“I’ve been living in a mosquito net fixing culverts all week,” said J.T. Robinson over speakerphone through the aforementioned mesh headwear. “But I get to leave early today to meet some volunteers to work on mountain bike trails at Silver Lake.”
Robinson was unceremoniously digging through mud, managing trail erosion and dodging West Nile in the barely perceptible rolling hills around his hometown of Wilmot, Wisconsin. Erosion management isn’t glamorous, and Robinson wasn’t artfully crafting some shreddable berm or lofty tabletop. He was up to his ankles in grimy runoff stacking rocks so water from an intermittent stream flowed neatly through a corrugated pipe.
Not so long ago, trails greater than this one lured Robinson from his Midwestern hometown to bigger mountains out West, following a path well-trod by skiers, raft guides, climbers and many other outdoor enthusiasts. Yet, after a dozen years living in Utah and adventuring some of the planet’s most iconic mountain ranges, Robinson found his way back to the topographic doldrums of youth in 2018. He dreams of transforming Wilmot, Wisconsin, into a mountain bike destination, like Fruita, Colorado, or Bentonville, Arkansas. But it takes a lot more than digging a couple new trails in the woods to create the next fat-tire hot spot. Doing so requires cultivating an ardent, interconnected community centered around mountain biking while building the infrastructure to support a vibrant local economy. Put that way, battling a few thousand mosquitos sounds like the easy part.
“I’m a natural born rambler, which has taken me to all corners of the world, but Wisconsin will always be my home,” said Robinson. “I realized the greatest gift I can bring back to the place that’s given so much to me and my family is a vision for a sustainable future, one based on outdoor recreation.”
In Utah, Robinson was a professional skier and guide. He went to Weber State for college and was too enamored with the landscape to leave. He’s had epic adventures through Alaskan peaks, Japanese volcanoes and the Austrian Alps—big mountains compared to Wilmot’s ski hill with a paltry 200 vertical feet. During all that wandering, however, Robinson noticed the best trails aren’t always the ones with the most vertical.
Southeast Wisconsin is home to plenty of densely forested, rolling terrain for punchy climbs and descents like Robinson had encountered at Phil’s Trail in Bend, Oregon, or at Phil’s World Trail in Cortez, Colorado. With ample moisture in the dirt making for a great building and riding surface, Robinson figured motivated trailbuilders could eke every last nuance out of the available landscape. Until recently, though, there weren’t any mountain bike trails to speak of, let alone a group of locals devoted enough to donate a rainy afternoon working on them.
Christine Robinson, J.T.’s adventure partner and wife, was similarly enchanted with the postcard-quality outdoor lifestyle of living in the Wasatch. But she felt compelled to bring aspects of her adopted lifestyle back to her roots. “When we started thinking about kids, we’re saying, ‘It takes a village.’ And what better village than the one where we’re from?” said Christine. “We had to leave to chase the lifestyle we wanted, and hopefully our kids won’t have to. We have the chance to be part of the change we want to see.”
In 2017, before moving back to Wisconsin full time, Robinson spent a portion of the summer living with his parents while clearing land he and Christine had purchased so they could eventually build a home. Robinson had worked hard to establish a viable outdoor guiding career in Utah, which he’d initially hoped to parlay into an analogous business in Wisconsin, taking people hiking, biking and paddle boarding in the area. While conducting a bit of exploratory research, he stumbled across a Facebook group for the pioneering volunteer organization—now called the Kenosha Area Mountain Bike Association (KAMBA)—which had painstakingly built a few miles of singletrack mountain bike trails at Silver Lake Park. Needing an escape from lumberjacking in the oppressive Midwestern humidity, Robinson grabbed his bike and went to check out the trails for himself.
“I rode the whole trail system that day. There might not have been much mileage, but the trails were flowy and fast, and I was just completely fired up to be ripping through the woods,” he said. Sweaty and excited to be riding such great trails in his hometown, Robinson made his way back to the trailhead. There, he recognized two leaders in the volunteer trail-building community, Amy Andrews-Paylietner and her husband, Tom, from a photo on the website. “I was practically shouting at these people I’d never met,” he said. “‘You made it possible for me to move home!’ To have access to even just a couple trails changes everything, and I knew there was opportunity for so much more.”
The Andrews-Paylietners introduced Robinson to Matt Collins, the Kenosha County Parks Director. “I think I startled him a little bit with how enthusiastic I was,” Robinson said. “I jumped right in with these ambitious ideas: trail builders, guiding permits, marketing and website promotion. Matt was supportive, but he was like ‘Whoa, slow down. We need to walk before we can run.’” In Kenosha all these things needed to be built from the ground up, which takes time.
“We have a gem of a park system here, but it’s always a work in progress,” Collins said. “J.T. had a lot of energy and excitement. His mindset as an industry professional who’d seen trail systems all over the world got me thinking about how he could help us gear our efforts toward having long-lasting impact.”
Robinson got to work volunteering with KAMBA and building the Heartland Outdoor Adventure website to establish an online presence. “Without good access to information you can’t foster growth, so I started there,” said Robinson. He relied on his experience from living out West—where the outdoor-obsessed population is steeped in the language and culture of mountain sports—to bring an authentic voice and credibility to the website promoting Kenosha’s little-known outdoor assets.
Robinson was still periodically traveling for guiding work and mulling what his professional life would look like back in Wisconsin. “I was guiding a trip in Japan when I got a call from Matt Collins,” Robinson said. “From all the way across the globe he tells me about a new position to manage all the trail systems and new trail projects within Kenosha County and asked if I was interested in the job.”
“J.T. really opened our eyes to how to strategically map out priorities,” Collins said. “He was looking at trail maintenance and development from a holistic perspective, whereas before we were really so focused on it from an operations standpoint.” Robinson jumped at the chance to finally pair his ample energy with some tangible resources. Guiding is one way to introduce individuals to the outdoors, but as trails coordinator Robinson would help outline what the future of outdoor recreation would mean to the entire community.
“We’d like to be the envy of our region when it comes to recreational opportunities,” said Kenosha County Executive Jim Kreuser. “We put an emphasis on things like trail systems and parks because we know they play a big part when companies decide where to locate and people choose where to live.” Robinson will travel to Bentonville in October for an IMBA Trail Lab conference to learn from the experts, but he already has his work cut out for him at home this summer.
New singletrack development is underway beneath the dense forest canopies and along lakeside meadows at KD and Petrifying Springs Parks, which means Robinson is out battling the rain, the humidity and the bugs while flagging trees, tamping down dirt and stacking rocks to keep those vital erosion control measures up to spec. Kenosha County recently entered a 50-year land-use agreement with the University of Wisconsin Parkside to manage and build trails on 139 acres owned by the university. Long before tools are scheduled to hit the dirt, Robinson’s been putting in the hours behind a desk, poring over maps to outline what the area’s going to look like. Though much of the initial work has been focused on improving and maintaining existing trail, Kenosha County leadership has set a goal of increasing their network to 60 or 70 miles of mountain bike singletrack within a couple years.
The county funds new trail projects—an investment Kreuser, Collins and Robinson are confident will pay off with a boost to the local economy—and has partnered with Great Lakes Trailbuilders to undertake some of the heavy lifting. Robinson—a firm proponent of the “no dig, no ride” ethos to building a mountain bike community—regularly recruits volunteers and organizes community dig days online through KAMBA and Heartland Outdoor Adventure. Whether alongside professional trailbuilders or volunteers, Robinson is out there, shovel in hand. “J.T. puts his head down and gets dirty every day,” Collins said. “We really value his administrative knowledge, but he brings a physicality to the job and the ability to lead a group of folks.”
“When I grew up, the outdoor scene in Wisconsin was just hunt, camp and fish. We’re providing an avenue for people to get in touch with nature in a way they haven’t had access to before,” Robinson said. “I want to see a bike on the back of every car, and I know how much hard work it’s going to take to get there. If we can get the community engaged, we’ll see the whole area lighting up with trail systems.”
At a community meeting about trail expansion opportunities in late spring, a man in his sixties who’d recently retired from a career in teaching approached Robinson to tell him how excited he was to pick up mountain biking at his rather advanced age. “He kept going on and on about how great his resting heart rate is because he’s out on the trails every day,” Robinson said with a chuckle. The interaction exemplifies what Robinson’s found most rewarding throughout this transition back home: the lifestyle improvement he’s witnessed for people in Kenosha County.
“Of course I miss certain things about living out West. You can’t compete with the landscape,” Robinson said. “But this place is so special to me and my family. My wife and I were raised here, and our families live here. I’m so grateful to be able to do my part in building my hometown into a place we can share with our kids, and they can experience this outdoor life, lived in harmony with nature, family and friends. It’s a gift that’s not lost on me.”