Why Crozet: Volunteers Make Wild Spaces Available to All

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Carlos Otoya improved parts of Little Yellow Trail at Mint Springs Park. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

It’s important, where we live and why. Last year, when the County gathered information for the Crozet plan update, they asked the people in the community why they lived in Crozet. High on the list were the natural spaces, both wild and planned, that surround the residential neighborhoods. This month’s profile is of a man who loves the outdoors so much that he’s worked for years to make sure everyone can enjoy the trails at Mint Springs Park. This is the ninth of a series.

Editor’s Note: We regret that the print version of this article had Carlos Otoya’s last name incorrect. The Crozet Gazette sincerely apologizes to Carlos and his family for this mistake.

The Trail Blazer

Carlos Otoya is a man of many interests and sometimes they intertwine, for the benefit of all of us. When he and his family moved to Crozet 20 years ago, they chose a home near Mint Springs Park. Gradually, Otoya picked up bits and pieces of local lore about the DC3 that crashed into the mountain above him 41 years earlier, killing all the passengers but one.

“I wanted to see the wreckage, but the trail was so overgrown it was nearly impossible,” he said. He set out to correct that. Day by day, with saws and pruners, he made his way up Bucks Elbow mountain until he not only reached the crash site, but had created a passable trail. 

The story of the tragic accident haunted him, not only because the cause is still disputed, but because there was one survivor, Phil Bradley, who spent many hours in the cold, waiting for rescuers to hack their way to the crash site. Otoya got in touch with Bradley, and the two men got to know each other and remained in touch until Bradley’s death in 2013 from pancreatic cancer. 

Otoya became someone known for his familiarity with the remote trail and the scene of the crash. One time, a corporate pilot who flew a DC3 for Wachovia asked him to guide him up the mountain to see what he might learn from the old aircraft. The trail, on private property, is now impassable. 

But Otoya’s interest didn’t stop at the crash site. He started examining other trails that were off the beaten path in Mint Springs, and began clearing them as well, so more people could enjoy them. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours out there,” he said. Otoya at the time was employed full-time by Caterpillar, so his trail work was done as a volunteer in his off hours. He was glad that the local running club uses some of his trails to train for competition. John Andersen, owner of Crozet Running and a Gazette columnist, said he first met Otoya on a trail in Mint Springs.  

“He is always excited to see people out in the woods,” Andersen said, “and I am always inspired at his tenacity and his use of the outdoors to keep his health and vitality in excellent shape. He will send me text messages saying, ‘John, I weed-whacked this trail or that trail so you all can run better on it now,’ and he really took pleasure in seeing folks experiencing nature.”

There are lessons we can all learn from Otoya’s approach, one that doesn’t require any elaborate gear: “Carlos has affected me deeply because he is a living example of the energy you can get from staying connected to the mountains,” Andersen said. “He isn’t one to complicate the relationship. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t wear a GPS watch and I’ll often see him hiking in jeans and old boots.”

View from a peak on Buck’s Elbow Mountain. Photo: John Andersen.

Otoya acknowledged that he was inspired by his own life-long love of hiking in nature. Retired now, he works part-time for his own business selling heavy equipment parts from his home, and also does maintenance for local wineries Grace Estates and Pollak. You won’t see him out on the trails with a chainsaw, but you will see him with his dog in the early morning, as familiar with the paths and streams he follows as the local deer and bears. 

“You can just see that when you talk to Carlos that the man has a deep relationship with Bucks Elbow Mountain, and when you see someone so connected to the local land, it inspires you to gain that connection as well,” Andersen said.  “This has really affected me and my perspective of our local trails and mountains.”

Albemarle Sheriff Mac Sandridge photographed the wreckage of Piedmont Flight #349.Submitted photo.

“At 74, I’m too old for work that’s really heavy,” Otoya said. “But I start every day with a two-hour hike. I used to do it twice a day, but I’ve cut back.”

Read more about the crash in this Gazette article by Phil James: www.crozetgazette.com/2009/10/13/secrets-of-the-blue-ridge-the-fiftieth-anniversary-of-the-final-flight-of-piedmont-349/

Mint Springs Park is open to hikers. Go to www.albemarle.org/department.asp?department=parks&relpage=2741. 

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