Trail Blazer

How Dale Ball gave Santa Fe a wilderness legacy

Dale Ball sits comfortably in the corner of his living room couch on the 14th story of an Albuquerque high-rise.
Behind him, the desert expands indefinitely beyond the Rio Grande. Central Avenue stretches over a rise of earth and disappears. It is winter, and the gray-brown trees give texture to the desert beiges. Ball, who will be 89 in May, speaks slowly and quietly, but his words are careful, thoughtful and clear. He gestures gently with his hands—hands that are neither rough nor delicate, but long-fingered and lovely—as he recalls the impetus behind the trails that wind through Santa Fe's foothills, bearing his name.

"I was just doing what I was doing and I was not thinking about why I was doing it—doing [the trails] just because I was doing them. I don't think I was—I wasn't paying back or paying my debts. I was just doing what I was inclined to do," he says. A businessman, Ball spent his days in the office; the time he spent wandering the high desert expanses was an important escape.

But during the winter months, the alpine trails that crisscross the Pecos Wilderness were unavailable to hikers. Ball saw the need for a network of accessible, lower-elevation, year-round hiking trails—something the community lacked.

And rather than accepting it, Ball "thought, 'It doesn't need to be this way. I can change it.'"

For those who know Santa Fe's open spaces, Dale Ball is a familiar name. The Dale Ball Trails form a network of loops and circuits in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that loom just above Santa Fe. They wind around homes and through untouched expanses, and extend from Atalaya Mountain to within just a few miles of the Santa Fe National Forest's Winsor Trail. The trails offer year-round hikes, runs, mountain-bike rides—as well as incredible and various views—to those who make use of them. And if the weather "does not permit," the terrain makes for breathtaking jaunts on cross-country skis or snowshoes.

"I like to look at our foothills kind of similar to looking at the beach or coastal areas in California or New England," says Charlie O'Leary, director of the Santa Fe Conservation Trust (which Ball founded). "[The] Dale Ball Trail really established, for all time, legal access for hiking in the foothills, and then connecting into other public lands."

This past June, SFCT played a key role in uniting the Dale Ball trails, which have been expanding through Santa Fe's open spaces since 2001, with the Santa Fe National Forest via the new La Piedra trail. That connection is a realization of Ball's longtime vision: low-country trails, accessible year-round, between the National Forest and Santa Fe proper.

And in October, Santa Fe hosted the sixth biennial International Mountain Bike World Summit—which, in addition to addressing issues such as sustainable trail design, conservation and bicycle tourism, hosted runs and rides on Ball's meandering but well-marked trails.

To O'Leary, the trails represent not only a lasting outdoor legacy of 23 miles of trail "in perpetuity," but also a reflection of the man behind them.

"He was able to bring people together and demonstrate [not only] that it was a resource for everybody, but that it could be a compatible resource," O'Leary says of Ball. "I think in 25 years, it'll be even more remarkable to realize all the work that he had done."

But to Ball, it's simply an extension of his own personality and ethos. Throughout his life, he's seen needs and opportunities, and worked to fulfill them. His greatest legacy however, grew out of a simple desire to be outdoors.

"It all came down to a desire to [hike] more, and I was unable to," Ball says, because the only trails available were in the high country, and access to them was limited to fair weather and a 13-mile drive from town. "My life wasn't full or complete enough because I was deprived of the outdoors."

Dale and Sylvia Ball moved to New Mexico relatively late in life. In August 1977, during a visit to Santa Fe, the two Midwesterners wandered into the Pecos Wilderness, at the suggestion of an acquaintance, on horseback with a tent, cooking supplies and gear. They wanted to go "where we would really become acquainted with the mountains, the wilderness," but this trip gave them more than a mere taste of the wild.

"So we're up in the middle of the wilderness all by ourselves with plenty of time and no particular objective—just a lot of hiking and recreation," Dale begins. "And when we got back to town—"

"It rained the entire time," Sylvia, who celebrated her 82nd birthday last month, interjects. "It rained and rained. That's important, because we thought, 'If we can stand this in the rain, then we can stand whatever.'"  
Dale, a retired businessman and a father of four, smiles at her, his cheeks rising and laughter lines spreading at the corners of his eyes.

"OK," he continues, "it rained every day. We loved it. And we hiked before the rain and after the rain and during the rain…That has not been very many years ago, but it seems like it was forever."

But he says their stay in the Pecos Wilderness is as vivid in his mind today "as anything could be." It cemented his love of the outdoors and led to the eventual realization of Santa Fe's foothill trails; it was the reason for the Balls' eventual relocation to Santa Fe.

"We went out of the wilderness and we got back to Santa Fe, and I said to Sylvia, 'You know, I'm gonna go and see if any bank is for sale,'" he says.

Dale Ball grew up in the small town of Butte, Neb., with three siblings and a mother and father who were both loving, religious and had ties to the banking business. Ball's father was athletic and musical; he managed the Butte football team and was a bandmaster, the founder of the Chamber of Commerce and the owner of a local bank.

Around 1930, when the Great Depression hit, Ball's father's bank was forced to close. Ball remembers this period as a difficult time for his family, which was forced to sell its assets.

"We didn't have anything but debt," he says. Due in part to his family's financial difficulties and the general hard times caused by the Depression, Ball began working when he was 12—and he never stopped. His first job was a paper route and, eventually, he sold advertisements for a local newspaper. Ball sees his early work as predictive of his future as a salesman. The money Ball earned went to his family's needs, and he would continue to help his family financially throughout his life. Ball worked more than he attended school, but found time for one of his passions: violin. A childhood heart condition kept him from being as athletic as his father or older brother. As an adult, Ball's days were spent in the office, and his mind often wandered into the outdoors and he escaped, when he could, into the open spaces of the wild.

At 17, spurred on by a feeling of his potential to be "an excellent athlete," Ball found himself in the US Army Air Corps. He served as a navigator in the Philippines and, in his free time, discovered he was an exceptional bridge player. Ball helped pay off his family's debt with his winnings and the money he made selling goods, which he purchased on trips to Shanghai, to the men back at his base.

After the war, Ball married his first wife and fathered four children. Ball's daughter Portia Blackman says she feels incredibly lucky to have had him as a father—she admires his ability to be a kind, loving parent who was there for his children, as well as a successful businessman involved in several community projects. 

Sylvia, his second wife, is small and beautiful, with short, dark, bobbed hair. She sits opposite her husband, facing west.

"We get a little hazy on dates after a while because one thing leads to another, like life," she says. They married in 1969, and they're deeply entwined in each other's stories.

"I'm 88, will be 89 in May," Dale says. "So I'm lucky to even be alive, let alone have a memory. That's why, between us, we can remember things."

By the time he married Sylvia, Ball had already experienced a heart attack and two open-heart surgeries. His older brother died from a heart attack at age 43, and Ball didn't expect to live much longer.

When his younger sister died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 33, Ball's perspective on his own life shifted.
"More important than my relationship with her as my sister was the fact that she demonstrated how early it could all be terminated," he says. Ball felt he was not living the life he could be, or wanted to be, living. So he moved his family from Nebraska to Iowa and, eventually, from Iowa to Santa Fe.

In the 1950s, Sylvia, who also grew up in the Midwest, traveled to Santa Fe with her then-father-in-law, the director of state medical institutions.

"My first trip here was in 1956, and I was enthralled," she says. "And one thing led to another, and Dale and I came down here many years later… There's always some reason that people have come here, because it wasn't a destination or place for a long time."

For the Balls, "bitten by [the Pecos] bug," the reason was the outdoors. Dale's search for a bank to purchase in Santa Fe came to fruition in 1981.

"I didn't walk in and someone said, 'This bank is for sale,' and I said, 'I'll buy it'—it was a lot of conversation," he says. Conversation, negotiation and patience are threads running through Ball's life, and a key factor in his success. "[Eventually], we purchased the…Bank of Santa Fe," the midsized bank of the five in town at that time.

"I've never been sure that was a good move financially, but it was a good move in terms of what we wanted to do, and it was our life that was involved," Ball says. He and Sylvia wanted to be connected with the outdoors, and the untouched mountains and foothills of Santa Fe were a source of endless exploration and clean air.

"[It was] that combination of sitting in the base of the bank in Santa Fe and visualizing the out-of-doors that caught me up in the whole unrealized vision of creating a trail system that would be at a lower altitude, so it would be available for greater periods of the year," Ball recalls.

A decade later—after losing the bank and moving to Indianapolis and back—the vision of the foothill trails began its journey toward realization.

Ball says the Oregon Trail, which passed through his childhood town, figured prominently in the landscape of his mind. But it wasn't until the foothill trails were in the making that he made the connection between the Santa Fe Trail—a major American trade route, which, like Ball himself, traveled from the Midwest to Santa Fe—and his own trails in Santa Fe.

"The original Santa Fe Trail, the one that's lived in legend—I didn't think of my trails as being some continuation of that," he says. "[But] later, in thinking of that, I thought 'Gee, if Santa Fe's famous for trails, why not this be a building block? We build a whole system?' But the connection wasn't immediate."

While trails are a large part of Santa Fe's ancient history, and the Santa Fe Trail is an important component of American history, the Dale Ball Trails represent a "modern history for Santa Fe," Ball says. "I had a strong feeling that…trails in Santa Fe could have become an important part of the community, and there was always some thought that Santa Fe had a unique position."

The Balls moved back to the area in 1992 and settled in Cochiti Lake. There, the dream of building a low-elevation trail system for Santa Fe began to flower.

"The time that we were in Cochiti, the early years, I kind of connected all these things from the past—my interest in a trail system and a little bit of knowledge about conservation easements," Ball says. "And after about a year, I suppose that's about right, we started the Santa Fe Conservation Trust." The Balls' home at Cochiti Lake was SFCT's first official address.

By then, Ball was retired, and he had time to dedicate himself to the creation of the trust and its projects. He learned about conservation easements and, in general, "asked as many questions as I provided answers."

He doesn't recall the exact moment of becoming the trust's official executive director, "but at some point, I indicated that I was available to do this and had an interest, and I had an—almost a fixation with doing it."

Ball's intimate involvement with the Conservation Trust, which continues its mission "to help conserve land through conservation easements" under the direction of O'Leary, "made him know a lot more about the land around and in Santa Fe, and that's how he got even better acquainted with it," Sylvia says. "He'd already gotten to know it through hiking, but this was different."

Initially, the Conservation Trust and Dale Ball’s dream of yearlong access to low-altitude trails weren’t connected. Instead, the trust’s focus “was just trails, in a broad sense, that would reveal this part of New Mexico to a hiker,” Ball says. “A lot of the [trust’s] work didn’t involve trails; it involved getting easements on the land. So we would have to know the land, and walk the easement.”

Land easements provide for private land use without ownership and are often secured to connect two pieces of land. Ball, a clever negotiator, turned his skills toward securing conservation easements, which became (and continue to be) the Conservation Trust’s primary focus.

In 1999, Ball retired again, this time from the SFCT. But his vision of a trail system in the foothills lingered. A crucial tract of land near Atalaya Mountain, which Ball had been unable to secure on his own, became available that year, and the county issued bonds to buy it. The pieces had come together: Ball had already secured a large tract of city-owned land, and this newly acquired county land made his “vision of what could be” possible.

He and O’Leary both stress the importance of the city and Santa Fe County in the realization of the trails.

“It’s in quiet conversations with members of the city council and the county board about what you could do,” Ball says. His vision of the trail system was clear in his mind, and Ball—persistent and well-versed in negotiation after several decades spent as a businessman—successfully mapped out his system for the city and county.

By 2000, he recalls, “the county has acquired this piece; the city owns this piece; and I undertook easements to connect them. And it all seemed possible.”

Ball outlined a crude budget, and an anonymous donor conditionally offered $100,000 for the project.

Knowing that amount could not cover the expense of such a large project (it ultimately cost around $250,000), Ball made use of his connections to the McCune Charitable Foundation, which had helped fund previous SFCT projects, and asked the foundation’s executive director, Owen Lopez, if McCune would match the donation. Based on Ball’s previous successes with the SFCT, Lopez agreed, and the trails became a financial possibility. The Foothills Trails Trust was created to cover the legal aspects of the relationship between the trails, the city and the county. The city donated two trailhead parking lots to the project, and the county provided mapping devices.

“Typically, the work that land trusts do [isn’t] recognized immediately in terms of [its] impact,” O’Leary says. Instead, it is in hindsight and reflection that people appreciate the work of land preservation. As more people move into an area, O’Leary says, and more development occurs, and property values change, people begin to see conservation as a gift.

The Dale Ball Trails preserved more than 1,150 acres of land for local flora and fauna, outdoor enthusiasts and anyone who appreciates an uninterrupted foothill view from town, in what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I don’t think you could do the Dale Ball Trail now,” O’Leary says.

In 2000, Mike Wirtz, a retired trails expert for the US Forest Service, received a phone call from Ball, who wanted to meet him. The two men met at a downtown hotel, before a large and elaborate map of lines and colors.

“This is my vision of a trail system in the foothills of Santa Fe,” Ball told Wirtz. “When can you start?”

Wirtz—72 years old, gray-bearded and wearing a flannel shirt—chuckles at the memory and squints against the late morning sun.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve missed something here,’” he recalls. But Ball explained: “‘I want to hire you to flag routes, design a trail system, hire crew, train them and build 15 miles in the first year,’” Wirtz remembers Ball saying. “And so, I said, “Well, I can start right now.”

It’s a classic example of Ball’s ability to spot an opportunity and pounce on it without hesitation.

“Dale knew where he wanted to go [with the trails],” Sylvia explains, “and Mike was just a genius” at realizing that vision in the physical world. By July 2001, just a few months after the trail’s first blaze, Wirtz and his crew, comprising mostly men and women from Cochiti Pueblo, had completed 10 miles of meandering foothill trails.

“I was very fortunate to find Mike, and it ended up that all the trails went past the biggest trees and the greatest views,” Ball says. “So, that’s how that part happened, and meanwhile, my original friend came up with the money he said he would come up [with], and he had two conditions.”

The conditions were straightforward: The donor’s identity must remain forever anonymous, and the trails must be named after Dale Ball. The donor thought Dale—whose vision, persistence, negotiation skills and tact were the reason the trail system existed—should be remembered for his gift to the public. Blackman, his daughter, recalls the condition being difficult for Ball, who had, in the past, rejected proposals that projects be named after him. But he, the city and the county unanimously agreed to the donor’s terms. By 2005, the 23-mile Dale Ball Trail system was complete.

Ball explains that, though the Dale Ball Trails form a complete network, his vision extends beyond that. To him, the trails are “the nucleus of an ever-expanding system,” one whose momentum depends on further work by organizations like the SFCT as well as the community’s enjoyment of the outdoors.

“There’s still work to do, connections to complete,” he says.

Wirtz agrees. As with anything, maintenance is required. But the process is essential to the result; perhaps the two are not different.

“I could never be a chef. You do all that work, spend all that time creating—boom, it’s gone,” Wirtz says. “I’d rather be creating something to last a long time.” And that’s what he feels he’s done in carving out the Dale Ball Trails. He says it’s the most rewarding accomplishment of his life.

Ball, too, considers the trails his greatest legacy. As the sun sets through the wall of west-facing windows behind him, he pauses in the golden winter light to ponder why he made the trails.

“You have a vision, but you have a reality down here, and there isn’t a connection,” Ball motions toward the space just in front of him, “but somehow the connection has inspired people. So the connection is now being made”—Ball presses the tips of his long fingers together as he says this, demonstrating the connection—“and that’s wonderful, and it gives me a tremendous sense of completion and satisfaction.”

Sylvia adds that her husband felt “that it was important to do, that it was right.” She says it was “part of his being.” Ball’s expression, which is often serious, even sad as though he may be quietly weeping, softens as his smile spreads and he nods.

“It was inside, not outside,” he says, and touches his chest, just over his heart.

Building A Legacy

In a 1972 keynote Young Presidents address delivered in Mexico, Dale explains the impetus behind much of his life’s work:

A recurring dream has become my own personal vision of the future. The works of the futurists were always interesting…Then, in 1970, my first grandchild was born and suddenly I realized that he would only be 30 in the year 2000. The future came alive as never before; it was part of me in a very real way…In every dream Adam asks this one question: ‘Grandad, during the great cultural upheaval of the 1970s—what did you do?’ I’m still looking for—trying to create my own answer. I don’t know yet what I’ll be able to say, but it will be more than, “Adam, I ran a good bank.”

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