The world of Phil
Friends, family remember the life and times of a reluctant legend
In a world of Instagram adventures, where the word “legend” is bandied about like a cliché hashtag, Phil Vigil was the real deal. In fact, he even had his own world: yes, we are talking that Phil. He of phlowy, phun Phil’s World phame (sorry). Whose exploration of dusty deer trails, piñon forests and arroyos surrounding Cortez in the late ’80s and early ’90s grew into the iconic mountain bike destination that has, dare I say, eclipsed its larger bike mecca neighbor to the east (sorry, Durango).
Now, most bike riders, upon first being introduced to the smile-plastering, pure-pleasure riding that is the Rib Cage or Lemon Head, will ask, “is there a Phil?” (“And if so, could I shake his hand?”)
Well, the answer to the first part of that question is yes – there was an actual man named Phil who built the first few trails at our beloved Montezuma County playground. But the answer to the second question, sadly, is no.
Vigil passed away Christmas Eve at his home in Mayday. He had gone for a ski earlier in the day, and not feeling well, hitched a ride back home with a snowmobiler. His wife, Leslie – who did not know the snowmobilers but would like to thank them (if you’re out there, call us!) – said Phil went upstairs to lie down. When she checked on him later, he was not breathing. Neighbors who had dropped by with freshly baked bread – because that’s what you do in Mayday – performed CPR until paramedics arrived. But it was too late. Vigil, 64, had quietly slipped away in his sleep from a heart attack.
His death came as a huge shock to friends, who say Vigil was the fittest person they knew, not to mention low-key, down-to-earth and unassuming. “He was a great asset to the community, an unsung legend,” Scott Darling, who co-owns Kokopelli Bikes and Boards in Cortez, said. “He’s going to be missed for sure.”
Despite his notoriety, Vigil was a bit of a reluctant legend, if you will – a private recluse who sometimes expressed discomfort over how big his namesake trail system had become. While he didn’t have a proclivity for big crowds (and who does these days?) Vigil managed to deeply touch the lives of people he met – of which there were many – not to mention the legions of adoring trail fans who only knew his first name.
“I was so touched by how many people knew him,” longtime friend and neighbor Ken Fagerlin said Tuesday. “As private a person as he was, the irony is the huge legacy he left behind. Phil’s World is a mountain biking destination for the region, if not the nation.”
A natural curiosity
Of course, as is often the case with legends, Vigil was a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle. An avid explorer, adventurer and all-around mountain man, Vigil spoke little of his exploits yet was happy to share his discoveries with anyone who was interested. He was a happy-go-lucky, humble, equal-opportunity adventurer who cared little for the latest gear. A “run-what-you-brung” tennis shoes and cotton T-shirt kind of guy.
“As long as you were having fun, Phil was going to be your friend,” Darling said. “That guy you see at Hesperus, skiing in his Scotch-guarded Carhatt onesie and having a blast? That would be Phil.”
Lifelong friend Dave Linden said Vigil had a knack for finding adventure anywhere. And then again, nowhere. “Phil thought adventure need not be far from home, whether by foot, by bike or skis,” Linden said. “His natural curiosity always had him wondering what was over the next ridge, down some drainage or behind the mountain range. He was as happy wandering down a game trail as taking a dayhike from Mayday to Dryfork.”
Darling, who worked on Vigil’s bikes over the years, said he never saw him in a bad mood. “He was always so happy to be riding his bike and sharing his experience,” he said. “He was always out there doing it, but you’d never see it on social media. Sometimes, you would be out there on your own epic adventure, and along comes Phil, doing something that would put your epic adventure to shame.”
The making of a badass
Just how does one attain such unsung badassery? All without really even trying – or the latest Gore-tex or carbon bike, for that matter? Well, it’s likely in the genes (and jeans). But for that, we’ll have to go back to the beginning.
Vigil, whose father was from Aztec, was born in 1956 in Santa Fe, where Vigil grew up. Even from the early days, he was always on his bike, always moving, Leslie said.
“He was a high school cross country champ. He had ribbons and ribbons. He was really fast,” she said.
From Santa Fe, Vigil enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Minnesota – where he developed a love of cross country skiing – and later Alaska. It was in Anchorage where he met Leslie, who was also enlisted in the Air Force.
“We just clicked,” she recalled of meeting him in an office where they both worked. “He was one of the funniest people I knew.”
During his stint in Alaska, which also included some time living in Fairbanks, Vigil didn’t let the long, dark, cold days deter his love for the outdoors. “He was always riding; always skiing. Nothing stopped him,” Leslie said. In fact, he rode his bike to work every day, except the days when it was so cold the grease froze and his chain locked up (somewhere in the 20- to 40-below range.)
|Another of Vigil's claims to fame: having a Ska beer, Pil's Wolrd, named for him. Ironically, he wasn't a drinker, according to wife, Leslie
While living in Fairbanks, Vigil made fast friends with fellow legends-in-the-making, Roman Dial (credited as the grandfather of pack-rafting) and noted mountaineer Carl Tobin. But perhaps Vigil’s crowning glory in Alaska came with not one, but three finishes of the Iditabike race. Arguably cycling’s harshest competition, the race is a self-supported 200-mile sufferfest that follows the famed Iditarod trail. The first race was held in 1987, when 26 brave souls – including Vigil – showed up at the start line.
“He wasn’t really a competitor; he did it for the adventure,” recalled Leslie, who said when he finished, his entire face was frozen over with icicles. Bear in mind, this was in the infancy of mountain biking – fat bikes, let alone suspension, had not been invented. “It would be like doing it on your Stumpjumper,” she said.
Eventually, life in Alaska, as it is wont to do, wore on Leslie. In early 1989 – right before the Exxon Valdez disaster – the two moved to the Four Corners. They first settled in Monticello and later moved to Cortez, where Vigil found a job. (Over the years he worked in the carpentry trades and the records department at the Cortez hospital – anything that afforded him time off for his adventuring.)
It was at this time that Darling, who grew up in Cortez and is among the few who can lay claim to “riding Phil’s World with Phil,” met Vigil. He still remembers the day – sometime in the early ’90s when Darling was 14 or 15. He had gone with others on a ride to Sand Canyon, which at the time was still an undiscovered out-and-back.
“We get to this overlook, we’re the only ones there, and we see this guy, way the heck out there, not even on a trail, sitting under a tree with his bike,” he said. The sole wanderer, of course, was Vigil – doing what he does best: exploring. His group struck up a conversation with Vigil, and the young Darling was forever smitten. “Just seeing this dude, out in the middle of nowhere having a good time … I grew up wanting to be like him.”
Over the ensuing years, the two became riding partners, with Vigil often inviting Darling to check out the routes he had laid on BLM land east of town, near the shooting range. Darling said the original trail, known as Phil’s Trail (which later became Lemon Head) entailed little actual dirt work, instead following game trails and the terrain’s natural features. The trail markers were no more than a pile of rocks or, say, a rabbit skull in a tree.
This au naturel approach was typical for Vigil, said Linden. “Phil’s approach to trail building was organic. Find a natural line, move a few rocks, scuff the dirt, cut a couple of branches, don’t cut down living trees,” said Linden. “He thought trails should flow and be fun, not difficult just for difficulty’s sake.”
Unfortunately, due to private land issues, proximity to the shooting range and other things, much of Phil’s original trail has been rerouted over the years. “Not much of the original trail is there anymore,” Darling said.
If you build it
It wasn’t until the late ’90s, when Vigil had already moved to La Plata Canyon, that Phil’s World as most of us know it, came to be. That was around the time Bob Wright moved to Cortez.
“Back then, the only trail was Phil’s Loop. When you pulled in, there was no parking lot; no fences. You just pulled off the highway,” recalled Wright, who also lived in Durango for several years before moving to Dolores in 2016.
Wright and a handful of dedicated local mountain bikers picked up where Vigil left off. But, in perhaps the biggest irony of all, Phil’s World almost never came to be.
In the late ’90s, Tri-State Generation, the wholesale electricity supplier, was eyeing the Phil’s area as the future home of a coal mine and Totten Lake as the future site of a power plant. Tri-State even went so far as to build four-wheel drive roads on the BLM lands for seismographic research. However, in the end, the idea for a Phil’s Power Plant was scrapped in favor of nearby Norwood.
With the exploration roads in place, a handful of enterprising locals decided to do some two-wheeled explorations of their own, including Wright, building off what Vigil had done. They also organized a nonprofit – the Kokopelli Bike Club, now the Southwest Colorado Cycling Association – and formed a solid working relationship with the BLM, which gave its blessing for new recreational opportunities on the land.
In fact, it’s Wright you can thank for Abajo, ESB and the kick-in-the-bike-shorts that is the Rib Cage, which he built using nothing more than basic gardening tools. Today, with the help of countless volunteers like singlespeed tour de force Shawn Gregory and his wife, Dani, Phil’s encompasses 50 miles of trails and three parking areas on a mix of BLM and Colorado State Trust Lands, which the SWCCA leases from the state. It has become a must-ride for bikers en route from Moab to Durango and a cycling destination in its own right.
“No one ever dreamed it would turn into the attraction it did,” said Wright. “The locals really, really grasped the area. It got so many people out and active.”
The price of success
And while Phil’s runs on the work of volunteers and donations to the SWCCA (hint: equipment, maintenance and porta-potties aren’t free), its wild success all goes back to the vision of one man, the myth, the legend.
“Obviously (Vigil) saw a lot of potential out there … he was kind of a frontiersman,” said Wright. “The terrain was just so perfect for bike trails.”
In other words, a classic case of if you build it, they will come – something the reserved mountain man found unsettling.
“I think he always wanted Phil’s World to be more private, he thought there were too many people, so he dedicated himself to exploring terrain up La Plata Canyon,” said Wright.
Darling said for Vigil, Phil’s success was a bit of a double-edged sword. “He would love to share and get people stoked on riding … but I think it kind of bummed him out that it got as big as it did.”
Then again, the quest for solitude is something none of us can be faulted for. “There are times when we all want to be the only bike in the parking lot,” Darling said.
But in yet another ironic twist, it just may be the popularity of “the World” (as Vigil called it) that ended up being its saving grace. “I think in the end he was happy that it became as big as it did, because it saved it from oil and gas development,” said Darling.
And, according to Leslie, Vigil really didn’t mind the “legend” status so much, either. “They called him ‘the legend,’ he got a kick out of that. He didn’t brag about it, but he loved it. I know he did,” she said. “I want the world to know not only his name, but the wonderful, wonderful person he was. He spread joy.”
Special thanks to Ken Fagerlin, who did all the behind-the-scenes finagling and wrangling of Phil Vigil’s friends and loved ones for this story. We are only sorry we did not have the space or time to talk to everyone who wanted to share their stories of Phil. To donate to all the great work that keeps Phil’s World, not to mention the great ski and bike trails at Boggy Draw, rolling, go to www.swcocyling.com.
And, if you’re the good Samaritan snowmobiler, email us at email@example.com or call 970-259-0133.