Every year tens of millions of people travel from across the globe to walk the streets of Rome, visit the great pyramids of Egypt or stare out at the seemingly infinite turns of the Great Wall of China. What draws so many to places that exist long past their intended use? The simple answer is that they were shaped by those who came before us. We all know the history of these iconic spots, but up close, they become conduits, leaping-off points to imagine lives in a time before ours. This grants us new eyes with which to see our world and a deeper appreciation for our fleeting moment spent in it.
But there’s no need to get on a plane to rub elbows with history. Noteworthy relics are actually all around us. One need only slow down and pay attention. An old stone footbridge, a cobblestone alleyway, even a rusted pickup in a farm field offer us insight into a time before our own. For now, we turn our attention to a rather unusual stone staircase in the forest, and those responsible for its existence – the Jolly Rovers.
The Jolly Rover Trail Crew is an all-volunteer group of trail maintenance devotees with a specialized skillset in stonework and masonry. The group got its start atop Bear Mountain, which from 2008 to 2010 was undergoing a massive trail improvement project that involved laying down over a thousand stone steps to the summit. In addition to those hired to construct the stairway through the park, volunteers were welcomed to join in and learn about stonework in the process. Artie Hidalgo was one such volunteer, having recently retired. “When I retired my friends asked me, ‘Hey Artie, what are you going to do in retirement?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to build stone walls.’”
He was serious. Initially, he offered his labor free to a mason. “He said he wasn’t hiring, and I said that was fine, I will work for free, I just want to learn,” Hidalgo recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t have time to teach you,’ and I said that’s fine, I’ll learn through osmosis.” Hidalgo never did get to work with the mason. “Eventually, I realized he thought I was crazy.”
As fate would have it, within a month he found himself on Bear Mountain learning about stonework as part of a crew rerouting the Appalachian Trail, installing those thousand-plus steps. “In the end, we were happy to see the project being finished, but we were sad it was coming to an end,” said Hidalgo. That’s when a group of volunteers who had become friends through the project decided to get the band back together and create a trail crew that specialized in stonework. So was born the Jolly Rovers in 2011, co-founded by Hidalgo.
“There are a lot of trail maintenance groups that do a little of everything, but we specialize in stonework,” explained Jolly Rovers founding member David Chase, as we made our way into the woods from the Sam’s Point trailhead in the Minnewaska State Park Preserve. With us were Hidalgo and Jolly Rovers Communications Coordinator Emily Hague, on our way to see one of the Jolly Rovers’ crowning achievements. “I actually got one of the steps from on top of that boulder,” said Chase, pointing at the top of a massive boulder we were walking past. “And some from up under there,” he added, pointing up toward a stone bluff high above us. Hague explained that a big part of the Jolly Rovers philosophy is to always source their stone locally, from as immediate an area as possible. “If we do have to dig out, we always remediate the land after,” she said. “You would never know we were there.”
We arrived at the Lenape Steps, a staircase that runs up between two towering crags, leading to a lookout bluff that is among the most beautiful in the Hudson Valley. These stairs, completed last year, are the result of three years of work by the Jolly Rovers – not only the core members, but also volunteers from all walks of life who wanted to lend a hand and learn about the stone craft. The stairs are newly laid, but the trail itself was blazed in the mid-1800s. In the 1860s, an inn stood under the bluff of Sam’s Point, its rear door leading to a set of stairs that ascended the bluff. The inn is long gone, and the old staircase eroded over the decades to little more than a pile of rubble. “Here’s what it used to look like,” said Hague, pulling out a picture of this spot taken in 2019. The stairs had so badly crumbled, and the woods so thickly reclaimed what remained of them, that it was completely unrecognizable as any form of path.
Today, visitors can climb new stairs through a path tramped generations ago, through a beautiful crevasse that for decades was impassable. These stairs not only unlock a long-lost access route to the overlook, but they also bring back a piece of history that had been lost for most of a century. If not for the Jolly Rovers, it may well have been lost for good.
“When I retired my friends asked me, ‘Hey Artie, what are you going to do in retirement?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to build stone walls.’” - Artie Hidalgo, Jolly Rovers co-founder