The Long Trail Home

Posted 12/17/20 by Ed Coleman in America's Trails, Trail Use

Ed and Jenn Coleman on the Chief Ladiga Trail | Courtesy Ed Coleman

This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and true trail voices around the country, and how trails have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media.

Sometimes, life's magical moments exist in those little spaces of time between the mundane and extraordinary, and you never realize how precious they are until they're gone. That's what biking is like for me. Trail riding encompasses my fondest childhood memories and confirmation of my life partner. It grounds me to myself and makes the world around me my home.

I lost that connection during the pandemic, and I have realized that rediscovering the trails around me—my #TrailMoments—makes me feel whole and like the world will be ok.

Turning Me Upright

Biking righted my upturned world before, back when I was a child. My family and I had moved from Auburn, Alabama, to Columbus, Ohio—and when we first arrived, I felt alienated, like I was in a cold land with colder people. I yearned for a big bowl of grits, watching triple-option football, feeling pine sap on my fingers, and hearing the lilting sounds of a slow southern drawl.

Ed's father George in 1976 | Courtesy Ed Coleman
Ed's father George in 1976 | Courtesy Ed Coleman

My dad—who was my biking partner before I could even walk—sensed that I missed home, but knew I always loved the feeling of riding a bike. He spread a stack of paper maps (perhaps the only thing he loved more than bikes!) out on the dining room table and started exploring. He discovered a “secret crossing” pedestrian bridge over Highway 315 and the Olentangy River to the Park of Roses. The next day, he took me out for a ride, so I could feel connected to my new community. It was glorious—and it made Columbus feel like home.

Over time, I traded the rivers of Ohio for Arizona's deserts, where I met my wife, Jenn, and fell in love with her over our bike rides together. Thankfully, our second date, biking on the Rialto River Trail, was enchanting and made up for our nearly disastrous first date. Jenn arrived fully decked out on her female-specific hybrid, ready to tackle a 30-mile ride, and I showed up in gym shorts (and was a bit goofy). But eventually, I won her over!

Cross-Country Adventures

Biking in San Diego, CA | Photo by Ed Coleman
Biking in San Diego, CA | Photo by Ed Coleman

Our love of biking inspired us to move to San Diego, where I could bike to work, and where we had some of the country's best riding just outside our door, including the Mission Bay Trail, Mt Soledad, and the Pacific Coast Highway. Our next move took us to Orlando, and during our two years there, we experienced some of the Sunshine State’s great trails, including the West Orange Trail and Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. We also pedaled through paradise in Key West, and rode the tracks of the Rockefellers on Jekyll Island's bike trails.

Jenn biking in San Diego, CA | Photo by Ed Coleman
Jenn biking in San Diego, CA | Photo by Ed Coleman

Then, we found a new home in a familiar setting: Alabama. It was a homecoming 40 years in the making. We couldn’t wait to get out and find our peeps and places. Of course, 2020 had other plans.

We had barely unpacked our last moving box when we heard the news of a new virus making its way around the world. We found ourselves telecommuting and holed up, doing our part to stop the spread of the pandemic. Although I planned to run outside to stay active, an injury and related complications quickly threw a wrench in my plans.

I remembered how Jenn used the power of the pedal to heal when recovering from her bilateral total knee replacements. She inspired me to explore the bike trails of Huntsville once I was released to cycle, and I felt better and better after every ride.

Pedaling a Southern Gem

Chief Ladiga Trail sign | Photo by Ed Coleman
Chief Ladiga Trail sign | Photo by Ed Coleman

The country was learning how to live during a pandemic, too. America saw a massive increase in trail use, as people sought safe spaces to be active outside and take solace—and we followed suit. After reading up on how to recreate responsibly, we planned a trip to ride the Chief Ladiga Trail.

The 33-mile trail is a gem of Alabama, offering its visitors a variety of beautiful landscapes, connections to the past, and access to shops and other trail-friendly stops. Early in our ride, at the old Jacksonville Terminal, we learned about the trail's namesake, Chief Ladiga. We discovered that he was a Muscogee chief who sold his land to speculators that would later become Jacksonville. Ladiga relinquished his tribe's lands when he signed the Treaty of Cusseta in 1832 and was given his plot in return. A year later, however, he sold that land and repatriated with his tribe. Though Jackson was a town forged from The Trail of Tears, and therefore includes a complex and difficult past, it’s heartening to see Chief Ladiga recognized and his history told through the trail today.  

Chief Ladiga Trail entering Piedmont | Photo by Ed Coleman
Chief Ladiga Trail entering Piedmont | Photo by Ed Coleman

When we reached the middle of our ride, we passed signs proclaiming, 'Welcome to Piedmont, home of the Chief Ladiga Trail,’ that told us how much this trail means to the town and that Piedmont is a major trail hub.

Although we felt a growing connection to our new home state throughout our ride, it was the final third of the ride where everything came together. Despite a few bumps in the beginning, leaving the last farm behind and entering the Talladega National Forest was magnificent. Riding through the deep woods, I felt like I was traveling through time and my memories. As I watched the rising mists and deer wandering out of the groves of trees, I remembered how much I love biking with Jenn and sharing these special experiences. Breathing in the scent of the forest, I remembered my childhood in Auburn, playing in the pine forest in our backyard and returning with sap covering my hands and clothes.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame sign along Chief Ladiga Trail | Photo by Ed Coleman
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame sign along Chief Ladiga Trail | Photo by Ed Coleman

Most of all, I remembered my father before cancer took him too soon. I remember how he would run behind my orange Stingray bike, pushing me from the sissy bar. I remembered him picking me up when I fell and telling me everything would be ok.

That's the power of bike trails.

Ed riding the Chief Ladiga Trail | Courtesy Ed Coleman
Ed riding the Chief Ladiga Trail | Courtesy Ed Coleman

“They're more than a connection between two points in space; they connect lives, loves and memories.  Our ride on the Chief Ladiga Trail—our #TrailMoments—made me feel connected to everything I loved, and I felt like I had finally come home.”

—Ed Coleman


Related: Georgia's Silver Comet Trail and Alabama's Chief Ladiga Trail in Rail-Trail Hall of Fame

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Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.

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