An Epic Pandemic Project
Rock Crushers volunteers helped build the new Youngs Mountain Trail
Last spring, life jerked to a halt for Bob Carlson and Kim Chao, who are retired teachers living in Hendersonville. They volunteered for several causes—but suddenly all volunteering stopped. They couldn’t play in their community band. A planned trip to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco was scrapped. They couldn’t go see their four children. They couldn’t hug their grandchildren.
For years, they had been part of Conserving Carolina’s Rock Crushers volunteer trail crew. When the pandemic hit, Conserving Carolina had just barely started on a new trail near Lake Lure.
Video: Volunteers Bob Carlson and Kim Chao
Kim says that the trail designer, Peter Barr, was almost panicked as he tried to get the trail done under changing circumstances. “We called him and asked, ‘Peter, what do you need?’” He said he needed someone to stage locust logs.
Locust logs are extremely heavy. They’re also durable and slow to decay—the kind of wood you need to build steps on a trail.
In the forest, an arborist had cut the logs. But they lay where they fell. And the contract with the trail builder, Singletrack Trails, said they needed to be in place along the route of the trail.
Kim and Bob took up the challenge. But they couldn’t just lift those logs. “They’re crazy heavy,” Bob says. Contorting to use their strongest muscles, they found a way. “Kim and I worked out a system. She did leg presses and I did shoulder shrugs.” It took a full body workout, but got the logs where they needed to be.
Since then, those logs have been built into hundreds of stairs in an exceptionally scenic new hiking trail. The Youngs Mountain Trail opened on April 21—and in Peter’s opinion, it’s the most spectacular trail yet in the growing Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail system.
The new trail starts out on gentle terrain through a beautiful woodland, crossing several brooks. Then it becomes more rugged, leading to a series of rock outcrops, each with a more dramatic view than the last. Finally, near the stone summit, the view opens. You see the Piedmont rolling off to the horizon, all of Lake Lure, the vast rock faces of Rumbling Bald and Eagle Rock, the formidable Mt. Shumont and Little Pisgah, and in the distance North Carolina’s highest peak, Mt. Mitchell.
Even to an expert trail volunteer like Bob, it seemed impossible to take a trail out to these cliffs and rock outcrops. “We constantly would say ‘No, there can’t be a trail here. Or once it was started, we’d say, ‘I can’t believe there’s a trail here!’”
Fellow Rock Crusher, Jason Austin, says, “In January of last year, this trail didn’t exist. It’s cool to see it go from nothing to something.”
How the Rock Crushers Got Their Name
Other volunteers also found ways to keep the trail work going. And eventually, they were able to work together again, while keeping a safe distance.
It was a joy to see their friends out in the woods, Bob says. “When you work together on a consistent basis, it’s a deep relationship. These are dear friends of ours.”
At a workday in April just before the trail opened, you could see how the Rock Crushers got their name. Volunteers spread out across steep slopes to go “rock shopping.” They gathered stones and hauled them in five-gallon buckets back to the trail. There, they hammered the rocks into gravel, which they needed to fill in the log steps. A pick-up truck delivering a load of gravel would come in handy, but they were over a mile from any road.
Jason is known as the strongest member of the crew. Tall and broad shouldered, he’s the one you’d call on if you needed help to move a particularly enormous log or rock. Jason works at Ingles, but on Wednesdays, his day off, he volunteers with the Rock Crushers. He likes being out in the woods, he says, away from the fluorescent lighting of the store.
And it’s not just Wednesdays. Jason and other Rock Crushers find themselves puzzling over trail work in their spare time, solving problems. How do you redirect water from a spring that turned up when the trail was cut? What do you do about a huge fallen tree? Or a boulder that rolled from the bank onto the path?
Peter says the Rock Crushers prepare the way for professional trail builders, like the Singletrack crew led by Shrimper Khare. They maintain the trails once they’re built. And they take on special projects, like a hand-built rock drain, or staircases made of rock or log steps. He says, “They are solving problems through ingenuity and really hard work.”
18 Miles of New Trails
Why would they do backbreaking labor in their spare time? And for a full day every week?
To Stefan Israel, it made sense that if he was going to enjoy the local trails, he should pitch in. Stefan grew up in Asheville and moved back to Fairview when he partially retired, trading in his old job to start a business deciphering German for genealogical research.
Hiking led to volunteering for Bob and Kim, too. After they retired here, they took Conserving Carolina’s White Squirrel Hiking Challenge to get to know the local trails. That got them into volunteering. Since then, they’ve helped significantly expand the trails that they set out to explore.
Bob and Kim were among the original Rock Crushers when the group was founded in 2015. The goal was to build up a core group of skilled, dedicated volunteers who know what to do. Today, seasoned Rock Crushers show newer volunteers the ropes.
Among the long-term stalwarts are Bob Carlson and Kim Chao, Al and Barbara Pung, Bill and Donna Hamilton, Cathy Cooper, Jason Austin, Wendell Pace, and Stefan Israel.
Bill Hamilton says it’s the camaraderie and love of the outdoors that keeps him coming back week after week. Max Gibbons says it’s a great way to get outdoors.
AmeriCorps member Kelly Waldron, who helps lead the weekly workdays, says, “People pay for Crossfit. What they need to know is you can do it for free. And then you can say ‘I volunteer with a trail crew!’”
Since the Rock Crushers got started, they’ve helped to create five new trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge, totaling 18 miles. They helped build the Weed Patch Mountain Trail, two phases of the Wildcat Rock Trail, the Youngs Mountain Trail, and another trail that will open later this year. Two of the trails that they’ve helped create have won national awards for trail design and construction.
Peter says, “I view the Rock Crushers as instrumental in the creation of all those trails. They wouldn’t be as amazing as they are without the Rock Crushers.”
Immersed in Capital-N Nature
While their volunteering clearly benefits others, Bob and Kim say it also makes their own lives richer. Working in the forest was especially a solace during the tumult of 2020, Bob says.
It was only in recent weeks that he and Kim were finally able to hug their grandkids—and feel how much they’d grown since the last hug! Working on trails gave them something meaningful to do while they waited for that moment.
“It was our salvation during the pandemic,” Kim says. “When the Conserving Carolina trails were closed because they were so crowded, we could be outside doing something useful and important. And so beautiful!”
Bob says, “In the middle of the pandemic, it was really nice to go out there by ourselves and be out in that glorious Nature. I always capitalize Nature. It deserves to be capitalized because Nature is spiritual.”
It brings to his mind the forest bathing walks that Conserving Carolina has started to offer. It’s true, he says, that a connection with nature offers benefits on a deep level. Your blood pressure goes down. Your outlook goes from pessimism to optimism. He says, “With spring now, everything is new. It’s a fresh start and I feel that too—that invigoration and life.”
He says, “We have not yet done the guided forest bathing, but we did forest bathing every day, dripping with our own sweat!”
Rose Jenkins Lane is the communications director of Conserving Carolina, a nonprofit based in Hendersonville. There are many ways to volunteer, by building trails, restoring natural habitat, assisting with tabling and events, and more. See volunteer opportunities.