The origin of Memorial Day dates to 1868, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, when Major General John A. Logan, the head of an organization of Union veterans known as the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day on May 30th. On that date, citizens of the newly repaired United States were asked to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.
In calling for this special day, General Logan said “[w]e should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. …Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
The “pleasant paths” General Logan described aren’t just found in cemeteries these days. There are memorials to those who gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy all over the United States, including Griffin Bike Park in Vigo County, Indiana.
We first wrote about the park when it opened in 2016. Nearly 7 years after its opening, the park has doubled in size while staying true to its mission to honor the 213 residents of Indiana who have been killed since 9/11 while serving our nation. Recently, Singletracks reached out to Gene Griffin, Nat Lopes of Hilride Progression Development Group, LLC, Adam Grossman, the current superintendent for the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department, and Rich Moore, the park’s manager to get a more detailed account of the park’s story and how it has grown since its opening.
One family’s tragedy turned into an idea for a legacy
Sergeant Dale R. Griffin was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2009. His death was devastating to the Griffin family. Yet, somehow, amid their pain, they came up with the idea to honor his sacrifice by creating a mountain bike trail. Sergeant Griffin and his family loved to ride together, so it made perfect sense to tie his memory to the sport he loved.
Griffin said the family approached Vigo County in 2013 with the idea, assuring the county it would not cost them any money. The county got on board and identified 300 acres of land that could be used for mountain biking. From there, things accelerated quickly.
The superintendent of the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department at the time, Kara Kish, met Lopes at a National Recreation and Park Association conference where he was presenting. She approached Lopes after the presentation and asked him what he thought about the project. According to Griffin, “Nat came in to see the land on his own dime.”
It was that initial meeting between Lopes and Griffin where a simple question led to the concept of Griffin Bike Park. After surveying the land, Lopes asked Griffin, “Do you want a trail or a destination.” As Griffin put it, “Nat was good at letting us know what the possibilities could be.”
A community rallies around the Griffin family and propels the vision into reality
Lopes said that the key to a successful project is community engagement. Griffin Bike Park had that in spades. From Lopes’ perspective, “Gene is one of the most energetic, consistent, and dogged volunteers I’ve ever met. Gene and his family were highly motivated. They had a deep and compelling story and wanted to channel their loss into something positive for the community.”
But it wasn’t just the Griffin family that got involved. Griffin told us that “those involved are too many to list.” The level of involvement ranges from cash donations to in-kind contributions to volunteer hours.
“We have raised over $3,000,000 with more than 150 corporate and state government grants.” Additionally, more than 3,000 individual volunteers have donated their time and labor to the park. Griffin said that even Moore worked 1,900 hours on the project for free before he was offered the job as park manager.
For Lopes, it was “one of the biggest and longest projects I’ve worked on. I started it in 2014 and have worked on it off and on for over 6 years.”
That includes a recent trip he made back to the park to oversee the final stages of construction for a new restroom, trailhead facilities, signage upgrades and the last three trails that will build out the full original vision for the park.
As Griffin put it, “Nat fell in love with the park, with the idea, and with the family. He works us to death. He’s only gotten paid for a third of the work he’s put into it.”
The trails themselves are a reflection of the community’s love and the legacy of the fallen
With names like Warrior, Freedom, AWOL, Foxtrot, and Over and Out, the presence of those who served is felt throughout the park. And for each of the trail names, there is a story that demonstrates how much love there is for the park’s mission as a memorial to those who died serving our country.
The floating water trail that crosses Stryker Lake was made possible by Terre Haute native and Palm Harbor, Florida resident Bill Sumansky. He owned a dock building company and donated all the materials for the floating trail, over $50,000 worth according to Lopes.
The Over and Out Trail was the brainchild of Jeremy Stakeman, a local landscaper, and inspired by legendary professional trials rider Ryan Leech. Stakeman built the trail in honor of his grandfather, a World War II lineman. Lopes called Stakeman “one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever seen.” Using 250 telephone poles donated by Duke Energy, Stakeman created the longest continuous log ride in the United States, coming in at over 1,200 feet.
Griffin’s son, Blake, who owns Brother Griffin Trail Solutions, also did a lot of heavy lifting, working on many of the trails that have been built in the park.
Today the park receives national recognition as a premier riding destination
Griffin Bike Park has had a major impact on both the local community and the state of Indiana. According to Griffin, Vigo County is receiving $2 million a year in economic growth from the park. On average, the park gets 50,000 visitors a year. Recently, Griffin met some riders from Quebec who stopped in at the bike park on their way to another riding destination.
Professional riders have also had a hand in boosting the popularity of the park. Griffin said that Sally Collins, a professional rider from Indianapolis whose father was in the military, has held skills clinics at the park and brought in other professional riders. Ryan Leech, Tyler McCaul, and Jeff Lenosky have also visited the park and lent a hand in designing some of the trails there.
The state of Indiana has recognized the park as a premier adventure destination by putting it on the cover of its tourist magazine and having its Lieutenant Governor attend no less than 5 different ribbon cutting ceremonies for new trails at the park. Singletracks ranks it as the top place to ride in Indiana and the 21st best riding destination in the world.
The park now plays host to a wide variety of events and races
Grossman and Moore provided me with a list of all the programming the park offers. The park hosts Adaptive Adventures events. Adaptive Adventures brings out adaptive equipment and allows veterans and folks that want to try it out a chance to ride the trails, kayak, and do other activities at the park. The park also hosts races put on by Do INdiana Off-road (DINO). Those races include the Indiana state championship series, a gravel triathlon, and the adventure race in the fall.
Additionally, Grossman and Moore said Griffin Bike Park is the place for the J’s Bikes Dual Slalom series, the Thyssenkrupp Presta North America Pump Track series, the Thompson Thrift Short Track series, the Garbage Mountain Gravel Grinder presented by Steel Dynamics Heartland Flat Roll Division, and the 6- and 12-hour endurance challenge also presented by Steel Dynamics.
Finally, Griffin Bike Park is home to the Trip for Kids Griffin Bike Park chapter which allows kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity a chance to come out and ride at the park.
Even though the park’s master plan is now complete there’s still room for improvement
This July 3rd, Griffin Bike Park will celebrate the completion of the original 300-acre master plan with the Freeride Freedom Festival. The festival will include guided, live-streamed rides, ribbon cuttings for the Buffaloes, FoxTrot, and Stryker Lake trails, and more.
While the event will mark the final build-out of the park, there is still more work to do according to Griffin.
“We are contemplating putting roofs over the dual slalom course, pump track, and skills area to give people more opportunities to ride when the weather isn’t good.”
Lopes would like to see improvements made to the memorial aspect of the park. “I would like to see a proper website built out to tell the stories of all the lives that are memorialized at the park.” He said the elements are in place for it, including QR codes, but funding is needed to tie it all together.
At Griffin Bike Park every day is Memorial Day
Griffin said the park reflects “people around this community and this state coming together to honor those who’ve died.” Griffin will often see riders at the park with their heads bowed. He’ll go over to them and start a conversation. A lot of them have served in the military and get emotional when seeing the park’s memorials.
Griffin loves the fact that the park tells the story of the price of freedom in detail. He also enjoys talking to kids about the mission of the park. “We have youth groups come to the park. I’ll share Dale’s story with them and then answer their questions.”
Though Griffin imagined the park could be this big, he is still awed by people’s response to it every day.
“I never imagined the impact it would have on people’s lives.”
It’s important that the park continues to make an impact. Like Memorial Day itself, the park reminds riders that they owe a debt to the fallen. A debt that can never be repaid.