Durango is known as a mountain bike mecca – with some of the most beautiful hiking and biking trails in Colorado – and that is thanks in no small part to one man: Bill Manning.
Just a couple of weeks into retirement at the age of 67, Manning looked back on the 13 years he spent refining trails for La Plata County between 1993 and 2006.
“In 1990, I worked as a World Mountain Bike Championship volunteer organizer,” Manning said. “And I ended up in this meeting that had members from BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and the Forest Service, and they were talking about key (bike) trails and possible trail efforts around Durango. For some reason, that stuck with me.”
Manning had recruited a multitude of volunteers to build trails for the World Mountain Bike Championship, which was held in Durango, the first of its kind. Manning and the volunteers’ work inspired other Durangoans to imagine the possibilities of creating or extending other trails in Durango and the surrounding counties.
They set a goal to complete 200 miles of trails by the year 2000. Eventually, a nonprofit organization was formed known as Trails 2000 – known now as Durango Trails – and Manning became its director.
The first of many goals for Manning and those who worked with him was to make the pathways more durable. The first trail Manning focused on was the section of Colorado Trail along Molas Pass near Silverton, where he and a team worked on installing new water drains and creating water diversions.
“Rain and water runoff can really ruin a trail,” he said. “It becomes really rocky and hard to walk on.”
Manning and his team spent the next decade enhancing hundreds trails, including connecting certain trails, creating loop routes to lessen difficulty for hikers and bicyclists, and forging new routes across multiple jurisdictions.
“You could put all the jobs I had on a Rolodex,” Manning said. “I cleared trails. I cooked meals. I was in charge of the tools. I worked on a lot of different stuff.”
There is one notable trail that caused Manning and his team some difficulty.
“Telegraph Trail was definitely a tough one,” Manning said, referring to a trail in Horse Gulch. “We spent two years just trying to put together the property management because a lot of it (the trail) was on private property owned by Noel Pautsky.
“When we finally got the go-ahead, I asked a bunch of volunteers to meet me up Horse Gulch (Road). My truck barely made it up there,” he said. “I waited and waited, but no one showed up to help me, so I worked on it solo that day. After a while, though, more and more people started showing up to help. We ended up with about 50 volunteers at one point.”
Manning shared another of his favorite memories involving trail volunteers.
“We were working my favorite section of the Colorado Trail, between Gudy’s Rest up to the Champion Mine Road, diverting water (runoff),” he said. “We had about 20 volunteers, give or take. Really great people. We all camped along the trails together. Shared meals. It was a really great experience.”
Manning left Durango and Trails 2000 in 2006 to take a job with the Colorado Trail Foundation. He retired earlier this month as executive director of the foundation.
Manning now spends time volunteering with CTF, which is now run by executive director Tisha McCombs.
“I worked with volunteers for 30 years, and now I am one,” Manning said.
He also voluntarily sharpens kitchen knives for friends and neighbors who have let their blades get dull. It’s a service that keeps him busy, but he does not advertise.
“It’s a word-of-mouth thing,” he said. “I have a lot of business in just the townhouse complex I live in.”
When he is not volunteering with the Colorado Trails Foundation or sharpening kitchen knives, he spends time with his girlfriend, Judy, who is helping him get through the first round of chemotherapy he’s receiving for his recently diagnosed cancer. Like everything else in Manning’s life, he looks at his recent setback with a can-do attitude.
“The chemo isn’t making me as tired as I thought it would,” he said. “It’s been successful so far, and that’s all I can ask for.”
Of all the trails Manning worked on over the years, he recalls his favorite one as being in Durango: the Nature Trail, which winds its way up to the chapel at Fort Lewis College.
“I always enjoyed making my way up to the top of that one,” he said wistfully. “It’s all about that view. You know?”