His vast relationships helping to forge a trail

For the better part of 30 years, the sight of R.M. Collins pulling into the gravel drive with a loaf of his wife's homemade bread and maybe a bottle of wine was common to folks living between Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock in Stokes County.

Collins would settle in and ask about the kids – whom he probably taught during his 39 years as a swimming and driver's ed instructor in the county – about the crops, about a sick relative.

Eventually – sometimes not until the sixth or seventh visit, depending on how well he knew the family – he'd get around to his purpose: “Do you think we could use an eight-foot section of your land for a recreation trail?”

Landowners such as Alan and Gayle Steinbicker didn't hesitate, granting Collins his request and becoming part of the state's Mountains-to-Sea Trail – a hiking path that will one day span more than 900 miles, from Clingman's Dome in the Appalachian Mountains to Jockey's Ridge on the Atlantic Ocean.

“We wanted to give back a portion of what he had given to us,” says Gayle Steinbicker, who considered Collins “a grandfather to our kids” before he died in 2006. About a half mile of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs through the Steinbickers' 110 acres at the base of Pilot Mountain.

Collins' diligence resulted in the dedication in 2002 of the 35-mile Sauratown Trail, an equestrian and hiking trail linking Pilot Mountain State Park to the west with Hanging Rock State Park. A year later, a 22-mile stretch of the trail was designated part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

“Most of the landowners here go back several generations,” says Emily Grogan, who accompanied Collins on many of those visits. “Their attitude is, ‘What's mine is yours.'”

Collins' work, which consumed much of the last 30 years of his life, underscores perhaps the most difficult aspect of such an ambitious project: convincing hundreds of landowners to let strangers wander across their land.

So far, 485 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has been completed. The vast majority of that is in the mountains, where much of the trail traverses public land, primarily managed by the National Park Service or National Forest Service.

That changes abruptly as the trail drops down the Blue Ridge escarpment and into the western Piedmont.

For the 22-mile Sauratown stretch alone, deals had to be finessed with nearly 60 landowners – deals that were negotiated over months, sometimes years, by Collins, who simply wanted a place for himself and others to ride horses.

“I don't know that this trail would have been established without his relationships,” says Teresa Tilley, president of the Sauratown Trails Association, the all-volunteer group that founded, blazed and now maintains the trail.

Though there is no standard agreement for trails designated as part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the goal is to secure deals that will ensure the trail's longevity.

“Easements, grants – we'll work with landowners any way they want,” says Brian Baker, project coordinator for the emerging 70-mile Haw River Trail, which will one day run from Guilford County to Jordan Lake. About half of the Haw River stretch will be part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Convincing folks to let the trail pass through their property has gotten easier over the years, say those responsible for getting permission.

Not long ago, landowners were suspicious that a trail on their property would open them up to crime.

“They worried about people doing drugs or some other illegal activity,” says Baker, a trial attorney before he became the first full-time coordinator for the Haw River Trail. “Most of them are really excited now.”

For some, the trail is a chance to let others experience the past.

“A lot of landowners understand the history of the Haw River,” says Baker, noting the river's economic importance, along with its degradation. The breached dams, the abandoned mills and the other traces of history serve as reminders of the region's past.

Conservation is also a big motivator. Sections of the Mountains-to-Seal Trail that follow waterways – and much of it does in the Piedmont – can be eligible for protection using money from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Even a one-time nemesis to green space – developers – have become some of the trail's biggest cheerleaders.

Increasingly, new housing developments are including trails and greenways in their communities.

“We don't need the valuable uplands,” says Kevin Redding, executive director of the Piedmont Land Conservancy, which is helping to secure land in the Triad. “They'll dedicate, as part of the zoning, land down by the creek that they couldn't develop anyway.”

And there's the chance for landowners to experience a great recreational amenity without burning a drop of $4-a-gallon gas.

“A big selling point, to me, is the idea of being able to walk out your back door and walk to the ocean or to Clingman's Dome,” Baker says. “To me, that's a great thing.”