When they got married 42 years ago on the corn-growing flatlands of Indiana, Jacque and Allan Harper had no idea that decades later they would become trailblazers — literally — in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Twelve years ago, after living in cities all over the country, Jacque and Allan moved to their dream house in Hendersonville. Just the two of them and Mingo, their beloved grey Weimaraner. In all their years together Jacque and Allan had become convinced they loved four things — each other, their son, hiking, and dogs. The reason they were dog nuts was simple: “Their unconditional love,” Jacque says, and “they make us happy.” The Harpers and their dogs hiked everywhere — beaches, mountains, forests. “The family that hikes together, stays together,” Jacque laughs. And the family that hikes with dogs does a lot of other things, such as paving the way for other dog-human hiking teams. Here’s where the tale needs a little telling.
Across from the Harper home was an eyesore — a big overgrown patch of vacant woods. But Mingo liked to run there, so Allan followed her, muttering in annoyance and beating back the tree branches that threatened to knock his glasses off. One day, some distance from where they started, Allan and Mingo came upon an actual trail — a clear pathway, neatly cut and well-worn. What had they discovered? They followed it and found a lovely bench on the side of the trail. Further on, lo and behold, more astonishing with each curve in the path, they came upon enormous contemporary sculptures, made of metal, and glass and tile. (To date there are 14 sculptures in all.) Allan had found himself on one of the most incredible hidden gems in Hendersonville — the Perry N. Rudnick Nature and Public Art Trail, the legacy of a benefactor who had two major passions in life: collecting sculpture and helping The Carolina Mountain Club create trails in the region’s parks and forests. The trail was surrounded by a 50-acre plot of land belonging to UNC Asheville. Allan ended this day’s walk where most people start —in the parking lot of the Kellogg Conference Center off Broyles Road.
The trail is dream location for nature lovers. In only one mile, it meanders through three distinct ecosystems: a trillium and fern wetland, a hardwood forest with rhododendron and mountain laurel, and a wildflower meadow. The forest area has an outstanding collection of pitch pines. Several trees may be some of the tallest in the state, and many are over 100 years old. And it’s not just dogs you see on the trail. “We’ve seen deer, raccoons, box turtles, snakes, and the white squirrels, of course, this is their territory,” says Jacque. “And the birds, oh, my — wild turkeys and woodcock game hens and so many other birds.” The Audubon Society loves to track birds through the seasons.” “It’s a botanist’s paradise, too,” says Allan. Ferns and rhododendron, mountain laurel, lady slippers, rattlesnake plantain — and clouds of mushrooms — “not foraged yet,” say Allan, “and we hope it remains that way.”
Getting tired of tromping through the woodsy mess before getting on the public trail, in 2002 Allan decided to forge his own trail to get to it. So he and Jacque and Mingo, with the help of their friend Doug Flynn, became trailblazers. With the permission of the Kellogg Center, they armed themselves with machetes and pruners, as well as lots of bug spray and patience (“a sense of direction helps,” Allan laughs) and started trail blazing. They eventually added four small trails, one private (the Mingo Trail) and three public ones (the Bella, the Madison and the Mushroom Trails). Then came the handsome wooden trail markers, paid for by the center to mark the trails, which Jacque and Allan used posthole diggers to install.
The team was delighted to see the trails being used by more and more people from the neighborhood. And not just locals. “We’ve met couples from Germany and England, too,” says Jacque. “Word is spreading!” Surprisingly, the trails don’t require much maintenance. “A few hours a week,” says Allan. “If I see a tree down, I take my bow saw and chop it up — or get Doug — he’s a big guy — to pull it out of the way.”
Allan’s only regret was “with all the wet weather we’d had this year, I wish I had taken heavy rain into consideration.” So last week he put up two boardwalks over muddy areas and then took his router and wrote the names of neighborhood dogs in the slats of the boardwalk.
“It’s all about the dogs,” laughs Jacque. “Everything we do on the trail is to make it better for them.” “There are a few runners,” Allan admits,” but by and large, ninety percent of the people on the trail, about 50 people a week, are dog people. “And that’s the way we like it,” says Jacque. “This little bit of paradise is for them and their humans. The trails are so much nicer than the dog parks, the dogs get more exercise, and for humans it’s so peaceful and nice.”
As Jacque and Allan walk their new dog Bella, a sweet brown and white German Short-Haired Pointer, who stole their hearts when Mingo died a few years ago, they sum up their long marriage. “I love you like a dog,” Jacque says to Allan. “I love you like a dog,” he laughs back.