Map of things past

I took my “winter” route to commute home last night as I described in my last post – a maze of exhilarating singletrack trails between Chapel Hill and Carrboro. And I came across a sign at the trailhead that I hadn’t seen before. It was more than a sign, it was a huge sign case with sliding glass doors and a board to hang notices, just like an official park entrance.

One of the notices was typically laughable, cajoling dog-walkers to pick up dog litter from the woods, since it will run into the creek that runs into Jordan lake that becomes our water supply ta da ta da. I’m all in favor of removing poop from the path so no one steps in it – that’s just gross. But come on, is dog doo doo worse than any other animal’s that lives in the woods – deer, beaver, coyote? Or, worse than all of the cows and horses and goats and sheep and pigs that live up and down stream? I live on the Haw river much farther upstream, the same river that feeds into Jordan, and know for a fact that that river is picking up far worse shit as it courses through the farms and small industry of Alamance County than any dog poop in Chapel Hill. This notice is more part of the brow-beating that dog owners face in safety-hyper Chapel Hill than anything. Chapel Hill is much like a parent that conditions it’s children to cry when they scrape a knee. More on that later.

While this notice was expected, what I didn’t think I’d ever see was this map:
Here we have a cartographic rendering of years of day-dreaming and route-scheming, for me and probably for hundreds of other trail riders and runners. What’s news to me is that this map at the trailhead actually signals a real park entrance, because for all the years I had been tracing these routes in my head, this was just a rambling collection of trails that were either tacitly accepted by the towns and land owners, or else completely clandestine.

After six years of riding these trails and hiking on them with my dog, I left Chapel Hill for Chicago in 2006. I initially had no clue these trails were here. In a few places there were fire road entrances that didn’t alert one to singletrack, and in other places there were faint goat-trails leading onto the singletrack built by and for mountain bikers. Not one to join groups or hang out for longer than necessary at the local bike shops, I stumbled upon these trails on my own through months and years of exploration. I knew someone was doing incredible work for the community, and the community was certainly taking advantage of the resource, but the trails were basically unofficial. I learned these trails by taking new turns, getting lost and finding my way again, and after a while I could concoct any number of loops and passages linking as much as I could fit in a ride. While stewing at my desk in my office job, or while lying in bed I would try to trace the maze of trails in my head and plan my next ride. It was a shock to see these mental figments finally rendered as an official map.

My dog was raised off leash on these trails, and my mountain bike skills were honed to these trails, characterized by tight turns, narrow passages through trees, roots, rock gardens, sudden short climbs and drops. These NC woods are also characterized by constant decay, more so than other forests because of it’s hard clay soil and weak trees that do not have to strengthen under snow and ice: downed logs are a common obstacle to have to ride over. Returning to these trails after three years away, it’s gratifying how much remains emblazoned in my memory – my mind still remembers which turns to make, my body knows how to shift position, I even recognize the same downed logs I have to jump.

I recently found out that the extensive network of biking trails probably began in the late seventies by Chapel Hill high school students building stunts in the woods up off the sewer-line trail that runs along Bolin Creek. These have morphed into a dozen miles of tight singletrack over 30 years. I could tell a lot was being added before I moved to Chicago. Not much has been added in the 3 years that I was away, but the signs at the trailheads signal the biggest change- these trails now have official acceptance by the Towns, UNC, and private landowners.

Continuously used by bikers, hikers, trail runners, dog walkers, nature viewers, the traffic has only increased in recent years. In my opinion this is great, because the popular use of the area is what may have ultimately convinced the Towns and UNC to limit encroaching development on this valuable land and leave it as a recreational resource for the entire community. On my ride after work yesterday, I definitely passed more trail users than in years past, including a whole elementary school grade’s worth of kids on some running/hiking excursion – turn ’em loose and watch them have a great time.

When I left for Chicago, UNC had just released plans to turn most of this land into a new Carolina North Campus, rather than Carolina North Trails. I come back and find that somehow they were swayed to leave it alone. Maybe it has something to do with the community clamoring for natural space. Or perhaps the cost to clean up an old toxic chemical dumping ground was prohibitive to further development, so they’ve agreed to let it sit for another few years or decades before developing. Whatever happened, I’m for it.

What is a little silly is how UNC portrays its involvement in the development of the space as recreation, as read on the Carolina North web page via the UNC Grounds Department. Yes, it’s true that the community has been utilizing the natural space for 30 years, while it seems that Carolina and its Grounds department have only been an active supporter for a couple years now. It’s not really a complaint, as much as to say let’s give credit where it’s due.

The only thing that has seemed to change for the worse is the attitude toward dog owners. Before I even left for Chicago, the writing was on the wall, or at least on signs posted along the main trail of Bolin Creek, and now appear at all trail heads.

To me “Leash your dog,” just means “No dogs.” What kind of a life is it for dogs if there’s no wild place they can go and just be dogs? Times had already changed before I moved to Chicago, and after all those years of letting my dog enjoy life down on those trails, I already knew it wouldn’t be the same when I returned. Even when I first started exploring the trails, they were well used, and conflicts between trail users over dogs happened. But at some point, adjacent property owners started a movement to crack down on unleashed dogs by convincing the mayor it’s a problem, getting the town to post these ordinances, calling the cops, and just generally intimidating anyone that didn’t buy into their propaganda of fear. I’ve never believed that this was motivated by actual problems like people being bitten by out-of-control dogs. It’s an attempt (a successful one) to extend control of their back yards into the public space across the creek from their yuppie two-car garages.

Now that I live out in the real wilds of Alamance County, these Leashists don’t bother me as much. While I do fear for my life while walking along the roadside in Saxapahaw, my dog is free to be a dog. He’s also old enough now that he’d rather not try to keep up during a 10-mile trail ride, and I can enjoy riding without worrying about what he might have found to roll in – probably some other animal’s shit that it didn’t bother to pick up.


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