A (20-mile) walk in the woods with Rod

There was a bit of concern at the end of Saturday’s hike. “I’ve only got 19.8 miles on my pedometer,” said Bob. That sparked discussion among the first half dozen or so of us to finish our six-and-a-half-hour trek. “I hope that’s not what Rod’s pedometer says,” groaned one fellow who appeared to have just enough energy left to walk the 20 yards to his car. Asked a woman on the ground stretching,“Do you think he’d make us go back out?”

“He” was Rod Broadbelt. For 13 years, Rod has been leading a monthly hike at Umstead State Park (though he usually takes November off and goes to Raven Rock State Park). In the summer, bowing to the heat, Rod keeps the hikes short, sometimes as short as 10 miles. In cooler weather, he ups the ante. He’s gone as far as 24, and next month he’ll also only do 10 miles, albeit most of that “wilderness” hike is bushwhacking off trail. Today’s hike — from the Company Mill trailhead on the south side of 5,579-acre Umstead to the Visitors Center on the north side and back — was advertised at 20, and Rod’s not one to cut corners. If he says you’re going to go 20 miles and you want to go 20 miles, he’s not about to short you with 19.8.

When Rod retired in the 1990s, he and wife Dorothy moved from the Philadelphia area to Cary to be closer to their daughter and her family. He left behind his beloved Chester County Trail Club, a group of several hundred that took its hiking seriously. They took short hikes. But they also took very long ones. When Rod couldn’t find anything similar in the Triangle he approached the Umstead Coalition about leading hikes under their banner. Those hikes soon became legendary for their distance and blistering pace. Rod is not a stop-and-smell-the-flowers guy. Stop — slow down even — and you’ll be left in the dust (although he will dispatch a search party if a hiker goes missing). At the start of Saturday’s lunch break, one woman, worried that the group would depart post-haste, told Rod she had to run to the bathroom, but she’d hurry.

“Take your time,” Rod said, “We’ll be here for a while.” Conversation stopped as the faithful listened to see if Rod would elaborate on his notion of a while. “We’ll be here 15 minutes.”

On his first “ruins” hike — a tour of Umstead’s human past that was supposed to be as enlightening as it was aerobic — Rod didn’t break stride as he pointed out park history: “That’s an old homestead,” he said pointing left. To the right, “That’s an old cemetery.

Though he pushes a healthy pace (the first four miles of Saturday’s hike were ticked off in just under an hour), Rod’s hikes easily pass the talk-and-walk test. Twenty-seven people headed out on the trail Saturday and it’s a good bet that each person talked with at least half the people on the hike.

I chatted with Shirley, who just turned 65 and has only been hiking two years. Yet she already has explored the Slickrock Wilderness and Panthertown Valley in western North Carolina, climbed peaks in Washington and spent a couple weeks exploring in New Zealand. I chatted with Jane, a Canadian expat who does an 11-mile hike once a week with some women from her gym. I talked to Mike, who’s part of a volunteer crew refurbishing dilapidated cabins in the park.

And I marveled at Rod. Despite being an avid hiker, hiking boots are his only concession to modern hiking gear. His white cargo pants appear to be cotton, and as the weather warmed — it was 28 degrees at the 8 a.m. start before rising into the upper 40s — he peeled back two cotton hoodies and a flannel shirt, keeping them tied around his waste. (He’s old school, too, in that one of the hikers had to gently remind him to drink water.) At one point, when there was confusion about a couple hikers’ names, someone jokingly suggested name tags. “I don’t want any bureaucracy,” Rod quickly responded. About the only tolerance Rod has for that kind of thing is the monthly e-mail he sends reminding folks of upcoming hikes. Hiking club newsletter? Web site? Club name? Not in Rod’s hiking army.

And I marveled that Rod hasn’t lost a step since he started leading these hikes 13 years ago. “I want to lead this hike when I’m 80!” Rod said on Saturday. He’s 77.

As Rod and a handful of hikers made their way out of the woods around 3 p.m. and approached the trailhead, the suspense mounted. “Well?” someone from the first wave to finish asked, “What’s your pedometer say?”

Rod shrugged: “Equipment malfunction. The thing kept falling off my pants.”

Had we the strength, we would have issued a collective sigh of relief.

* * *

Hike with Rod?

Here’s a look at Rod Broadbelt’s upcoming hikes at Umstead:

  • March 12, annual Wilderness Hike, approximately 10 miles.
  • April 9, Carter-Finley Stadium hike, 13.5 miles.
  • May 7, Umstead to Lake Crabtree and back, 13.5-14 miles.

For more information, email Rod at rbroadbelt@nc.rr.com or call him, before 7 p.m., at  919.363.6611.

9 thoughts on “A (20-mile) walk in the woods with Rod”

  1. Hey Joe!

    So glad you joined us Saturday. By the time we reached the Visitor Center for lunch everyone knew who you were so I did not make an announcement about you. You are more famous than you may realize.

    Thanks much for the photos and the blog. Do not how you manage to make all those notes and take all the photos and still keep up with the group. But your skills remain as great as the day you took all those notes on our hike in December, 1999. You do what you write about–“The Real McCoy.” No fiction from Joe!!!

  2. Hi Joe,

    Thank you for sharing the photos and your story. Rod is just amazing, isn’t he? With no intention of going the full distance on Saturday, I got caught up in the sunshine and conversation and did not even consider taking one of the shorter routes.

    I stand by my belief that you haven’t experienced Umstead until you’ve been on a hike with Rod.

    1. You’re right. I don’t think it was until most of us were back to the parking lot that our bodies realized we had hiked 20 miles (or 18, or 19.8 or 21 — whatever). And yes, experiencing Umstead with Rod is certainly an experience.

  3. Rod, you are truly amazing. I just wish you hadn’t abandoned the 3-mile/hour pace to leave me behind at 4-mile/hour.

    One year older but 80 pounds heavier and not nearly as tough as you!


    1. Bill, you ALWAYS completed our hikes, so you had to be a stronger and faster hiker than you think. Miss having you with us. I was talking about you Saturday and I will keep you guessing whether it was good or bad—you will have to hike with us to find out. My best to you Bill!

  4. What a great write-up and photos!! I hate that I had to miss this 20-miler for the 1st time in 4 years. I’ll never forget the first time I did the 17-miler (always in January) with Rod. I was so tired afterward that I considered a 20-miler out of the question. But by the time February came, I thought about our fearless leader Rod. I realized that there was no way I was going to be out-hiked by someone 31 years older than me – and I finished it!!! Rod, you continue to be an inspiration to me.

    1. Thanks Kathy, but you are way ahead of me with your ongoing attack on all 50 states and all 100 counties of NC. Take note of this Joe. Another future article or blog for you.

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