Searching for a career outdoors, Litaker blazes his own trail

Published 12:01 am Sunday, January 30, 2022

CHINA GROVE — When Joseph Litaker started Black Diamond Trail Designs in 2017, the goal was to spend less time in an office and more time outdoors.

On his first big job, Litaker got his wish.

While carving out a little more than a mile of mountain biking trail in Uwharrie National Forest, Litaker spent almost 10 weeks camping, mostly alone, in a tent by the worksite.

“It was fun, at first,” Litaker said.

His only reprieve came on the weekends, when he’d drive back to southern Rowan County to spend two days sleeping in an actual bed. Still, Litaker enjoyed the work. He woke up in the morning, guzzled down a cup of coffee and toiled away for hours in an attempt to coax a navigable trail out of the land.

Since then, the Rowan County-native has continued to build trails throughout North Carolina and across the country. And he’s no longer camping alone. Litaker has a small group of trusted employees who tag along on the jobs, others like him who have dedicated themselves to a life outside.

It wasn’t just the great outdoors that beckoned to Litaker. It was mountain biking too. Litaker bought his first bicycle from Skinny Wheels in Salisbury while he was working as a project manager for Martin Marietta, a supplier of aggregates and heavy building materials. The bike was nice but nothing fancy, all he could afford at the time.

Every day after work, Litaker took his bike to Salisbury Community Park to ride trails. He loved the activity and quickly grew to appreciate the community that came along with it.

“The mountain biking and cycling community, everybody is interwoven because that’s what they’re passionate about doing,” Litaker said. “It’s a really cool community to be a part of.”

Soon, Litaker was investing in a better bike and taking weekend trips to western North Carolina in search of more technically challenging trails. At first it was only a pastime, but it wasn’t long before Litaker started cooking up a way to make it his job.

“Within the last year I worked for Martin Marietta, I was curious and started testing the waters and was trying to figure out how to take my passion of being outdoors and riding a bike and turning that into making a living,” Litaker said.

He started habitually scanning an online database of government contracts, trying to figure out what it would take to bid on a trail-building project. But his first bite didn’t come far from home. Litaker was commissioned to build four wooden bridges at Lake Corriher Wilderness Park. The project wasn’t exactly the trail job he was looking for, but it was a start.

Leaning on his engineering knowledge, Litaker figured out how to cut pine trees and transform them into sturdy walking bridges. Litaker had always had a knack for figuring things out. When he was a kid, he would tear apart electronics just to put them back together. When he inherited his grandfather’s old Nissan pickup in high school, he figured out how to jack up the suspension to make offroading a little bit more fun.

Litaker believes his mom, who is a mechanical engineer, is the source of his analytical mind. It didn’t hurt that he grew up on a street with two car mechanics as well.

The Lake Corriher job paid enough so that he could spend the next six months launching his business and figuring out how to bid competitively on larger projects.

“I have a wife and a son and at the time he was probably just two, or a one and a half years old,” Litaker said. “So, yeah it was a little scary. But I had high hopes that I could figure it out.”

The Uwharrie job was his first real mountain biking trail gig, but others followed close behind. In the years since, Litaker has completed at least two dozen projects. They’ve taken him to eastern North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina and destinations further west such as Athens, Ohio and Golden, Colorado, where he and another contractor tackled a little over 12 miles of trail together.

The trips will last anywhere from a few weeks to six months. Litaker won’t accept a project longer than that in order to preserve family time. When he’s away for several weeks, Litaker tells his now 6-year-old son that he’s “building him a trail.” Litaker will still camp if the project is shorter, but most times Litaker and his crew rent an AirBnB nearby.

They clear out space for trails using chainsaws and hand tools before flattening and moving earth with a compact mini excavator. Litaker has found mentors in the trail building community, including an especially wise and experienced builder named Charlie Dundas from West Virginia who sponsored his membership to the Professional Trail Builders Association.

Litaker’s motto for the company, which he named for the most challenging level of biking trail, is to “design and build the next generation of truly inspiring mountain bike trail systems.” For Litaker, that means building trails that everyone can enjoy — whether they be younger riders interested in landing big jumps or geriatric cyclists looking for a smooth ride.

Litaker is especially proud of the trails Black Diamond recently completed at San-Lee Park in Sanford, North Carolina.

“It was basically a park that got shut down because people were getting injured and we were brought in to update the park for ongoing maintenance and safety and what we ended up doing was redesigning and building the entire park so that it flowed correctly and it was intuitive to the rider,” Litaker said.

Litaker’s favorite trails have a mix of both technicality, which means rocks, roots and other obstacles, and good “flow.”

“You’re constantly going up, down, turning and all that’s kind of linked together in a way that feels like you’re on a roller coaster,” Litaker said.

Litaker has come to appreciate every part of the laborious trail-making process, from initially scouting out the land to seeing the fully-finished product.

“The whole process of planning and designing a trail to building it in a sustainable way to riding it is really rewarding,” Litaker said.

He’s especially fond of the part where he gets to test out his work on his own mountain bike.

“That’s how I get away with buying a nice bike,” Litaker said.

Litaker’s nice bike is usually hanging from the front of his truck, which is the closest thing he has to an office these days. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

More info about Black Diamond Trail Designs can be found online at bdiamonddesigns.com.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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