"The Mayor is interested in chatting with you while you're in town," Robyn told me. "Is that something you'd be into?"
"Um," I replied, as I wondered if I've ever had the chance to speak with a mayor of any town for any reason prior to this. "Yeah, of course. That would be really cool to get the chance to chat with an elected official for one of these stories. Is he a rider?"
She laughed. "Definitely not, but he has been a big proponent of what the mountain bikers are doing for the area, and has played a big role in helping them get approval for some grant money. I'll coordinate a time for you two to meet up while you're here."
When lining up the slate of East Bound & Down stories for 2017, I think I would've called the Auburn stop the most "unassuming" of the half-dozen destinations on tap for exploration. Auburn is located on the edge of the Atlantic Seaboard fall line, which means that it is essentially on the spot where the last hints of the Appalachian Mountains meet the Atlantic Coastal Plain. While there are some remnants of the 1+ billion-year-old mountain chain apparent in places like Chewacla State Park, home to the cornerstone trail network for the area, it's a place that is decidedly devoid of any notable hills, much less mountains, and is not exactly where you might expect to find much of anything of note for riders.
The Auburn and Opelika region is dominated culturally by Auburn University. There are no shortages of extracurricular opportunities when you visit, with plenty of restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, golf courses, and of course, the university itself to keep you busy and distracted from the ride if you are in fact looking for a distraction. The world might have a fair few preconceived notions about the state of Alabama, some deserving, and some too broad a brush stroke, but Auburn/Opelika proved to be a very pleasant surprise. The hospitality was real, the countryside beautiful, and as someone who appreciates really good coffee and really good food, I was happy to discover for myself that there was no shortage of either of those two things. Oh yes, and the trails there are pretty rad to boot.
Auburn is without a doubt a football town. For a long time that presented a bit of a logistical problem for the local tourism industry, as finding other things to entice visitors was somewhat challenging, given the filter of so many other southeastern institutions such as Atlanta to the east, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Birmingham to the west, and Chattanooga to the north. It's long been a beautiful place, but outside of parents visiting their kids in college, and scores of Auburn Tiger fans in town to cheer on their team, it seemed to struggle to round out its appeal to travellers. That is until the folks at Chewacla State Park began to take notice of the work local mountain bikers had been putting in.
Auburn, Alabama is the epicenter for SEC "sports", and by "sports" we mean American Football in the southeastern United States.
Opelika is the neighboring town to the east of Auburn, and is perfect for those looking to remove themselves from the busier atmosphere of Auburn's college culture.
There is no getting away from SEC Football in this part of the country.
Some surprises await those who venture into these woods aboard two wheels.
Chewacla State Park is just a few minutes from downtown Auburn and 15 minutes from downtown Opelika, and features upwards of 30+ miles of trails and some surprising scenery considering you're supposed to be in the coastal plains of Alabama.
High Gravity features the longest sustained downhill in the park.
Much of the lumber seen throughout the park comes from a fraternity on campus who build a deck for an annual party. For every party.
Michael Carnike gets sendy on the Collegiate downhill course.
The main road through the park makes for easy laps on High Gravity.
"When they first started building trails here, there were a lot of parts in Chewacla that were not being utilized," Odell Banks, the Chewacla State Park manager, tells me. "The riders came in and built trails in those areas, and now I'd say that close to 90% of the park is being used. They've increased revenue into the park as well; we have folks coming from all over to use our trails. We've been impacted on an economic level directly because of the mountain bikers."
Odell has been the Chewacla State Park manager for 7 years, and during his time in that role has seen the park's finances go from red to black in just a few short years, and attributes most of that to the work the riders have been putting in. The 696-acre state park features close to 30 miles of singletrack split between two "systems". The lower system is where you'll find some of the park's earliest trails, with a decidedly rough and rugged feel geared towards the cross country crowd. The upper system features a variety of flow and gravity offerings, utilizing every inch of the park's 200 vertical feet of relief. While that's barely a lump compared to many other destinations, including some in the same state, it does feature a jump line with over 25 jumps and features, including a 20'X8' stepdown, numerous 20'+ doubles and tables, one of the best hips you'll find anywhere on the east coast, and a 35' road gap. That doesn't include the scores of other features found throughout the upper system, which utilizes quite a bit of lumber, as well as the final, rocky whispers of Appalachia before the region's transition towards a sandy coastal plain takes over.
"We have a great relationship with CAMP SORBA (the local mountain bike chapter)," he notes. "So if they have any questions or suggestions, I'm never more than a phone call away. It's very easy for them to get work done, and vice versa. Our State Park system has never really had anything in terms of a trail maintenance program, and that's one of the things that CAMP really wanted to make clear to us; their desire to build trails in a much more sustainable fashion than what we had previously done with the park. That's one of the great things about CAMP, and because of the work they have specifically done here in Chewacla, we have helped develop a State Park-wide maintenance program called the Dirt Pass Trail Crew Program. We're 2 years in and it's been doing really well."
Odell and the Chewacla State Park officials might have been the first "non-endemic" group to take note of the positive impact local mountain bikers had on the community, but word spread quickly, and the Auburn-Opelika Tourism Bureau was quick to recognize the opportunity the CAMP SORBA presented.
"I've been here 14 years," Robyn Bridges tells me at the Auburn-Opelika Tourism Bureau offices. "And it didn't take long to realize that anyone coming here, other than for corporate or meeting reasons, is gonna have some tie to Auburn. Suddenly, with these trails and the other things that we have in the community, we can be a mountain biking destination. It was an education process for me, which we began to invest in as soon as I went to the park and saw for myself, the same day the mayor was there, and talked with the folks from CAMP and heard about the things they were doing. With their help, we started looking at opportunities to grow this for the community."
Robyn, the same aforementioned Robyn who introduced me to Auburn's mayor, would end up attending an IMBA summit, and along with various other CVB's from around the country, as well as various trail groups and collectives, began to understand the scope of what was possible in Auburn. This part of Alabama sees very mild winters, which means that it can be a viable destination for people who experience heavy snows, or freeze-thaw cycles throughout the winter months. They had a State Park in Chewacla who had their full trust in CAMP SORBA, and provided them with an almost unlimited freedom to do as they wish with the trails. Most importantly, they had a passionate and growing volunteer base who use a lot of creativity to make the most out of what they had been given.
"Auburn, in reality, is still a small town. These are state park trails. We're in the deep south; we're not in Oregon. Oregon was the opening session at IMBA, and of course, I'm just like, 'Okay, well we're never gonna be that. We don't have the topography or the land available, it's never gonna be Oregon. So what do we do with what we have and how can we move forward making it the best it can be?' Again, I had to learn how to market this new product that we had all of a sudden, and I knew nothing about it. It's a very different animal, with a very different audience. So it was about learning all of those things and then coming back and putting a budget behind it.
"We continue to have a very open and continuous conversation. Really, it's me going, 'Hey, don't forget about us. I'm not there at the park, but if you need to buy food for 100 volunteers, then I'm gonna make sure that's done. So remember that we are here to do that. If you all need t-shirts, if you all need somebody to buy the NICA jerseys, we'll buy the NICA jerseys.' It's about us always being there and reminding them that we're gonna continue investing in them."
Robyn Bridges first laid eyes on the work being done at Chewacla on the same day another decidedly non-endemic entity was taking his first gander at the trails as well. Mayor Bill Ham has been working in local government for 32 years, 20 of which in his current role, and the dozen before that on the city council. The Auburn University alumnus graduated with a degree in recreation management before setting off on a career as a public servant. Over the course of his career, he has become very familiar with the pace of politics, and the red tape and financial hurdles that often dictate the speed limit so to speak. After his first visit and meeting with Philip Darden and the rest of CAMP Sorba, he left Chewacla feeling pleasantly surprised, and it wasn't just the trail work that had him smiling.
"We've got 22 boards and commissions within the city," Mayor Bill Ham says with a very deliberate and southern cadence. "All volunteer groups, that do different things from green ways to whatever. In almost every instance, you get those collaborative groups together and they're a think tank and they'll meet and they've got ideas. But I have never seen a group that actually will take the workload on head first and make it happen. When Philip first told me, 'Oh yeah, we're going to do this and this.' I'm going, 'Yeah, sure you will. That's a great idea. It would be nice if you would or could. People may commit to you, but they're not going to do this.' Then he comes back and he says, 'There are some grants out there. We can do this, but we need the money. We need somebody to front the money. Understand that once the work's done we get the grant.' By that time, they had already done a good bit of the trail and had fronted it themselves. Through economic development, we were able to help them get those grants to further their efforts. We got the city council to buy in. It was nothing but a short-term loan, really. I mean, I talk about them all the time. You just don't get volunteer groups like that, that are as passionate about getting the deal done and doing it right and the number of hours they put in. It's pretty incredible."
Mayor Ham made it clear that while he himself is not a mountain biker, he not only has a strong appreciation for what mountain biking has meant to his own community, but he also encourages other communities to examine their own situation and to look at mountain biking as a viable asset, both in an economic and a social sense.
"I mean, if you look at the real cost of having done something like what they've done in Chewacla," he continues, "there's no telling how much it would run you. In fact, I don't think there's any doubt that we wouldn't have those trails because it would be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the public would have pushed us to spend on other sports with greater visibility. I don't think anybody that wasn't already a mountain biker could have imagined the economic impact these trails would have on us. I would encourage other cities and other areas to look at the same thing for those very reasons. We've got the tourism bureau here that does a great job, and they've literally bought into the mountain bike community and trails. Wherever you are, if you can bring those out of town and out-of-state dollars in that you otherwise wouldn't be getting, it's icing on the cake."
Allie Sharp is one of the strongest athletes on Auburn's mountain bike team and credits the work CAMP SORBA have done at Chewacla for much of her success.
The steep bits are short-lived, but they sure are fun. Photos courtesy of Michael Carnrike.
Chewacla might come up a bit short in the vertical relief department, but it doesn't skimp on the scenic stuff.
Ty Magner boosts one of many amazingly built jumps down Forbidden Zone, the park's 1/2 kilometer jump line.
The architect of the Forbidden Zone, Michael Carnrike, enjoying the fruits of his labor.
Ty Magner is probably the only professional road cyclist you'll find pulling stuff like this off. Hopefully his Rally Cycling pro team doesn't check Pinkbike often.
The road gap is, understandably, the centerpiece for the jumpline and the trails at "Chewy" alike.
25 mph off of the stepdown to a 25 foot long table top/speed check before things get real sendy over the gap.
Mountain biking + babies = a very good day.
Cracking it high above one of the best hips east of the Mississippi.
Philip Darden has been the president of CAMP SORBA for over 4 years and has been an integral component to the growth of mountain biking in Chewacla. "We've always had the goal of being a driving force for the area and representing mountain bikers," Philip tells me while rebuilding my fork at the bike shop he owns, James Bros Bikes. "We want to be a model organization for what other mountain bike organizations should be like across the country. Being effective, getting things done, being able to do the work that needs to be done in an efficient manner, and still maintain it so that we're not super race-focused, we're not super hardcore, enduro-focused. We are just a bunch of people that like to go out and ride, and ride a bunch of different types of things."
Philip and the rest of CAMP were very quick to recognize the unique opportunities they were presented with by the State Park officials. "We really kind of got lucky with the situation at Chewacla," he continues. "Our organization was formed out of some concerns that another group was having while they were building some trail there. We originally started out in a kind of backwoods, not very well visited area of Chewy. As the park manager saw more and more mountain bikers come into the area, more and more riding, he would say, 'Hey, why don't you think about putting trail over here?' It just really kind of snowballed from there. We don't get asked a lot of questions. I think that's been a good thing for the park and has really brought something unique to the area."
During my final evening in town, I was invited out to dinner with a large chunk of the CAMP board of directors, as well as trail builder extraordinaire Michael Carnrike, the man responsible for the brilliant jumpline at Chewacla, and a few others. Prior to dinner, I headed to the home of Toby Fincher, and was joined by fellow board members Cody Salmon, Hiro Fukai, and Hank Ulbricht. Over beers, we delved into the history of the club, and I told them that I couldn't tell if I was more surprised by how good the trails were considering the lack of elevation available, or just how much support they had from people who have never thrown a leg over a bike. We also talked a bit about the hurdles they face from a trail building and logistical standpoint, but over the course of the hour-long chat, a recurring theme of reciprocity worked its way into the conversation time and time again. Mountain bikers in the area have put a lot of love into these trails and this park, and in return have received a lot of love from the surrounding community. Hiro Fukai, board member and university employee, shared one of his favorite anecdotes with me as we finished our drinks and headed out the door for dinner.
"One of my favorite stories is when Dell O'Banks, our head ranger over at Chewacla State Park, was at a big conference for State Parks up in Virginia," Hiro tells me with a broad smile. "State park directors from all over the country go to this conference, and one of them from Colorado actually asked So who is the director for the state park in Alabama? That Chewacla State Park in Auburn Alabama. I think he was a little hesitant to say Yeah, that was me. But they were like I have to commend you on that. That is just amazing what you guys are doing, and we follow CAMP on the Facebook page and it's just incredible. That's the kind of thing we want to see more people do. He told me that story three times when he came back. I just let him tell it every time. He was obviously very proud of that because he has been, goodness gracious, he has been so good to deal with. It was pretty good in the beginning, but when we got out there, the park wasn't in very good financial situation, and the biggest thing they had going for them was their six rental cabins or whatever. And he was like You can build anywhere, but don't build anything in front of the cabins. And it was probably a year later, he was asking us to put a trail in front of the cabins. We put the trail in front of the cabins, and so now people rent the cabins because they're right there on the trail. It gives them somewhere to walk, too. We tell him we want to build something, and he starts quizzing us because he wants it to be the biggest and the best."
There are places on this planet that are seemingly preordained meccas for mountain bikers. Places like Whistler, Vermont, Switzerland, and New Zealand are amazing because they're supposed to be. They all possess amazing terrain and an eager collective ready to take the ball and run with it. Those places are awesome, and should always be celebrated for being the proven commodities they are. Many of us don't live anywhere near Whistler, or Vermont, or Switzerland, or New Zealand, and so many of us will never know what it's like to be handed the keys to the proverbial Porsche. Instead, we take what we are given and we get creative. Or at least that's the hope. Auburn, Alabama isn't supposed to be an awesome place to ride bikes in the woods. It's supposed to be obsessed with college football, fried okra, and southern hospitality; which makes what they've done in Chewacla all of the more impressive. It's not just about the 35-foot road gap, or the monstrous jump line, or the ever-expanding network of singletrack that makes good use of the final frayed threads of Appalachian geology. With nary a mountain in sight, Auburn has a growing and passionate community of riders, who have come together and somehow managed to elicit the support from people who might not ride but are more than happy with what mountain biking has done for their community. Auburn wasn't "supposed" to be this awesome, but we should all be thankful nobody told them that.
"You've got an organization like ours and you've got a passionate group of volunteers," Robyn says, as we wrap up our conversation at her office. "And this is what you can do for them. Then, in turn, this is what they do for your community. We just have had such great response whenever we have those conversations and I share those stories. There's a Southeast Tourism Organization that provide these really great recognitions for communities around the Southeast. We entered a partnership nomination for CAMP and they had dozens of applications, and they said that this was one of the greatest stories they had ever seen. I felt like it was one of the greatest stories I had ever seen, and we love telling it and sharing it. It's just a good thing; we're lucky and I appreciate them very much."
Tuesday night rides in Auburn wrap up the way every ride should: bonfires, grills, and friends.
We could all stand to be inspired by what these folks have done with what they were given, and what they have given their community in return.