Even as a kid, Gary Vernon was obsessed with bikes – specifically, in those days, those of the BMX variety.
Sure, lots of kids in the early ‘80s loved to hop on their bike and push it to its limits. But helping design and build a professional-quality track? That’s a whole other level. Along with friends who held a similar interest and adults who had the professional connections, Vernon helped make it happen.
“We built a track in Duenweg called Kids BMX,” he says. “It was on private property, and heavy equipment operators came in to build it. I was 14-years-old telling them where to put jumps, corners and berms.”
Fast forward to 2021, and Vernon’s still riding.
Mountain biking is a fun, healthy and social activity he enjoys with family and friends. But for Vernon, it’s more than that. Feeling the wind on his face, hitting a jump or dodging trees – it’s a state of mind.
“Getting out on an outdoor mountain bike trail is good therapy,” he says. “There’s nothing better.”
It’s also his livelihood.
As program officer for the Walton Family Foundation in Northwest Arkansas, Vernon has been a driving force in creating hundreds of miles of biking trails for riders of all ages and skill levels.
A Strong Foundation
Born and raised in Joplin, Vernon earned his degree in marketing and management from Missouri Southern in 1992.
“I was fanatical about bicycles and motorcycles and had dreams of owning my own business,” he says. “I was working in a bike shop, but a needed a full-time job so I could buy a new dirt bike.
“I got a job at Walmart building bikes, and they decided I was worth keeping.”
And he decided it was worth staying.
He got into the company’s management program, and landed positions in Kansas, Oklahoma and Springfield, Mo., before moving to Bentonville, Ark., in 2003.
And that’s where his story really takes off, says Vernon.
There are a lot of avid mountain bikers in the area, he says – people like him who love bikes, motorcycles and the best of both worlds the activity provides. There was no shortage of old gravel roads, creek beds and woods to ride in.
He’d heard through the grapevine that a new mountain bike trail was in the works, and while out driving one day, he spotted a crew cutting a trail on the north side of the city.
“I stopped and grabbed my son, Grayson, who was still an infant, and started walking down the trail,” he says. “We saw two other people and started talking with them about the project. One of them was Tom Walton.”
The grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, he was the one spearheading the creation of the new trail through the Walmart Family Foundation.
“After connecting with him, I started helping as a volunteer to build out a trail system,” says Vernon. “I was a director in the environmental division of Walmart and over the next few years, Tom would have me look at different trail projects.
“Around 2014 or 2015, I looked down at my computer one day and realized half of my emails were about trail projects. We were moving quick with a lot of new trails being built.”
With those projects serving as a means to help draw people to the area and make a positive economic and health impact, Vernon drafted a proposed job description that would accelerate Walton’s vision for a system of trails in the state.
A few short months later, he joined the foundation – his childhood love of biking and creating places to ride now his full-time job.
Quality Over Quantity
Over the last few years, the foundation has created more than 500 miles of biking trails; more than 150 miles of trails in the Bentonville and Bella Vista area alone. It’s all part of a plan to make Northwest Arkansas a mountain bike destination for enthusiasts worldwide.
Trails are rated based on their skill level, much like ski slopes. The “green” trails are for beginners, ranging all the way to “double black diamond” trails for expert riders.
Part of Vernon’s job is to scope out other trails around the country – and beyond – to bring back new ideas to incorporate into their trail system.
“We want this to be a world-class destination, so we recruit the best trail-builders in the nation to come here and build for us.
“But it’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. We talk about memorable moments that can be incorporated into the trail. Maybe it’s bridges and stonework or maybe it’s artwork … things that will make people thrilled to use the trail.”
While his business background at Missouri Southern certainly paved the way for his career with Walmart, it was another course that keeps his wheels spinning when it comes to trail design.
“Dr. Arthur Strobel (retired physics instructor who passed away in 2020) was probably my favorite instructor at MSSU,” says Vernon. “I was intrigued by his stories and his explanation of physics and how he applied it.
“Every day we’re building trails with grades and thinking about different trajectories and angles for jumps. It all plays into it.”
A major perk of his position is to share his love of biking with others.
“One of the wonderful successes of all the trails we’ve built is getting kids active on them,” says Vernon.
The foundation supports a junior-high cycling association, provides strider bikes for a kindergarten program and creates opportunities for a more diverse group of young people to develop a love for riding.
“We had a really successful year in 2020,” he says. “With kids being out of school because of COVID, it was really wonderful to see kids get outside, be active and have fun on their bikes.”
Vernon also presents “trail labs” to community leaders, park directors and others who want to replicate the success the foundation has had in creating trails.
“We give them the 101 on how to start trail systems in their community,” he says. “It’s a way of leaving a good legacy behind for the health and wellness of your residents.”
Biking has become a family affair throughout his 24 years of marriage to his wife, Aimee. They have a tandem bike they can ride, his 14-year-old son Grayson races with a local team, and his 19-year-old daughter Abby also enjoys riding.
“I just feel fortunate to stay within an hour of my home town and do what I love in this part of the country,” he says. “I love the Four State Area. This is where I want to stay.”