Riding through a 300-acre patch of hardwood wilderness in the metro area one recent Saturday morning, we could hear the buzz of insects, the rustle of a startled armadillo or squirrel, and the constant muted dribble of our knobby mountain bike tires rolling over the packed-dirt trails.
For over an hour, my neighbor and fellow cycling enthusiast Don Potts and I jumped from trail to trail, puffing up the steep hills, zipping beneath the lush forest canopy on the down-hills and thrilling now and then at some of the big gully drops. We hit the "white trail," the "jeep trail" and, of course, the "appliance trail," named for a rusted-out washing machine that somehow made its way deep into these woods.
But when we stopped for water, we could hear the not-so-distant roar-and-beeping of front-end loaders and other heavy machinery working in the rapidly developing neighborhoods nearby, foreshadowing the end of an era for outdoors enthusiasts in the Jackson metro area.
Such are the last days of Little Colorado—the metro area's premier 300-acre, wooded mountain-biking Mecca on the north side of Lakeland Drive, just across from Northwest Rankin High School. Over the years, countless mountain bikers have worked these trails, turns and hills 12 months out of the year. These days, they are living, or at least riding, on borrowed time, getting in a ride after work or on a weekend, always wondering if it will be their last.
"I've lived here almost 10 years now, and have ridden these trails at least once a month for most of that time,'' mountain biker Dave Drane told me. "I've ridden a lot of it with natives of Jackson who said the trails have been there since they were teens. They are now in their mid-30s.
"Most will tell you that you have to travel two to three hours at a minimum to find comparable trails with that level of difficulty. I can say a few years ago I rode religiously out there, and it helped me handle several trails out in Colorado with no problem."
If you've never heard of Little Colorado—presumably so nicknamed because of the hilly trails—you can be forgiven. Its entrance is hidden like the elusive Bat Cave, tucked behind a mundane dead-end on the north side of Mississippi Highway 25 and invisible to the tens of thousands of commuters that stream by it twice a day.
But it has been an important part of Jackson's outdoors community for years now, most recently providing a reason for mountain bikers to organize and ultimately find and develop new venues.
The Rankin County School Board owns the land. About five years ago, as the board contemplated its liability from errant ATVs and others, mountain biker Edley Jones organized the Tri-County Mountain Bike Association (go to TCMBA in Yahoo Groups for more information).
The association took out an insurance policy and signed an agreement with the board to allow its members (annual one-person membership is $50) to ride on the trails.
Ultimately, even that wasn't enough to secure Little Colorado's future. The land is classified as 16th-section land—land set aside in every county for the benefit of local public schools. Rankin school board members are obligated to maximize its commercial value for the benefit of its students.
"It's kind of a sad situation because the school board would love to find a way to make this a park. But their hands are tied by the (state) constitution. The land is held in public trust for the kids,'' said Jones, 50, a Jackson-area lawyer. "We're just a bunch of guys (who pay) to exercise. The idea of us paying $100,000 for a lease is folly. But everyone realizes it's perfectly positioned in the community. … It could be more: fishing lakes, BMX (dirt bike racing), hiking trails, bike trails."
A timber company was authorized by the school board to enter and harvest the land since last summer, but downed trees around the state due to Hurricane Katrina appear to have delayed their arrival. Jones speculates that come the wet season this winter, when low-lying areas elsewhere are less accessible, they will be back. It could be even sooner.
To that end, the Tri-County Mountain Biking Association has leased 80 acres in Madison County from the city of Ridgeland, thanks in large part to biking enthusiast Mayor Gene Magee and the Board of Alderman, who years ago recognized the community value in supporting outdoor recreational opportunities. The association has met with neighbors to assure them of the non-intrusive nature of organized mountain biking, cut some trails and are planning for more as they look to the future.
Meanwhile, Little Colorado is fading into the stuff of memories. Good memories for most.
"You go out there and have those rides that are just fantastic—in the spring and fall weather,'' Jones said. "It's a moment of Zen for most of us. You can't think about work and ride on a trail, or you'll hurt yourself. It's a great way to disengage. That's what really brings most people to it."