Ryan Gardill loved the hike. Getting into the open air and covering the ground was one of the favorite activities of the natives of Lancaster, Pa. But as the 29-year-old former US Marine’s joints and back began to struggle to support the weight of a backpack, he decided it was time to get on a bike. .
It opened up a whole new world.
“I’ve always dreamed of going for a hike or a bike ride,” he says. “A guy from work mentioned a trail from Pittsburgh to DC. I said, “Sounds awesome!” “
So, in August, Gardill and his colleague embarked on a 350-mile journey, pedaling converted railroad trails from western Pennsylvania to Washington DC.
The Great American Rail-Trail is the most ambitious cycling initiative the country has ever seen
Passing through Pennsylvania, Maryland and DC, Gardill’s journey may seem like a major undertaking. Yet this is only a small fraction of an unprecedented new scenic trail aimed at crossing the United States from coast to coast.
The Great American Rail-Trail is the most ambitious cycling initiative the country has ever seen. Stretching an extraordinary 3,700 miles from the nation’s capital across 12 states to the Pacific Ocean, west of Seattle, it’s an idea that has been ruminating for 50 years. The Rail-Trail will link more than 125 multi-purpose trails, greenways, existing trails and towpaths. An official route was announced to the public in May 2019 by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the Washington DC-based nonprofit that was leading the effort, when the trail was already over half finished.
“Figuring out the route took 30 years,” said Brandi Horton, vice president of communications at RTC.
Much of the trail is built on top of or next to abandoned railroad lines (hence the name) with surfaces ranging from crushed stone to smooth asphalt. These rail lines – abandoned rail corridors converted to trails – represent more than 24,000 miles of multi-use trails crisscrossing the United States.
Once it’s fully completed – it’s estimated to be before 2040 – nearly one in six Americans will live within 50 miles of the highway, and it will provide an unparalleled experience of the country that people can’t see. at 36,000 feet or through a car window.
The timing couldn’t be better. According to a RTC study, in the spring, trail use across the United States increased 200%, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. With team sports and gyms mostly out of people’s minds now and for the foreseeable future, the boom in outdoor and physically remote activities such as cycling and hiking is expected to last for years.
I want the railways to be America’s main street
“I think [the pandemic] demonstrated to many officials that access to the outdoors is in fact essential. Creating those connections is really essential, ”said Horton.
Yet seeing the trail from coast to coast is not just utilitarian; it’s a way to reveal how the diverse communities of the United States fit together, and how the country’s past connects to its present.
“I want railways to be America’s main street,” said RTC co-founder David Burwell in 2006. Biking or slow hiking through towns, villages and rural landscapes Not only allows travelers to better understand local communities and cultures, but it also helps reveal the little-known stories that have contributed to the country’s identity.
On the East Coast, the trail begins in downtown DC, passing the Smithsonian Museums and the National Mall before heading northwest through Maryland. There hikers and cyclists can spend the night in a series of 19th-century locksmiths along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a marvel of the Industrial Revolution that played a central role in supplying troops during the American Civil War. . In the 1800s, these buildings housed lock keepers who collected canal tolls on Appalachian lumber and coal, which helped fuel the western expansion of the United States.
Most of the cities on the trail were once important areas for America’s future, only to be forgotten in time
According to Gardill, there are also dozens of outdoor camping “cutouts” that have water wells and toilets along rural sections of the C&O Canal towpath, which stretches 184.5 miles between the Georgetown neighborhood in DC and Cumberland, Maryland.
For Gardill and his fellow cyclist, a day on the trail would start around 7:00 am with coffee and breakfast. They would then ride until 11:00 am, cycle through a local town and have lunch. “We would never pass up a chance for a beer, so we ended up stopping at five breweries,” he said. They would return to the trail and cycle until four in the afternoon before stopping, setting up camp and settling for a night under the stars.
Gardill’s expedition saw him cross the Eastern Continental Divide near the 3,118-foot Paw Paw Canal Tunnel in Allegany County, Maryland. Eighty miles west, on the banks of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers that flow through the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies the craggy, cobblestone town of Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia – the northernmost point reached by the forces. Confederates during the Civil War and where abolitionist John Brown tried to start a slave revolt in 1859. “It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s as if the weather hasn’t touched the city since the 1700s, ”he says.
“The trail connected me to [the US’] revolutionary and industrial history, because every city is filled with historic districts, ”added Gardill. “Most of the cities on the trail were once important areas for America’s future, to be forgotten over time.”
For him, part of the appeal of the thru-bike is its simplicity. In addition to a tent and sleeping bag, Gardill packed a portable burner for cooking dehydrated meals, bottled water, and water purifiers. “If you’ve got a tent, a sleeping bag, and a bike, you’re really set,” he says. He also recommends bringing spare bike tubes, patch kits, and a bike tool kit.
For those heading west, the trail traverses the heart of Ohio’s Swartzentruber Amish country, a community that shuns modern technology altogether and continues to speak Pennsylvania’s German as its first language. In the carved out Rust Belt towns struggling to get back on their feet, echoes of thriving manufacturing communities once linked by rail in southwestern Pennsylvania and Indiana tell the story of capitalism in its midst. boom. Further west, the trail crosses the Mississippi River that inspired Mark Twain and long shaped U.S. history and culture in Moline, Ill., Before crossing the Continental Divide in Montana. In Idaho, encounters with moose and other wildlife are not uncommon along the historic Coeur d’Alene Trail which was carved into mountainous rock by gold diggers in search of their fortunes in mid-19th century.
As the end of the road approaches, the ferry trip across Puget Sound to Seattle is another highlight, as travelers pass through an area once home to thriving Native American settlements of Suquamish, Duwamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, and Muckleshoot. before bypassing the northern fringes of Olympic National Park, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the country. The lapping waters of the Pacific Ocean welcome you to La Push, Washington.
While the broader health benefits of spending time outdoors are well documented, the trails along the “Great American,” as it is called, are already playing a key role in helping to revitalize savings in communities. dozens of post-industrial cities across the heart of the United States: Steubenville and Dayton in Ohio; Muncie, Indiana, and Joliet, Illinois all have burgeoning brewery scenes located near the trailhead. Rails-to-Trails conservation estimates the trail could generate up to $ 138 billion for communities that are building campsites, restaurants and water companies and other adventure businesses along the route.
Perry, Iowa, population 7,676, is one such place. Built around a railway line opened in 1869 and closed less than a century later, its railway line has since been redeveloped for hiking and recreational biking. With the Great American now running through the heart of the city and future sections connecting it to neighboring Illinois and Nebraska, locals are hoping it can contribute to a revival.
“It’s a huge thing and will draw a lot more people to Perry,” said Betsy Peterson, who runs an arts and pottery business a five-minute walk from the trail.
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Down the street, the historic Hotel Pattee, Perry’s iconic building, offers indoor bike storage as well as a repair station up front. “When people go on their bikes, it’s important that they have some downtime. I think Perry is a great place to stop and have a beer or a meal and relax, ”Peterson added.
However, launching into such an important venture was not easy. Large sections of the trail, especially across Wyoming where only 2% is currently complete, have yet to be built or mapped. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy took on the gigantic task of working with trail planners, local and state agencies, elected officials and governors’ offices along the route which involved 250 meetings held over 18 months in 2018 and 2019. About 300 trails of the plans were studied to determine the route.
“We wanted to be sure that the route would meet local and state needs, but that it would actually be connected,” Horton said. “It was definitely a labor of love.”
Yet while some western states have work to do, in places such as DC, Maryland, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, over 86% of the road is already open.
It was on these quiet, wooded trails that Gardill averaged 60 miles a day on his bike. Five days and two hours after he left, he reached the National Mall in downtown DC.
“Following this trail has shown me that America is filled with the nicest people you can hope to meet,” he said. “You’re always just a few miles away from a good meal and a conversation.”
His next step? To start all over.
After all, he said, “I couldn’t do it once.
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