails”. As he reveals the transformation of trails over time from an ancient trade route to a modern path for recreation and sport, this exploration combines historical significance with environmental and cultural insights to enrich our understanding and appreciation of the trails we traverse.
A faint, zig zagging, dashed line on the map, lit by early morning light and a glow from the slowly crackling embers of a fire from the night before suggests time in all of its capacities.
This line was etched into landscape, between thorny chaparral and along either side of a dry, sandstone ridge, well before the declaration of independence was drafted, if not well before the “discovery” of the Americas at all. Its first iterations were carved into earth thousands of years prior by Native Americans, each subsequent inhabitant altering or eroding it deeper into place.
In paradoxical contrast to its old past, the nervousness of foretold future suffering in the ensuing hours spent traversing up that trail did not make me feel any younger in the moment. But this trail was never built for mountain biking, nor trail running, it was terraced from the hillside as trade route from sea to inland prairie, eventually modified for sheep herding, and finally for access to mining claims, all under the needs of peoples within overlapping time periods, all attempting to coax an existence out of an unforgiving, if not picturesque, landscape. It was for this past that predated lugged trail running shoes and mountain bike tires by millennia that made the experience exactly that which epitomizes the sports themselves.
Uphill sections of the trail existed at gradients preferred for expediency and the indefatigable nature of mules. Descents consisted of the entire spectrum of rock size, embedded loosely into sandy soil so as to leave the possibility of coming free entirely up to entropic chance. Trail bed fluctuated between widths as wide as wagon wheels to the span of two sizes 44.5 feet put together.
For all the above, one would anticipate a slower pace, a caution relative to remoteness and larger goals than exploring unfamiliar trails, and yet there is a trust that is placed in both self and modern equipment that throws caution to the wind.
It is this learned braille that comes with relative familiarity, that similar flavor between what we have experienced before - the loose surfy feeling found on loose dirt over hard pack in the West as it is on wet roots along the Eastern seaboard, the knowledge of the liminal spaces between what is the extent of fun and finding oneself on the ground. It is these sensations of finding the familiar and foreign within someplace new, reading new trails on the fly, and connecting with the landscape in primal understanding that make us all fall in love with the cadence of stride and pedal stroke. A conversation between place, ourselves, and medium of transport, translated through the subtle dance of feet and hips.
If there is anything at all to make us slow down and appreciate this complex concerto between the many facets of nature, history and the present moment of athletic pursuit, it is texture and context.
Context is the villages, denoted by dots within valleys along the trail’s corridor. Places where people have gathered to create an existence across generations, where culture has been emplaced in everyday movements that are different from those of any place else. Texture is the tightly spaced contour lines that lie perpendicular to the trail’s ascent up mountain passes, the steep fields of metamorphic scree that bring us back to our primitive selves. It is this merger of the earth making us raw through self-imposed difficulty that primes us to be our most receptive towards the minutiae that make up context.
While we all strive to improve, whether relative to ourselves or others, there is value in romanticizing that which came before, as nothing better expands the possibilities for what is to come. Understanding where trails come from, what drives their character, and how they evolve or devolve is essential in trail-based sport.
XTERRA is founded in not only competition, but in nature, and within that is a respect for the places in which we compete and play. Within this multi part series, we’ll explore the terroir of trails – that which imbues each with unique character. From environmental factors such as geology, soil, ecology & climate, to anthropologic factors from thousands of years past and those of modern-day stewardship.
"If there is anything at all to make us slow down and appreciate this complex concerto between the many facets of nature, history and the present moment of athletic pursuit, it is texture and context."
Our context will range from Moorish settlers in Spain to Native tribes of the Americas, their cultures and their reasonings from which the history of our trails derive. Our textures will include the intricacies that provide personality to those trails, from geologic orogeneses and volcanic eruptions to climate derived vegetation shifts. These factors will be parsed not only in their static context, but as active systems, from which we can better understand how trails come to be, how they continue their existence, and how they all too often disappear.
From Europe to the Americas, each trail region’s differences and similarities will be parsed into tasting notes of immersion and texture, with the ultimate goal of making your next trail runs and rides all the better for it. Consider this a short course in becoming a sommelier of maps and trails, much the same process as one would go about finding further appreciation for wine. Like any glass of fine wine, it is the hardship endured by both the grapes & the vintners in the process that makes it taste all the much sweeter.
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