When I started writing this blog a year ago, I made a point of not writing about the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, the rails-to-trails project that introduced me to cycling as an adult 24 years ago and the project that I work on nearly every day in one way or another. However, with the opening of two new sections of the Pumpkinvine this summer, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the appeal that trails in general have for me and many others.
That appeal is not about the economic benefits, like monies spent for construction, increased property value for property along the trail and ability of trails to attract tourists and their dollars to our community. And, I’m not thinking so much about the health benefits resulting from increased opportunities for walking, biking and jogging or the environmental benefits of non-motorized transportation. I’m talking about what makes the trail appealing as a place to spend time, riding a bike, walking a dog or jogging.
I remember the first time I rode on a trail built on an abandoned railroad. It was the fall of 1988, and our family was living in Oak Brooke, Ill., one of the numerous suburbs west of Chicago. Somewhere, somehow, I had heard about the Illinois Prairie Path championed by a Chicago naturalist, May Theilgaard Watts, who had retired from the Morton Arboretum. Like many after her, she drew her inspiration from her experience walking the footpaths of England and hiking the Appalachian Trail. On Sept. 30, 1963, the Chicago Tribune published her letter advocating a walking path be built on the abandoned Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Electric Railway.
What I experienced on the Illinois Prairie Path and numerous other trails in the following years inspired me to see if we could do something similar in Goshen with the abandoned Pumpkinvine railroad corridor. What makes trails so appealing?
The first thing about trails that struck me on the Prairie Path was the kids (ages 9 to 14) enjoying themselves on their Sting-Ray and other bikes. They would race, do wheelies and yell at each other without adult supervision. It wasn’t structured baseball or soccer; it was freelance fun in a safe environment, kids inventing their own enjoyment. It was healthy, self-directed entertainment, especially when compared with hours playing video games or sitting in front of the TV.
Later when I visited other trails, I became aware of how many families with children 5 to 10 were biking together, and I began to see how important being off-road was for that population as well. Thirty years ago when my wife and I took our daughter for a bike ride, she rode in a seat behind the adult seat. There was nothing on the market like a tag-along extension or a bugger that carried the child in an enclosed “kart.” Those inventions are great for taking smaller children for a ride, but they are problematic on a busy road because they are twice as wide as the bike profile is. They are much more suited for residential streets with low traffic or trails, and in those settings, they are safer than the old seat system we used by putting the child closer to the ground and thereby lowering the center of gravity for the bike.
Safety and opportunities for family fun are two attractive and practical reasons for the popularity of trails.
What I enjoy as much as anything about trails is the opportunity to be in nature, away from the human-made environment. I realize that most trails are also human-made, but the difference is that they are the vehicle that brings us closer to nature, and they don’t compete with nature for our attention.
Think of this contrast. When we lived on Westwood Road south of Goshen Hospital and I wanted to go downtown by bike, I had three routes to choose from: the Millrace trail, State Road 15 (the quickest but busiest route) or 8th Street (using residential streets). If time permitted, I’d choose the Millrace trail every time.
The environment of State Road 15 consisted of cars, many trucks, gigantic RVs and the occasional wide-load mobile home. To be safe, I was constantly alert to the traffic ahead and behind me, and the possibility of vehicles turning left in front of me, or cars passing me then turning right in front of me. I arrived at my destination more quickly this way, but mentally I was fatigued.
Going into town on 8th Street was often as stressful as State Road 15. On this typical residential street (I never used the sidewalk “trail”), one must be alert to traffic from side streets, driveways and on the street itself, as well as the possibility of parked cars opening a door into your path, although that was only an issue going south.
A trip on the Millrace trail was much different: I could enjoy the ducks on the race, say hello to joggers I knew, or watch the turtles on a log. I didn’t worry about distracted drivers or someone running a stop sign. In other words, I wasn’t using my senses like radar to detect incoming danger. Instead I was enjoying the natural environment. I arrived at my destination relaxed and refreshed. On that path along the race, I traded the environment of moving steel for one of swaying trees. I experienced an energizing tonic not tension.
Is it any wonder that the chief advocates of linear parks and greenways have been people from towns and cities who saw in greenways the natural beauty missing from the often sterile, human-made environment? In his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, ” Richard Louv said: “Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in everyone’s self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical and spiritual health depend upon it.”
Is that need any less for adults?