Project elevates trail – and engineer’s career

Engineer Rich Vick has designed several sections of the Animas River Trail, including the Main Avenue tunnel, completed in 2005. His most difficult endeavor is his latest – the 1,010-foot elevated link behind the Durango Mall, which is scheduled for completion late this month or early June. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Engineer Rich Vick has designed several sections of the Animas River Trail, including the Main Avenue tunnel, completed in 2005. His most difficult endeavor is his latest – the 1,010-foot elevated link behind the Durango Mall, which is scheduled for completion late this month or early June.

In another few weeks, when you zip down the Animas River Trail behind the Durango Mall, try to take a minute, or at least a spare nanosecond, to appreciate the path you’re on.

You might be trying to pedal faster to keep up with your 10-year-old, or you might be looking at the flowing Animas, or you might be thinking of all the wonderful goods available at Walmart.

You’re probably not wondering if the grade here is 5 or 6 percent, and you’re not contemplating the sun’s angle on Dec. 21.

That’s all understandable.

But this new section of trail deserves a moment of your attention. It’s been difficult and challenging, and it has taken a lot of time and money. Furthermore, its completion marks a huge milestone in the history of Durango.

It’s the final link in what is now a seven-mile trail down the river corridor. This process, which began in the 1970s, has been at times maddening, at times seemingly impossible. But at the core, it’s truly been a labor of love, and Rich Vick’s efforts exemplify that spirit.

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Like many of us, he discovered Durango kind of by accident. Vick was a 21-year-old Californian on a motorcycle when he blew through here in 1975. In 1977, the Cal Poly grad came through again and spent a few hours. In 1978, he stayed for good.

He met his wife-to-be in the Piñon Heights condos on Avenida del Sol. Eventually he partnered in a two-man firm, Con-Struct Engineering, and constantly worked six-day weeks as building boomed in the 1990s.

In 1995, he worked on his first section of Animas River Trail, the link under the U.S. Highway 160 bridge behind what he and other longtimers refer to as the Red Lion Inn. (It’s been the DoubleTree since 1997.) That started a long and, most in the know would say, hugely successful partnership with the city of Durango. And, to the general public, hidden behind the scenes.

Take the Main Avenue underpass, for example – the crucial “missing link” that finally got pushed through in 2005. We grew impatient during lengthy negotiations with riverside landowners but gave little thought to the challenges of boring a hole, rerouting traffic, and rerouting a water main and other utility lines.

“It’s a role that’s kind of invisible sometimes,” says his friend Mark Smith, a businessman who has worked with many engineers. “That’s the part you never really hear about.”

Vick is describing this process as we walk from the swinging bridge (also one of his works) to the bridge over the Animas at Rotary Park (yes, Vick again).

For Vick, the Main Avenue underpass was the most technically challenging project he’d ever done. And that remained true until 28 months ago.

To visit the work he began in 2010, we take a quick drive and park at the Durango Harley-Davidson store. Trucks and bulldozers and welders and painters are in motion as we stroll down the freshly poured concrete. I look down to be certain I’m not leaving footprints.

Vick disbanded his company in 2003, but he hasn’t stopped working.

“People make fun of me being ‘retired,’” he says with an easy smile. “Really, I’m semi-retired. And I will be until I die. I do these things as a hobby really.”

Yeah, some hobby.

For this 1,010-foot-long section, half of it elevated along the hillside below the Durango Mall, he drew up 71 sheets of plans. That was after he’d considered six or seven different alignments, drawing cross-sections of several to determine where the sun would hit on Dec. 21 – the sun’s lowest trajectory of the year.

He determined that digging a trail into the hillside would have required a huge cut and a tall retaining wall. Furthermore, some spots wouldn’t have seen sun for two or three months. The way it’s been done, sun will hit everywhere for at least a couple hours every day.

“If I die tomorrow, I can say I don’t want to do anything more challenging than this,” Vick says. “It was the most thorough set of plans I’ve ever done. ...

“It was the last section for a reason – because it was difficult.”

The section should open later this month or in early June, says Kevin Hall, Durango’s director of natural lands, trails and sustainability. The cost will come in at just less than $1.9 million, says Scott McClain, the city’s parks, open space and trails specialist.

“We’ve really appreciated his enthusiasm on the project,” Hall says. “It wasn’t just a job for him.”

It was Vick’s idea to put the trail on piers rather than do the hillside cut, Hall says. His creativity and attention to detail has gone “above and beyond.”

Says Smith, “He treats it like it’s his kids he’s doing it for. He just pours his heart into it.”

It’s an illustration of what makes Durango special, Smith says. “It’s kind of cool to have people in town (like Vick) who work on it because they love it.”

Vick says his hourly rate on the project is “terrible.” He just had to have the bid.

“I wanted to do it so bad, I underbid everybody. Unfortunately, I was the winner.”

The last crucial link of what will be a continuous paved path from Memorial Park at 29th Street and East Third Avenue to the Rivera Bridge next to Home Depot is nearly done. On a bicycle this might take you 30 minutes (assuming you slow down politely for the myriad walkers and dogs, leashed or not). From another perspective, this same journey took about 35 years.

Of course, there’s more to come. Trail north of 32nd Street, trail out to Grandview. Vick has no plans to be involved, but ...

“Never say never,” the 58-year-old says as we gaze across the Animas to where the trail ends at Rivera Bridge. “But I’ve got a lot of other things to do.”

No. 1 on the list: “Sit on a boat with a martini.”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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