By Ben Graves
“Clink, Clink, Clink!” the sound of a sledgehammer echoes across the adobe hills. It’s just after 7 am and the air is still cool and a pleasant breeze blows down the valley from the peaks surrounding Hotchkiss. Three teenagers zoom by on mountain bikes “We need more rebar!” one shouts to me as they pedal down the single track that snakes along H-Hill past North Fork High School.
Delta County is surrounded by outdoor meccas like the Grand Mesa, the raging river and cliffs of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and the towering peaks of the West Elk Wilderness. However, many local families lack reliable transportation and the resources to access these iconic public lands. When the Nature Connection was awarded Generation Wild funding, they knew that bussing kids away from school to access the outdoors was not a sustainable way to inspire the next generation. Instead, they set out to develop places, programs, and job pathways to make the local outdoor experiences accessible to all families.
Each year, a dozen or so local high schoolers in Delta County are hired to build and maintain singletrack trails to help The Nature Connection achieve its mission of breaking down barriers to getting outside for local families. When the Nature Connection was established, GOCO funded a community needs assessment to determine what was preventing the diverse rural families of Delta County from getting outside. Among other insights, they learned that kids in the community wanted to ride bikes, but lacked safe and accessible places they could go close to their schools and communities.
Between 2017 and 2020, this ragtag crew of teens dubbed the Wilder Bunch has built close to 10 miles of biking and hiking trails directly accessible to kids and families from local schools. The Crossroads Park Trail System in Hotchkiss is one of their crowning achievements. Here you can find a pump track and bike skills park where the Nature Connection hosts summer camps and “Learn to Bike” school programs and many miles of family-friendly trails that snake through adobe badlands and cottonwood studded arroyos.
“This trail system really inspired our community to see the potential of the open spaces that surround our schools and rural communities.” Says Sven Edstrom, the lead designer of the singletrack projects in Hotchkiss and Delta.
This summer, there is a new addition to the Wilder Bunch - the Wilder Bus! This 1-ton former school bus with a hydraulic lift was donated to the Nature Connection by the Delta County School District. With a generous grant from the Western Colorado Community Foundation, the Nature Connection is turning it into a tool-hauling beast, capable of helping the Wilder Bunch branch out to trail maintenance at schools and in communities across Delta County. The Wilder Bus is not just going to be a glorified work truck, but it’s also going to be a mobile art piece designed to inspire the youth of the Western Slope to become the next generation of trail stewards.
Wilder Bunch Crew member experiences:
Arjun Bacigalupi joined the Wilder Bunch as a trail crew member after his sophomore year in 2020 and is in his third summer working for the Nature Connection. As a recently minted graduate, headed to Brown University in the fall, he reflected on his experience on the crew:
“Before I joined the Wilder Bunch I was nervous about doing manual labor. After that first summer, I developed the self-confidence to not only get the job done but have fun doing it”
Sienna Reese has worked for The Nature Connection in virtually all of their programs since 2018. She has led kids' camps, served as a youth board member, and now leads The Nature Connection’s Backcountry Youth Trail Crew in partnership with the US Forest Service. Besides being a backcountry boss she is also an accomplished muralist and between wilderness hitches, she is painting the bus.
“The Nature Connection has helped me with developing my skills into what I want to do in the future. During COVID, I was getting into art a lot and they gave me the opportunity to do a mural on their wall, and that wasn’t something that I thought wouldn't be available to me as a 16-year-old. I thought it was going to be a one-and-done type of thing, but apparently, they had connections to other artists who saw my work and helped me get other jobs designing murals around my town. I'm super excited about the bus project because that is something for all people to see and get inspired to get outside. It has these bright colors and mountains and hopefully will help expand boundaries for the next generation. This is what the Nature Connection is all about.”
Where to catch the Wilder Bunch next:
The first stop for the Wilder Bus this season was the Paonia River Park. The Nature Connection along with community partners like the Town of Paonia and the Western Slope Conservation Center has been expanding this family-friendly walking trail to connect the Paonia K8 school and eventually the Paonia Library. Earlier this summer, the Wilder Bunch loaded the bus with tools and giant crosswalk templates to create a safe trail crossing in front of the school. The Bus blocked traffic while the crew quickly swept and painted the street. The next stop is Confluence Park in Delta. Since building the park 3 years ago, the jumps and pump track need some serious love. And who better to maintain a park designed to introduce kids to the joys of riding a bike but the Wilder Bunch!
Check out this video of the Wilder Bunch in action.