Authenticity’s Long Trail

At 10 a.m., the trail is quiet, and if you hadn’t just driven into Elkin, NC, from Highway 268, you’d never know that a thriving downtown sits just on the other side of the thick tree line. Periodically a runner or dog walker passes and Bill Blackley, Elkin Valley Trails Association president, hands over a business card with a warm greeting during his daily walk.

He connects with people – asks them how they’re enjoying the day with genuine sincerity and tells them how they, too, can own a part of the North Carolina Mountain to Sea Trail, the state’s longest marked footpath. Of the 1,000 miles between the beginning of the trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the ending at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, 672 miles are complete. The association Blackley leads is responsible for completing Elkin’s 60-mile section, and they’ve come a long way.

Naturalist Nancy Goodwin looks into the trail’s treetops for new plants and animals with Elkin Valley Trail Association President Bill Blackley.
Naturalist Nancy Goodwin looks into the trail’s treetops for new plants and animals with Elkin Valley Trail Association President Bill Blackley.

Volunteers in Elkin have raised more than $300,000, acquired several conservation easements and logged thousands of volunteer hours.

The connection that Blackley and other board members make with trail users is vital to their campaign’s success. Instead of selling, they’re engaging the community to create something useful and beautiful. Residents are excited to have a new place to run, walk dogs, kayak, ride horses, cycle and watch nature – they’ve already identified 73 different types of birds.

They have a few rules: everybody is on the same rung of the ladder, they see opportunities not problems and everybody has something to contribute.

And because they all have something to contribute, they’re credible. Each volunteer is an expert in his or her own field. There’s somebody for everything including robotics, engineering, planning, government, nature and architecture to name a few. For example, one board member plans to create a mobile application that will allow users to scan QR codes on markers along the trail to learn about the area’s history.

That kind of expertise leads to cut costs and engaged advocates because like Blackley says, “You can be a part of the trail – own it – by getting your hands in it.”

Blackley admits the trail could be completed more quickly if they paid a company to do it, but they’d lose the community support that’s made them so successful.

I picked up a piece of trash as he excitedly told me about what’s already been done and what’s to come. He saw me pick up the cigarette butt and said I owned part of the trail, too, now. I believe him. I came home fired up to tell everyone about Elkin and the history of the railroad, Revolutionary War battles, defunct shoe factory, and most importantly, the people who are so vested in making the world a better place.

Having volunteers who are genuinely enthusiastic about reaching a goal can easily draw in new supporters. Even from Raleigh, which is a 2.5-hour drive to Elkin, I’m an advocate of the trail because authenticity is a powerful approach.

Posted: August 7, 2014
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