Words: Brice Shirbach
Photos: Abram Eric Landes
Originally published in Issue #189
Growing up, I’d often sit and stare at it.
My obsession began the moment my family moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland. I was 7 years old and we piled into a single-story rancher a mile and a half down the road from town square. From our backyard, I could see it planted across a few miles of rolling hills and fields. Just a few short years later, we found ourselves renting out an old farmhouse on a single-lane country road, and we were suddenly directly across the street from it. I don’t think I have ever really known its name, or if it was ever actually given one, but locals like to refer to it as College Mountain, although I’ve always assumed, or maybe just hoped, that its real name was something perhaps a bit more regal.
I have since seen and been on countless mountains that more than dwarf it, but whenever I find myself driving from my home in southeastern Pennsylvania to this little nook in western Maryland, it’s always the first significant spike in the landscape, and I’m as transfixed by its summit now, at the age of 33, as I was when I was 13. The mountain tops out at 1,700 feet, with Emmitsburg far below on one side and Mount St. Mary’s University nestled on the slopes of the other.
Emmitsburg sits on the Maryland half of the Mason-Dixon Line, just a couple of miles south of historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and a little more than an hour from both Baltimore and our nation’s capital. The Appalachian Mountains make their most easterly appearance in this part of the Mid-Atlantic, with Emmitsburg tucked neatly into a declivity of one of the Earth’s most ancient mountain ranges.
Growing up in this small rural community, my development and ambitions undoubtedly were profoundly affected by the mountainous surroundings, which likely has something to do with my desire to make a living riding bikes and telling stories.
I have long felt a debt of gratitude toward the mountains and ridges that surround my hometown, so it stands to reason that when I first heard about mountain bike trails being built on College Mountain, my imagination began to run wild.
“I thought trails would be a good idea for Emmitsburg since before I even moved here,” Tim O’Donnell tells me. “A few years ago, I presented the idea to the town council of Emmitsburg. They weren’t enthused by the idea, but they also weren’t against it. Jim Hoover was the mayor at the time and wanted to create a task force to investigate the concept a bit more.”
O’Donnell is in his sixth year living here, and halfway through his second term as a commissioner for the town. He’s been mountain biking for close to 30 years. This self-described Clydesdale rider and former collegiate rugby player is one of the primary figures involved in the design and development of the trails in Emmitsburg, and he looks to them as more than just an opportunity for him to ride his bike.
“I’m the quality control,” he explains. “My goal for the trails has always been for them to not only be an asset for the community, but also provide an economic boost to the town by bringing in visitors. From the onset, our local effort has been very strong. Over the past four years, I’d say we put in close to 900 volunteer hours of trail work. Once the feasibility study came back saying that this would benefit the community as a recreational option, we began to really move forward with the project. Grant money came from the Trail Conservancy, which is run by Austin Steo. They pursued the Recreational Trail Program grants. The RTP grant is matched by the volunteer hours we put in.”
Nine hundred hours in four years equals a significant grant indeed. Austin Steo is not an Emmitsburg resident, but his parents are, and he’s long appreciated the trail and recreational potential for the region. His Silver Spring, Maryland–based company, Trail Conservancy Inc., is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization whose mission is “to provide assistance in developing, building and maintaining natural-surface trails using sustainable design principles that minimize negative effects on the environment.”
I met Steo for an evening ride to discuss the project and his role with it. His excitement over the trail plan and construction was immediately clear. “It’s pretty awesome to have a place in the area with the terrain that Emmitsburg has, and the riding experience it can offer,” he says as we work our way up and around the stacked-loop design of the trail network. “The lower land here doesn’t have a lot of rock in it, but as you go up the mountain, there’s a whole lot more technical terrain. There are some amazing rock outcrops that you’d be happy to ride through, and it looks like the town wants to do that as well. We want it to be fun and interesting, but sustainable at the same time. This mountain has a lot of features, and trying to piece them together is certainly a challenge. But it’s a fun one.”
Steo and his Trail Conservancy are not solely responsible for the design and construction of the decidedly ambitious trail plan for the town. There are currently a little more than 13 miles of trail available to riders, but current plans call for more than double that amount, eventually taking riders from near the top of the mountain down onto Main Street. It’s more than just a marked increase in the length of the trail system; it also more than doubles the 550 feet of elevation change currently available from the highest point to the lowest, to upward of 1,200 feet.
This kind of plan requires quite a bit more than what volunteers are able to provide with rakes and shovels. “I was walking around downtown Frederick after we moved here and I saw a flyer for the Emmitsburg Trail Series,” remembers Elevated Trail Design co-owner Andrew Mueller.
Mueller and his girlfriend moved to Frederick from one of the East Coast’s most heralded mountain biking regions—Asheville, North Carolina—after she was hired by an area biotech company. He’d been researching riding and building opportunities in the Mid-Atlantic when he began to hear about the plans for Emmitsburg, 20 minutes north of his new home and Maryland’s second-largest city.
“I knew that they had been trying to build up there for a while. I gave Tim a call and he put me in touch with Austin, who interviewed me over the phone and told me to go ahead and come by the next week to start building.”
As Steo and O’Donnell realized several years prior, Mueller was quick to see significant potential for the region, as well as some logistical challenges. “There are some really dense briar patches up there, which makes trail design tough because it’s difficult to visualize the layout. As you get closer to the top of the mountain, the rocks are enormous as well,” Mueller says. “But I think that overall this place can be really awesome. There is just so much to work with on that mountain. The dirt packs in really nicely, and there’s enough rock to create some really cool features and put some cool texture in your trail. I’m excited to get up there and build more.”
Because 13 miles of trail certainly isn’t much when compared to what other destinations in the region are currently offering—even ones like Michaux to the north, or the Frederick Watershed to the south, both of which share the same ridgeline with College Mountain—Steo and Mueller both acknowledge that they don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to the next step for the trails in Emmitsburg. They do agree, however, that the best results tend to come from compromise.
Mueller doesn’t believe that beginner and expert terrain are necessarily mutually exclusive.
“I’m pretty excited about getting to build some beginner stuff, because I think that there is a lot that can be gleaned by creating stuff you can take riders to learn on, but still provide you with the opportunity to ride with your buddies and find things in the terrain that beginners might not have an eye for,” he explains. “I don’t think that mountain biking has to have this exclusionary approach to trails and terrain. Obviously we want to push ourselves and explore new lines, but I don’t see why a beginner trail can’t still be fun for experts.”
The town of Emmitsburg is comprised of about 660 acres within its corporate limits, but is surrounded by 1,800 acres with development restrictions in place, implemented in hopes of preserving the abundant open space available to those seeking to enjoy the natural playground the land here provides.
But, growing up, I never felt as though the town looked to the mountain as a fundamental part of its identity. Whenever I make the trip home nowadays, I’m still not convinced that the community is entirely aware of its own potential. Taking this place and these opportunities for granted can lead a small town down a dangerous path, both economically and socially.
This town of 2,900 has had to deal with a number of issues in recent years, including a burgeoning heroin problem with area youth and a lack of new businesses, particularly retail, coming into town.
Both issues seem to indicate a general lack of desire by the community to move forward in a positive fashion, but there is hope that the trails are a sign of change for the town—and it’s not just the mountain bikers who are beginning to see it.
“Right now we have about $30 million worth of projects going on around town,” Don Briggs notes. Briggs is a former real estate appraiser and the current mayor of Emmitsburg. He and his wife moved to town back in 2003 after having run their respective businesses here the decade prior. Briggs, a longtime conservationist, has high hopes for what the trails can do for the community and is working hard to ensure that there’s an infrastructure in place to allow for social and economic growth.
“We want to show that we’re investing in this town. That’s been my main drive. We want to show people that we have a stake in this town, and I think that we have done that. We’re upgrading the sewer plant, we replaced all of our street lamps with L.E.D. lights and we’re working on developing a walkway from Mount St. Mary’s University onto Main Street in town. We’re redoing our square in downtown as well. We’re putting over $1 million into our square. This is a special nook and cranny of our state. We’re really ticking into a lot of things.”
“The first step is the trail,” Tom Rinker tells me during our discussion at his Frederick bike shop, The Bicycle Escape. Rinker was approached by O’Donnell more than eight years ago and was asked to write a letter of support for the trail plan. “My first thought was how fantastic this could be. My second was that I hoped that Tim has the endurance to stick with this concept,” remembers Rinker. “Some of the plans and conversations have evolved quite a bit, but Tim saw it through. Other towns are now looking to that success as a model for their own projects.”
When I asked Rinker whether or not he’d ever consider bringing his bike shop into Emmitsburg, he hesitated at first. “I’d want to see more complementary retail and food in town in order to consider opening a bike shop there,” he said. “It could work, but it’s not there yet.”
“We have room for some creative thinking,” O’Donnell says, with no attempt to mute his hopeful and optimistic tone. “We have room for some entrepreneurial and creative individuals to bring some life into town. When we acknowledge and listen to the locals who have concerns, we bring them into the fold and they become friends of the trails. I know it won’t be everyone, and I need to respect those who don’t agree with what we’re doing.”
Mueller has made a living helping communities by building trails and has seen firsthand the positive effect they can have on a declining municipality. He also knows that it’s never a quick fix. “Places like Brevard, Fruita and Downieville took a lot of time to build up to where they are now,” he says. “I am going to try and continue to help Austin and Tim realize that they’re competing with places that already offer big miles. I think that the focus should be on building something different. We should be concentrating on putting in features and directional trails. We can offer riders a full range of terrain here in Emmitsburg. You can create a true playground here; it’s not just about the miles. I think that a quality-over-quantity approach will pay off big time down the road.”
Hope is widespread in the discussions I have had with everyone, and it seems to be for both the trails and the town itself.
Perhaps that’s the narrative thread Emmitsburg never knew it needed: a proper connection with the mountains that cradle this community. Change won’t happen overnight, but when does it ever? Progress within the town, and on the trails themselves, isn’t rapid, but it’s steady and it’s being led by a committed contingent of people who see the same potential for this area that I saw as a kid staring up at the top of the mountain from my backyard.
“This is an opportunity for the people in town to open their eyes and help shape this community,” Steo tells me after our ride. “It takes some time to get moving, but eventually, if it’s a good thing, it’s going to happen. And this is a very good thing.”
Explore some of the Emmitsburg trails, courtesy of MTB Project:
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