For the last in this series recapping our August visit to the US, we find ourselves on this road, a well-maintained bike path cutting through the green summer woods of Ohio. This unassuming but tidy sliver of pavement has run through my hometown for years, but it wasn't until our recent trip that I actually had the chance to get on it and check it out for myself.
I've been an avid bike rider since I was a kid. I can still recall the hours that I spent in abandoned construction areas in my neighborhood with a BMX bike and a couple of friends, tearing up and down the dusty paths that gave me enough momentum to go flying off the many hills built up in the clearings between the trees. As I got older, I graduated to a mountain bike and started taking longer trips all around the city. The simple act of going from one side of town to the other and back using nothing more than my own legs gave me a great feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, far greater than the intangible reward of a high percentage on a report card, for example.
Once I was old enough to drive, I got a car and pretty much left the idea of bike riding behind, up until a day at the university when I was driving home and got plowed into head-on by another college kid making a left turn. He was apparently too eager to get to the party around the corner and didn't bother to look before he went. Neither of us had been driving very fast but the impact was still enough to have torn up a lot of what was under the hood of car. Enough so to have resulted in the other guy's insurance company declaring my car totaled and cutting me check for its value. I spent a few days considering what kind of car to get next, before ultimately deciding not to get one at all. Instead I bought a new bike and used it to get around Columbus for the next year or so.
In so doing, I rediscovered the youthful joy I had once derived from going from place to place under my own power. I also found a new satisfaction in cruising around the college campus and beyond on a warm sunny day, experiencing the urban environment without the filter of windshield and motor. I made the most of both sidewalk and curbside lanes on the road to maneuver through heavy traffic as I pleased, and found new single track and new hills and mounds to get a mountain-biking fix every now and then. There were also days when I'd be out and far from home and the sky would open up with an unrelenting downpour. On days like that I'd ride home with the spray from both tires pelting me front and back, quickly reaching that saturation point where it didn't matter anymore how much it rained because I was already soaked.
Today in Cuenca, I'm back in that place again, car-free and leaving it up to my own feet, my mountain bike of the moment, and public transportation to get me around and out of town. During those rare times when I do find myself in a car, I can't help but feel like I'm buckling into an amusement park ride. It was with that frame of mind that we visited the US recently. At the same time, by virtue of our cross-country trip and the desire to see many parts of Ohio while we were there, I was behind the wheel of a car for the first time since I left the States some years ago.
I even had a bike waiting for me in Santa Fe, but due to lack of space in the car we drove across the country, I ended up giving it away at the last minute to the Chain Breaker Collective, a non-profit dedicated to getting people on two wheels in Northern New Mexico. I was happy to be able to give the bike away to a group like them, but sad at the same time to say goodbye to that particular bike. I'd had it for over 10 years, and even though it had been slowly rotting as it waited for me in Santa Fe, it was the only bike I had in the States, and I had been hoping to get out and do some riding once we got to Ohio.
Fortunately I was able to borrow two bikes while we were there after all, and so Nancy and I were able to get out and do some riding together. Plus, on a few different mornings and afternoons when little else was going on, I took the opportunity to finally get on that trail you see pictured at the top of the page.
Once I was on the path, I discovered that I had entered Ohio's veritable Highway 1 for bikes (and other forms of non-motorized travel). A quick look at the map posted at the trailhead revealed a growing network of such trails. Years ago, many of these trails didn't exist, but they are slowly beginning to link up, incorporating already existing paths within cities and connecting them with long stretches such as this one, between towns. Maybe in a few years, it will be feasible to travel from one State to the next on your bike, using strictly these designated bike paths.
Projecting yourself into such a future, you can begin to imagine a new sort of cycling trend emerging, one in the same vein as an intrepid hike along the full length of the Appalachian Trail. On a bona fide network of interstate bike trails, one could take a tour of any given region of the US, visiting its respective cities and national parks. You could camp each night if that were your angle, or you could stay in the hostels or roadside inns that had sprung up to accommodate all the traffic passing through.
Such is the vision of the Rails to Trails Conservancy. By taking land once set aside for our nation's deteriorating system of railroads and carving out a 8-10 foot wide stretch of pavement along the easement, you create an affordable bike trail that runs along a relatively flat and straight path. And since defunct railroads exist throughout the country, a comprehensive project to establish such trails along enough of them would lay down the foundation for an interstate transport system to rival Eisenhower's in its scope, but for nowhere near the same pricetag.
With some luck, we'll have something like that to look forward to. In the meantime, I made it as far as one town to the south and one town to the north of my home in Springfield. My first destination was to the south, none other than Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Once I had jumped on the trailhead on the north end of Springfield, I followed the trail over an old train trussel. When I was younger, I thought these things were just a way to take a dive into the river below...
Later, the trail led through Springfield's rusty industrial district, and also within sight of my old church and elementary school grounds:
Next I rode through downtown Springfield, past the old Marketplace building you see on the left, and then headed into the south end of town. Here, the trail spills out onto residential neighborhood streets before picking up again as a separate trail south of town.
Once out of town, the trail makes a straight shot towards Yellow Springs, through the woods and cornfields of rural Ohio. One fundamental difference between riding in the high mountains I've gotten accustomed to in recent years and the low country of the Great Lakes is of course the expansive stretches of flat land you'll find in Ohio. Another important difference for a cyclist is the bugs. Ohio in the summer is rife with insects, and sunglasses are a must even on a cloudy day, unless you want to pick bug guts out of your eyes while you're riding.
Between Springfield and Yellow Springs, you ride for many miles along a flat course girded by trees on both sides. With the sound of leaves and locusts in your ears and the uninterrupted line of the bike trail unfolding endlessly before you, you reach cruising speed and just keep going. And then all of a sudden, the line of trees breaks and you're in a new town:
The Yellow Springs station. Once a true train station, the rails are gone and its original purpose has given way to a rest area and information center for cyclists. With a public restroom and drinking fountain, as well as endless brochures and a map of the bike trails throughout the area, this is indeed a welcome center for all those arriving to town by bike.
Yellow Springs is a college town, a liberal enclave and a tourist destination well-known throughout the area. It's a preferred destination for me because it has the great combination of good restaurants and one of my favorite forests, Glen Helen. And yet, in all my life I've only this one time gotten there under the power of my own two legs. And it took me just over an hour to get there from my doorstep on the north side of Springfield, and that was with all the stops I made to take pictures. Not too bad!
This trail, I'm told, can be taken all the way down to Cincinnati and the Ohio River. That particular day I contented myself in having made it as far as Yellow Springs, as dusk was already setting in by the time I got there. But I was buoyed by the feeling of empowerment I got from connecting these two nearby communities by bike power, and vowed to do it again as soon as I could. And on my way home, as I was pummeled by a new salvo of nocturnal insects, I decided that one day soon I'd follow the trail to its northern terminus in Urbana, the community north of Springfield.
And sure enough, it wasn't more than a week before I took off spontaneously one morning, determined to make it to Urbana. I originally planned to ride as quickly as I could to Urbana and back again, just to see how long it would take. But then I found a sign for Cedar Bog, a state park preserving a small segment of what was once a huge swamp covering a large portion of the State. I hadn't been there since I was a kid and I couldn't resist ducking into the woods and having a look around.
Upon entering the park, the sight that greeted me was this fine tree standing at the entrance to the forest, and a wooden trail carefully laid out atop the marshy wetlands underfoot. I'm not sure if it was meant for bike traffic, but since it was Labor Day and there was no one around to tell me otherwise, I decided it would be alright.
It turned out that this wooden platform extended throughout the park, and I was able to coast along the length of it as I explored. The park, while relatively small, covers several different ecosystems, including some open meadows and a nicely shaded forest with a river running through it. Along the way I learned from the various signs that some 25% of Ohio's plant species can be found within the park. I also learned the fine shades of meaning between a fen, a bog and a swamp. If you're interested in such things for some reason, I'd be happy to share.
After I had gone all the way around the park without ever actually having set foot in it, I got back on the trail and followed the railroad into Urbana.
Quietly emerging from the vast fields of central Ohio into one of the countless small wooded towns poking out from the sea of yellowing cornstalks is a normal, everyday task when you do it in your car. In fact, passing through a town like Urbana often means a resigned foot on the brake and a prolonged wait at a series of traffic lights before thankfully speeding back up to 55 and punching the cruise control back on again.
But when you do the same thing on a bike, when the first sign of the ubiquitous water tower or church spire signals your triumphant entrance into a new town, you first feel the satisfaction of having traversed a wide open space in order to get there. Then you see the place through a new set of eyes, ones bare of the glass and metal filter that often rob us of the real experience of being in a new place. There was also something about riding around the streets of Urbana that brought back the many memories I'd had in that town. At the same time, as I stumbled upon neighborhoods and alleyways I'd never seen before, I felt as if I was experiencing it for the first time.
When traveling, whether it be cross country or just across town, you'll see more in an hour on foot or on your bike than you'll see all day in your car. Likewise, a five mile trip across the countryside or urban landscape under your own power and out in the elements will reveal more about that place than hundreds of miles will grant you when you're behind the wheel. Don't get me wrong, our trip this summer would have been impossible without the various cars we used to get around. But I was happy to have also gotten the chance to experience my old stomping grounds once again on a bike, because that's how I got to know them in the first place.