Local News
March 30, 2016

Matt Baatz: dirt poet, pizza oven engineer

Matt Baatz: dirt poet, pizza oven engineer

By Christopher Biddle

Matt Baatz

By Christopher Biddle

PITTSFIELD—Matt Baatz estimates that in the past year, he’s logged around 600 hours working on a fully stocked pizza oven made entirely from found and donated materials—in the middle of the woods.

“Puddy’s,” as the site is called, was originally meant to be used for “luxury rewilding retreats,” wherein high-paying participants would sleep outdoors and forage for their own meals. The idea even earned its own polished website and inspirational kickstarter-esqe video, complete with jolly bagpipe music and blurred-to-focused shots of people eating roots. But the idea never took off and Puddy’s’ founder is in California now. All that remains of that idea is a tent platform and a fire pit. Matt Baatz saw it as a killer place for a pizza party.

He started by testing several different recipes for rudimentary pasta, collected and organized uniform pieces of kindling. He packed in a layer of empty beer bottles to utilize air as an insulator. He mixed goat manure, cattail fluff, and dirt. Then he collected jars for spices and wove bike tubes for the seats of bar stools. At no point did he think beyond just having a really sweet place to make pizza.

Baatz takes uncomfortably long pauses when he talks. He steps backward, deep in thought, before stepping forward to offer some vast life lesson with Yoda-like precision.

“It’s not about what I want and how I’m going to get it, but what I have and what I can do with it,” he said, staring up, to the right, with a furrowed brow, as if recognizing the importance of his own thoughts for the very first time; and appreciating it as well.

When he began the pizza oven project, he wanted it kept secret, not out of fear of his boss’s wrath as much as his pizazz. His boss, Joe DeSena, owner of the Riverside and Amee Farm Lodge properties and co-founder of Peak Races, eventually caught Baatz with a pizza peel left over from another failed attempt and asked what was going on. DeSena immediately launched into plans for a pizza party following one of his races. He moved quickly to a Kickstarter campaign with its own bagpipe-music video. Baatz just kept building.

The winding road to Pittsfield

The path that led Matt Baatz to Pittsfield was twisty. He graduated from Penn State an engineering major. He was living in Long Island, N.Y., when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, spurred him west in search of more open spaces. He worked as a lab technician in Flagstaff, Arizona and traveled through Central America and Oaxaca, Mexico. He worked with the skillset he’d earned in his engineering days to fund months long journeys abroad. He quickly realized that the life of lab tech wasn’t for him. So he pursued a series of WOOFing opportunities in the Pacific Northwest.

Baatz will chuckle today that those wanderlust days set him up for living a less than normal life, and he wasn’t entirely confident about the future.

Then, one day about six years ago, he found a craigslist ad for an assistant trail manager. Five minutes after answering what he called the strangest job posting he’d ever seen, he received an email that read simply, “When can you get here?”

He got picked up by three “dudes” at the train station in Rutland, and in the 40-minute drive to his new home, his chauffeurs “hazed” him with tales of his maniacal soon-to-be boss. They talked about the impossibly long hours, the late night weeding marathons, the ever evolving cast of perfectionist entrepreneurs. His job was to manage the mountain bike and hiking trails for Green Mountain Trails, a sub-set of Amee Farm and a portion of the utopian rustic-fit empire built by Joe DeSena, a man Outside Magazine once featured in an article called “The Most Punishing Man in Fitness.”

DeSena now travels the world expanding the Peak Races, including the Spartan Race and Death Race series, endurance obstacle races that ask competitors to leap flaming logs, crawl under barbed wire, and text their strength and endurance in unconventional ways.

Baatz’s staying power likely comes as a result of his ability to deal with DeSena’s electric energy, but it hasn’t all been easy. At the end of his first week of employment, Baatz said he took “a break” from day-long shifts to explore the trails, get a better picture of what he was working with, only to be interrupted by a raving DeSena who was confused as to why his new trail manager wasn’t drenched in sweat, wielding a pick, shovel, or saw. Baatz talks about the incident now as a moment of questioning, possibly regret. He asked himself what he had gotten himself into?

DeSena’s Pittsfield properties include an expansive wedding venue and bustling organic farm and is the home base of the Spartan and Death Races.

In the six years since his arrival, Baatz has witnessed the beginning and end of other ventures, too, like a hiker’s hostel, an eco-village, and a zip line tour, but also many successes, including his trail system.

Baatz has nearly doubled the total miles of trails and has earned near-universal praise for the quality, variety, and creativity of his work.

One of his co-workers said of him, “I think of him like a poet with dirt, an artist who has chosen a simple life, to be close to the woods—in the woods—and build a natural but social environment. Philosopher trail-builder.”

“It’s about trying to tap that huge reserve of energy without letting it overwhelm you,” said Baatz.

“Sometimes you just go on a hunch and then find out why you did it later . . . Here I am, in a position where I love everything I do, and in no way did I explicitly plan for it,” he continued.

Baatz won’t be leaving for Oaxaca any time soon, preferring instead to stay in Pittsfield, ride his bike, and make pizza.

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