Meet Dr. Walter May

photo courtesy of Dr. Walter May

When I asked to speak with someone at Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA during my deep-dive into bike-friendly aspects of Cherokee County, Georgia (per this schedule as Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor), I didn’t expect to hear back from the Dean of Students.

But to people at this small, private university that pretty much is the City of Waleska (and Cherokee County’s only institution of higher education offering undergraduate and graduate degrees), this makes sense.

That’s because Walter (as he prefers to be called) not only heads up the student health center, campus ministries, residence life, student activities, and the vocation and career services department, but about fifteen years ago, he took over stewardship of the seven miles of interconnected trails (including around a lake) that had been created on old logging roads throughout the 510 acres of wooded greenspace on the campus, just minutes from the North Georgia mountains.

Trails at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia

You’re likely to find Walter not just out there riding his bike and encouraging others to ride or walk the trails but also tending to them, which he does once a month with assistance from students.

Walter loves doing this kind of earth-care. He grew up in a farming family and is completely at home in the outdoors. In fact, name any outdoor activity, from skiing to scuba diving (with the exception of jumping out of a plane), and he’s done it. And, of course, once you’ve been part of nature, you considered yourself a participant in its ability to maintain a future. And Walter is concerned.

After twenty years at Reinhardt, he has seen changes in students’ relationship with nature as a result of hand-held devices and the drop-off in outdoors activities in which he sees students participating, including simply walking on a campus where it would take less than ten minutes to get anywhere.

It doesn’t seem as if the students aren’t getting enough exercise, however. About 65% of the university’s 750 student residents are athletes on one or more of the university’s 23 teams, and all of the main campus students (a total of 1200) must take a first year fitness-for-life course and a first-year seminar on health and wellness. But with the exception of cross-country-track runners and occasional overnight campers, the trails are underutilized. Bikeshare was tried a few years ago, but it didn’t go well. All buildings have bike racks in front of them, but they are rarely used.

This is where Walter sees opportunities. First, he wants to make sure students practically “trip” over ways to walk and to ride bikes, and he is working on that. He’d also like to develop a mountain biking course for credit.

Next, since the trails are already open to the public (and most of its current users, in all honesty, are not from the university), Walter would like to involve local community groups even more, including perhaps partnering with scouts and also creating a mountain biking team with the local high school. That way he can start to grow interest in Reinhardt in future potential university recruits (in a population where pursuing high education is not an assumption, as 40%, on average, attend Reinhardt on Pell Grants and 30% of the students are immigrants), as well as increase the love of the outdoors at a younger age.

I did not get a chance to ride the trails at Reinhardt (although I was curious to do so as the university’s page specifically says they are for experienced mountain bike riders, but Walter said they are easy trails). However, I only made it as far as the City of Woodstock*, Georgia during my month researching Cherokee County as Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor, as COVID-19 has curtailed my travels. And let’s just say, short answer, that the mountain biking did not go very well for me there (although the paved trails worked out.)

If you are up for the trip, however, or if you live in nearby Waleska, Georgia, the trailhead is located on Grady Street beside the James & Sis Brown Athletic Center. You sign in and out at the guardhouse. Parking for the Mountain Bike trails is located in the athletic center parking lot. All trails are loop trails, and return to the trailhead. It is suggested that you carry food and water for two hours and don’t go alone.

If you have ideas for Walter and the Reinhardt University trail system, you can contact him here. Tell him I sent ya’. And maybe someday I’ll see you up there on those old logging trails.

In the meantime, it’s off to Clayton County for February. Join me.

* See Artsy Downtown Woodstock while Traveling at the Speed of Bike. You may also enjoy Cherokee County, GA. I’ll be doing a little wrap-up post on the first three months as Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor before February 1. Here’s the two-month update, if interested.