Profiles in Volunteering: Blazing New Trails
A retired New York City transit worker is on another track these days, building stone paths and staircases to make hiking safer
Originally from Cuba and now living in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 61-year-old Artie Hidalgo worked for the New York City Transit Authority for 36 years before retiring as an assistant general manager in 2010. That year, he started doing trail building to make paths safe and convenient for hikers. Hidalgo now co-leads the Jolly Rovers Trail Crew, an all-volunteer group specializing in wilderness stonework. Below, he talks about his passion:
I knew volunteering would be an important aspect of my retirement. I also knew I wanted to do stuff outdoors.
An avid hiker, I was always fascinated by the dry stonework used on hiking trails to prevent erosion, as well as how it got there.
Dry stone has been around for thousands of years. Look at the Great Wall of China and the Aqueducts in Rome. They’re such beautiful structures. There’s something primitive about building with natural stone. It’s like sculpture, in a way.
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Since 99 percent of the work on U.S. trails is done by volunteers, I developed a game plan to volunteer by doing dry stone building.
In 2010, I joined the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a nonprofit that monitors and maintains trails and took a dry stone building course. As soon as I finished, I began volunteering and put in almost 1,000 hours that season. It was the highest number of hours from a volunteer for the group in a single year.
One of my jobs was working on a reroute of the Appalachian Trail on Bear Mountain. During the weekdays, there were hardly any volunteers so I had the opportunity to work directly with a professional trail crew that was overseeing volunteer training.
Doing Volunteer Work That Others Wouldn’t
I developed a really close working relationship with them and they would ask me to do stuff that sometimes volunteers wouldn’t want to do because it was really hard, like turning big rocks into little rocks with a sledgehammer.
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Toward the end of my first season, one of the guys took me to a site on Bear Mountain. "I need you to build a staircase here," he said. "It’s probably going to be about 15 or 16 steps."
I was shocked. Prior to that, I’d only built a two- or three-step staircase. I remember asking, "Tom, do you think I can do this?" He said, "Yeah, I think you can."
I tell you, I worked for six or seven weeks on this project and it’s still so gratifying.
Sometimes, I walk new volunteers up it when we do an orientation because that staircase is so special to me. But I never think of it as my staircase. I always think of it as being done by all the guys on that crew who inspired me and gave me the opportunity to build it. I’m incredibly grateful to them.
The Jolly Rovers Volunteer Crew
I developed a special chemistry with two of the guys, Chris Ingui and Bob Brunner, and in 2011 the three of us built an all-volunteer crew specifically devoted to stonework, known as The Jolly Rovers.
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We started with 12 volunteers who had little or no experience in trail building. We taught them how to do stonework and had an incredible season.
Now there are 23 Jolly Rover volunteers, men and women of all ages, and we have a deep connection that goes beyond stonework. This has become an extended family for all of us.
That’s the thing about my experience doing this kind of work. I’ve done it in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee and North Carolina and the quality and caliber of people I’ve met is astonishing. Nobody is pretentious. Nobody has a chip on his shoulder.
Ideally I’d like to see the crew evolve to the point where we can do what we’re doing on a national basis and expand internationally.
Pride and Gratitude
I feel so proud about what I’ve done as a volunteer.
I look back on my 36-year career with the Transit Authority and say, "Wow, what was that all about?" But when I look back on the last three years of my life, every structure that I built will outlive me, outlive my sons.
I remember taking my sons to Bear Mountain and they said, "I don’t believe this, Pop! This is awesome!"
They had heard me talk about what we did, but they never saw the magnitude of the structures that we built.
That stuff is going to be around for a long, long time. Nobody is going to put up a parking lot in any of these places. These are protected sites.
And that’s what I feel is so gratifying about it. In today’s modern culture, where else are you going to get the kind of opportunity I’ve had?
Celeste Hamilton Dennis is an editor at Idealist.org (a website featuring volunteer opportunities, nonprofit jobs, internships and organizations working to change the world), a writer for Next Avenue and an author of short fiction.