MOUNTAIN CITY: The Legend of Trail Butter Jeff

The Legend of Trail Butter Jeff

My friend and business partner, Yassine Diboun, first mentioned Jeff Boggess’ name to me.  Jeff had come to one of our free Thursday night group runs, via his friend Rachel.  Unfortunately I hadn’t been there to meet him that first time but Yassine filled me in.  He described Jeff as a tall, quiet, robustly-bearded man, who, over the run and dinner afterwards, had humbly shared a few tales of his world travels and epic long-distance adventures.  Yassine was impressed and I was intrigued; the legend was just starting to grow.

Time passed and Jeff starting coming to the groups runs most every week.  His and his company’s developing place in the community has been like watching a wave coming from far off; almost imperceptible at first, but ever-increasing and eventually unavoidable–and wonderfully refreshing–presence.  Jeff, and his delicious product Trail Butter, has been that distant wave that now, thankfully, is here in Portland to stay.  You can find Jeff running around town, through Forest Park, or peddling (literally, on his custom Trail Butter bike-mobile) his product to different races and events, to grocery stores and farmer’s markets.  The tide is in, so to speak, and the water is great.

Even now the legend continues.  Despite working many events and embarking on numerous trips together–skiing Mt. Adams,  running with elk in the Mt. Margaret Backcountry, rocking out, up and down the trails of the Columbia Gorge countless times–I know I’ve only scratched the surface of getting know the guy.  I remember him on Coldwater Peak, gazing south at Mt. St. Helens, hand on his hip, looking like a real western mountain man.  There is so much more to learn about his many accomplishments, life experiences and array of talents.  Being a musician is among those skills and there is a rumor around town that he’s starting a band with a prominent singer, which is very exciting though it hasn’t been verified.

Sometimes I picture him on sail boats in the middle of the sea, years ago, or atop a pass in the Alps, grinning wildly, ensconced in the search; the nomadic life.  It’s impressive to think about all his eyes have seen, all the different peoples, landscapes, and cultures.

As Trail Butter continues to gain momentum and as Jeff himself continues as a burgeoning trail runner, business owner, and galvanizing force in the Portland community, so will his legend grow.  I just hope to gain some of his wisdom and talent by proximity.

…but maybe I need to grow a beard for that.

Here’s some Q&A with the man himself:

Mountain City: Where did you grow up?  How did the landscape of your childhood effect you?
Jeff Boggess:
 I was born in San Diego, CA but spent only the first two years of my life there before my parents heard the call of the country and small-town Northern California. We moved to Placerville, a gold-mining town in the foothills of Sierra Nevada, and a stone’s throw from the outdoor paradise of Lake Tahoe. They jumped fully into this rural, self-sustaining lifestyle, planting their own peach orchard which still produces giant, juicy sweet peaches today and kept a garden, raised chickens, and worked the 10 ac property pretty much any chance they had between their full-time jobs as a commercial airline pilot and ICU nurse. Thanks to them, the example they set for the importance of working hard and staying active, and the support and encouragement they provided, all paired with our own adventurous spirits and influence of close friends like Denver and Howard, my brother and I got into all kinds of adventures in town with youth sports, high school basketball, ski team, and out in the mountains on motorcycles, camping, exploring local rivers, gold panning, hiking and fishing up in Desolation Wilderness, etc. I wasn’t quite as aware or appreciative of these surroundings growing up, but like to think a love of the outdoors was sprouting deep down undetected, waiting for a more mature version of myself to take note and run with it.

MC: When did you start adventuring and exploring the world?
JB: Growing up, with the Sierra’s visible on a clear day from a few higher vantage points in Placerville, the mountains were a constant presence in foothill life. Although, as with most kids who take things for granted and go about their daily routine thinking life is what they see right in front of them, always remaining the same, it didn’t really register how special and vast with potential these sculpted peaks of granite were until much later.

Maybe they were too big and too hard to grasp. Something for the grown up world only reachable by car or plane, and something you saw closer only occasionally on family trips to Tahoe or Idaho. Our world and our individuality was tied to the ditch down in the forest below the house, the basketball hoops that were low enough to dunk on down at the elementary school, the airport golf course in town where we hacked through 9 holes before going out to pizza, the forest road up near the local reservoir where we camped on Friday nights, or the swimming hole down the road at Happy Valley. Luckily my parents, wise as they are, regardless of our youthful irreverence, kept finding ways to plug the larger world and its possibility for adventure into our lives, planting the seed for a future, more mature, more adventurous Jeff and brother Brad.

As we grew, so did the size of our comprehensible world. We ventured out further on our own, driver’s license in hand, on Sierra ski trips, weekend hikes up Mt Tallac, explorations of Big Sur camping and surfing on college weekends on the Central Coast. This exploration kept expanding from California to Oregon, after graduating from Cal Poly, and then all the way to Europe and Asia, where I landed for 5 years working as a landscape architect.  I explored the Alps from the small town where I lived in Southern Germany, [the mountains] visible in the distance like the Sierras before, and the Malaysian Peninsula during a 1 year spell in Singapore. Each step further from home and each challenge met made me realize that with a little observation, curiosity, and respect for the landscapes and living things that existed in these places, you can pretty much make it anywhere.

 It took going to these distant places to come to truly appreciate the magic of the Western United States. After years of wanting to escape to far off realms, I reached a point in Europe where I realized I am an American, a Western country boy, a Californian. I was excited to return to the West and continue the exploration at a more micro scale, in the places I grew up in but had never truly explored. That’s where I am today, enjoying Portland life and weekend trips to Mt Hood, Bend, the Wallowa’s, the Gorge, with the occasional longer trek. Next up, the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim with a great crew of friends.

MC: Tell me about your process of becoming a landscape architect and your connection to Nature…
JB: My interest in landscape architecture, although I didn’t know it at the time, probably started very early on as we explored the natural beauty around us growing up in the Sierras. What physically put me on the path to being a landscape architect was something totally different. I played on the high school golf team, getting out of class to shoot 18 holes every day at the local country club and even earlier some days for regional tournaments. What high schooler wouldn’t be into that? When I finally reached Cal Poly SLO and was required to pick a major even though I didn’t really know what I wanted to become professionally, the thought of designing golf courses sounded pretty interesting. I was fairly artistic growing up, whiling the hours away sketching made up cartoon characters, and sports figures like Ricky Henderson or Dominique Wilkins, and thought LA might be an opportunity to marry my decent artistic ability with a game I thoroughly enjoyed growing up.

But as I learned more about landscape architecture and what it truly meant, my original self (who I like to think was always there and was exposed to the natural wonders that surrounded us growing up) passed my golfing self.  My appreciation grew for more holistic approaches to design, like the concept of “sense-of-place,” working with the site and connecting it with the surroundings, respecting natural resources, all while the desire of making your mark on the landscape took stronger hold.  The vacuum that is a golf course becoming less and less interesting.

From there, the knowledge that I gained in school along with my upbringing spent outside, led to an ever-growing appreciation and connection with nature. With job opportunities in landscape architecture often being found in urban areas, and a life path that went straight from high school to college to job, I’ve always worked in towns and cities, but have made sure that nature wasn’t far off. Subsequently, my connection to Nature (during the years where I’ve been actively appreciative of it) has been more of the weekend warrior variety, with the occasional longer adventure thrown in between work weeks, squeezing every last drop out of flextime.

Acknowledging that things that are ever present usually become less appreciated, maybe the fact that nature has usually not been right out the backdoor but just within reach has led to an even deeper appreciation for the times spent within it. Every step walked down a granite trail, every swim taken in a mountain lake, every mountain breath inhaled that seems to go to every last tentacle of your lungs becomes more cherished. Through landscape architect eyes, I appreciate the raw, simple elegance of nature. Of a high alpine valley or sculpted granite river bed, embedded with formulaic function and a permanence and richness that can only be brought from passage of time, creating ‘designs’ that landscape architects try to recreate but seldom achieve.

MC: Tell me about your trail running and how that ties into your connection with Nature. How does your work as a landscape architect relate to your outdoor pursuits?
JB: Being a minimalist at heart, I love the simplicity and lack of clutter in trail running, along with the absence of filter between you and your surroundings. It’s just you, your shoes, a little food and drink and the rest is wide open nature, with the human body doing what it was designed to do. Like building a fire or throwing a rock. The exposure and challenge of addressing it with your self alone I find also very intoxicating. Every gust of wind is felt. Every cold finger to the bone. Every ray of sun. Every pebble under the shoe. Unlike the view of nature from a cab of a car or on another motor powered vehicle, a trail runner is fully exposed and fully connected to his/her surroundings, addressing the challenge, and relishing the reward. This unfiltered quality I feel enables a much stronger connection with nature.

Spending years seeing things through a landscape architect’s lense, it at some point became apparent that the principles that guide landscape design are the same as all art forms, both nature and human created. Light, texture, contrast, movement, tension, mass, void, the relationship of one object to another all interact to create the art. Landscape architects are trained to first look at a site and pick out patterns of vegetation, hydrology, topography, geology, before coming to some kind of design solution that that meets the needs of the people who will occupy the space, is appropriate for that place and is also compelling visually. These powers of observation and resulting design carry over nicely to any kind of outdoor pursuit. Being aware and observant, and having a familiarity of the things that surround you also lead to a more meaningful experience whatever you are doing. In a more physical sense, trail running is great therapy for a designer looking for answers. Whenever I’m struggling with a design problem, or any life challenge for that matter, I’m amazed by how running relaxes the mind and allows one to think clear enough to find the solution.

MC: Is there a spiritual side to your time in the outdoors?
JB: I definitely believe the outdoors and especially the mountains, for me personally anyway, bring people closer to their true spirit. I tend to shy away from religious framework and labels in general, opting more for a common sense approach. The freedom embedded in distant views, the visceral act of moving over rock and water, the joy in eating and drinking in this environment to replenish calories burned. These are all things we need but generally don’t get enough of in our 9 to 5 office jobs. Once that clutter has been left behind, I never feel more unhindered, clear-minded, and spiritually in tune with myself and my surroundings than when out there moving, breathing, experiencing in the mountains.

MC: Tell me some of your travels and adventures as a young man…
JB: As mentioned above, it took me a while to get the world travel bug. I was content to explore the Sierra foothills with friends by day, knowing Mom’s cooking was there waiting when we got home at night. But once I was out for college, things began to snowball. California led to Oregon. Oregon led to Germany. After 4 years in Germany a work opportunity came up in Singapore, so I took it, no longer worried that I wouldn’t be able to survive in another new and distant land. Although mysterious at first, these all turned out to be pretty tame places but they did open my eyes enough to prepare me for the longest adventure I had taken to date: a bike tour from Germany to California, with a hitch across the Atlantic as crew on a 46’ French catch. It seemed to be an appropriate way to cap my wonderful European experience, providing enough time to transition naturally to life back in the States.

This trip lasted nearly 11 months and took my then girlfriend Vanessa and I through western Europe, northern Africa, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, the Caribbean, all the way to Ft. Lauderdale. From there the strain of the trip turned out to be too much for Vanessa and I, so we parted ways as friends, with her headed for Cuba and me across the States from Ft. Lauderdale to Placerville, CA. Our love affair with nut butter started in Morocco, where we bought almond butter infused with honey and argan oil from crusty old farmers selling huge jars on roadsides south of Agadir. We spent many a break out in wide open Sahara dune landscapes with a Khoobz (Moroccan flatbread), a sliced banana and some almond butter, watching shepherds guide their goats into the distance or herds of camels striding by.

Trail Butter itself came more out of necessity a little later in the trip after Vanessa and I had parted ways. Where before we had eight bike panniers to fit tools, clothes, tent, sleeping bag, and kitchen stuff, now I had only 4 plus a duffel in the back and a handlebar bag up front. This heavy load was paired down to its bare minimum in Florida before I got on my way, and continued to dwindle as I became fully immersed in this bachelor cross-country tour. Somewhere in Arkansas, as I pulled out my faithful nuts, dried fruit, honey, and Skippy peanut butter for a quick snack on a pass in the Ozarks, a light bulb went off and JB’s Power Butter was born (Luckily my brother Brad came up with a much more appealing name once I arrived in California). From there on out, that jar of fortified Skippy was my go-to source of slow burning fuel over the Great Plains, the San Juans, across Southern Utah and Nevada, finally reaching my parents peach ranch via the Sierras and Lake Tahoe after over 12,000 miles by bike and boat.

MC: What is your inspiration for creating Trail Butter and pursuing it as a career?
JB: After the initial light bulb moment in Arkansas, where a skinny cyclist needed convenient, complete nutrition on the go during a long bike trip, inspiration for Trail Butter has come more and more from the people who have rallied around it. These individuals, all different and inspiring in their own pursuits, share a mutual passion for real fuel that consists not of just sugar or engineered ingredients, but of all-natural foods.

Moving forward, with community, good food and fun as the goal, we’ll continue to look to our valued followers for inspiration and support.

MC: What brought you to Portland? How long have you been here and what do you like about it?
JB: I originally came to Portland out of college, landscape architecture degree in hand, with hopes to land a position at one of the many quality firms in town. My brother was living up here at the time and offered to set me up with a bed in his basement. It was to be the furthest I would ever be from the Nor Cal home, so having my bro nearby was a welcome thought. Luckily I found a spot the office of Greenworks, where I stayed for 2 years, before signing up to move to Germany in 2002. Fast forward to 2011, I was fresh off my 11 month bike tour, looking for a job in a recession economy, while getting things going with Trail Butter behind the scenes, when Greenworks welcomed me back with open arms. Since then I’ve been splitting my time between landscape architecture, and working with my brother to continue to build the Trail Butter empire.

In addition to being a hotspot of landscape architecture, and a perfect food culture to incubate Trail Butter, I love Portland’s Forest Park. How cool is it that there’s 5,100 acre park packed with trails right next to downtown? And for its unintimidating size, open-mindedness to all, inviting neighborhoods packed with cafes, restaurants and farmers markets, tight community of outdoor lovers, and its proximity to the mountain playgrounds of the Volcanoes and the Cascades…

MC: What about the outdoor community here do you like?
JB: I love the fact that the Portland outdoor community is super inclusive and that there’s something for everyone, from kickball leagues to trail running groups, to mountaineering. There are organizations and groups in place that make it as easy it as it possibly could be to get off the couch and outside and meet people who share a similar passion for being active.

MC: Does trail running and adventuring inspire the business and vice versa?
JB: Totally! For a few different reasons. Trail running and adventuring inspire the business in that I never have better ideas than when out on the ‘trail’. It’s amazing how thoughts seem to flow effortlessly when you’re out of the office and in the fresh air just moving along, not even trying. Next, being around the phenomenal athletes in the Portland area, and seeing what they’re out there doing, be it trail running, climbing, skiing, is incredibly inspiring. It makes us want to push our limits further athletically, walking the walk so to speak, as well as provide what we hope becomes the fuel of choice for this community. It never gets old hearing how someone who just overcame an impressive outdoor challenge, used Trail Butter to get them to the finish line. Lastly, it’s inspiring to be around individuals who have successfully married their passion for the outdoors with their occupation (such as Animal Athletics).  It’s exciting to see, for a small and young business such as Bogg’s Trail Butter, that, with passion and hard work, this can be done.

Thanks Jeff! Keep up the good work!

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