Everything looked pretty glum on Sunday. It was the worst day of the year – the “Spring Ahead” day where you lose an hour of precious, precious sleep – plus the weather forecast was for rain in the morning and then more rain in the afternoon. I dragged myself out of bed that morning, grumpy about the time change and just sure that we wouldn’t be able to get out and have any sort of adventure. Chet and I had spent some time the evening before kicking around ideas for what to do if we thought the weather would cooperate, but we hadn’t really come up with a plan either of us were excited about. Once again, I was thinking rain=great waterfalls so that led me to thinking about Middle Tennessee waterfalls. However, I wasn’t really loving the thought of driving 90 minutes only to have the skies open up on us. Remember, Chet does not like hiking in the rain at all. A direct quote from him is “I’m miserable when I hike in the rain, and I probably wear an expression like a cat tied to a water sprinkler.” You can understand why neither of my options at that point – hiking with said cat tied to a water sprinkler or giving up and spending 3 hours in the car for no hike at all – was something I was looking forward to.
We started thinking about things closer by that we could do and I suggested maybe we could try out the Richard Martin Trail near Elkmont. This is a Rails to Trails Conservancy project, which takes abandoned railroad corridors and turns them into multi-use hiking, biking and horse trails. This particular trail goes from Veto, Alabama in the north down to Piney Chapel Road near Athens in the south, passing through Elkmont at about the halfway point. Here’s where Chet had a brainstorm. Since we were a little worried about rain still – why not throw the bikes in the truck? That way we could plan to go from Veto to Elkmont and back, maybe even before the rain got here, but if we got caught in the rain at least getting back to the truck would be quicker on a bike. Brilliant! We wrestled down the bikes from their storage hooks, added air to the tires, and took off to Veto.
The parking lot for this northern end of the Richard Martin Trail is on the corner of Veto Road and Cave Branch Road, which also happens to be the Alabama/Tennessee state line. Veto, Alabama is an interesting place. According to Wikipedia and other sources, this small unincorporated community was originally called “State Line,” then changed its name to Veto after a community of that name just across the state line. There was a post office there from as early as 1875 up until 1950. Now all we could see was a restored Methodist church, a building that may have been a general store, and a scattering of old houses. The historic markers outside the church had a map of Veto that made the town look more substantial, but I could find no evidence later on Google Earth of the other roads that should have been there. The church is charming though. It was originally built by a Methodist-Episcopal South congregation under an oak tree off what is now Bob Coffman Road in February 1886. It remained in use until the 1960s when membership had dwindled to 9 and the 5-member Gates family moved to Athens. It was used for storage until sometime in the early 2000s when local recreation officials arranged to buy it and move it 250 yards onto land belonging to the Richard Martin Rails-to-Trails project. The plan at that time was to raise the money to restore it and use the 120 year old building as a shelter for hikers and a wedding venue. When Chet and I were there on a Sunday morning, it was locked so I don’t know if that plan has been put into action or not but I hope so!
After a brief look at the plaques in front of the church, we started down the gravel path that is the trail here. Almost immediately, I was startled by a bird running along the ground right at me. It then turned and ran into the grass and started flapping around like it was injured. I’d heard of this behavior before but never seen it. It’s called a “distraction display.” A parent bird will fake being injured to draw a predator away from its nest, which is typically on the ground. This bird was determined. She (?) ran toward us until she got our attention, then ran to the grass along the side of the trail and started making a distress call and striking an “oh poor me my wing is broken” pose. She had orange feathers on her rump, bands of black and white on the ends of her wings and a white ring around her neck. As soon as we were far enough away from her nest, she miraculously healed and flew off. When we got home we compared our picture with some on the web and discovered she must have been a killdeer.
Other than the church, the first mile is probably the least attractive part of this trail. It’s just a gravel track between two roads. There are some houses – one with a lot of chickens roaming around near the mailbox – but not really anything terribly scenic at first. Then the trail cuts into the woods and it’s really very pretty from there on out. It is mostly in the trees, crossing several creeks along the way. As we rode we saw a couple of different sorts of sign posts. One is the mileage from the southern end of the trail, posted every 1/2 mile. The other is a post with a number on it. The Veto starting point had a box that looked like it might contain pamphlets of some sort, but it was empty. I’m assuming maybe it usually holds descriptions tied to these numbers.
After crossing a couple of roads and going over a small bridge we passed the entrance to Mill Creek Park – a large RV park. I’m not an RV camper myself, but this looks like a nice one. It’s large and seems pretty quiet and has great access to the trail and the Elk River. If you’re an RV type – check it out!
Next up was a beautiful covered bridge over Mill Creek. There was obviously an old railroad trestle at this point – you can still see the stone foundations in the creek below. About 1/2 mile after that there is another bridge, this one not covered, over a feeder stream for Smith Creek. After this second bridge, the trail climbs gently, but incessantly, uphill. One of the benefits of this being an old railroad corridor is that since trains don’t really “do” steep inclines, neither will you. I was huffing and puffing just a bit up this part thinking “boy, this will be a blast to coast down coming back!,” but it really wasn’t that steep. I’m not in “bike” shape I guess. Here, the trail has curved pretty far away from Veto Road and all you can see is the woods climbing up to the right and occasional fields, ponds, or barns to your left.
As I came close to the top of a rise I could see … something … alongside the trail up ahead. My eyes are not the best, so I wasn’t sure from a distance if I was seeing a dog or a clump of windblown trash. Turns out I was wrong on both counts – it was a herd of about eight goats! They were chillin’ there on the trail. When they saw us coming they got up, crossed the trail, sort of stared at us a bit and then bounded down a really steep path down to the little farm nestled in the valley below. I wonder if those were some of the Belle Chevre goats? Belle Chevre is an artisanal goat cheese maker that got its start in Elkmont. They have a shop in downtown Huntsville as well, have won numerous awards and have gained a national reputation.
Shortly after the goat-spotting, the trail merges briefly with the road to the goat farm, then crosses over Smithfield Road and back into the woods for the final stretch into Elkmont. Elkmont is a quaint and quiet little town. It has an few old buildings – the old depot which acts now as a senior center, one place that looked like a cafe, and Belle Chevre has a tasting room in another old building across the street. It was pretty quiet on a Sunday morning – I believe we had the place to ourselves. I do have to say that I was regretting my choice for a second cup of coffee right about this point and was very happy to see that the Depot building has free and open restrooms at one end of the building. We looked around a bit, had a snack of peanut butter crackers and then headed back up the road to Veto.
The ride back was not nearly so much of a downhill coast as I was expecting, and the last mile before we got back to the church was uphill which neither of us had noticed at all when we came down it! Mama Killdeer was nowhere to be found, which I was a little disappointed about, but we made it back without getting rained on one bit – we even saw a bit of blue sky as we were driving back to Huntsville. All in all, we covered around 10 miles and half of the Richard Martin Trail, saw a killdeer doing its distraction display, startled a goat family, saw some early spring wildflowers, and saw lots of pretty scenery all without any signs of the cat tied to a sprinkler. I call it a good morning!