Soon Iola will be as known for the trails that encircle the town as it is for the courthouse square at its center. And an aerial view of the county — showing the Prairie Spirit Trail dropping in from the north, the Southwind coming up from Humboldt and the Lehigh Trail hugging the quarry lake to the southwest — will be visible proof, in a time when all the talk is of small towns dying, of the local residents who poured their energy and effort into a project in their own backyard.
The latest efforts are on the Lehigh Portland Trails, which journey through the woods along Elm Creek near the old cement plant and include a branching system of single-track mountain bike trails.
A core group of volunteers has cut trees, sectioned limbs, burned brush and smoothed paths during the inclement months so that locals and tourists will have use of the trails’ features sometime this summer.
Last Saturday, though, Lehigh volunteers received a boost to their efforts in the form of 35 high school students, participants in the Upward Bound program. Upward Bound, a federally funded college-prep program whose local office is on the campus of Neosho County Community College, serves needs-based students in Iola, Humboldt, Erie and Chanute.
“It’s mainly for low-income, first-generation students,” said Kaley Eastman, the group’s academic coordinator. “Our goal is to get them to college when they originally may not have been able to.”
The program organizes community service outings, life skills classes, ACT prep, and much more; it accommodates 55 students, selected through an application process, from the four target high schools; and benefits each year from a Department of Education grant worth $250,000.
TWO OF THE Upward Bound students pitching in Saturday morning, both 16 years old, already had experience on the county’s trails.
“My name’s John Muhl, M-U-H-L.” Muhl is a junior at Iola High School.
“And mine’s like his; mine is John Hole. I’m J-O-H-N H-O-L-E, like hole in the ground. I’m 16, but I’m a sophomore. And I’m over in Humboldt.”
Eastman pointed Muhl out as a bright kid and hard worker, a Boy Scout accustomed to the kind of brush-clearing work required of him at the Lehigh Trails. After Upward Bound helps him to get his college degree, Muhl said, he wants to be a “stealth engineer.”
Hole, when he’s older, wants to be diesel mechanic. He’ll have no problem attracting business. He’s smart and charming; he speaks with a melodious twang, and gives off an air of instant trustworthiness.
They both credit Upward Bound with preparing them for college.
“Some of my friends told me I should join Upward Bound,” recalled Hole. “I checked into it, liked it, so I joined up.”
Muhl already has his collegiate career mapped out. “My community college I’m not totally sure about. I’m thinking about going to Fort Scott.”
“Hey, that’s where I’m thinking about,” said Hole.
“Awesome,” Muhl said, flashing his friend a thumbs up.
“Hopefully we’ll be roommates,” Hole said. “That’d work out about perfect.”
“Yeah,” said Muhl. “And then I’m going to Pitt State and then to —”
“Oh, man, except I’m going to graduate a year after you,” remembered Hole.
“And then I plan to go on to Wichita State,” said Muhl.”
Both Muhl and Hole are trail lovers. “I’m a Boy Scout,” explained Muhl, “I actually helped set up the rail-trail…. We helped plan it out, over in Iola. We helped cut vegetation off. And we thought of where certain things could be, like benches and stuff. That was probably three years ago.”
What does Muhl think of his hometown trails now?
“I really, really like it. It gives us something to do, because” — Muhl is a deeply polite young man and so inches tentatively toward this conclusion — “because Iola’s just a tad bit boring.”
“Try Humboldt,” advised Hole.
Muhl continued. “Well, it helps us if we want to go to Humboldt and we don’t want to drive and we want to get exercise, we can ride our bikes down there. I’m pretty sure it even expands all the way up to Kansas City.”
Have either of you actually made the bike ride from Humboldt to Iola?
“Yes, sir, I have,” said Hole. “And back. Yep, me and two of my buddies. They’re not in Upward Bound, but they’re still my friends.”
And how was the experience?
“Painful afterwards. Well, see, I sprained my right rear-muscle. Because when we came up here, we rode on the trail and then we were at Dairy Queen for 35 minutes. It was a 14-mile round trip for me. From the time I left my house to the time I was back, was three and a half hours. We moved.”
Were you exhausted?
“Yeah, you don’t want to walk much after that.”
THE UPWARD Bound service day was organized by Dave Fontaine, the manager of the Southwind Rail-Trail and a crucial member of the Lehigh Trail’s volunteer team — which includes Lisa Fontaine, Brian Wolfe, David Toland, Randy Rasa (the brains behind the Lehigh Trails, say all of his colleagues), Don Burris, Job Springer, Ryan Sparks and others.
A welcome addition to Saturday’s volunteer corps was David Lee, LaHarpe, who arrived just after sunup with a grunting, belching Ditch Witch, with backhoe attachment, that made swift work of the loose timber at the trail’s edge. “Without him today, we’d have been lucky to get half of what we got done,” said Fontaine, as he watched Lee, atop his machine, move deeper into the alley of trees along the trail’s main section. “And he’s a good operator. It’s really neat to get around people who know what they’re doing. They can take a nasty-looking job and turn it into a piece of cake.”
THE TRAILS are intended for anyone who wants to use them. A snapshot of the activity on the trails last Saturday was evidence of that principle in action: Not long after Muhl and Hole and the rest of the volunteers broke for sandwiches at the Lehigh site, Kodi Panzer, of Marion, was stopping for water at the Carlyle stop on the Prairie Spirit Trail. She’d run from Ottawa, about 50 miles; part of the Prairie Spirit Trail Ultra 100 Mile Race. She didn’t stay long. Jason Beck, of Chicago, hit the Carlyle point 10 minutes later. He filled up his bottle and was off. He was headed, like Panzer, to Iola’s Cofachique Park, the race’s midpoint turnaround station, where a group of organizers, as well as the runners’ families and friends, cheered on the distance athletes.
Over near Oregon Road Josh Wille, from Flower Mound, Texas, made his own way toward the turnaround. Half an hour after Wille passed out of view, Richard, a local guy with a brown-gray pony tail going down his back, rolled up on a blue mountain bike, smiling, asking: “Where’s your bike, brother?”
Richard had been given a bicycle over a year ago, and has been hooked on the trails ever since. He’s ridden between Iola and Colony, Iola and Humboldt. “Would you believe I’m 56? Feel my calf. My legs are tight, dude.” He had a complicated tattoo on the front of one of his hands and a fresh line of stitches, from carpal tunnel surgery, sewn into the palm of the other — but says he’s never felt better. Having given up booze and drugs and cigarettes, the trails have been part of his recovery. “Life is good, man. This is my second — third? — no, second marriage. She’s the best wife I’ve ever had. I know, when I go home, she’ll have something ready for me to eat. It’s just a blessing, dude. I’m trying to get her out here on the trail. This biking has just done wonders for me. I never thought I’d be able to say I’d ride from here to Colony.”
Not long after Richard left, another woman wearing a race number pinned to her shorts ran past.
Where are you from?
She pulled out one of her earbuds. “San Antonio. Whoo!”