Wyoming native John Kirlin is a musician, skier and avid cyclist. He works to bolster Wyoming’s economy through outdoor recreation in his hometown of Casper and his current home of Sheridan in the Bighorns. Kirlin now works as the executive director of the Antelope Butte Foundation and coordinates several bicycling events in the area.
WBC: What inspired you to get involved in your community?
JK: Along with skiing and playing music, I’ve always been an avid bicyclist. In 2014, there were several vehicle-related bicycle deaths in Wyoming, and there just wasn’t anything being done about it. So, I thought, ‘I’m active, I’m young, I can go talk to my city council and get involved.’ I served on a few committees that made plans for bike paths and bike lanes in Casper. I then served on the design committee for the David Street Station, offering my experience and advice as a traveling musician.
WBC: Were you still playing music?
JK: I was. In fact, I was playing at Black Tooth Brewing Company in Sheridan when I learned they were expanding and hiring. I had just gotten married, and both my wife and I had some family in the Sheridan area, so we took a gamble and moved there. I started working in April 2016 at Black Tooth Brewing Company. But, as much as I love a good craft beer and the brewing industry, the job wasn’t really filling my bucket.
I rode bikes frequently with a member of the Antelope Butte board of directors, and I learned from him that they’d had an open executive director position for several months. I was hired in the fall of 2017, and I think I’ve worked every day since.
WBC: So, it must be filling your bucket?
JK: Absolutely. It’s filling my bucket and then some. For a few years, I was the only employee, so it was all boots-on-the-ground work, maintaining chairlifts, grooming trails, cutting trees, etc. Plus, answering all the phone calls and doing the fundraising and accounting. Now, we have 27 seasonal employees and about four to six full-time, year-round employees. It has been cool to build up that team and create new jobs.
WBC: And Antelope Butte seems to be doing quite well.
JK: Yes, it is. The area reopened in December 2018 after about 14 years shut down. That first season reopened, we had 2,200 visitors with only about 10 percent of skiable terrain open. We exceeded that in just the first two weeks of operation this year. There’s an entire generation of kids and families who have missed out on this place, and reopening has rekindled that spark. The Business Council has been instrumental to our growth and success.
WBC: And are you still biking?
JK: Oh, yeah. I now help organize the Dead Swede Hundo, a gravel bike race held each June. In the first year, we thought having 50 riders show up would make it a success, and we had 150. We had 380 in the second year. Then, 584 from 16 states and two countries last year. We’ve had to cap it at 750 this year, and I bet we’ll fill up.
Gravel cycling is the fastest growing market in cycling worldwide, and Wyoming really lends itself well to these types of gravel-road events. People plan vacations around these events, then they go explore the local area’s music, breweries, restaurants, etc.
It’s really a chance to show people what small-town Wyoming is really about.
WBC: Those small towns in your area must really love that event.
JK: They do. I’ve helped start a second similar but smaller-scale event in Shell, population … I don’t know … 80? It brought 123 people there and filled up that campground. Other small towns around the region have done similar things. For example, Fruita, Colo., population 13,000, was on the verge of bankruptcy when the bike shop owner starting building bike trails. Turns out, people like bike trails. Now, the town is extremely well known for its bike trails and people travel hundreds of miles to bike there. That’s my goal, my push lately. How can we do that in our state?
WBC: What is the big picture you see?
JK: Wyoming is facing a forced shift from the extraction industry. The way I see it, we can still be an extraction state, but instead of extracting minerals, people can extract experiences. They can come here, spend some money and take home photos and memories. Shell is, honestly, a goldmine of bike trails just waiting to happen. This whole state’s potential for trail networks – both motorized and non-motorized – is just unreal. If we develop them, all of a sudden, all the campgrounds are full, hotels are busy, restaurants are hiring and we have thriving small towns.
WBC: What advice do you have for people who want to get more involved in their communities?
JK: Find out what you’re passionate about and find other people who are doing that. Figure out what fires you up and plug into it, even if it’s volunteer work. There’s a lot of truth to that saying, ‘love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ Whether it’s biking or skiing, I love teaching people and guiding them toward getting hooked on outdoor activities, and building up my state at the same time.
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