Metro Atlanta hiking group finds camaraderie, creativity and barbecue bliss on the trails

Humor, shared interests and a love of ‘cue help male friendships flourish among the Trailheads.
Members of the Trailheads (from left) George Hirthler, Brad Copeland with his dogs Elvis and Nilla, Guy Tucker with his dog Fio, and Patrick Scullin hike at Island Ford Park along the Chattahoochee River. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Members of the Trailheads (from left) George Hirthler, Brad Copeland with his dogs Elvis and Nilla, Guy Tucker with his dog Fio, and Patrick Scullin hike at Island Ford Park along the Chattahoochee River. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Trailheads’ weekly hike kicked off one day in July with a rebellious swim toward freedom.

About nine minutes into the hike, Nilla, a brown and white mountain cur mix, set off paddling up the Chattahoochee River. She had her sight set on some plump ducks, and no amount of shouting from her owner, Trailhead member Brad Copeland, would turn her head.

She was fighting hard against the current while the two other dogs, a golden doodle named Fio and a basset hound-coonhound-lab mix named Elvis, watched quietly from the river bank. Minutes passed while the Trailheads shouted for Nilla to turn back and the stress continued to mount.

Fortunately, the weekly hike didn’t end with a search and rescue mission. Perhaps Nilla’s fight for freedom had tired her out, or maybe the prospect of catching a duck in the water was more work than she expected. The newest canine member of the Trailheads finally turned back to the shore.

“That’s your last swim of the day kiddo,” said Copeland, 71, as he clipped the leash on Nilla’s harness. She remained tethered to his side for the remainder of the hike in Island Ford Park.

“We’ve never had a dog make a break,” quipped Trailhead member George Hirthler.

Two and a half years ago, six semi-retired men and their canine companions formed a private hiking group they call the Trailheads. Former “movers and shakers in the advertising, design and production communities,” according to their website, they meet up every Thursday morning first to hike a trail in the metro area, then to grab lunch at a barbecue spot.

Once movers and shakers in the advertising, design, and production industries, the Trailheads now share a passion for hiking and eating barbecue. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But that’s only half the fun; the other half is writing a comedic blow-by-blow description of the hike, taking tons of photos and writing a restaurant review, all of which is posted every week on their blog at trailheadshike.com.

The hikers

Every Trailheads member has his part to play in the group. Guy Tucker, 72, of Sandy Springs is the Trail Master. He chooses the trail most weeks.

“They give me that title because nobody can make decisions and so they need a dictator,” Tucker explained. “So I volunteered.”

Copeland, who lives in Dekalb County, is the graphic designer who created the Trailheads’ groovy logo. He knows a thing or two about branding — he designed a logo featuring five A’s connecting in a circle that helped Atlanta win the bid for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Trailheads member Steve Floyd

Credit: Courtesy of Steve Floyd

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Credit: Courtesy of Steve Floyd

Patrick Scullin, 66, of Peachtree Corners always wanted to be a writer, but growing up one of nine children made him very “capitalistic.” He spent many years in ad writing, but now he’s a novelist. He writes the first draft of the blog post for the Trailheads, which he then sends to Roy Trimble, who “makes it snarkier.”

Trimble, 69, of Brookwood Hills is the only Trailheads member who’s fully retired. He edits the photos for the website and draws the comic “Roy Tumbles Hiking Hazards” for the Trailheads Instagram account about his hiking misadventures.

Rounding out the group are Fulton County resident Steve Floyd, 72, and Hirthler, 75, of Druid Hills, whom Floyd calls the “backbenchers” of the group.

Once the blog is updated on the website, Copeland sends out an email to subscribers alerting them to the new story, and Scullin posts the link on social media.

The blog isn’t a simply true-to-life retelling of their weekly hikes. They’re stories built around the lives of the members and the conversations they have, told with a hefty dose of humor.

Often there are amicable jabs at Trail Master Tucker, who, much to the Trailheads’ dismay, likes to go off-trail and disregards “no trespassing” signs. One week, a post detailed their plans for a mutiny against Tucker, although the rebellion never came to fruition.

Considering the members’ career paths, it’s not surprising that the group is fully branded, complete with a line of merchandise for sale on their website. There are Trailheads logo T-shirts and hats, as well as a “Hike the Hooch” collection made in partnership with the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy.

All the money earned from merchandise sales goes to various charities; currently it’s the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy.

“We want to have fun, but we also want to give back and make a contribution,” Floyd said.

So far they’ve donated $2,500 to the Wildlife Firefighter Foundation and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, but this year, they’re turning a little closer to home. Their next donation will be to the Chattahoochee National Park Conservancy (CNPC), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which encompasses more than 66 miles of trail along 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River.

Anything the Trailheads can do to “spread awareness of who we are and who the park is” can help with their mission, said Martha Seabrook, CNPC outreach and events manager.

“People don’t know that it is a national park, and they don’t know that the park needs help,” she said.

On the trail

Thursday mornings are sacred for the group, Scullin said. Despite the oppressive summer humidity, all but Floyd, who was on vacation, showed up in the Island Ford parking lot for the mid-July hike.

The five remaining hikers gathered in a semi-circle along with their canine companions. Even Trimble was in attendance despite having recently injured a toe, although he would choose to sit out the hike at a nearby coffee shop.

This routine is familiar to the Trailheads; sometimes all six of them take on the trail, sometimes there are just a few, but by the end there’s always a story to tell, barbecue to eat and a review to deliver.

Roy Trimble (left) and Guy Tucker, photograph their barbecue plates at City Barbeque. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Just before Nilla’s rebellious swim upriver, the Trailheads had been discussing their affinity for barbecue.

After every hike, they explained, the group picks a barbecue restaurant to dine at, sometimes a new one, sometimes an old favorite like Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q or Socks’ Love Barbecue in Cumming.

Each spot receives a rating of four ribs out of four, both for design purposes and because they’d rather not trash any of the restaurants. They always find something nice to say, Trimble said.

According to Copeland, the group eats barbecue because of Trimble, “an Alabama guy” who eats it constantly.

“It’s become part of us,” Copeland said.

While Trimble may be a barbecue fan, he was never much of an outdoorsman — in fact, he’s often referred to as the “great indoorsman.”

“I never wanted to be outside,” he said. “All I wanted was a T-shirt and to eat barbecue, so I kinda got sucked into all of this.”

Perhaps that explains the frequent accidents. Despite Trimble’s reluctance to hike, he tends to be the spark of inspiration for most of the blogs’ storylines, Copeland said, usually because he falls down a lot.

George Hirthler savors a rib at City Barbeque in Sandy Springs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

As the hike passed by scenic backdrops, photographs were taken of group poses and candid moments, many of which would make it into the Trailheads blog post. While Nilla remained tied up for most of the journey, the other two dogs romped through creeks until Fio’s golden curls were covered in mud.

About an hour into the hike, Tucker consulted the AllTrails app where he logs most of their hikes.

“To give the true example of a Trailheads hike, we’re going the wrong way,” he announced.

“He probably just did that on purpose to add a few minutes,” Hirthler said.

Fortunately, the detour didn’t add too much time. The hike continued against light conversation and Nilla’s heavy panting as she tugged against the restrictions of her leash. By the end, the Trailheads had completed 3.8 miles. After almost two hours of hiking, Trimble reappeared in the parking lot just in time to head to City Barbeque in Sandy Springs.

The Trailheads are always sure to snag a table outside so the three dogs can join. It was soon covered with containers of baked beans, fried okra, pulled pork sandwiches, a bit of chicken and some brisket — all the makings for a barbecue feast. Copeland was sure to try a taste of each barbecue sauce.

By the end of lunch, all that remained were empty trays, crumpled wrappers and the rare to-go box. The Trailheads parted ways with promises to repeat the adventure next week.

Building camaraderie

The number of close friends Americans have is declining, especially men, according to a study by the Survey Center on American Life.

The study reported that 55% of men had at least six close friends in 1990, but as of 2021, only 27% have at least six close friends, and 15% say they have none at all.

Loneliness and isolation in older adults can lead to a slew of health risks for both genders. According to a Consensus Study Report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, poor social relationships and high levels of loneliness were associated with a 29% increased risk of coronary heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk for dementia.

“It’s hard to make friends as you get older,” said Trimble. “You have great old friends, but you don’t really have a lot of new friends as you age.”

The Trailheads’ weekly hike is about more than burning a few hundred calories, eating lunch together and creating blog posts. They provide emotional support to each other by sharing concerns, big and small, and giving advice. Floyd said everyone is accepting of each other.

They have common interests, too, so there’s always plenty to talk about, from politics to TV shows like current favorite “The Bear” on Hulu.

Spending time with the Trailheads makes him feel young again, said Tucker.

We’re really a bunch of kids,” he said. “It’s so much fun to be reminded that you’re not the only one.”

The Trailheads have created a community that other people want to experience for themselves. Copeland said they’ve received requests from others who want to join, so Scullin is working on a document about how to start a trail group similar to theirs.

And their friendship isn’t just relegated to their weekly hike. A couple of the Trailheads play pickleball a few times a week, and they all get together for the occasional poker night when Copeland cooks ribs and Trimble brings his wife’s family’s barbecue sauce. Sometimes the group of six turns into “The Twelve” when the Trailheads and their wives get together for dinners and movie nights.

“It’s sort of an inspiration when you retire to find these friends,” Seabrook said about the group. “You feel like they cannot help themselves, they’re so creative that they have to do something.”

Members of Trailheads (clockwise from left) Patrick Scullin, George Hirthler, Roy Trimble, Guy Tucker and Brad Copeland end their hike with a feast at City Barbeque in Sandy Springs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Trailheads are proof that growing older isn’t the end of life; it can be the start of a new one.

When Hirthler went to see his cardiologist last year, the doctor reminded him that cultivating good friendships is essential to one’s well-being.

“I said to him, ‘Well, I think I got that covered,’” Hirthler recalled. “I left that day and went to lunch with these five guys.”

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