Cruising along the Washington & Old Dominion Trail on his bicycle two years ago, Reston resident Dick Hays came upon a fellow cyclist who had fallen off and banged his head on the trail's black asphalt.
"He was a very distracted and confused cyclist," Hays said. "He didn't know where he was."
So Hays, a member of the W&OD Trail Patrol, administered first aid, using a kit he always brings while on patrol and used his cellphone to call in an ambulance, using his knowledge of the trail to describe the injured man's whereabouts.
"We try to be goodwill ambassadors," Hays said. "We help people out."
Members of the Trail Patrol rarely encounter serious accidents along the 45-mile trail, which stretches from Alexandria to Purcellville.
But on a daily basis the patrol members assist trail-users by fixing flat tires, offering directions and providing friendly reminders about the trail's rules.
Recognizable by their bright yellow jerseys, Trail Patrol members usually travel the trail via bicycle, though some also in-line skate, jog or walk. They carry first aid kits, tools, cellphones and bottles of water for dehydrated runners and bicyclists.
Like Hays, many of the Trail Patrol members are retired, though others are employed as software developers, attorneys, engineers, teachers, college professors and financial consultants. All unpaid volunteers, they patrol the trail on days off, weekends and after work.
"Being out there, we provide a presence," Hays said. "And when we're out there, people seem to behave themselves a little better."
THE TRAIL PATROL was founded four years ago by the Friends of the W&OD Trail, a fundraising and advocacy organization based in Ashburn.
John Boone, who was then a Friends of the W&OD Trail board member, gathered Hays and two other volunteers to form the core of the Trail Patrol. Today, the Trail Patrol's ranks have swelled to more than 35 volunteers who patrol at least twice a month.
"Without exception, we all love the W&OD Trail," Boone said. "This is our way of giving back."
Similar to a ski patrol, the Trail Patrol was inspired by an in-line skate patrol at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. and by a comparable volunteer bike patrol along the Mount Vernon Trail.
Norm Lisy, the Trail Patrol's current coordinator, said the bulk of their work consists of small acts of assistance. Often they will be called upon to help pump up a flattened tire. Other times, they might simply help by pointing a family in the direction of the nearest restroom.
"We're just citizens in yellow shirts, but we help people be safe and enjoy the trail," he said.
A big part of the job, Lisy said, is reminding people to be courteous on the trail. Trail Patrol members frequently hand out business cards with the trail's rules printed on the back.
"We just try to promote courtesy and safety by our example," Boone said. "If we can make people think about what they're doing, then we've done our job."
TWO WEEKS AGO on the George Washington Parkway bike trail in Mount Vernon, a 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted, but was unable to adequately describe her location for police to promptly arrive. The Trail Patrol was created to help avoid similar situations along the W&OD.
Trail Patrol members gain a familiarity with the stretches of trail they frequent and they always carry cards with police and rescue numbers for every nearby locality. Dialing 911 often does not give the nearest police department when using a cellphone, so the emergency contact list ensures the Trail Patrol can bring help as quickly as possible.
Police and park officials see the Trail Patrol as an extra set of eyes on the trail, covering an area that is difficult for law enforcement to sufficiently cover.
"They're invaluable," said Paul McCray, park manager for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which manages the W&OD Trail. "Some of these guys put in an incredible number of miles. I see them on the trail all the time."
JOINING THE TRAIL Patrol was a natural decision for Hays, a longtime Reston volunteer and cycling enthusiast. He regularly patrols the portion of the W&OD Trail located between Reston and Gallows Road and, twice a month, he patrols from Reston to the heart of Loudoun County.
The Trail Patrol, Hays said, is a rewarding way to use the trail he has frequented for the last 30 years.
"When you find people who need assistance or don't know where they're at, it's a nice thing to be able to help," he said.