For years, Derrick Justin lived in Brainerd and ground out 12-hour days working construction. Still, he made room for that piece of him deep down kept alive by time in nature. He needed it, like air to breathe. He'd run or bike before work and sometimes after work.

"I have always been connected to the outdoors, and moving," said Justin. "Movement is really key."

That connection deepened about nine years ago. Some friends introduced him to Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area through the end of a fishing pole. They targeted trout in the deep mine lakes, like Yawkey near the city of Cuyuna. The mountain bike trail system got his attention, too, and he'd venture out in exploration on his beater bike at the time.

Four years ago he hit a crossroads that presented choices. His was to get sober ("that changed my life") and drill down on what he really wanted to do and how he wanted to live.

"Like, what really is going to fuel me?" he recalled of that internal reckoning.

He'd given himself a year to figure things out, and he made a list of possibilities. Among them: Build trails. Work as a mountain biking guide. Find work on a boat.

Cuyuna Country, where he'd rolled and fished again and again, drew him closer. He found himself at Red Raven, the colorful and busy coffee and bike shop anchored near the western end of Main Street in downtown Crosby. He also got connected to Mari Kivisto of Deerwood, who started a trail riding guide business called Sure Shift. (She also helps coach the Cuyuna Lakes High School mountain biking team, one of the best in Minnesota.)

"From there, it kind of took over," said Justin, 39, of his life change.

Four years later, Justin is a mainstay at Red Raven, where he began in the kitchen. Now he might manage the works, depending on the day, dancing between producing grilled sandwiches or renting out a hardtail bike. And he is working for Kivisto, too, mentoring all levels of riders, and all ages, on the recreation playground's vast network.

"As the area gets more popular and more gnarly, more people are wanting the necessary skills to get on a bike," he said. Currently, he said they each guide a few times or more per month, and business has picked up as summer progresses. Justin wants to implement more bike-pack fishing and even foraging into his guiding in the years to come.

Like driving the last nail in a build, Justin also moved closer a year ago to Cuyuna Country. He wanted a place in the country. He bought an earthen home and 10 ½ acres about seven miles northeast of Crosby. The dealmaker, he said, was the trees — enormous "mother oaks" that reminded him of his upbringing on his parents' farm.

"I felt a lot of energy here on the property," he said.

Anchored there now with him are his Labrador retriever, Aura, 24 chickens, and enough vegetable and herb gardens to fuel all his endeavors. These days, he is experimenting with new varieties of corn, like double red sweet and glass gem. And he's educating himself about the natural things growing elsewhere on his land, edible or otherwise, that he can use. Trips to the grocers have become almost off-putting, he said, because he's so accustomed to providing himself.

Even the earthen home, with a steel roof, one level and no air conditioning, meshes with his sensibility.

"You don't see many around. It kind of fits who I am, my uniqueness. I just felt like, 'This is a weird home. This is me,' " said Justin, laughing at the memory.

Playing on the land, living from the land, Justin has found his Zen. There is a keen sharpness to his gaze, a peace in his easy, bright smile, as he drives roots deeper in the area, a lot like his mother oaks. He's home.

"It's crazy how things have just kind of happened," Justin said.

Other voices on Cuyuna Country

"COVID changed the game dramatically. It accelerated the game." — Chuck Picard, new resident and Airbnb owner, on the Cuyuna Lakes region's popularity

"It is steamrolling now. There is nothing going to stop it." — Doug Houge, longtime Crow Wing County commissioner, on tourism's surge

"After the mining left, the community came and cleaned the area. It always has been a symbiotic relationship between the mine and the community. They weren't separated entities, ever. Since mining started, the community developed from that, and they have always relied on each other. And we see that carry on." — Barry Osborne, recreation area manager

"It was a life-changing thing for me, and now I am seeing all kinds of other people in this town who never intended to become cyclists and have active lifestyles just adopting. They are much more fit, active people because they live in a town like this." — John Schaubach, community volunteer and retired hospital administrator

"I tell people, mountain biking is an opportunity creator, and if you are able to jump on it, great. And not just economically, but socially and physically and everything else." — Gary Sjoquist, longtime Minnesota cycling advocate who helped guide the creation of the Cuyuna Country trails

"Cuyuna Country (State Recreation Area) really is a shining example of the power of outdoors recreation to do two things: One, connect people to the outdoors and provide health and wellness benefits and, two, a shining example of how outdoors recreation can be an economic driver." — Erika Rivers, Department of Natural Resources state parks and trails director

"You had to keep on telling the people and the businesses what was going to happen, and eventually, obviously, it came true." — Johnna Johnson, business owner and former chamber of commerce director, on the power of community revitalization coupled with the recreation area's rise