Rod Broadbelt officially retired today from more than two decades of leading hikes, almost exclusively at Umstead State Park. And not just hikes, as anyone whoever tried to tag along on one of his hikes would attest, these were no-holds-barred hiking extravaganza’s: lace up tight, hold on to your Tilley and try to hang on. Even into his mid-80s, Rod was no Sunday stroller — he was an unabashed steamroller, leaving hikers half his age in his dust.
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.
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Hike with Rod?
Here’s a look at Rod Broadbelt’s upcoming hikes at Umstead:
When Rod Broadbelt began leading hikes at Umstead State Park more than two decades ago, they were events not for the feint of foot. Rod had just retired to Cary, moving from the Philadelphia area where he was a member of a competitive hiking club.
Competitive hiking? you ask.
The following originally appeared in October of 2013. We re-run it today, updated, with a tweak or two
“Uh!” Kathy groaned about three quarters of the way up the grinding march up to Moore’s Knob at Hanging Rock State Park. “I wish I’d started doing this when I was younger.”
“Better late than never,” her sister Judy offered.
“Yeah,” I added, “and hiking is something you can do for another 40 years.”
Kathy looked at me like I was nuts. “I’ll be 60 this fall!”
OK, maybe another 20 years. The point, as sis so eloquently put it, it’s never too late to start an activity, especially when that activity is health-friendly hiking.
According to a 2005 report (the most recent year for which I could find demographic information for free), the average age of a hiker was 38 and nearly a third of the nation’s 76.7 million hikers were 45 or older. That’s about 25 million hikers — 25 million smart hikers, considering a 2009 study found that the decline in our level of fitness begins to accelerate after age 45. Because of the constant impact of hiking, it’s especially helpful for women trying to stave off osteoporosis. The additional health benefits of hiking are numerous: hiking regularly can lower your blood pressure by four to 10 points, reduce your chances for cardio vascular disease, reduce your odds of getting diabetes, help you keep weight off, lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and, perhaps most importantly, clear your head and help you maintain your sanity.
And it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age.
Take Emma “Grandma” Gatewood. In 1955, at the age of 67, she hiked the entire 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. That was the first time she hiked the AT; she did it again in 1960 at age 72, and again, when she was 75, in 1963. Lee Barry became the oldest person to thru-hike the AT when he completed the trail in 2004 at age 81. The oldest AT section hiker was 86 when he finished wrapped up the trail.
Closer to home, Triangle hikers have been trying to keep pace with Rod Broadbelt since he started his monthly hikes, mostly at Umstead State Park, in the 1990s. Rod goes anywhere from 8 miles (in the dead of summer) to 22 miles (in the briskness of February) on his hikes, which often leave much younger hikers gasping for breath. On a hike in 2012 he said his goal was to continue leading the hikes after he turns 80. He was 78 at the time.
And lest you be an older hiker and think you don’t have the knees for hiking, we have two words of advice: hiking poles. For just as full-suspension bikes have extended the riding lives of many an older mountain biker, and the over-sized tennis racket meant more control and less darting about the court for aging tennis players, so have hiking poles made it possible for the weak-kneed to keep on hiking. Plus, with poles, not only do you still get a good cardio workout, but your upper body gets to share the toning benefits of a hike.
We can’t blame Kathy for wishing she’d started hiking sooner; think of all the great places she’s missed seeing. But then, think of all the great places she’ll visit in the next 20 years.
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Better later …
Whether you’re young or older, if you’re interested in getting into hiking and seek a supportive environment, check out our GetHiking! Triangle hiking program.
Hike with Rod
Rod Broadbelt’s next monthly hike is March 11. It’s his annual Wilderness Hike, and while it’s short by Broadbeltian standards — 10 miles — it’s mostly off-trail. You’ll see some especially fetching terrain on this hike.
Can’t make this one? On April 8, Rod will do his 14-mile hike to Carter-Finley Stadium and back.
Questions? Email Rod at email@example.com or call, before 7 p.m., 919.363.6611.
You love your trails. You can’t imagine what life would be like without them.
For starters, life might be a little more adventurous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my trails as well. The Sycamore Trail at Umstead (especially during a rain, when its namesake creek is roiling). The trail network at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, which seems perpetually bathed in ethereal light. The 14-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail north of Carvers Gap, which is one stunning 360-degree view after another.
But sometimes, the terrain beyond the confines of the well-maintained, blazed path beckons. The hollow where the distant sound of crashing water suggests a cataract. The distant rocky summit promising great views. The woods that call for no apparent reason other than you’ve never paid a visit.
The lure of the unknown.
Trails exist for good reason. To keep you from getting lost tops the list. They also help minimize our impact as visitors, keeping us from trampling sensitive ecosystems and basically letting the land, for the most part, be. Yet every once in a while … .
Yesterday, we shared a recent … wilderness wander at one of our favorite local haunts. We feel comfortable making an occasional trail departure, in large part because we follow a few simple rules that all but assure we will make our way back to civilization. The best testament to these rules: we’re here to talk about them (rather than still in the woods, wandering, looking for the way out).
Before we share those simple rules: exploring off trail is something you should ease into. It’s best to head out your first few times with someone experienced, someone such as Rod Broadbelt, who this Saturday leads his annual Ruins Hike at Umstead State Park. Nearly all of this 10-mile hike, which visits 20 historic sites in the park, is off-trail. Rod’s done this hike for more than 20 years and knows the park well; hang with him (if you can) and learn his approach to off-trail exploring.
That hike meets at 8 a.m. Saturday morning in the Umstead lot at the end Harrison Avenue in Cary, off I-40 (exit 287). Questions? Contact Rod at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, some tips for off-trail exploring on your own.
* Take a map. This is mandatory every time you strap on a pack, even if you’re hiking a trail you know well. (What if there’s a blowdown or a landslide and you need to take evasive action?) A good topo map is preferred; a park-issued map, which often lacks topo lines and isn’t to scale is better than nothing.
* Take a compass. A map is of minimal help if you don’t know which way is up. Or north. Together, a map and compass are invaluable hiking companions.
* Check sunset. Venturing off trail isn’t something you want to do if you’re running out of daylight. An especially important step this time of year.
* Know your blazes. Likely, you’ll start out on an established trail. Familiarize yourself with the blaze for that trail and for adjoining trails. Odds are you’ll eventually want to return to the trail you departed from.
* Landmarks. When you reach the point where you plan to head off trail take careful note of what’s around you: an especially identifiable tree, a creek, a rock outcrop, whatever. Sighting a familiar object could be key for your return.
* Take a bearing on where you’re headed. Get out your map, get out your compass. Get your orientation (where’s north?) set. Pick an object in the distance, in the direction you want to explore. Take a compass reading, follow that compass reading.
* Confirm your bearing. Stop periodically, every 30 yards or so, to confirm your bearing. Are you still headed in the direction you set off in? If not, correct and continue.
* Landmarks. Again, keep an eye out for familiar landmarks that can help you navigate upon your return.
* Reverse course. Once you reach what it was you wanted to check out, return to the point where you left the trail by simply following your compass in the opposite direction. For instance, if you reached your objective by heading due north, return by heading due south.
* Shinny thing. Or maybe you see something else in the distance you want to investigate. Take specific note of where you are, get out your map, get your compass and set a new bearing to your new objective. Continue in the manner described above, stopping every 30 yards or so to make sure you remain on course.
* Reverse course (again). To return after reaching your second objective, simply head in the opposite compass direction you followed to your second objective until you get back to your first objective. From there, continue in the direction opposite you used when you left the trail.