We wouldn’t have a Highland to call home without the dedicated team of builders who design, construct, and maintain the trails we all love to ride. In this month’s episode of Highland is Home, we hear from trail crew members James, Jordan, Whitney, Zach, and Justin about what brought them to this mountain, and why they continue to do what they do.
In the fifteen years that Highland Mountain Bike Park has been operating we’ve remained 100% dedicated to bikes, which means that everything the trail crew builds is designed exclusively for mountain biking. “We’ve been fortunate enough thanks to Mark to be able to build some of the coolest, most progressive features and trails anywhere,” says James Patterson, Trail Crew Director. His small crew of builders all bring specialized skills to the table, from hand-building to machine operating to water management and everything in between.
James Patterson, Highland Trails Director
James himself started working at Highland about ten years ago, when he signed on to help build the Dual Slalom course with Kyle Ebbett. At that point he had already logged countless volunteer hours working on the first generation of Highland’s trails. He spent the next season living onsite on VP Dave Smutok’s couch. James and Dave had previously crossed paths at the University of Vermont, where both were part of the cycling club and raced gravity. Dave still speaks highly of James’s work ethic and passion for building. “In college, he found this lot of unused woods by the highway behind a Staples, and he just started digging jumps there. That’s how it all started.” (Dave has told us to not share the story of the two of them dumpster-diving at construction sites and using James’s minivan to cart around building materials, but does say: “He’s always been incredibly motivated.”)
James chases Kyle Ebbett at the 2009 Gravity East Slalom Race
Kyle takes first and James takes second
Jordan Kemerling joined the trail crew in 2018. He actually first applied to work at Highland as a bartender: anything to get him out of North Carolina and onto the hill. For Jordan, Highland represented an opportunity to do the sort of work he enjoyed, while also serving as a one-stop shop for everything he loved to ride. He could do everything he wanted to do, all in one place. “I knew that even if I had tough days working here, I could eventually go after work and ride my bike. And I would be happy.”
Jordan floats through Pirates Cove
His favorite element of trail work is the handwork phase: making that final pass and adding the finishing touches before the rope drops. “Sometimes it’s kind of a pain to get to that point,” he admits. “But once you’re there and it’s done, and you get to ride it and test it…it’s a really rewarding feeling to know that you’re getting to ride what you worked on.”
Jordan smooths out a berm on NE Style
Whitney Poulin started her career in landscaping. She’s been an equipment operator for almost ten years now, mostly focused on building trails, and her skill set has brought her all over the country. She first heard about Highland when she was living out in Colorado, and eventually found her way here for the first time on a first date. “I was falling all over the place,” she says. “I had a great time.” She immediately fell in love with the mountain, and has been an integral part of the Highland Family ever since.
Whitney clears a section of Derailer, part of the second phase of downhill mountain biking terrain Highland Trails is building at Loon Mountain.
Whitney’s favorite thing about trail building is watching other people enjoy the finished product. As much as she herself loves to ride, there’s nothing that compares to the satisfaction of creating something that everyone truly enjoys. “That’s really why I like doing it.” In addition to her work on the trail crew, she’s also a popular coach and well-known advocate of the women’s freeride movement. Whether you were first introduced to her as a builder, a coach, or a fellow rider: everyone knows Whitney is an unparalleled badass.
Whitney launches the Tombstone drop
Zach Hancock was in high school when his mom dropped him off at Highland for the first time. He spent the day fully destroying his Specialized Hardrock, then promptly sold his dirt bike and bought a mountain bike. He rearranged his grocery store shifts to maximize the amount of free time he’d have to spend riding. In true Highland fashion, Zach was around so often that eventually he was offered a job. He spent a couple of seasons working as an HTC and lift attendant, finally joining the trail crew about six years ago.
Zach clears trees in preparation for this year’s build of Lower NE Style
“Highland has completely changed my life,” Zach says. “This is my dream job, and I’m finally doing it.” He loves the variety and diversity of the work: cutting trees, operating the excavator, building a rock garden, constructing wooden features–even grooming trails with a snowmobile in the winter to prepare for fat biking events. “It’s just a great mix of things I really like.” Recently Zach purchased his own plot of land in Gilmanton, where he’s building a house and putting down roots less than an hour from the mountain.
Justin leads a Kids Camp down Freedom Trail
Around Highland, builder and coach Justin Lagassey is best known for the antics of his van cat Fluffy Goldstein, his impressive commitment to his personal goals, and his absolute refusal to rest. (You may remember our story about Justin from last fall, when he climbed the vertical equivalent of Mt. Everest over twenty-four hours at Highland, hitting not only every trail but also every feature during his forty-eight descents.) Justin lives his life by his own personal mission: to build community, go outside, and do rad things. Highland’s core mission—to build trails and teach people how to ride them—happens to check all of the same boxes.
The Highland Family begins with the people who build the trails we all come here to ride. As Justin says, “everyone here gets it.” Highland wouldn’t be home without them.