Cyclers hit the road from Athens to Savannah to help build the longest paved trail in America – the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail
Story by Nancy Belle Hansford
Hot coffee fuels a small crowd of cyclists who were up before the sun, getting ready for a two-day ride through rural Georgia. Congregated outside of the Jittery Joe’s in Athens, 28 participants stretched their legs in preparation for the long ride and bonded over a shared passion for bikes. For the next two days, these riders trekked over 235 miles, passing colorful murals, expansive fields, and quaint towns along what will soon be the longest paved trail in America.
This Athens to Savannah Ride is held each fall to raise money for the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building America’s longest paved multi-use trail to empower rural people.
Building off the existing Firefly Trail, a 39-mile trail connecting Athens and Union Point, the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail would add an additional 211 miles of paved trail stretching to Savannah. The final, 250-mile trail would be the longest paved trail in America, running through more than 20 communities in rural Georgia.
“It’s easier to go around the towns, but I want to bring people into these small towns,” explains Mary Charles Howard, the founder of the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail. “A trail can bring back the young families to small towns.” Being from Sandersville, Howard saw firsthand the lack of safe cycling and economic opportunities that is common in many rural communities. For this reason, Howard decided to utilize her passion for cycling to help reinvigorate small Georgia towns.
Howard’s love of distance cycling may have been sudden, but it has definitely lasted. She says she “jumped head first into distance biking” while she was a student at the University of Georgia. Each year she participated in the Ride for Christ, a 30 hour, 300-mile cycling event organized by UGA Baptist College Ministries. She used this experience as inspiration to expand Athens Food Tours, a food tourism company she built in 2010, by creating Agro Cycle Tours, its cycling counterpart.
However, in 2016, she sold both Agro Cycle and Athens Food Tours, taking a hiatus from bike event organizing. She moved back to Sandersville and began a family, but never lost interest in cycling. Shortly after having her third child, Howard jumped head first into the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail project.
“I got the opportunity to decide what I wanted to do with my life,” says Howard. “I turned the idea of Hi-Lo into a reality.”
The 30-year timeline serves as the overarching goal for Howard’s project. By 2040 she hopes to have laid 76 miles of trail from Union Point to Wrightsville, connecting Athens to Wrightsville. On the southern end of the trail, she hopes to have laid 32 miles in Effingham and Chatham Counties.
Having connections in Effingham County will help Howard achieve this goal, which is why her partnership with Bike Effingham is crucial in the project’s success. Bike Effingham, an organization near Savannah, emerged in 2019 with a similar goal – they wanted to undertake a 26-mile trail expansion running throughout the county. Howard recognized the benefit of having people working from both ends of the trail, so the two independent projects merged.
Even with this advantage, the massive undertaking is still expensive. The first major step is to craft a complete map outlining the trail in order to get governmental approval. To create this comprehensive map, Howard must hire the PATH Foundation, a company headquartered in Atlanta that transforms landscapes across Georgia. For $125,000 PATH can make the Hi-Lo Trail attainable.
Once the plan is solidified and approved, the construction can begin. Based on estimations given by an Atlanta-based engineering firm, each mile will cost roughly $2 million. By 2050, the year the trail is set to be completed, an estimated $400 million will be invested into the construction of 211 miles.
Through fundraising and sponsorships, Howard hopes to bring in a sustainable and reliable source of money each year. Grants from federal and state entities are also great options for acquiring the necessary funds, as well as taking public donations. However, the biggest source of fundraising undoubtedly comes from the annual Athens to Savannah Ride.
“The riders fundraise for it, but the bulk of funds come from sponsors,” explains Howard. Jittery Joe’s plays an integral role, as Howard says they are the “face of the ride.” Their Morning Ride coffee blend is used for the Athens to Savannah Ride logo. Jittery Joe’s also donates all sales of the Morning Ride coffee to the Hi-Lo Trail.
Ken Sherman, an avid cyclist, was one of the first to set out on the 235-mile trek to from Athens to Savannah. It started in 1999 as a challenge from one of his teachers, Wallace Salter. They were the only cyclists for the first ride, but, in 2003, three more joined and the ride continued to grow each year. In 2019, he passed off the rights, the logo, and the emails of participants to Mary Charles Howard to help her bring the event back to life to benefit the Hi-Lo project.
This year’s ride looked a little different than in years past due to COVID-19, but was still a success. The in-person ride had 28 participants and many more joined in the virtual event. Virtual riders rode the same number of miles at their own pace and were sent video footage from the rural towns show off the small towns and give the riders a more interactive experience. Despite the limited crowd, the ride managed to bring in $62,000. This money will be put towards next year’s ride and efforts to expand it to even more riders.
“When the vaccine is widespread, I want it to be a national event that people travel all over for,” says Howard. She aims to grow this event to 500 riders and then to 1,000. Through even more sponsorship and partnerships, she believes she can scale this event to meet these goals.
Another way she wants to expand this ride is by offering a dirt and gravel road alternative in the spring. Mapped out, the route follows closely alongside Lake Oconee and the non-paved terrain makes the ride naturally slower. Instead of taking two days, she anticipates the distance can be covered over five days, with massages at the stops. This more luxurious, slow-paced ride would serve as an alternative to the fast-paced fall ride.
Riders can simultaneously help raise money for the Hi-Lo Trail and see for themselves the immense benefit of having proper bike infrastructure. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, people are packing the existing trails. In order to accommodate the growing interest in outdoor recreation, trails must expand. Additionally, this trail provides a place for recreation, which encourages physical activity.
According to Mayor Janibeth Outlaw, the Athens to Savannah Ride and Hi-Lo Trail brings a newfound interest in healthcare in the small town of Wrightsville. Hopefully, she says, the construction of a paved trail will encourage locals to get active and enjoy nature.
By paving the trail through the heart of small towns, new opportunities present themselves to local Georgians. The excitement brought by the Athens to Savannah Ride and Hi-Lo Trail is obvious, as many locals welcome the riders into their towns and support them from the sidelines. Mayor Eartha Cummings welcomed this year’s riders at The Tennille Ice Cream Company, showing her appreciation for the excitement the ride brings to the community.
By constructing the Hi-Lo Trail to bring people into rural towns, Howard says small towns can get the recognition they deserve. Furthermore, visitors can contribute to the local economy. After being hit so hard by the pandemic, local businesses need more customers to recover. By encouraging more traffic into these small towns, the Hi-Lo Trail can help bring in much needed revenue. Each mile of the Hi-Lo Trail will positively impact the health, economy, and connectivity of 588,000 Georgians who live in the more than 20 rural communities touched by the Hi-Lo Trail.