The newest building at Saint John's certainly isn't the largest. Nor will it be the warmest when the winter winds gust through it. Nor does it embrace the latest in technology, because there's not a computer chip to be found in it anywhere. But it's guaranteed to get heavy use; and soon enough it will earn its place in the hearts and memories of all who use the trails at Saint John's.
A report by University of Minnesota Professor Mel Baughman planted the seed for this project in 2005. A nationally-recognized expert on trails, Baughman pointed out the obvious: the system of trails at Saint John's was among the most heavily-trodden in Minnesota, but what it lacked was a trailhead. Generations of hikers could point out where the trail ended -- at Stella Maris Chapel -- but the entrance to the system was elusive. The newly-built stone and timber structure solves that dilemma handsomely.
In many ways the design of the trailhead is appropriate to its role. The six stone pillars that support the shelter continue a tradition that crops up here and there around the campus. Builders used stones similar to these in the construction of the Quadrangle in the 19th century. These show most visibly in the ground floor around the student refectory. In the late 1920's monks scoured the fields for the rocks used in the walls that surround the Abbey gardens. Still later, cousins to these heavy rocks form the circle of low walls that frame the entrance to campus. So their use in the pillars continues a well-established theme at Saint John's.
The timbers that support the roof likewise have their history. Made of white pine, the heavy boards came from seedlings that monks planted at Saint John's nearly a hundred years ago. Toppled by high winds in 2011, the trees became logs, which in turn were cut into boards and cured in the Abbey lumber yard until their most recent incarnation. It seems appropriate, then, that trees that once sheltered birds and squirrels now serve as the front door to the miles of trails that cut through the woodlands.
As the director of Saint John's Outdoor University and the land-manager of the Saint John's Abbey Arboretum, Tom Kroll has shepherded this project. In announcing its completion, he notes that the trailhead has been the product of many generous hands. Some sawed the logs into boards, which a group of volunteers then fashioned into a shelter during a week of work off-site in Grand Marais. Members of the Physical Plant staff added to the effort, and a few generous donors provided the funding necessary to make the project come to reality.
Today the new trailhead sits as a piece of sculpture near the student beach on the north shore of Lake Sagatagan. There it provides a well-defined entrance to a system of paths etched into the earth by generations of hikers and others seeking inspiration or refreshment. For 160 years these trails have beckoned visitors like those who come for the fall celebration of Collegeville Colors. They've supported the feet of runners who have paused to rub the nose of the dog that sits at the feet of the statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. And they've guided untold numbers of couples on the path to marriage proposals at Stella Maris Chapel.
And what's next on the drawing board? Kroll notes that there will be a dedication of the new trailhead this fall. But he's also looking ahead to next summer, when a covered bridge will replace a crumbling concrete block structure that sits further down the trail. The timber's been cut, and in time the financing and the volunteers will materialize to create a new chapter in the life of the trails of Saint John's. If built well, as has been the trailhead, it should serve its purpose for the next hundred years and more. And with it will come yet new traditions to inspire the imaginations of hikers for generations to come.