By Daniel Leaderman – Click here for the original article at open.maryland.gov
The scenic beauty of the Allegany County landscape isn’t what first drew Mandela Echefu to Cumberland, but it’s what led him to stay and launch a business. Now, he’s dedicating his life to getting people to enjoy the outdoors and take advantage of the hiking, cycling, kayaking, skiing, and other activities Western Maryland has to offer.
Echefu and his wife, Jamie, started WheelzUp Adventures in 2021. The specialty retail store sells, rents and services equipment such as bicycles, snowshoes, skis, and kayaks; helps customers plan adventures; and provides shuttle service to trails like the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Towpath.
Born in Nigeria, Echefu came to the U.S. for college and ultimately went into the healthcare industry. His first job, as a nuclear medical technologist, brought him to Cumberland.
Over the next 15 years, he gradually became hooked on the outdoors. “I went from escaping to Baltimore or D.C. every weekend to hiking the Appalachian Trail, biking, racing, skiing and paddling,” he said.
Echefu remembers the day that the landscape and the open air changed his life.
“One such Friday, on my way out of town, I came to the Sideling Hill Overlook on I-68. It was a beautiful fall day, with a fantastic kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, ambers and reds,” he said. “I had driven this road many times, and had never paid this vista any mind, but on this day I was so overwhelmed by the mountains that I pulled over and watched for 15 minutes.”
Soon, Echefu realized he wanted to dedicate his life and work to being outdoors and getting other people outdoors. Echefu started in 2018 by opening a shuttle company that took people along the trailheads of the Great Allegheny Passage.
Opening WheelzUp Adventures three years later put he and Jamie in an exclusive but uncertain club: their store is one of only four black-owned specialty outdoor retailers nationwide, he said.
“That’s mind boggling!” he said. “We’re proud to be one of them, but also saddened by it.”
Cumberland was an ideal location due to its proximity to two amazing trail systems, five ski resorts and several rivers. But it was also a community facing many economic challenges, and where people could benefit from the healing power of the outdoors.
“Fate chose Western Maryland for us,” he said. With thousands of acres of public land, numerous state parks, and “the loveliest people,” it was the perfect place to put down roots, he said.
“We also saw that we had to create a business that not only sold goods and services, but was also capable of building the community and contributing to the greater good. We wanted to start being the change we wanted to see,” Echefu said.
When the weather gets warm, that sense of duty and fellowship drives one of WheelzUp’s regular activities: at 6 p.m. every Wednesday, people meet in front of the shop and split into two groups, hikers and bikers, before setting out.
“We’re not going for speed or distance, but just for time,” Echefu said. They trek for 60 minutes and leave no one behind, he said. “Some days we get far, others we don’t. Some days there are five kids and five dogs, other days it’s 20 adults. But it’s a great opportunity to get out and build community. So many friends have been made and meaningful relationships established.”