The Mountain Trails Off-Road Association (MTORA) is a new club. Actually, that's an understatement-it's just over one year old. The club began when fewer than a dozen riding buddies got together for pizza.
"Well, Dellis [Hensley] and I thought we had the right idea last year," said club secretary (and the Pennington Gap postmaster) Mitch Ewing. "We wanted to put a club together which would draw members from the entire county."
In February 2006, a small group gathered at the local pizza parlor to talk about forming the club. "We started out with eight or 10 people, and now we're up to 117," Ewing explained.
And what magic was performed to help the club grow so quickly? An article in the local weekly newspaper didn't hurt. And word of mouth has been a great way to recruit members.
"We pick up a lot of people just doing this," trails chairman Alan Russell said. "We're riding through the mountains, and they see our club T-shirts. ... Everyone will stop and say, 'Where you been ridin'? You should come ride with us.'"
The club has mostly utility quad riders, with a few sport quads mixed in. The ages of members range from seven-year-old Jesse Bailey (who's "crazy about riding")to 70-year-old Harry Crider.
Perhaps part of the reason that the club is so prolific is its location. Western Virginia exists right in the middle of some of the country's most popular ATV destinations. The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System is only about a three-hour drive away, Windrock riding area, near Knoxville, Tennessee, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive, and the Brimstone Recreation Area, near Huntsville, Tennessee, takes just over two hours.
In addition to lots of riding areas, there are a bunch of large, well-established clubs nearby. One of those is the Daniel Boone Trailblazers ATV Club, which has more than 650 members.
"The MTORA is a spectacular club which supports charities such as Juvenile Diabetes," said Lisa Marcum, a Trailblazer club officer.
"They helped us break the Guiness Book of World Records for most ATVs in a parade," added Preston McClain of the Harlan County Ridgerunners (869 members). "We work together well."
Like most ATV riders in this part of the world, the MTORA crew rides mainly on private land. Some of the trails are on roads that are listed as state-maintained. These roads are actually trails that have to be cared for by the club, but the fact that they are designated as such makes them open to use.
The only designated off-road area in Virginia is located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, near Roanoke. The club is just getting started on an initiative to open a state-sanctioned ATV riding area in Lee County. In a letter to the MTORA publicity chairman Scott Tipton, the Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant indicated that they would be looking at creating a new ATV riding area in southwest Virginia. "Based on these comments, the 2007 Virginia Outdoors Plan recommends that ATV trail systems be developed in the Southwest," Bryant wrote. "It is also specifically mentioned that Lee County would be a good location."
A feasibility study is well on its way in the area, and local land and business orders are supportive of the new ATV trail system and working to develop a grant proposal.
"I feel that this trail system is a huge economic and recreational development," said Tina Rowe, the Pennington Gap town manager, "I look forward to its progress."
The MTORA group hosts informal trail rides nearly every weekend, as well as poker runs and a tractor pull. The events often benefit local groups. In May, it raised money for the Juvenile Diabetes Association, while the proceeds from another event were donated to the local VFW. The local community is generous and supportive of these efforts, and club members get good responses from a wide variety of businesses.
"We had tons of sponsors for the Veteran's Day event," club president Steve Bailey said.
"ATV shops, beauty shops, flower shops, everything," Hensley added. "Mitch won a free hair care kit."
His last comment brought a laugh, as Ewing had shaved off most of his hair.
One of club's favorite places to ride is an area it calls Stone Mountain, not farfrom the town of Rose Hill, Virginia, comprised of rugged, rocky trails. The trails are actually designated as state-maintained roads, but the club does the maintenance to keep these trails open. That work paid off this spring, when a wildfire came through the area. The roads provided a firebreak.
"You can see where the mountain was on fire. The forestry department said the road had a lot to do with stopping the fire. The fact we kept the road cleaned out helped, too," Russell said.
MTORA attracts an interesting cross-section of people. The Pennington Gap fire chief has ridden with the club, as has the pastor at Ewing Methodist Church, Norman Clark.
"The sheriff rode with us on our big ride. He had his deputy with him and blocked off the road and the whole nine yards," Bailey said. The strong community participation and support bodes well for the club's hope of starting a state-sponsored riding area. "That's one of the biggest reasons we're trying to get a new riding area going," he continued. "We have a ton of businesses that will sponsor us."
Rick Watson, a reporter and editor at the Powell Valley News who has covered the club's development, agrees that the community is behind the club's efforts.
"In the past, ATV clubs got a bad rap, but these guys are doing a good job," Watson said. "They've had rides to raise funds for different causes [and] they've been able to bring people into the community. At one of their largest events the weekend of the race at Bristol, people came in from four, five or six different states. They spent the night and went out to dinner-they spent money in our town."
The Appalachian Mountains host a wide variety of wildlife, as does much of southwestern Virginia. We saw deer and turkeys on a short ride on Stone Mountain. The area also has rattlesnakes, elk, skunk, possum, bobcats and beaver. In the St. Charles riding area, herds of wild horses can be spotted.
Talk abounds in Virginia and Georgia of black panthers, a creature alive and well in local folklore, if not on the local biologist's list of species. Russell claimed to have spotted one a few years back, and he's not alone. There is no doubt, however, about the existence of a friendlier creature who lived on the top of Stone Mountain.
"We had a white, large-horned billy goat up here, that was kind of like the mascot of the mountain," Ewing said. It lived near White Rocks, the overlook that is popular with local ATVers. The goat loved to hang around with anyone who was on the top of the lookout and would eat right out of your hand. Nicknamed "Billy," the white goat has not been seen for many months and is presumed dead.
The Virginia mountain weather occasionally offers riding challenges, but most of the club members ride year-round, rain or shine.
"The first time I ever went to Windrock, it was the first jamboree they had in October [Trailfest]," Russell said. "There was about 2000 of us camped in a field around a three-mile curve. The wind the first night blew so hard that I would wake up with the side of the tent pressed up against my nose. ... The highest it got was 35. We stayed there from Thursday to Sunday. The lowest it got was 15."
"When I got home, my wife asked, 'You didn't shower for four days?' I told her, 'I didn't sweat for four days!'"
One of the unique charity events MTORA holds is in memory of club member Joyce Heck, who passed away unexpectedly last year at 53. They collected money throughout the year to honor Heck. "For the fund, we keep a bucket at the meeting, and everybody throws in," Bailey said. The local social services helped them pick out a needy family, and the club bought them gifts and a meal with that money.
"Joyce lived at the foot of this mountain," Russell said. "In a good respect, she was a true mountain woman. She worked in the coal mines, she worked on farms. ... She would give you the shirt off her back."
|Place visited: ||Stone Mountain near Rose Hill, Virginia |
|Club: ||Mountain Trails Off-Road Association, www.mountaintrails.us, Steve Bailey, Club President, 276/346-3135; email@example.com |
|Riding season: ||Year-round |
|Maps recommended: ||Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) topographical maps of the Stone and Little Black Mountain region available from U.S. Geological Survey. You will need Rose Hill, Hubbard Springs, Ben Hur, Pennington Gap and Keokee quadrangles. Purchase them at http://store.usgs.gov |
|Area information: ||Virginia Tourism Corp, 800/847-4882, www.virginia.org |
|Permits/licenses required: ||No sound restrictions; no state permit required; ATVs over 50cc and purchased as new on or after July 1, 2006 are required to be titled; all ATV riders must wear helmets; no passengers are permitted on an ATV at any time, unless the ATV is designed to be operated with a passenger. |
|Critters: ||Turkeys, deer, elk, bobcats, rattlesnakes, raccoons, skunks, pos-sum, beaver, wild horses at St. Charles, the occasional goat |
|While you are there: ||Fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, horseback riding, fiddlin’ |
|Road-trip CD: ||Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “So Long So Wrong” |
|Best local beer: ||Yuengling Premium |
|Digs: ||Convenient Inn in Pennington Gap, Virginia, 276/546-5350, http://convenientinn1.tripod.com/index.html |
|Good eats: ||Pizza Plus in Rose Hill, Virginia |
|Useful links: ||www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj/recreation/ohv/ |
|QUALITY OF RIDING ||8.7 |
|The trails are rocky, hilly and not formally maintained or marked; Appalachian Mountain scenery is gorgeous. |
|LOCALE ||8.2 |
|Western Virginia is remote and beautiful; lodging and dining options are limited at best. |
|CITIZENSHIP ||8.9 |
|This club gathered 117 members in just over a year—bonus points for fast growth. |
|PERSONALITY ||9.7 |
|You’ll meet billy goats, pastors, sheriffs and the postmaster, all with stories—this crew has personality by the coal-bucket load. |
|OVERALL RATING ||8.9 |
|A fun group that covers more than 100 miles in a day; one of the club officers put 2300 miles on his quad in just a few months. |