Justin Hadad ’21: There’s no such thing as a wrong turn

News & Spotlights | September 14, 2021
Jonathan Justice ’95 and his wife, Amy Justice, and myself above the Delaware River.

Written by Justin Hadad ’21

There’s no such thing as a wrong turn on the Delaware Canal towpath.

Jonathan Justice ’95 and his wife, Amy (UNC–Chapel Hill ’94), led the way. I lagged a bit behind for the most part—after all, it was my thirtieth-or-so day biking up the coast, and my thirst for water had surpassed my thirst for the extra yard.

We were rounding out our 24-mile bike ride, scaling grassy hills on the Delaware River, searching blissfully for the exit that would eventually lead to the parking lot.

Our food was just about gone, our water depleted, and my legs were yearning for immobility. (Amy’s weren’t as much; after two Ironman triathlons, it seems few physical tasks can actually tire her. Likewise, Jonathan has kept up his love of physical vigor.) Another mile passed, then another, and a handful more. It was clear we had made an extra, accidental turn. Jonathan tried to assure us (We’ve got to be close. Anyone have water? Justin, you good back there?).

After a few more miles, Jonathan confessed that we may, just may, have missed a turn.

We marched onward, debating if rightward or leftward was correct, Amy a bit irked with the stark contrast between Jonathan’s prior confidence and his present sense of defeat. We made a few extra turns, stumbled upon a homemade basketball hoop with a dangling, rusted rim, met some kind Pennsylvanians, briefly debated which map software is the best, and eventually found the best route to the car.

After that ride, the aches in my legs felt especially good, as if I’d ridden just as much as I was supposed to do. There wasn’t a wrong turn all along. And in that moment, after all of the chaotic weeks of riding up the coast, I realized this sentiment equally applied to my whole trip.

How did I get here?

Throughout the summer of 2020, I worked at Zoomo, an Australian e-bike startup. (And yes, I found the gig on the Morehead-Cain Network.) There, I fell in love with biking; also there, I decided to bike from Chapel Hill to New York after I graduated in May 2021.

I planned to ride along the East Coast Greenway, a trail bridging cities from Florida to Maine. But of course, as we know so well but pathologically disbelieve, life never heeds our expectations.

A month or so before I planned to depart, I spoke with our beloved (now former) scholar advisor at Morehead-Cain, Mallory Findlay.

“I imagine you’ve spoken with Dennis,” she said with great assumption. My confused look encouraged her to continue: “Dennis, the executive director of the East Coast Greenway. Have you reached out to him?”

I emailed Dennis my resume and offered to do whatever I could for the trail along my route. I didn’t think he’d consider working together.

Luckily, I was wrong. Dennis Markatos-Soriano ’01 is a nonprofit leader, an avid cyclist, and, thankfully, a weekend basketball player. He saw I was a practice player for UNC Women’s Basketball and offered to chat over a game of one-on-one.

My bike trip soon turned into a job. Dennis wanted someone to help highlight the greenway—one that joins 450 cities, is the most traversed route in the country (with 50 million bike rides, runs, and walks), and has hosted epic community events, such as a two-day ride from New York City to Philadelphia.

Kimathi Muiruri ’21 joined me for a weekend of biking in downtown Washington, D.C.

A few months and hundreds of miles later, I enjoyed the most magical 45-day period you could imagine. I spent four to five days in each metro city along the East Coast, and biked around while taking photos and engaging with local communities. I wrote as many bad blogs as I read good books, connected with Morehead-Cain Scholars and Alumni, and even found the chance to meet my grandmother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Rigorous isn’t the right word; neither is leisure. The word I’ve come up with is absurd. And it all started with an email, and even more so, a turn away from the standard course.

Dennis took me under his wing and showed me how to embrace local community, especially in a time of great uncertainty—just like, time and time again, Morehead-Cain Alumni have extended to others the chance to embrace opportunity in their respective industries. Because of Dennis, I turned a challenging summer into one of exploration, environmentalism, and connection. The right turns were the ones I kept taking (especially when I stopped for cheesecake in Manhattan’s Bryant Park).

The East Coast Greenway is a 3,000-mile route for biking, walking, and other activities from Florida to Maine. Learn more about the greenway.

More about the author

Justin earned his bachelor’s degrees in economics and applied physics with a minor in Latin. At Carolina, he co-founded UNCUT, a multimedia company that highlights the lives of student athletes off the field. Through his work with UNCUT, he received UNC–Chapel Hill’s 1789 Student Venture Fund, and he was named a Robert E. Bryan Fellow in the APPLES Service-Learning Program. A Phi Beta Kappa member, he also co-founded the Propertius Project, which provides Latin material for free to students, and Heels Against Hunger, a student club that delivers meals to the food insecure in Orange County, North Carolina. Justin also taught his own semester-long course on game theory, has spoken five times at national physics conferences, and founded his own physics research group.