It’s 6:30 AM on a Saturday morning. My alarm clock rings, as I quickly hit the snooze button and contemplate my decision to shoot on-trail photos of a group doing trail maintenance at a location an hour away, for free, on my day off. In my head I measure the distance from my bed to the coffee pot before placing my feet on the floor and deciding that this was, in fact, a good idea. I thought briefly about the other people also getting up to pack shovels, hike a few miles, and do some free manual labor on their days off. Did any of them hesitate? I doubt it.
Southern California had recently been hit with torrential rain and it destroyed the freshly maintained trails. I was told by some friends I work with at KETL that they would be going back out to re-dig, and repair the trails at an area that has some of the best local riding available to us. In order to tell this story properly, I have to cut back to the beginning.
Long before I worked at KETL, I rode the trails they were setting out to repair. I would show up with my bike, ready to reap the rewards of their work. As if magic elves had hand carved the berms, gently filled in each rut, removed all debris, and created a runway for me to benefit from. This went on for years. I would flock to these trails for sanctuary and peace of mind during tough times, or to get that much needed dose of adrenaline we all chase.
Now, here I am working at KETL as a staff photographer/videographer, and I’m face to face with these unsung heroes. Shadowmen (and Women), who give their days off so that we can all benefit. I found this incredibly inspiring. This was a passion project for them. Dare I say a way to find fun?
A passion of mine is, obviously, photography. In particular, film photography. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but it’s incredibly expensive to shoot film now, not to mention technically difficult due to the film cameras lack of modern technology we’ve come to expect from the digital world. I thought a way I could contribute would be to put my own passion to use, and document this group as they set out to repair a trail. In a way it was getting back to my own roots, too. Shooting 35mm film, on the camera I learned on, which was given to me by my mother when I was 12. That camera would ignite something in me that would ultimately earn me a living as an adult. But, to do it for free, for the sake of doing it - that is passion.
We were set to meet at the base of the trailhead at 8AM. I threw three rolls of film in my bag, my ancient camera body, two lenses, and I was out of the door. Fear started to creep in on the hour drive, as I wondered if I should be shooting on a digital camera. This shoot felt important to me, after all. I had just pitched this idea to my boss the day before. Could this be the first KETL original blog content? Of course I wanted to knock it out of the park and leave nothing to chance. Film gets messed up. You shoot blank rolls sometimes, you can’t review your pictures, it has to be transported, developed, scanned, treated like a newborn child. All the while, you have to trust that it will all work out, in what is such a delicate process. That, my friends, is why we stopped shooting film long ago but there is something oh-so satisfying in that risk for me, and the unique image quality you get from a film image. That grain, that low contrast, the soft colors, the captive moments. It’s about accepting imperfection as reality…anyway, back to the story.
I met with the crew at the trailhead at 8AM as promised. Six people, and myself made seven. The group was bigger than I thought, and I was genuinely surprised that many people successfully coordinated for 8AM on a Saturday morning to…dig. After briefly asking me who I was and why I had a camera in my hand, they accepted me as one of their own, if only as the oddball with a camera and not a shovel. We began up the trail I’ve ridden down so many times. Small talk on the hike up led to me finding out one of the guys, “Muntz”, pioneered that trail with a friend of his.
I was struck momentarily, realizing how many times I’d benefitted from his work, and the work of my coworkers, Liam and Trevor, who had been digging with him for a long time, helping to maintain and improve his initial efforts. About halfway up, the group quickly identified the problem areas and split into two teams to begin what they set out to do, dividing shovels as needed.
After a couple hours of digging, we were met by a huge group of mountain bikers bombing down the trail. People like me, you know, the ones who only do the riding but never the digging. After a quick existential crisis about my morality, I head up to the second group who are clearing debris. Fallen rocks, tree branches, overgrowth and the things no one wants to move. I was reminded again how difficult these tasks were. All the while, I continued shooting my film with no expectations other than conveying real moments in time, or real people.
The two groups reconvened for a lunch break, talked about bikes, about life, and had some friendly banter about who was working the hardest and who wasn’t sweating enough. At this moment, I realized how diverse this group was. It was as if this group had nothing in common, but everything in common all at once. Each person with a different day job, living in a different city, but all coming together with passion for riding bikes which overtook anything else that may have separated them. That has always been one of the beauties of the outdoor community. Nothing else matters, if you get it - you get it, and you’re part of the family.
Lunch ended, I changed film rolls, and the group started down the trail to work on the lower half. The sun was getting hot by this point and everyone was sweating. They continued on relentlessly until the work was done. Six hours later, the trail was deemed ridable by group consensus. It felt strangely anticlimactic. There was no celebrating, no trophies, no cheering. It was assumed work, that they all knew would continue throughout the winter, into the summer, and into the next years, just as it had before I’d witnessed it.
I approached this from a photo-journalistic standpoint. I only wanted to capture real moments. For the first time in a long time I was shooting for the sake of shooting. I wasn’t trying to sell a product, or make someone look the way they wanted to - but only the way they were in that moment. If I got really lucky, maybe these shots could inspire someone else to do something they love, or to make a sacrifice for the greater good of something you believe in, however large or small that may be.
This article means nothing, and everything at the same time. It is just a story about one group, at one trail, on one Saturday, in one state, in one country, doing something driven by fun and passion. But, these are the moments that matter. These are the moments that your life is made up of.
I drove home tired, dirty and sweaty, with film rolls sliding around on my front seat. My tangible proof of a good day. Running on nothing but high hopes for my film rolls to tell a small story, I thought again about if my film didn’t come out. On second thought, if they didn’t come out, I wouldn’t care. The film no longer mattered. The day served a bigger purpose. I was reminded of what is important to me. I spent the day outside, doing something I love, I smiled for six hours, laughed, and made some new friends. That’s all that was important now.