Flannel Shirts: Getting outdoors is a family affair for Davis family
Rural Detroit Lakes man part of an effort to bring 250 miles of trails to tri-state area.
Editor's Note: The following originally appeared as free magazine insert in the Oct. 20-22, 2022 issue of your Lakes Area newspaper.
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Standing in the woods with sunlight enhancing varying shades of green, Matt Davis smiles as if he just walked through the front door of his house.
“Even as a kid, I loved being in the woods,” the 47-year-old said. “If I dropped my (fishing) pole in the creek, it would be OK because I would go exploring in the woods instead.”
In nature, he is calmed by the sounds of flickering leaves, chirping birds and whispering winds. The soft white noise in the background of the forest allows Davis’ mind to wrap itself around questions, puzzles and other quagmires life presents.
It is also with the earth that Davis makes a living as the North Country Trail (NCT) regional trail coordinator for Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. During his tenure on the job, he estimates 250 miles of trail have been built. However, he quickly recognizes that any accolades for the trail’s progress belong to the trail chapters, volunteers and landowners.
“I’ve easily worked with more than 250 people (on the 250 miles of trail that was built in recent years),” he said.
The footsteps that have enjoyed the new segments of the NCT span all ages, and include Davis’ wife Stacy and their four children: Teddy, 10, Clara, 12, Ruthy, 15, and Will, 15.
The journey for Davis to become an outdoor family man started in his childhood. He grew up in East Hartland, Connecticut. The town has a population of about 2,000 people and has three state forests.
The son of Rob and Pat Davis explained much of the public land was farmland back in the 1800s. But after harsh growing seasons and continuous late freezes, many abandoned their farms due to being on the brink of starvation.
In time, the forest reclaimed the land, Davis said. While on adventures in the woods, he often finds remnants of the villages that once existed.
“I’ve found stone walls and cellar holes,” he said. “Where I grew up there was no community center. Our community center was going out and playing in the woods; I was like a Tom Sawyer in sneakers.”
In addition to kindling a desire to explore, Davis learned the importance of being an active team member for community projects from his parents. He recalled one project that left a lasting love for history was helping build a little league field. The big machinery pulled back the sod and the future baseball players and their parents combed the grounds for rocks and obstructions to be removed. While digging, Davis struck metal.
“We pulled a Revolutionary War bayonet from the dirt,” he said, noting after the find he learned that President George Washington and his troops had passed through the area.
While he may never know who owned the sword, or why it was left, Davis recalled in his childhood he often imagined it was held by the first president of the United States.
The outdoors continued to play a big part in Davis’ life as he moved into his young adult years. Upon high school graduation, his parents (who still live in Connecticut) recommended a career in forestry. Liking the sound of outdoor work, he pursued a forestry degree at the University of Maine.
As his next big graduation neared, Davis planned a hike on the famous Appalachian Trail before beginning his career. He sought advice from a professor who did volunteer work on the trail, which spans 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and sees thousands of hikers annually.
“He (the professor) recommended I get a membership and become a volunteer,” he said.
Davis took the advice to heart and worked with a crew installing rock steps on a mountainous section of the Appalachian Trail. After the work was completed, he fit in time for his hike. While Davis envisioned finding adventure on the trail, he didn’t expect to meet his future wife.
“We both started the trail on March 1, 1998, on Springer Mountain, Georgia,” he said, noting their first impressions showed both of them how unreliable initial inclinations can be.
Davis was hiking with a few guys and all of them happened to be wearing khakis. He said his wife later told him that she deduced they were a pack of frat boys.
“I saw her and she was wearing a soccer jersey and had her hair in a braid,” he recalled. “I thought she must be a hiker from Europe.”
The two created a friendship on the trail and realized how far off the mark their initial impressions were.
The next year, after both had finished college, they returned to hike another section of the Appalachian Trail. With life stripped down to the basic survival skills, and a lot of walking in between, their friendship bloomed until eyes met in mutual admiration.
“That year we fell in love,” he said, adding that marriage followed.
The two discussed where they wanted to live and begin a family. Stacy grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota, and the two felt the Midwest may be a better option financially. When a job with the North Country Trail was posted, Davis applied and was hired. The two moved to Detroit Lakes.
For his job, Davis helped create the NCT guidebooks and maps, provides outreach and creates community events, as well as helps plan for new trail segments.
“When we start planning where the trail might go in a section, we go out in the winter and wander in the woods,” he said. “It’s like I’m a kid again, exploring.”
Being outdoors and rolling up his sleeves is a great benefit of his job, but what Davis appreciates most is knowing he is giving everyone the same opportunity to enjoy walking in the woods and connecting with nature.
“It can be cheap therapy,” he said. “The phone gets put away and families have conversations.”