At work, Ron Webster has the look of a one-man chain gang. Covered with dirt and surrounded by piles of picks and shovels, he is often found pounding on rocks, hacking at bushes or clearing anything else in his way.
Behind Webster, you'll find a well-cleared path over hills, through bushes and past trees.
"I get my peculiar rewards from this," said Webster, official trail maker for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. "I don't expect people to understand, but it's very important to me. I get a lot of satisfaction building trails."
Over the last nine years, this 51-year-old former machinist also has satisfied a lot of other people with his work in or near the Santa Monica Mountains. As a longtime volunteer, and more recently as the conservancy's only paid trail maker, he is credited with greatly expanding access to state lands in the area.
'Happy as a Lark'
"There were other volunteers, but as far as I know there was never anybody like this guy," said Joe Edmiston, director of the conservancy. "He seemed happy as a lark doing work that no one else would touch. We were obviously happy to have him around."
On his own and with the help of a number of volunteer groups, Webster has been responsible for at least 17 miles of state trails, built at what he guesses is a rate of 800 hours per mile. He said he has had a hand in almost all of the trails in Topanga and Malibu Creek state parks and is helping to clear at least two other trails.
Since February, the Santa Monica resident has been working on a trail off Mulholland Highway called the Old Secret, a few miles south of Old Topanga Canyon Road. The trail, being built on land set aside by a developer, will eventually meet a fire road on the other side of the hills.
Webster, who tends to play down his contributions, said there really is not much to his story. Years ago, after moving to Los Angeles from Wisconsin, he began leading Sierra Club hikes through the Santa Monica Mountains on his days away from the lathe he worked at a machinery firm in downtown Los Angeles. At the time, there were not many trails, and the walks he led were typically confined to fire and access roads.
Offered to Make Trails
Webster was not satisfied with those. Eventually, he wrote a letter to the state volunteering to help with a proposed trail.
The state was more than pleased to get free labor. Webster said he went to work on his first trail nine years ago, cutting away on weekends and afternoons. Often he worked alone. At other times he was joined by members of groups ranging from Boy Scouts to drivers who were working off fines after being cited for traffic violations.
Webster said his trail-making pace picked up a bit in February, when he retired on a financial incentive from the machinery firm. A few months later, the conservancy finished paper work on a $25,000 trail-making grant issued to the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council and Friends of Peter Strauss Ranch, both nonprofit groups.
As leader of the trail-making crew operated jointly by the two private groups, Webster is the only private citizen who is paid to build trails in the Santa Monica Mountains. For $20,000 a year, he works full time in the mountains--mapping, marking and making trails approved by the conservancy.
The work is little more than manual labor. After marking the general course of a trail with ribbons, Webster and his friends arrive with saws, sledgehammers, shovels, hoes, picks, pruners and axes.
Branches are lopped, roots are sawed and soil is dug up and moved. Boulders are smashed or moved. They generally work around trees. As a rule, Webster said, he tries to run his trail past shady areas or other natural attractions, in keeping with the topography.
To conform to county regulations, Webster said, he also tries to keep the trails four feet wide, with five feet of clearance on each side and 10 feet of headway for horses and riders. The trail's gradient is held to less than 10% if possible.
Webster said that, on a good day with as many as a dozen volunteers, as much as an eighth of a mile can be cleared. On other days, working by himself, he moves only a few yards. Over the years, he said, he has resisted using chain saws or other electrical tools because they make too much noise.
Webster said he has no idea how long he will make trails, although he expects to volunteer again when the conservancy grant runs out.
At the end of a day in the mountains, he said, he occasionally wonders why he has not made more progress.
"I've got a friend with one of those wheels that measures the length of these things," he said. "They always end up shorter than I thought."