Each month for Year of the Trail has a theme, and February’s is “Make a Date with a Trail” – while the goal was to simply make a date to get out on a trail with a friend or loved one, we suspected we would catch wind of romance on the trail…and sure enough, we did. Don Childrey shared this article with us that he wrote for the Montgomery Herald Newspaper that talks about romance on the trail and the magic of kids falling in love with trails and the great outdoors.
Have you seen any announcements about 2023 being the North Carolina Year of the Trail? Did you know trails are an essential resource for the $28 billion outdoor recreation industry in NC that employs over 260,000 people? Those numbers are a little dry so one of the promotional videos makes it simpler to understand – trails are healthy, trails are fun!
The Year of the Trail campaign is all about showcasing, promoting, and celebrating our state’s extensive trail systems. These trail systems include everything from local greenways to official State Trails that run from one end of the state to the other!
The campaign is an effort by a coalition of more than 60 non-profits, business partners, and government agencies working together to highlight the benefits of trails to local communities and generate support to expand trail resources. After checking out the greattrailsnc.com website, I learned there’s a lot more to it than a couple of simple labels. One of their first goals is to get more people to try trails.
The campaign theme for February is “Make a Date with a Trail”. It’s a cute way to leverage a little Valentine’s Day excitement and bring some love to trails, which is really what the Year of the Trail is all about. You can invite a friend or loved one to join you for a walk on a trail, bike on a greenway, or even paddle on a blueway. Sharing the experience with a friend can often be more fun than just going by yourself. A trail date might even help burn off some of those Valentine’s candy calories, but I probably wouldn’t say that as part of your invitation!
Can a dirt path through the woods really be a romantic place? You could ask my friends Marcus and Krista. Several years ago they each signed up for a four-day backpacking trip on the Uwharrie Trail, organized by the Three Rivers Land Trust.
These thru-hike events, held every spring and fall, serve as fundraisers and as a way to promote TRLT’s work to protect the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail.
Krista needed a ride to the hike. Her sister reached out to Marcus for help. Krista didn’t know Marcus, but their conversation during the drive went well.
They joined close to a hundred other hikers participating in the event. After 4 days and nearly 40 miles of hiking, it’s not unusual for hikers to come away with a few dozen new friends! Marcus and Krista’s friendship started on the trail, and they kept it growing. They returned to do the thru-hikes again and again.
Four years later, during the October 2021 thru-hike, Marcus and Krista were married in a ceremony held on the Uwharrie Trail. They were surrounded by a hundred or so of their hiking friends and family. The Uwharrie Trail was certainly romantic for them!
But a date with a trail doesn’t have to be a romantic outing. One of the best investments we can make for the future of trails is to teach young people how to enjoy and appreciate trails.
When my daughters were little I would take them on short hikes along the Uwharrie Trail not far from where we lived. From the trailhead parking area on NC 24-27, we would follow the well-worn path as it led us into the forest. The sounds of highway traffic quickly faded into the background.
At the first little creek crossing, Lainey had to stop and look for fish. Never mind that there was barely enough water to cover the gravel in the streambed. That’s a seven-year-old’s optimism for you. Where there’s water, there might be fish!
On our way up the next hill, she picked up a hiking stick. Of course, five-year-old Lauren had to have one too. That’s the job of the younger sister, to repeat everything the older one does, just to make sure it can be done. The fact that doing so often annoys the older sister is just a bonus.
We noticed several purple wildflowers growing near the next stream crossing. Well, I did anyway. The girls were more concerned with racing each other to the footbridge up ahead so they could look for fish underneath it.
Farther along the trail we encountered several trees lying across the path. The first tree was knee-high to me, but Lauren crawled under it. Lainey climbed up on it and jumped off. At the next fallen tree, Lauren had to climb up and jump off too.
“Wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever done that!” she said proudly.
I wasn’t so sure about the first-time thing, but I was glad to see her figuring out different ways to get past obstacles. Part of the adventure of taking a hike is overcoming whatever challenges lie in your path, whether it’s a fallen tree, a creek without a bridge, or a snake on the trail.
With the boost in confidence, Lauren managed to get in the front of our group. “I’m the leader now,” she announced. That placed her first to tackle the next creek crossing, one without a bridge. The water was pretty low here too. The creekbed consisted of mostly rocks with a little water trickling between them.
Lauren put a foot on one of the bigger rocks and started to take a step forward. She hadn’t quite mastered the trick of using her momentum yet, so she ended up looking like a windmill on roller skates. Two arms and a hiking stick were swinging everywhere.
Luckily, she managed to land back on her feet without injuring herself or anyone else. A second try on a smaller rock got her across with dry shoes and more style points.
When we finally reached Wood Run, the largest creek in this part of the forest, we found a pool of water deep enough to support several small fish. We peered down from the bank and watched them dart back and forth for a while.
We wondered about the adventures the fish might have had in getting this far up such a small creek. Lainey wondered what would happen if she lowered a worm on a hook into the water.
After watching the fish for a while, we started back. Lauren was feeling especially brave and ran ahead of us. When the trail ahead curved around some bushes, Lainey showed some big sister concern as she yelled out for Lauren to stay within sight.
Of course, that made Lauren run a little faster. I was glad to see Lauren feeling more confident on the trail. On our last hike, she wanted to hold my hand most of the way.
As we rounded the curve, I could see her up ahead, still bouncing up the trail as hard as her little legs would carry her. But when I glanced up again she had turned around and was now running back towards me with a concerned look on her face.
“What’s the matter?” I asked as she reached us. I had visions of that snake in the trail, or a big dog up ahead, or something else scary to a five-year-old.
“I just want to hold your hand,” she said.
Apparently, she had found the limit of her trail confidence and decided to retreat to the safety of daddy’s side. I was ok with that. Recognizing when to turn around, before you’ve gone too far to help yourself, is a valuable skill on any adventure. Once you do turn around, you’re really only halfway done.
The natural world is a huge, fascinating place. Trails offer us a convenient way to observe it up close and personal. Kids have a wonderful desire to explore their surroundings and a great capacity for appreciating the smallest things. These traits make them wonderful trail companions. Taking kids for a hike also helps them build their outdoor skills and confidence.
A few months ago I met a young mother from Asheboro who is not only inviting her own three-year-old daughter Luna out for walks in the woods, she is inviting other parents and children to come along too.
Ciara Wilder Massingale started trail running about a year and a half ago. She wanted to build up the running community in her area by scheduling group runs. When she inquired about placing flyers at the local library, she was asked if the events were for kids. They were not, but that question planted an idea in her head. Before long she had added “Wild Walks With Littles” to her community-building efforts.
These short walks are focused on introducing littles (and their parents) to the idea of having fun on a trail. Maybe “focused” is too strong a word. Ciara says these walks are child-led; the littles set the pace and the direction. So far the littles have mostly been toddlers, so you can imagine how it goes. The parents encourage the littles to explore but are also working to keep things safe, peaceful, and less chaotic!
The Wild Walks With Littles always start at the same trailhead on the Birkhead Mountain Trail, not far from the Asheboro Airport. The trail crosses a small creek shortly after it leaves the parking lot. About 100 yards further is a small wooden bridge over a creek. They don’t go far beyond that, but to the littles, it’s a completely different world.
As you can imagine, these littles don’t just rock hop across a creek like adults would. There’s a lot of handholding and some carrying. There’s some splashing and the occasional wet shoe.
At the bridge, the littles like to dangle their feet over the edge and watch the water flow underneath. Even the sound of the flowing water fascinates them, especially after recent rains made it louder.
When a small plane takes off from the nearby airport, they all stop and watch in amazement. They love to point out the trail blazes painted on the trees. They like to walk along fallen tree trunks, or at least try to. They get attached to an acorn or a dead leaf.
I’m sure the “Wild” in the Wild Walks name was partly a play on Ciara’s maiden name and partly because they’re out in the wild. But Ciara tells me the littles put the real “wild” into these walks. If you were to join them you would see tantrums, screaming, crying, trips and falls, and not sharing. But you would also see the kids laughing and holding hands, playing together, sharing snacks, making memories with their families, making new friends, and gaining confidence. No doubt it’s a very up-and-down experience for everyone. By the end, they are all frazzled and spent, but in the best way. The parents know they’ve helped the littles learn and grow. The littles want to know when they can hike with Luna again!
Continuing the success of the runs and Wild Walks, Ciara recently organized a Community Walk on one of the hiking trails at the NC Zoo in support of the Year of the Trail. WGHP, the FOX 8 television station in Greensboro, took notice and interviewed her about these events. If you get to meet Ciara, or even just watch the interview, you will see how enthusiastic she is about sharing these trail experiences and building a community around them. Ciara is doing some amazing things to inspire others to enjoy trails!
But don’t worry about comparing yourself to Ciara’s example. It’s not a competition. Just invite one other person to join you for a date with a trail and you will be making an impact too!
Learn more about the Wild Walks With Littles in the Wilder Uwharrie Trail Running Facebook group.
Don Childrey is the author of Uwharrie Lakes Region Trail Guide and an avid user of trails of all types. Learn more at donchildrey.com
This article was originally published in the Montgomery Herald newspaper on Wednesday, February 15, 2023, in the A Step Beyond column. Thank you to Don Childrey for sharing it with us!