St. John Trails: Interview with Bob Garrison “The Trail Bandit”
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was self employed for about 30 years with an electronics design and small scale manufacturing business here in Henniker, NH. About 10 years ago I got sick of filling out government forms and paying taxes for the privilege of hiring people, so after finishing the last contract, I closed the doors, and retired. People didn’t believe me, so I had the work phone disconnected. It took a while, but they finally have forgotten about me and I am retired. If I had the money, I would have retired when I was 20, but I didn’t.
How is it that you originally decided to come to St. John and make a trail map?
I first went to St. John in 1965 because my parents had gone there and liked the place. On my first few visits I did the usual tourist stuff, and, the snorkeling was superb. After a few visits, I started to venture out on more of the hiking trails. The map that the NPS gives out has never been worth much and for a new visitor to use it to find his or her way around, it is almost useless. Also, over the years, trails were not maintained and the NPS solution was to erase them from their map when they became overgrown. GPS technology had become available at reasonable prices and armed with a hand held GPS receiver, it was possible to accurately map the roads and trails. How hard can it be to make a map? Well, when I started, it was harder than it is now, and I didn’t know anything so I made the process more difficult than it had to be. My initial map was made in 2004 and was pretty good for a first effort. I had 9000 of them printed. The trail map bug had gotten me. I published an improved edition of the St. John hiking map in 2006. In 2008 I designed a version of the map for the Park Service, that shows only the approved hiking trails and that map is sold at the Park Visitor’s Center in Cruz Bay. I am almost finished with what will probably be the final edition of my St. John hiking map. I will include not only the approved hiking trails but will also show a lot of old Danish roads and trails that are not maintained or approved, but are great fun to explore. I hope other hikers will continue helping to keep the trails open.
What was the condition of the trails and the park when you first arrived?
When I first came to St. John, the trails were in pretty good shape. Over the years, the trails were neglected and many got so overgrown that you couldn’t even find them any more. In 1978, I went down the L’Esperance Road with a couple of friends. It was hard going, and early in the hike, one of my friends said “What we need here is a machete”. About 200 feet further along the trail, there was a machete lying on the ground. It was even fairly sharp. With this newly acquired weapon, we were able to make it all the way to Reef Bay. The catch-n-keep had torn our skin and clothes, but we made it. Some years later, I once again tried to follow the L’Esperance Road. It was impassable, and in places it had disappeared. I bought a machete and started to clear a path on the road. Of course, there was no way I could complete the task in one trip, so every time I returned to St. John, I cleared some more. Over the years, I finally had a path all the way to Reef Bay that people could walk. At some point, someone came in with a tractor, and removed the huge fallen trees that I couldn’t cut and widened out the first 2/3 of the trail. I don’t know who did that work, but I thank them. Gradually, trail clearing became sort of an obsession and I located and cleared many old trails and roads.
What contact have you had with with park officials and local hikers?
The Park officials became aware of my work when I published my first map. The chief ranger at that time was enraged, and called me at home and screamed “YOU CAN’T JUST MAKE A MAP!” I tried to explain that the first amendment to the US Constitution has a few words to say about the freedom of the press. I met with members of the Park staff at a public meeting and discussed what I wanted to do, and they essentially said no. The meeting was attended by a reporter who published a story about what was discussed. My first contact with local hikers was on a hike down what has become the Maria Hope Trail. The trail was badly overgrown and as we approached the lower end, the brush was so thick we couldn’t get through. They said that at this point, they scrambled down the hill to the gut to reach the road. They were armed with rose bush clippers and I had my machete. I suggested that if I went first, we could get through. I hacked and they dragged brush away. The first decent of the Maria Hope trail in recent times had been done. A number of the hikers were amazed at how well a sharp machete works and became converts. I have had many great hikes with the local hiking groups. I have noticed that there are some who want to keep their trails and discoveries a secret and I have left a few trails off the map at their request. These were trails in remote areas where I didn’t think many would want to go anyway. No map ever shows everything.
Were they cooperative?
The Park service has, in general, done it’s best to stop my work. I spent a lot of time trying to get the old roads and trails back on the NPS map, declared legal trails again and hopefully, maintained. There was one ranger in particular, who, if he responded at all, would have a long list of “what MIGHT be required” for a particular trail officially recognized. It “MIGHT” be required to have an archeologist and a rare plant expert sent down from the States to survey the proposed trail. There was no money available for that. The local staff experts were way too busy to be able to look at new trail or ruins. After several years of fighting for these trails, my learning more about NPS rules, and a change of leadership at VINP, some progress was made. First, a temporary superintendent put a stop to all the “MIGHT BE REQUIRED” conditions, and the present superintendent has made huge strides in getting VINP back in shape. Now a number of the old trails have been officially reopened.
What trails have you worked on?
I started, as I mentioned above with the L’Esperance road. After that came the Tektite trail, the Cabritte Horn spur, the Europa Point trail, the Tamarind Tree trail, the Water Catchment trail, the connector from the Water Catchment to the Caneel trail, the Great Sieben trail, the trail down to Par Force ruins from the Reef Bay Great House area and the trail up to America Hill. All of these are now officially recognized by the Park Service. There have been many other trails that I and others have worked on enough to get through but these aren’t cleared to any standard, and are not at this time recognized by the Park Service.
Which currently unofficial trails would you most likely want to see adopted by the park and why?
I would like to see the southern extension of the Maria Hope trail be cleared and officially reopened. It is a beautiful road and passes the ruins of the Paqureau and Hope Estates. This would require making a short section of new trail to connect with the top of the Reef Bay Trail, as the original trail bed has been destroyed by the building of Centerline road. This would make the Reef Bay Hike a loop hike. I would like to see the trails out to Turner Point reopened as it is beautiful out there and the eastern part of VINP is currently mostly unused as are no cleared trails or official access. The area out by Camelberg Peak is a beautiful forest with old roads and is currently little visited. A cleared trail there would make a nice loop hike with the L’Esperance road. Mary Point has old trails, beautiful views, but is currently badly overgrown with catch-n-keep and painful to visit.
How do you find old roads?
Many of the old roads that I have found are shown on the Oxholm 1800 map of St. John. I have also used aerial photographs taken back in 1954. I built a 3D viewer that was very helpful in finding old roads on these photos. Many times, if you just hike through the woods you will come across parts of old roads. Sometimes they quickly disappear and other times, they can be followed a long way. Unfortunately, many of the best of the old roads have been destroyed by modern road building.
Do you make new trails?
No. There are roads and trails going everywhere on St. John. The old roads were designed and built by people who knew what they were doing. St. John is so steep that most of the old roads are built up on the down hill side, with stone walls. These roads have existed for 200 years or more. If a new trail were to be built, similar construction methods would be needed. This would be more work and expense than would be worthwhile. There are plenty of existing, well built, roads and trails out there. They just need clearing and maintenance.
Have you donated any money for trail improvements?
Yes. One of the arguments for not opening any new trails, expressed by the Park Service, was that there is no money available to maintain the trails. I started a Trail Maintenance Fund that is available for that purpose. The VINP is in charge of the fund. Hopefully, those of you who like to hike the trails, but don’t have time to do trail work, will contact the VINP superintendent and donate some money to help hire others to do the work. I gave the artwork for the trail map to the Park Service. $1.00 from the sale of every map they sell goes to the trail maintenance fund.
Tell us about the new map work in progress?
The map I am working on will probably be my last one for St. John. I will include most of the old roads and trails I know about. Some are great and others don’t amount to much. They are there and people who like to explore may enjoy them. I will put the location of all the trails on my web site as .GPX tracks. Those who are interested can load any track onto their GPS receiver and accurately follow the path. My web site also has the St. John map available to upload to your GPS as an accurate base map, showing all the trails, etc. I will put a list of some of the trail head waypoints on the web site.
How can people obtain your maps?
My maps are available at a number of stores on St. John. The Park approved version of my map is for sale at the Visitor’s Center. I also sell my maps and mail them to people. The cost for the printed maps is listed on my web site. www.trailbandit.org The web site has all the maps available for free download and there is other information there too. I will be updating the web site soon.
It has been sad to watch VINP decay over the years. Many who work for the Park seem to think that their employment is some sort of a welfare program. It is too bad that there are so many employees who can get away with doing as little as possible. It would be far better to hire contractors do the work because a contractor does a specific job and gets paid when it is completed. Park employees have been getting paid but in many cases, they haven’t done much work. Many on the staff are content with the way things have always been. I have been pleased and encouraged by the changes that Mark Hardgrove has made and the improvement in the condition of the Park since he came. Hopefully the next superintendent will keep up the good work.