- Faith Miller
- From left: Bearded Bastards Facebook group administrators Cody Parrill and Nicole Schuler, and group cofounders Robert Bowren and Patrick Biddle.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in early June, and I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Patrick Biddle’s silver Nissan Xterra as we meander up Old Stage Road.
I’m sipping a Red Bull that Biddle kindly offered me and thanking my lucky stars I didn’t try to drive up to meet him. The road’s bumpy, and peering down the edge of the cliff we’re slowly ascending makes me a little dizzy.
Biddle, a 20-something with a long, red beard, is comfortable behind the wheel — as an avid outdoorsman who leads the hunting department team at Bass Pro Shops, he’s often driving up or down dirt roads.
- Courtesy Bearded Bastards
- Members of Bearded Bastards post on Facebook about family-friendly, group off-roading events in the area.
Today, he’s leading a caravan of six or seven Jeeps and SUVs up to a spot past the point where Old Stage becomes Gold Camp Road. They’re all members of Bearded Bastards, a local off-roading group Biddle and his friends started on Facebook about a year ago that’s already more than 1,300 members strong.
Off-roading sounds fun but — since driving interstates makes me nervous — I wouldn’t be here if not lured by the work Biddle and Co. have set out to do today.
These folks are about more than just off-roading. “We try and take out more than we bring up,” Biddle explains.
Today, the Bearded Bastards are cleaning up trash left behind by other recreators in the Pike National Forest.
- Faith Miller
- Gloves are an important safety measure for volunteers handling debris.
Though Biddle gets a little nervous that we’re going the wrong way, after about 40 minutes we finally reach our planned destination: a spot southeast of Pikes Peak, a straight shot west of The Broadmoor hotel.
There’s already a couple of tents set up, and a crowd of adults and kids gather around Shawn Nielsen, a sun-tanned, sandy-haired man who gives us a safety briefing before we set out.
“We haven’t ever had a situation, so let’s keep it that way,” he tells the group — several dozen volunteers from Focus on the Forest (Nielsen’s group, which coordinates cleanups with the U.S. Forest Service); about 20 men, women and kids from Bearded Bastards; and members of a couple other off-roading groups that also helped organize the cleanup. Altogether, Nielsen tells me later, about 100 people made it out to help that day.
- Faith Miller
- Bearded Bastards member Javan Bair jokes around while cleaning up litter in the Pike National Forest.
They all get a free shirt.
Nielsen explains that shooting is off-limits this day to protect volunteers, and asks people to let him know if they find potentially dangerous trash like needles or electronics. Focus on the Forest has the gear to take care of those items safely.
The stuff you find while cleaning up the forest can be pretty strange. Apparently, the last winner of Focus on the Forest’s “unique item contest” was a 15-foot plastic slide.
“Somebody took it home and put it on their kid’s playset,” Nielsen laughs.
We split up in different directions, armed with gloves and large orange buckets. In our group: Biddle, two other young guys with beards, and Kelly Bohart, a young woman who brings her two small children.
- Faith Miller
- Robert Bowren carries a load of trash down the hill.
The amount of trash we’ve got to clean up makes me woozy, especially given my Saturday morning hangover. There’s a huge hill covered with debris presumably left behind by shooters — broken glass bottles, smashed beer cans, heaps of plastic shotgun wads and the odd item like a bullet-ridden frying pan. The guys kid around, switching between bad jokes (Robert Bowren, holding up the pan: “Are you saying my puns are quite hole-y today?”) and crooning “Old Town Road” and “Chicken Fried.” Meanwhile, the kids run around holding orange buckets almost as tall as they are.
Nielsen started Focus on the Forest in 2016 after he reached a breaking point. “Me and my wife were out camping on Labor Day, and a bunch of people were camping next to us,” he says, “and they left that night and they had obviously left all their trash there in bags — the bears got into it. And I was picking it up for the millionth time in my life and just had finally had it, and decided I was going to do something about it instead of complaining.”
So, Nielsen started organizing cleanups in Teller County, and he was overwhelmed by the support. “The community took to it just like unbelievable, you know, they were on fire about it,” he says. “All we had to do was just organize it, and they’re coming and doing it. It’s amazing.”
When Bearded Bastards was looking to organize their own cleanup, someone referred them to Focus on the Forest, which was working with the Forest Service to set up a large-scale event with the other off-roading groups.
- Faith Miller
- Discarded household items with bullet holes are frequently found in the forest.
“Colorado Springs certainly doesn’t lack people that are interested in wanting to volunteer and help the forest, and that’s just a huge asset for the Forest Service,” says Josh VonLoh, volunteer coordinator with the Pike National Forest. He says the problem of trash has been getting worse as more people move to the area and want to take advantage of Colorado’s prime recreation spots.
“I think we see the whole spectrum of just increased forest use,” VonLoh says, careful not to call out one particular group of recreators.
Nielsen and the Bearded Bastards say that much of the trash comes from sportsmen using the forest for target practice (or to destroy old electronics) or campers, including a growing number of homeless people. Focus on the Forest doesn’t call them “homeless,” Nielsen says, but rather “forest neighbors.” The nonprofit also runs a trash service for those campers.
A great deal of trash also comes from people who don’t want to pay to dispose of it, he adds. Because disposing properly of car tires usually requires a fee, volunteers with Nielsen’s group have found 481 tires in the forest since its founding. They’ve picked up 250,000 pounds of trash.
- Faith Miller
- Patrick Biddle picks up discarded plastic wads.
For the Bearded Bastards, community service doesn’t stop at cleanups like these, though they hope to do more in the future.
“We’re going to give kids with disabilities rides in Jeeps...[and] we’re contacting hospitals during the winter for emergency rides,” says Robert Bowren, another founding member.
“We’re trying to reach out to the community more to be a positive influence, because people see off-roaders and they think, ‘Oh man. They’re just a bunch of a-holes that run out and tear up the woods.’ We don’t want that to be what the Bearded Bastards represents,” he explains.
Cody Parrill, a group member and Facebook administrator, agrees: “When you go up on the trails, and you see areas trashed, that’s the reason trails get shut down. And we want to keep trails open for people to enjoy and to have fun with. So that’s just part of us giving back, is going up and cleaning up other people’s mess so we can help keep it open and so people can enjoy nature.”
The group is founded on inclusivity — Biddle and Bowlen were frustrated by off-roading clubs that charged fees, looked down on members without the means to have souped-up cars, and weren’t family-friendly.
“We take everybody, even though the name is a little bit deceiving,” Biddle jokes.
On the Bearded Bastards Facebook page, the group posts about meet-ups and events across the state, and has sent stickers bearing its official logo across the country.
Nicole Schuler, who’s now a Facebook admin, says she met Bowren and Biddle when Biddle starting sliding down a hill in his Nissan and needed rescuing.
“We all just help each other out all the time, which is a good thing,” she says. “And that’s not just on the trails or with our vehicles. It’s in life, too. We try to do our best, anyway: If someone’s feeling down, try to pick them up.”