Trails of Time: Preserving the Past, Shaping the Future

A scientist, athlete and trail advocate, Dillon Osleger examines just how much trails can tell us of the past, and what needs to be done to keep those stories alive.

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Dillon Osleger
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Tall grasses brush the backside of knees, each stride carrying seed pods and burs between old oak trees, whose gnarled limbs are mirrored, as if above a still pond, in the sinuosity of the faint trail ahead. Where this grassland savannah becomes constricted, turning down a canyon dark with sycamore and chamise, a line of barbed wire rises from the ground in peaks of coiled steel, diving down under a cover of a thin layer of soil in its troughs. The posts once holding this wire taught now jut out from the earth at erratic angles, pulled by years of erosion, wind, and wandering beast. The cattle once fenced in by this line have long since been absent from these fields, where in this far corner a rusted trail sign peaks out from amidst a thicket of chaparral. The name this sign bears as forgotten in both memory and maps as the ones who built it.

The connection between the lugs making up a shoe’s tread and the soil is far more than an immediate relationship pertaining to friction. Each stride carries more than ourselves through the environment, each footprint instead imprints itself on the past, moving through time as much as space. It is this past that often goes unseen, for it is that which is always present that is often the hardest to see. It is down this trail that my experience with the landscape is drawn deeper as much as further, the nuances noticed on bike differ from those seen mid stride. 

A bench of trail cut into a shale cliff erodes into the stream below, each shard of rock sounding as broken glass as it cascades downslope. Further along, that same tread fades away under wild oat, only to be traced by a series of “i”s carved into trees during the early 1900s. As the pitch of the trail levels, it crosses a creek through an idyllic pond. It is above this pond, atop a large, lichen covered boulder, that a mortar has been carved into stone - the lasting trace of an indigenous inhabitant grinding acorns into flour. All of several hundred feet away, a depression in the ground, traced in outline by flat stone and decomposing wood board, tells of the lives of backcountry hunters and horsemen of the early 1900s.

It is this constant etching into the earth that binds us together, in time and space, through trails. The stories of our own that we embed in the landscape, those of the past that we read, and those of the future that live in the balance of our ability to hand down access to these places. This is where my work in trail sustainability arises from.

"It is this constant etching into the earth that binds us together, in time and space, through trails.'

With fanfare to match the muted fall colors, I spend countless hours restoring this trail. A pickaxe to widen the berth of trail tread, a hoe to pull away encroaching grass, a handsaw to clear away fallen trees and reaching ceanothus. It is here at home that my work is done for the benefit of those who live in the shadows of this peak. So that they may access public lands in all of its depth: wildflower blooms, trail runs, and historical connection. 

The community that finds itself here is equally diverse in breadth. Recreational tourists who support the local economy through post ride winery visits and hotel stays, young residents raising a generation in an environment positive to both mental and physical health, and migrant agricultural workers whose access to nature has been anything but equitable. But I am just one person, and even with a nonprofit trail stewardship at my disposal, it is all one can do to maintain the 300 plus miles of trail around my home on the central coast of California.

It is thanks to my partners in the outdoor and events industry that a true, wider purpose may be found from trail reverence, sustainability and advocacy. Within these partnerships, I study the impact that humans have on trails, and how we as a community might act to better the circumstances for the sake of our sports, equity, and future generations. It might not surprise many readers that on average, over 3000 miles of trail are damaged by wildfire each year. But I would venture to guess that most outdoor enthusiasts do not realize that many of these miles of trail are lost for years, if not forever, due to a lack of resources for restoration.

Climate change is an issue we must face through systemic change, but volunteerism in trail work and advocacy is an individual action we can all take today. In a recent study with the mapping application OnX, only 19% of outdoor recreationalists (runners, hikers, mountain bikers, birders) said they took on a single act of stewardship (volunteering, donating, or advocacy) annually. Before getting into these staggering numbers further, there are countless reasons for hope. First and foremost is that more people than ever are getting into the outdoors, and with that comes an opportunity for mentorship, community and activation. It is all of our duty, beginning with the experts in sports, the big brands, and the widespread events, to embrace the growing community with opportunity and solutions. It is through each and every one of us that we might share an appreciation for the land, from its history to its delicate nature, with others so that they too can forge a care for its conservation through memories and experience.

"Climate change is an issue we must face through systemic change, but volunteerism in trail work and advocacy is an individual action we can all take today."

Next time you find yourself on trail, consider looking away from the PR time ticking away on Strava and instead go in search of that which is present, but always difficult to find. Join your local trail stewardship nonprofit for a volunteer trail workday, support the brands that give back to the land, and provide open arms for all others in the diverse community within which we all coexist. Through this betterment of our sense of place, we each create new trails towards a better, more sustainable, future for our chosen outdoor pursuits. 
















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Author Bio

Dillon Osleger

Dillon Osleger is a scientist, professional outdoor athlete, and trail advocate whose work centers on the confluence between outdoor recreation and rapidly changing natural environments. Dillon meshes earth science analysis of landscapes & events, written essays, nonprofit trail work, and democratic advocacy in order to drive a narrative of positive environmental action and conservation across the outdoor industry. Dillon’s work has been published in scientific journals, the LA times, Outside Magazine, amongst further lauded industry and editorial outlets.”

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