Call them a “Band of Brothers,” senior division. Friends of El Cerro, currently three members strong, keep the El Cerro de Los Lunas trails clear of rocks, weeds and debris and safe for hikers.
Thanks to these efforts, Friends of El Cerro are recognized as News-Bulletin’s Unsung Heroes.
The trio, Denis Rae, 73, Jeff Caldwell, 74, and Dennis Robertson, 85, are all retired military and live in the nearby Jubilee community in Los Lunas.
“Our group has always been primarily retired people from Jubilee community,” said Caldwell, who attended the 2015 Friends of El Cerro organizational meeting with village of Los Lunas officials.
Friends of El Cerro was the idea of Niles McCall, who approached the village about forming a volunteer group to take care of the trails.
“Of course, the village loved that,” Caldwell recalled. “They’ve been very supportive of us over the years,” providing equipment such as pick-axes, shovels and gloves.
Caldwell, retired U.S. Air Force, Robertson, ex-Marine, and Rae, a veteran of the Royal Air Force, look at the work on the trails as a continuation of their commitment to service. Besides, they love El Cerro, “The Hill” in Spanish, and known casually as Los Lunas Hill.
“I just consider it to be like walking in your backyard,” Rae chuckled through his thick Scottish accent. “Who has a backyard like this?”
For Robertson, the elder-statesman of the group, it was natural to join the cause after spending 30 years with the National Forest Service. His NFS responsibilities included long-trail building and maintenance, and now his focus on El Cerro is water diversion.
“I go up on the hill to get my exercise,” Robertson said, adding it is more enjoyable than working out in a gym. “It was tough starting out, but once I got in shape it wasn’t too bad.”
Robertson joined Friends of El Cerro after he had two knee replacements.
“My wife asked, ‘Why do you do this?’ ‘Because I can,’” was Robertson’s response.
Perhaps no one is more grateful for the efforts of these three than Pat Jaramillo, the supervisor of Los Lunas Open Space. Before Friends of El Cerro was formed, it was Jaramillo doing much of the trail maintenance himself. It became more difficult as his responsibilities grew.
Enter McCall, the father of Friends of El Cerro.
“He was talking about how he had done other volunteer work to maintain trails throughout the state” and how he wanted to keep up these trails, Jaramillo recalled. “I was like, of course — always happy to take volunteers that want to help, and take on some of that burden.”
And it is a big burden.
“Rain and the wind and stuff causes erosion and it gets these rocks exposed and causes safety issues and hazards,” Jaramillo explained. “They go in there and bust ‘em up and bring in some dirt to help fill in those holes.”
McCall, who no longer lives in the area, was quite the workhorse.
“He was a big Swedish guy,” is how Robertson described him. “He could take a 10, 15-pound sledgehammer and knock the tops of these rocks.”
These days, Robertson leaves most of the heavy work, like moving large rocks and boulders, to his comrades.
“They’ll put a crowbar under 100, 150-pound rocks and flip the thing off the trail. They’ve moved most of these dang things,” pointing to a row of large rocks outlining the trail.
“It’s hard work,” Rae admits. “We only stop for a 10-minute break. It’s hard.”
“In the course of a year to 18 months, we cover about 8 to 10 miles of trail work,” Caldwell said. “We’re removing any toe catchers that may have popped up after the winter freeze thaw. We’ll remove any loose rock that comes down from the side of the mountain, breaking rocks and leveling the trail.”
As an avid hiker, Robertson is grateful.
“If I don’t pick my feet up like I should, I’ll trip on that thing,” nodding to a black rock mostly hidden in the dirt.
Hiking the El Cerro de Los Lunas trails is certainly not a walk in the park. There are more than nine miles of trail, some of it covered in sand to add to the challenge. There is also the altitude, with the elevation of each of three summits in the neighborhood of 5,900 feet. The elevation provides a beautiful view, in all directions.
“I just love looking at that big pile of rocks every day,” Caldwell admits.
The “big pile of rocks” was generated by volcanic activity, perfect for both geology and history lessons.
Just off the trail on the way to the northern summit is something of a bonus. There are petroglyphs, with easy-to-see images that include animals and people carved into the rocks.
Rae mentions a cave and collapsed “blow hole” on one side of El Cerro.
“There are piles of volcanic rock over your head — it’s really interesting,” he said.
No doubt the biggest effort for Rae, Caldwell and Robertson is to prepare for the King of the Hill in March, featuring 5K and 10K races, as well as a half-marathon. It’s a four-month race to clear the course, starting in November.
The volunteer work isn’t totally without compensation, according to Caldwell.
“We get a lot of compliments from the hikers as they go by,” he said. “They always say, ‘thank you for what you are doing.’ That makes it all worthwhile.”
“They’re a godsend,” is how Jaramillo describes them. “We appreciate the work they do, volunteering for the village and the community. They don’t do it for the recognition. They do it for the community.”
The trailhead and parking lot for El Cerro de Los Lunas Open Space is located about two miles west of Walmart on Main Street. The 1,700 acres is something of a hidden gem.
“I would say the El Cerro Open Space is just a great asset to Los Lunas. I wish more people could enjoy it,” Caldwell said. “I’m not sure if there’s just a lack of knowledge about it’s existence. It’s just great for the community.
Heading up the hill as dawn breaks on most Saturday morning’s may not sound like much fun, but Caldwell, Rae and Robertson attack it with great pride.
“As long as my health keeps me able to do this, I’m going to keep doing it until I’m 90, if I can. If I live that long,” Robertson said with a snicker.
Mike Powers | News-Bulletin Staff Writer
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.