A Force for Two-Wheeled Good in Rural America

Through our Keepers of the Outdoors series, we’ll introduce you to people who protect and care for our wild places.

From maintaining miles of backcountry trails to fostering a new generation of mountain bike lovers, Joe Cross is the South’s friendliest–and most committed–mountain biker.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is the most unlikely of spots to find a trove of swooping singletrack. For one, it’s a unit of the National Park Service, which has a notoriously unfriendly stance on mountain biking. But the park, straddling the Tennessee and Kentucky border, is also deep in rural Appalachia. Obesity rates in the nearby communities are high, as are rates of poverty. It’s not the kind of place where sinewy cyclists saran wrapped in lycra pull up to $5-a-cup espresso joints. (In fact, there are no espresso joints in the county at all.)

And yet, Big South Fork is home to the first IMBA Epic within a unit of the National Park Service. All thanks to the vision and hard work of one local man: Joe Cross.

“Riding on dirt? We have all these trails, why not try it?”

Back in the 1980s, Cross, a local pharmacist, was on the hunt for a new hobby. All through college and pharmacy school, he’d run to stay fit. But then, during a pickup basketball game, he ruptured his Achilles tendon. “I put on 10 pounds in the weeks following surgery,” he says. “I realized I had to start doing something.”

So he dusted off an old 10-speed he found languishing in the garage. The 10 pounds saw their way to the door, and Cross found he loved biking more than he’d ever loved running. “Then a friend told me he was raising money for charity by doing a 100-mile bike ride. I said, ‘Wow, how many days is that going to take?’ He said, ‘no, I’ll do it all in one day.’” Cross wondered if he could accomplish such a thing, too.

The two began riding longer distances, and Cross traded the 10-speed for a true road bike. Soon the friend caught wind of a new trend in cycling: bikes made for riding on dirt. “We thought, we have all these trails nearby, why not try it?”

Cross chases another rider along the Kentucky Trail, somewhere between Difficulty Creek (pronounced: deh-fickle-tee) and Troublesome Creek. Photo: Leslie Kehmeier

They pair purchased mountain bikes and asked the rangers at Big South Fork if they could ride the trails. Given the sport was in its infancy in the ’80s, the rangers had heard of mountain bikes but hadn’t yet figured out whether they were permitted on trails or not. But the rural park was relatively quiet, and the rangers said they could use the old logging roads.

As the story goes for so many of us who are now singletrack addicts: Within minutes of rubber tires meeting dirt, Cross was enchanted. His road bike was unceremoniously demoted to second-class citizen status.

“The hikers weren’t caring for the trails the way we were.”

Cross began asking the park if there were other spots he might be able to ride, or if he could build some trails to expand his options beyond the logging roads. “They said, Joe, we can’t maintain the trails we already have,” he remembers. And so, he made a promise: If you let us build new trails, we’ll take on the task of maintaining them.

“It’s one thing to say you’re going to maintain trails, it’s another to actually do it,” says Cross. But he actually did it. And still does it. To this day, you can find Cross out on weekends hauling a chainsaw into the backcountry to deal with downed trees, or blowing leaves off a buried trail. Friends know that if they post pictures of their ride in the park, they can expect a text from Cross within minutes asking, were there any trees down I need to go deal with? He’s been such a steward of the trails that mountain bikers eventually gained access to some of the park’s best spots, including the 7-mile Grand Gap Loop, which was previously open to hikers only.  “The hikers weren’t caring for the trails the way we were,” he says.

He also worked to form the Big South Fork Bike Club, a group of local volunteers who help him with trail upkeep and host other clubs, like the nearby Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, from Knoxville, for rides. The Big South Fork Bike Club’s biggest event each year is a New Year’s Day “Mail Run” ride, which traverses the park on January 1, no matter the weather.

Cross and the gang from AMBC prepare to depart on the annual Mail Run across Big South Fork. Photo: NPS / Big South Fork National River and Rec Are

Cross is now semi-retired, working as a pharmacist just a few days a week. But he hasn’t slowed down at all. Randy Conner, a Knoxville-area mountain biker and trail builder, says that recently he and Cross went out to do trail maintenance together. “We did about 25 miles, and Joe was carrying the chainsaw on his bike. I thought I was going to have to carry him out of there,” says Conner. But at the end of the ride, Cross was still peddling like it was no big thing.

Joe Cross doing what Joe Cross does: Clearing trail deep in Big South Fork’s backcountry so that others may enjoy the wilderness he so dearly loves. Photo: Appalachian Mountain Bike Club

While Cross will always be committed to maintaining the trails in Big South Fork, he’s hoping to spend his retirement working on a yet another project: getting his neighbors moving.

Since he started as a pharmacist more than 30 years ago, the number of prescriptions he fills for diabetes-related drugs has skyrocketed.

According to the 2016 State of Obesity report, Tennessee is the ninth fattest state in the nation. While that may seem like an improvement over the state’s fourth place ranking in 2014, it’s no cause for celebration; Tennessee’s obesity rates have continued to climb steadily but have been outpaced by those in neighboring states. Scott County, where Cross lives, is not immune to this trend. CDC data from 2009 shows that nearly 31 percent of the county’s population counts as obese.

Cross sees the effects of inactivity and poor diet in his day job. Since he started as a pharmacist more than 30 years ago, the number of prescriptions he fills for diabetes-related drugs has skyrocketed. But he’s tired of simply treating the after-effects of the disease and wants to focus on helping people avoid the pharmacy altogether.

Cross started two local initiatives to get kids moving in Scott County. One takes 4-H club members hiking in Big South Fork. The other allows members of the local Boys and Girls Club to ride bikes after school. Cross secured a grant that covered the cost of bikes, and now he’s working to have a gravel path and pump track built right outside the Boys and Girls Club facility.

Cross’ efforts are helping introduce rural youth in the vicinity of Big South Fork to the joy and freedom of two wheels. Photo: Nancy Chambers

“We did a survey of the 4- H club last year and most of the kids said they wanted to be more active and wanted to be outside more,” he says. “They just need someone to take them.” He hopes to be that someone.

Cross is East Tennessee’s Johnny Mountain-Bike-Seed, sewing good vibes about the sport wherever he goes.

“Joe enjoys mountain biking so much that you can see his passion for it any time he talks about it. If anyone shows the slightest interest in mountain biking, he’s happy to share his time and resources to help them get started,” says Justin Sharp, the Chief Professional Officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Scott County. Sharp think’s Cross’ sheer enthusiasm will drive the organization’s new bike program to 100 percent participation within the club.

And that’s the thing you notice first about Joe Cross when you meet him: That he wants everyone to love mountain biking and the outdoors the way he does. Cross is East Tennessee’s Johnny Mountain-Bike-Seed, sewing good vibes about the sport wherever he goes.

In fact, he purposely builds trails with inclusivity in mind. “One of the great things about our trails is that most of them are beginner-friendly, so people can have a good first experience,” he says. Cross is a good rider, who easily cleans tough stuff, so it would have been understandable for him to build a backyard trail network that was paradise for his abilities but a hike-a-bike nightmare for newbs. Instead, though, he built trails that would enable a whole new generation of dirt-crazed riders to fall in love with the sport.

And judging by the uptick in riders you see gearing up at Big South Fork trailheads on a sunny Saturday, with license plates showing locals and far-flung alike, Joe Cross’ hard work is paying off.

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