Finding Purpose in Purpose-Built Trails
Updated: Jun 17
Interview with Randy Conner: Owner Contour Trail Design
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
More often than not, we take a trail for granted. But sometimes on those long hikes or rides, we wonder how that trail came to be, how those massive stone steps were placed so well, how it all flows so perfectly or challenges us so well.
The trail is a portal, delivering us from the daily stresses to the calm of nature. Trail building is a misnomer as it’s as much about architecture, painstakingly crafting one's vision for how a line will flow through the terrain. One change can impact the entire trail and have a domino effect, causing that perfect flow to break down. The time and energy that goes into building a trail are significantly more complex and fascinating than you may think. And hopefully, Randy’s story will instill a deep sense of appreciation the next time you stroll, roll, or run your favorite trail.
Randy Conner, owner of Contour Trail Design, took some time to talk with us about his somewhat newly found purpose. His work is now getting recognized nationally.
Even as a kid, Randy was building trails. He talked about how he and his friends would rake trail paths in the leaves to run through them. Like a lot of us, he found comfort in the woods and was doing whatever he could to spend as much time among the trees.
Randy has lived his entire life in the Knoxville area. His first childhood home in Claxton, TN, was claimed under eminent domain to build the Bull Run steam plant, pushing his family to Norris, and then into Knoxville.
He and his wife Ginger have been married for over 40 years. They have three kids and subsequent grandchildren. If you want to see Randy light up, ask him about his grandson, Charlie. A redheaded sidekick, Charlie is with his grandpa whenever possible on the trails.
Randy’s early hobbies included golf, basketball, and dirt biking. He even played at a competitive level as a golfer, but his knees and back gave out, leaving him unable to swing a club. To not have the ability to chase your passion can be a tough road to walk. Luckily, Randy found mountain biking to be a perfect replacement, relief, remedy, and joy all ‘rolled’ together.
I bought Ginger a Schwinn High Plains from Harper’s, ended up riding it more than she did, breaking her frame after a month. I took it back, got her another one and got me one. I rode mine for about six months and then broke it also. I seem to break them all sooner or later. Mountain biking became my outlet. That was 1987.
Trails have come a long way since 1987. In the ’90s mountain biking saw a boom. We learned a little about that in our last story from Luke. The issue wasn't the bikes or the passion, but good trail building. Luckily, today there has been a convergence of bicycle innovation and trail design. Back in the day, we were poaching hiking trails or roadbeds. IMBA recognized this need and taught a new generation to build, which became instrumental in Randy’s future endeavors and what would become the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club.
Even with education and practice, great builders have an inherent skill to look at a contour through the woods and sense the best line before the first tool ever hits the dirt. Randy set out to learn all he could, but it started as most great ideas do - over beers after a long ride.
In 2007, after one of the Wednesday night “Weeny Rides” (named for the post-ride parking lot tailgate and cookout) at Haw Ridge park, the crew recognized the need for a local mountain bike club. Randy stepped up to lead this band of misfits as the first president, all 17 of the OG’s. But it didn’t take long for the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club to catch fire. Today membership has grown to over 350 members. And even more people invest time on workdays or enjoy the trails built and maintained by the club in Knoxville. Brian Hann, Mathew Kellogg, and Wes Soward, as subsequent presidents, were instrumental in that growth. Catalyzed by Randy’s trail building vision and skills, it’s no surprise Knoxville is becoming a mountain bike destination.
The first formal AMBC trail they set out to build was Sink Hole, in Hastie Natural Area.
We planned on people coming out (to the trail day), and we had flagged what we thought we could accomplish. We were thinking if we get 10 people we were gonna kick ass. We had 33 people show up for that first workday. It was incredible. And AMBC workdays have been like that ever since.
The IMBA Trail Care Crew came out and taught Randy and the early AMBC how to build a good, sustainable trail and how to deal with land managers and city managers. Randy spent free time at these events, learning all he could. He also utilized the IMBA Trail Solution book to help ensure the club was designing and managing trails to endure the test of time and tires. (Pro Tip: Anyone looking to learn how to build or maintain trails should be using this book as a key resource.)
Throughout his career, Randy has worked as a caddy and craftsman, but most of his adult career was spent selling supplies in the home building industry. Until he was in his words, “lucky enough to get laid off” and have his life turned in a different direction.
After the fourth layoff due to a declining economy, Ginger said you can’t do this anymore, you gotta find something else. She found this GIS program at Roane State, and as much as I loved maps, she knew I should do that. I said, hell yeah! So I went back to school and to the program, which was incredible. I learned how to make maps and I use that (skill) every day in this job. When I was a kid in school, I did the absolute minimum, but as an adult on my GIS assignments I would see four other things I wanted to learn about and do that too.
Randy achieved GIS Student of the Year in 2010. Coming out of school he began working for a company called Mobley Engineering. His job was to map the bottom of lakes. Mobley installed systems into lakes to help raise dissolved oxygen levels in water supplies. This helps improve habitats and or water supplies. The water system gig meant significant travel, luckily some that Ginger could join, riding wherever they could. It also led to a steady cycle of summer lake work, and trail building full time in the winter.
One winter when we were building trails with the club, Brian (Hann) said, Randy has all this time, we have lots of trails to build, why don’t we pay him to build trails? So I started working for the club. The club had an excavator, I would run that excavator and learn how to do that. The more you do it, the better you get at it. That got to the point where there were enough trails and needs from Legacy Parks and Barry Smith, that I turned it into full time.
And so on January 1st, 2017, Contour Trail Design was born.
Today Knoxville has 135 miles of trails. And to some, the notion of a “trail builder” may mean solely mountain bike trails. But purpose-built trails entail anything that gets you into nature. From a walking path to a skills park for youngsters or old folks looking to play. Contour Trail Design has built trail systems at Blackberry Mountain (Farms), Baker Creek Preserve, Sharps Ridge, and several others in Knoxville. The one that started it off for Randy as a legit trail building company was a more interesting one.
My first job as a trail company was working for a convent that had property on a river, where they liked to go pray and sit. It was a steep hike down to the river and they were worried someone would get hurt getting down to the river. It was about a hundred-yard long stair-step trail. It was a great job and a really rewarding job.
Check out the Contour Trail Design Facebook page to see photos of his first build and some very happy nuns as well as photos of his other projects.
Randy and Barry Smith are the only two members of the Professional Trail Builder Association in Tennessee, and Randy is the only licensed Trail Building Contractor in the state. This was a new license created just for Contour and Randy's craft. No doubt we will see more licensed builders.
I'm amazed at the amount of work out there. I get calls every week. I received two calls in the last few weeks from California. One was a guy that has a hundred acres and found me on my Instagram page. I have about 10 different jobs going right now.
Randy now has 3 full-time employees. One of which is an ex-teacher turned trail builder that has committed her life to the trail. Randy describes her as a “sponge,” working and absorbing all she can to also turn passion into a sustainable lifestyle. Randy is inspiring and creating the opportunity for the next generation of trail builders and trail building to evolve and take shape.
I'm 64. I don't imagine I’ll be doing this another 10 years. But I'd like to think I could take it, train up some people and have someone take over the business. That’s a way down the road, but I would certainly love to think about that. That’s the reason I didn't call it Randy’s Trail Company.
Randy knew there was work to be done, but no idea the level of success he would achieve.
It can take years of dedication to build a trail and complete projects, some being more rewarding than others. Thankfully Randy found his niche, had a vision and the skills to find a level of success not many entrepreneurs achieve. But success does not happen without help and support.
I think there have been two real visionary people in Knoxville when it comes to trails. Brian Hann and Carol Evans. The way they were able to connect pieces of property, connect trails, and make loops have really been the root of the explosion of mountain biking in Knoxville.
Randy called out one person as being instrumental in his trail building success and considers a mentor. Valorie Naylor of North Carolina has been at this trail building game for a long time. She is now fortunate enough to pick the work she wants to do. That kind of reputation is something Contour Trail Design is quickly building.
She’s taught me more about trial building than anyone outside of the Trail Care Crew. She was the Greenway Coordinator in Florida, moved up to NC with a trail building company, and has done a bunch of trails around the Knoxville area. She’s generous with her information and constructive criticism. She’s a no-bullshit kind of person.
When asked what was the hardest part of chasing this dream...there really wasn't much that stood in his way. That’s the great part about Randy. He doesn't see obstacles, only the prospect of pushing on. He knew what he wanted to do and had a vision. But there is always that one major risk we hear when talking to those pursuing purpose.
If there is something out there that you really want to do, try it on a part-time basis. Sometimes turning a hobby into a job can remove the joy of the hobby. I am having a tough time with that because of the administration duties, but my happy place is on an excavator out in the woods. I love coming to work on Monday!
There are always growing pains, but they are worth the risk. Randy is at no loss for work. He has a year's worth of projects booked. It has exceeded all his expectations in terms of work. He has no down days, other than those caused by weather. And because we are in Knoxville, winter is the best time to build, so he can build year-round. One critical piece of this puzzle that keeps the work flowing has always been the support of our local government.
The amount of trail has blown completely up. I don't think even the most ambitious idealist would have guessed this. The next growth will come to the surrounding countries. They will see the benefit and that there is a need, ask representatives for it, and it will happen. When you think about trails, you can build one mile of trail a lot cheaper than a tennis court. Get two people playing tennis, or a ton of people using a trail.
An economic impact study of trials conducted in Colorado in 1995 showed that a home adjacent to a trail was 32% more valuable than one 3,200' away. The benefit can range, but the general consensus is that trails improve a community.
When asked the most rewarding part of his job, Randy responded:
Seeing people out enjoying the trails I built, particularly kids. It's so cool to see people out enjoying what you built. It could be 15 feet of trail that took me a day and a half to build, and it takes them seconds to blow through there, but it’s so worth it.
Randy has had the opportunity to be part of some impressive builds in Knoxville. From the new adaptive trail at Sharp’s Ridge to the new Baker Creek Bike Park, Contour Trail Design has been a part of it. Randy has built over 75 miles of trails, and that number continues to grow every day.
So the next time you are in the woods, on a trail, take a minute to appreciate the skill, dedication, and immense effort it took to create. Maybe come out to a workday to learn how you can maintain a trail on your own. It starts with people like Randy but lives on through our effort.
We thank Randy for sharing his time and perspective with us. Most of us spend our entire lives chasing a paycheck instead of our dreams. A lucky few do both. We are searching for the outliers to show the rest of us how it’s done.