Paving the Lost Four Miles

Posted by Doug Shidell, June 29th, 2009

Trail enthusiasts referred to it as the “Lost Four Miles,” an unpaved four-mile section that, when completed, would connect the Central Lakes Trail and the Lake Wobegon Trail to create a single 120-mile trail, the longest in Minnesota. By the evening of Thursday, August 9, 2008 the paving crew had paved all but the last mile of the trail. The transition was sharp: To the east a thick black carpet of tar, still hot. To the west a short smear of oil over compacted gravel. The connecting thread, a quarter mile length of red twine used as a guide for the paving machine.

By late Friday morning the crew had completed half the remaining distance. Tar filled dump trucks lined the side of the road. The drivers, with time on their hands, gathered in the middle of the line to visit. Behind them an empty truck raced up the unpaved portion of the trail toward an exit while a loaded truck waited. When the path cleared the loaded truck backed down the trail to the paving machine.

The new truck backed into place, a puff of black smoke belched out of the paving machine and the whole operation inched forward. Black tar and sand poured from the truck to the hopper of the paving machine and came out the back in a smooth, straight ribbon. Moments later, and ten feet down the trail, the operation came to a stop. The truck was empty. As the truck sped away, the operator of the paving machine put his hands behind his head and leaned back in the seat. A crew member stared off into space at the back of the paving machine. Ten feet, then wait until the empty truck clears the trail and a full one backs the distance to the paving machine. It wasn’t one of the more interesting jobs for this crew.

The pace picked up as the distance shortened. Within two hours the paving crew had completed all but a couple of dozen yards of the trail. Trucks pulled off the trail almost as soon as they emptied their loads. The long line of trucks on the side of the road gave way to a couple of trucks carrying the last loads of the day. A bobcat swung into action, picking up paving debris and loading it into an empty truck.

The last truck raised its bed to dump a load into the hopper, then lowered it less than a minute later. The paving machine wouldn’t need his full load. A moment later the last few inches of the connector were covered with hot mix. The moment cyclists were waiting for, connecting that 120 mile ribbon of blacktop, had arrived.

It was not a momentous moment. The paving machine pulled off the trail and rumbled down the road to a grassy area. The partially emptied dump truck started down the road, presumably to return its leftover load of mix. A reserve truck, still full of mix, left the scene. The bobcat swung onto the trail and scraped up a mound of leftover blacktop. The load went into the debris truck. The bobcat swung back to the access road. With its bucket scraping the road and front wheels floating in the air, it scraped the pavement free of tar and sand.

The paving machine rumbled down the road toward a waiting trailer. Pickup trucks, ubiquitous vehicles at every construction site, left quickly. The bobcat finished its work and dropped its last load into the debris truck. A moment later the truck left, leaving only the bobcat, its driver and another man. The two men huddle over diagrams for a few minutes.

A pickup swung into the abandoned site. The extra man hopped into the bed of the truck and spread out to relax as the truck raced away. The bobcat churned down the road a moment later.

Forty-five minutes ago this was a bustling site of dump trucks, paving machine, pickups, a bobcat and crew. Now it is abandoned except, somewhere down the trail, a lone man on a compacting machine is slowly rolling up and down the trail compressing the mix.

With a little luck, the crews made it back to Willmar, their hometown, in time for Friday’s happy hour or an evening with their families. On Monday morning they were at a new site, paving a Wal-Mart parking lot. They would finish that job in a couple of days and move to another job. The trail project would fade into the long list of projects completed.

The celebrities showed up two weeks later. Garrison Keillor, mayors, trail advocates and folks who enjoy momentous events. Garrison drove in a ceremonial green spike. Speeches were made. Musicians and food entertained the crowds. Bicyclists and in-line skaters cheered.

None of them made it to the actual completion of the trail. I expected someone, perhaps a trail advocate, to show up with a keg of beer that the crew could tap into once they’d parked their trucks and clocked off the job. At the very least, I expected an accidental bicyclist to come upon the scene just as the crew was wrapping up. I expected him to stop and hang out, aware that this was an important moment in cross-state trail building.

But I’m projecting my own needs into this moment. What I really wanted was for a single trail user to connect with a single trail builder, to briefly share a moment in common. A moment when the trail builder could talk about his job and what it takes to put asphalt on the ground, and a trail user could say what it means to have these incredible facilities available and perhaps give an insight into why we enjoy them. It won’t happen this time. Bicyclists didn’t show up at the construction site and the paving crew didn’t show up at the trail celebration.

I wish I’d bought them that keg of beer.

Filed under: Bikeverywhere News, Misc