A little after 10am on Saturday morning, a loose group of strangers is gathered in front of Park Grounds coffee shop in Reynoldstown. We’re all exchanging casual introductions and pleasantries as we prepare to embark on an 8 (or so)-mile hike of the Beltline.
“Ok. By show of hands, who’s got a car to transport folks to the starting point?” the slightly hoarse, sort of gravelly voice querying us belongs to Angel, our tour guide for the day. A few hands go up in the air, and our small group splinters into even smaller groups that can fit into each car.
I – and 3 others – follow Angel. “Alright, so before we get started, what part of town does everyone live in?” he asks us.
I pipe up first, “Kirkwood.”
“North Lake.” This comes from David, a property manager and father of two.
Jimmy, an amateur videographer answers next, “Decatur.”
“Pittsburgh,” chimes in my beau.
“See, the Beltline is already bringing Atlanta together!”
In case you haven’t heard, the Beltline project is a proposed conversion of over 22 miles of historic rail lines within the city of Atlanta into an interconnected network of transit, trails, parks, housing and urban greenspace. Basically, it has the potential to transform Atlanta even more than Sherman’s march to the sea.
Like countless other Atlantans, I’ve been hearing about the Beltline project for quite some time, and getting excited at all the excitement that everyone else seems to have about this huge, multi-year endeavor. But, to be honest, I was starting to feel a bit like the emperor in his new clothes concerning all the Beltline fervor. I knew it was something to be excited about, but I couldn’t see it. And without seeing it, I really couldn’t feel excited about it for myself. So, when I got word of the Beltline Hike being sponsored by Urban Hiking Atlanta (UHA) via Wonder Root, I signed up and prepared to get a hands-on education.
As Angel ushers his car towards the starting point, he gives us a little background on himself. A Miami native, but long time Atlanta resident, he’s spent years developing an intimate relationship with the city, and from rather unique perspectives. First, as a bag handler at Hartsfield Airport, then as a train conductor for several years with CSX, and lastly, as an avid volunteer with Trees Atlanta. His passion for both the city and the Beltline is – to say the least – contagious. During his autobiographic introduction, Angel stops mid-sentence and yells out, “Beltline!” as the car ba-bumps over a set of rusty old train tracks. He grins sheepishly. “I can’t help it. I have to call it out every time I cross it. My friends are so sick of me doing that.”
A few minutes later, we arrive and reconvene with the rest of the group on a steep hill overlooking Stanton Park in Peoplestown. Angel briefs the group on our path for today and introduces us all to Eli Dickerson, who describes himself as 6′ tall, and skinny as a rail. Eli is an environmental educator and the founder of Urban Hiking Atlanta. “I used to go to North Georgia a couple of times a month to hike. But when gas prices shot up last year, it just got too expensive. So I thought, ‘Why not do some hikes around the city?’” The Beltline hike is UHA’s 3rd city safari. Eli’s aim is to conduct a different hike on the 1st Saturday of every month. He emphasizes the open-source nature of the group. “I want everybody to own this. If anyone has a cool neighborhood that they think we should explore, I want them to lead a hike.” I overhear some murmurs about a machete hike from West End to Bankhead. Yeah, I think to myself, probably won’t be making that one.
With the introductions complete, and the headcount conducted (25 humans, 5 canines), we embark on a 4-hour journey that covers most of the eastern portion of the Beltline. Our trek takes us from Peoplestown, through Ormewood Park, then on to Cabbagetown, Inman Park and Poncey-Highland. Several stretches of our path are overrun with hip-high weeds and choked with dormant kudzu vines. In a few weeks, the kudzu will be so thick as to make it impossible to pass through. Through it all, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been given an all-access backstage pass to the city. The familiar places that I drive past everyday are scarcely recognizable from this vantage point. I’ve never noticed the two story all-glass structure sitting to the right of a bridge that crosses Highland Avenue; nor the makeshift skate park sitting in the shadows under a bridge near the Telephone Factory Lofts; ditto for the graffiti art that spans a length of wall along Wylie Street like one long multi-user mural. And on a hill across the street from City Hall East, an ironwork sculpture that Eli has dubbed, “Crucifixion on Kudzu Mountain” silently observes the traffic whooshing by. It’s obviously been here for years, but I doubt if more than a few people have ever noticed it.
At varying points of the hike, some folks peel off from the group, while others join. By the time we reach the terminus at Piedmont Park, only a core portion of the initial group remains. We wave our goodbyes and smile at each other, exhausted but thrilled to have shared in such a unique excursion. Later that day, the beau and I return to Park Grounds to fetch the car. As I’m driving off, I hear a familiar ba-bump under the car’s wheels. Without even thinking, I yell out, “Beltline!” then laugh uncontrollably at myself for being such an easy convert.
Maps of the Beltline hike: Southeast map Northeast map
To learn more about the Beltline project visit: www.beltline.org
For more on Urban Hiking Atlanta, visit: www.urbanhikingatlanta.blogspot.com
and, for more on Wonder Root, check out: www.wonderroot.org