by Kari Croop
Helen Davis (M.Ed. '80) never planned on becoming a published author. But to say that she kind of walked into wouldn't be just some slick turn of phrase; in her case, it would actually be true.
In 1983, after being told she might never have children, Davis beat the odds and became pregnant with a son she and her husband, Ren, would name Nelson. To ward off complications, Davis' doctor was adament that she restrict her exercise during pregnancy to walking.
Ren was happy to accompany his wife on regular walks, but after so many loops around the neighborhood, the inevitable happened -- he got bored. But when they looked around to buy an Atlanta walking guide, they couldn't find one. So Ren had a simple solution: They'd write their own.
"He said, 'Well, gee, I'm a native Atlantan and a history major. I can write a book in a few months,'" recalled Helen. "Well, three and a half years later ... our first little book came out, and it was called 'Atlanta's Urban Trail.'"
Published over two volumes in 1988 and 1989, the book was a modest effort with hand-drawn maps and a compact design that slipped easily into a shirt pocket. But that one simple idea, born out of necessity, led to a series of other walking and tourism books and has given the couple a remarkable part-time hobby that dovetails perfectly with their joint passions for history and education.
"The writing is not something that you can ever make a living at," admits Helen. "In fact, the royalties and the articles and all that stuff that we get paid to do, it's just barely enough to cover the expenses of the travel and the equipment -- and certainly not the time."
Still, Helen says, their endeavors have been rewarding to both themselves and others. "We feel that we're giving people knowledge. We're teaching people a lot of history, and also an appreciation of the value of exercise in a family setting. Our books all came out of our exercising with a young child in tow."
Today, the Davises have an impressive roster of books to their credit and another book in the works (a comprehensive guide to state, regional and national park sites created by the Civilian Conservation Corps) that has yet to find a publisher. Their latest two books -- "Best Hikes Near Atlanta," which details 35 walks within an hour's drive of the city and features the couple's own photography, and "Best Easy Day Hikes Atlanta," a pocket-sized book of shorter trails for families or less-ambitious hikers -- were the culmination of two years of research.
After more than three decades in education, Helen officially retired in June 2009 but still works as a private tutor. Ren recently retired as an administrator from Emory Hospital Midtown and does other writing on the side. With their new flexible schedules they no longer need to fit in research trips during vacations. They split writing and editing duties, with Ren doing more of the writing and Helen doing most of the editing, a process that's been surprisingly successful for a couple who have been married 30 years.
"We don't disagree about much in life, so that part helps," Helen says. "We've learned to hear the strength of each one, and so we defer to the strengths of the other."
One of Helen's favorite Atlanta walks is right near her house: strolling through Oglethorpe University's campus and around the 30-acre Silver Lake. "I just love this area," she says. "It's a neighborhood, but it has the university and the history that goes along with that. It also has Civil War history and these wonderful wooded lanes with houses on one side, and the woods and the lake on the other. It's a beautiful setting -- and it's what prompted us to end up moving there."
She also recommends checking out the Indian Seats trail in the newly refurbished Sawnee Mountain Preserve near Cumming, Ga., which, in her opinion, offers one of the most spectacular views in north Georgia.
"As you walk along, you can see sites from old gold mines, and then you get to this one vista area, and you're looking north, and the view is just exquisite," she says. "It's a trail you could even take children on and just sit and enjoy the view."
This story was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.