A Different Kind of Trail

Blazing a path through the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.

When you think of radio control crawling, the first things that might come to mind are powerful rigs, treacherous waterways, rugged terrain to navigate, and blazing trails among the trees. These are the obvious answers. The not-so-obvious answers? Navy Pier, Montrose Beach, and the Chicago Theatre.

Words Sean McDevitt  |  Photos Rory Schweighart

Urban Crawler

Urban crawling is not for the faint of heart. Those who can tackle a muddy hill may think twice about taking on the sidewalks and alleyways of a typical city. One such group enjoys the urban challenge and puts their rigs through an obstacle course that includes more than your local neighborhood woodland.

“Urban crawling is not for the faint of heart.”

Tito Rivera has been driving radio control since he was a little kid. In high school, he got his first hobby grade vehicle, and from there, it didn’t take him long to find crawling. The next step was learning about radio control crawling by working part-time at his nearby Hobbytown USA. The real turning point was when his girlfriend bought him tickets to Axialfest in California in 2019.

“That put the nail into it,” said Rivera. “It sealed the deal. I fell in love with the atmosphere out there. The people and the community are so loving and friendly. So, yeah, I fell in love in 2019 in California and just started from there.”

Urban Crawler

Rivera would crawl every Sunday morning before the rest of his family would wake up. Of course, crawling is more fun with more friends, so River started telling customers about his early morning drives and inviting them out. Each weekend the group grew larger. Today this group, known as the Trail Turtles, heads out to find the best creeks, rocks, and trails. And, occasionally, the hottest spots in downtown Chicago.

“Anywhere you drive in the city you get everybody's attention,” said Rivera. “Being able to take something that you love on the trail with you into the city, but like as your little buddy or your little partner is exciting. It was amazing. Not just the attention, but when I crawl, I forget about all the negatives. It just seems like all I’m worried about is where I’m putting my tire next. And that just does it for me. It does it for a lot of people.”

“I forget about all the negatives. It just seems like all I’m worried about is where I’m putting my tire next.”

Along with steep stairs and bemused pedestrians, the Trail Turtles also face an obstacle not usually found in nearby woods: the police.

Rivera said, “I turned the corner, not even five minutes into our run, and the police stopped us. The officer rolled down his window, and I was like, this can go one of two ways. The officer said, ‘That is so cool.’ I just started talking to him about it.”

Soon one of Chicago’s finest was taking the crawler for a spin himself. River answered many questions, and soon he expected the officer to be visiting him at Hobbytown to pick up a trail runner of his own. “Of course, he liked it a lot. I think where the real joy comes from is showing people what we do. And not only teach them about it but what it's all about.”

Urban Crawler

Taking their crawlers to the streets is not uncommon for the Trail Turtles. The goal is to pick up new crawling locations with the city as the backdrop.

“Just finding anything around the city that you can crawl is exciting,” said Rivera. “I love the iconic locations, but we also try to find rock formations, little creeks, and hills. We take what we love from the trail out into the open world.”

“I love the iconic locations, but we also try to find rock formations, little creeks, and hills.”

His favorite spot in Chicago is La Rabida Beachfront.

Rivera said, “I never really checked its history, but the area used to be huge concrete slabs. Over time, waves and whatnot have eroded it, and it's made for nice scale concrete hills with big craters in the ground. It's one solid area instead of hitting an actual trail. It brings everybody together.”

Urban Crawler

The Trail Turtles make urban crawling a regular thing in their group. They may go out into the suburbs and look for new trails, but the concrete jungle has a considerable appeal. More importantly, the community and the comradery drive this group of enthusiasts.

“Crawling is just fabulous,” said Rivera. “The best part about it is, you're not competing. Everybody shares what they're running and what they're doing, and it's not drag racing where it's a secret what's under the hood. Everybody's together in trying to help one another. There’s just so much love and positivity out there.”