116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
VINTON — As a father and a resident of Vinton, Nathan Hesson left his family and hometown in a brighter place than he found them.
Though Hesson couldn’t always take long walks or bike rides, the former city council member was a huge proponent of what is now a 2-mile long, glow-in-the-dark trail, named “Nathan’s Miles” in his honor. Hesson died in January at age 37.
As his family celebrates the first Father’s Day without him, those who knew him best say the longest glowing trail in the country — possibly the world — is a fitting tribute to remember him by.
“We nicknamed the trail Nathan’s Smiles because of the way (the name) sounds and looks,” said Ashley Hesson, Nathan’s wife. “He set such a good foundation in place. There’s a lot to build from.”
Despite living with Loeys-Dietz syndrome — a rare genetic disorder that can enlarge the aorta in the heart and cause blood vessels to not contract they way they’re supposed to — the man who served on Vinton’s City Council for five years was always seen smiling around town. For Nathan, the syndrome caused strokes, brain bleeds and, eventually, heart failure.
Nathan’s Miles, the longest glow in the dark trail in the United States, is located in Vinton. The trail head of the 2-mile path starts at the corner of 21st Street and Second Avenue, on the northeast side of the school. The trail is open 24 hours a day.
When his family looks at the trail that loops around the church they worshipped in, the playground he took his children to and the town he loved, they see a glow that beams just as brightly as the smile Nathan donned selflessly.
“I try to hold onto that so much — his positivity, not letting things of this world weigh us down,” Ashley said. “Knowing there’s a bigger plan in place, there’s more to me than what I can see.”
As he went into his fifth heart surgery, the health many take for granted was something Nathan wanted, too, but not for his own enjoyment.
“It was getting significantly harder to walk even 100 yards last summer,” Ashley said, as Nathan was in heart failure for the last couple years. “When he went into this last heart surgery, he said, ‘I’m just looking forward to being better. It’s so much more than feeling better. I want to be a better dad, a better citizen, a better contributor to the community.’”
As his condition worsened, an electric bike was how he made the best of his outdoor time with his children. And through most of his difficult recovery from open heart surgery, it was the thought of using that completed trail with his children that kept him going.
A husband for 15 years and father for 11, Nathan shouldered his pain quietly with the driving force of being better for everyone else’s gain rather than his own comfort. Watching others reap the enjoyment of his work was what he enjoyed most.
His dedication as a father was shown in the patience with Lily Ann, 11, and Noah, 10, who also have Loeys-Dietz syndrome.
“He was always so good at preparing them for what life was going to be like,” Ashley said with emotion. “Showing them how to handle that without feeling like a victim or making other people feel bad for them. Doing it selflessly.”
When it comes to growing up with Loeys-Dietz, participating in sports and outdoor activities like other kids their age isn’t something they can take for granted. They go through more MRIs and tests than the average child — something Nathan could relate to firsthand after his diagnosis at age 12.
A native of Vinton, Nathan moved home from Chicago with his family when Ashley was pregnant with their daughter. An outdoor enthusiast and believer in his hometown, his passion for the community compelled him to show off the great place he knew it was with improvements to the quality of life it offered.
Over the last 11 years, Nathan became involved with the Vinton Off Road Cyclists, with whom he built dirt bike trails around parks in town. When the idea for the newest trail came before Vinton City Council, he was a huge proponent of it.
Funded through a general obligation bond passed by the city in conjunction with street improvement projects in 2019, the trail is the first phase in a longer, multiphase effort to make Vinton a more walkable, bikeable community, according to Vinton Parks and Recreation Director Matt Boggess. The idea started in 2008 with the city’s master trails plan.
“I had ideas on how we could make the trail unique and a tourist destination to get people into our community,” Boggess said. “A lot of people think Vinton’s a pretty town, but what gets people here? This is how (we) get people here.”
Though Boggess saw similar paths of a much shorter length in Europe, nothing compared to the length that Vinton took on using a glowing aggregate made by Ambient Glow Technology in Canada.
“I entered it into Guinness to see if we can get a world record,” Boggess said.
Nathan’s Miles, which connects to an existing sidewalk trail, will soon be joined to another path to make a 5-kilometer loop. The $725,000 endeavor was completed in May, with plans for future events in the works.
“ (The fact) that a sidewalk with glow in the dark rocks in it can be a catalyst for other things … that’s just the epitome of what Nathan was all about,” Ashley said. “He was always asking how they could push things further and looking forward to the next thing. That was a good motivator for him.”
With his legacy, he didn’t just improve the lives of his family — he improved the quality of life for Vinton residents and visitors he never met through better physical health and more quality family time for those who use the trail.
“He could sit back and watch the kids playing,” Ashley said. “Nathan would have loved to see (the completed trail). He would have loved to sit on the deck and watch people go by using it.”
Though his family said it will be hard to carry on without him, the legacy he left and the momentum he set forth is beyond doubt.
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