Rod Broadbelt is a legend among Umstead hikers. For two decades, he’s led long hikes — up to 20 miles — through the ruins in Umstead State Park, encouraging and challenging outdoor enthusiasts to learn about and enjoy the history and beauty of the place. Now there’s a park bench dedicated to Rod at Reedy Creek Lake — a well-deserved honor for a true “Friend of the Forest.”
The 80-plus friends and family who gathered for the bench dedication took photos, shared hugs, and traded more than one story about Rod’s legendary speed on the trail. Ranger Billy joked, “I’m thinking all these pictures, Rod, are probably because they haven't seen your face very much on your hikes, as much as your backside and your elbows.” Fellow hiker Pete Vandeberg quipped: “I just remember: ‘Five minute lunch, then you got to get moving again!’”
Rod acknowledged his need for speed, even when he was by far the oldest person on the hike. “I think I’m actually a frustrated want-to-be drill sergeant,” Rod said. “I like to holler at people: ‘Pick up the pace! Move it! Move it!’”
Rod came to North Carolina in the late 1990s from Pennsylvania, and searched for a good hiking club. He couldn’t find any that did more than 6.5 miles, so he began leading his own 20-milers “because nobody else was doing it.” He was determined to share his love of the forest with others.
Joe Miller, Chief Exploration Officer at GetGoingNC.com and former N&O “Take It Outside” columnist, remembers one hike a couple of years ago.
“It was raining hard the morning of his 8-mile, off-trail hike,” Joe said. “Rod was ecstatic; even though it was pouring, there was no lightening in the mix (that was the only thing that would scuttle a hike: lightening). Three people showed up expecting a hike, and by gum Rod was going to take them on a hike.”
In part because of his unbridled enthusiasm, Rod’s hikes became wildly popular. But as Pete says, “More than leading hikes, he led people to the park.” Rod would recruit people from anywhere — the gym, his church, his neighborhood, the trails — and get them out into the woods.
“I want people to grow in their outdoor concern and their physical, spiritual and mental health,” Rod said. “It’s been a real pleasure and privilege for me to learn about people who could only do a five-mile hike to begin with who ended up doing 15 or 20 miles. It’s a real pleasure to see them develop and grow, and learn to appreciate God’s beautiful creation out here, and what a wonderful park we have. To me this park has been like heaven on earth.”
Rod’s favorite areas of the park are the CCC camp, the Boy Scout camp, and the Genevieve Woodson Log Cabin Theatre. He loved the daffodils that mark the old homesteads, the ruins that dot the landscape, and the natural beauty of it all. As Ranger Billy said, Rod “opened a lot of doors to the beautiful parts of this park to a lot of people.”
Rod’s advice to future hikers? “Keep on moving. Use it or lose it. Onward and upward.”
So come out to the park. Move it or lose it. Enjoy the daffodils. Learn about the ruins. And after you’ve been hiking for a few miles, head over to the bench at Reedy Creek Lake, take a (short) rest, and say a word of thanks to Rod Broadbelt, “Friend of the Forest.”
by Nancy Pekarek
Photo credits: Gil Johnson
Rod, his wife, and family and friends celebrate Rod's newly-dedicated bench at Reedy Creek Lake.