Imagine a place where people voluntarily move sizeable stones, some weighing up to 300 pounds, these stones traveling along a zip line strung between trees. Eventually, arriving at the site where they are split and shaped to build stone staircases. Now, imagine this is all done with hand tools and without the aid of a backhoe.  It might be difficult to envision someone exerting muscle willingly, working until the sinew quivers. There are, however, individuals who do trade-in the comforts of home to travel into the wilderness to create or improve trails by using old world techniques of drywall construction. They come from all walks of life and backgrounds, but as stone architects they are at their best.

The bond developed from hard labor can, and often does, spark a desire to form a group. One such group, thirty-five in membership, goes by the name Jolly Rovers. The stone staircases constructed by these dedicated men and women are built to facilitate the hiking exploits of backpackers on the Appalachian Trail—as well as paths outside of the A.T. and local eastern vicinities.

From their inception, in 2011, the projects they have worked on have resulted in an impressive energy between them, linking the group in a devoted collaboration as they worked toward united goals. This working relationship has brought attention to the Jolly Rovers. And they are forever grateful to each other for the success, never forgetting the common denominator: to continue the tradition of hiking. Especially since, they all believe that human beings can still build beautiful things with their very own hands.

The founding members met after many hours of working shoulder-to-shoulder. Starting from the very beginning at one of the workshops at Bear Mountain, a magnetic chemistry kindled between Chris Ingui, Bob Brunner, and Artie Hidalgo-Espinosa. The work they did as volunteers covered the NY/NJ Trail Conference as well as work done independently in these states and beyond.  The idea to form a trail crew fashioned in late 2010. After these three men had gone over a great deal of planning, the group’s direction was finalized by February 2011. The name, Jolly Rovers, was Chris Ingui’s idea who envisioned the group roving around independently overseeing the landscape while building not only steps, but true friendships. Since then, they have orchestrated the development of the Rovers in conjunction with the team members.

The work is always exhausting. Sometimes the Rovers work under torrential downpours, or heat waves, or uncomfortably cold temperatures. The first job they worked on as the Jolly Rovers was in April 2011 at Norvin-Green State Forest in Bloomingdale, New Jersey. It was cold and rainy as Chris Ingui reported “As forecasted the rain arrived and the water on the already muddy ground began to rise, rapidly overtaking the tops of boots….” Despite the deplorable weather conditions that weekend, the Rovers were able to complete 100 feet of stonework. Everyone that turned out for that first job at Norvin-Green remained a loyal crew member. But many have admitted that things like bathing and sitting on one’s own toilet seat are comforts very much missed. The inconvenience is made up with a job well done, and the hikers parading up and down the new stone staircases. And of course, the legacy left behind.

Who volunteers to trail-build?

Mark Sierzega’s story is one of many. Although he makes a living as a lead operator at a plastic factory, in 2011, he met the Jolly Rovers and began working on projects with them. Mark came into the group with prior dry-wall experience, but loved the way the Rovers welcomed people while always maintaining a balance of talent. Mark believes that, unlike his job at the plastic factory, he can push himself as hard as he would like building A.T. staircases and retaining walls. He doesn’t need to bottle up his energy outside in the woods; he feels he could knock himself out.

Bob Brunner, a high school math teacher and one of the founding leaders, says his desire to be outdoors led him in 2009 to the Bear Mountain Project. It was there that he met the other two leaders who would create the trio with the desire to form a trail crew. While creating works of stone craft, the Jolly Rovers have become an extended family to “Iron Bob”—as he is known to the group.

Artie Hidalgo-Espinosa, a group leader and a retired Metropolitan Transit Authority employee, says his involvement in trail-building is more personal—he wants to do something of importance before he kicks the bucket. Stone-work always fascinated him and since his retirement he has learned so much about building stone structures. He feels that the work he is doing now will outlive him, his children, grandchildren, and so on. Since billions of hikers pass by the A.T., either as day-hikers or thru-hikers, Artie compares the work done by the volunteers just as important as the work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 30s.  But, he adds that the under-appreciation of the CCC is unfortunate.

How does it begin?

The planning done on a particular site begins well before the real work. Decisions like re-routing, staircase and/or crib wall construction, as well as foot landings determined by the crew chief and the crew leaders in conjunction with the parks department and other partners. Part of the evaluation process incorporates flagging individualized workstations. From that point, quarry sites are identified to be used on the job site and tools, anchors, and high-lines gathered.

Soon the day arrives when the Jolly Rovers load-up their cars with equipment and carpool to the trailhead then hike to the worksite. Before long, specific assignments are given out to the volunteers, which include warnings about steep slopes and slippery terrain. But way before the work begins; training for the jobs of splitting, shaping, installing and rigging stone is required.

At project’s end, the long day rewarded with camp-fire meals, known as stone soup, and charming tall tales before they retreat into their tents. The Rovers proudly display their logo of skull and cross bones of which they cleverly substituted work tools for the bones. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. The motif doesn’t necessarily reflect the hazards of the job (although there are a few) as much as the sense of humor of the group. And there is plenty of jesting behavior happening as the hard labor gets done. The risks that come with the job can easily be avoided by working safely. So if you use protective gear and watch out for people at a 360-degree area around you, you won’t get caught in the “circle of death” and end up losing a finger or two.