Recently our local newspaper showed a photo of a paving machine and told about a local section of rail trail that was being paved. I thought that a paved rail trail would be a great place to ride a bike so I went to see it. The above photo shows what I found; a trail that had been graded and had some gravel added to it, but wasn’t paved. Paving by definition means a road or path has been covered by a hard surface like concrete, asphalt, stones, or bricks but this trail obviously hasn’t seen any of those, so I’m not sure what the reporter was thinking.
This isn’t a sign that you expect to see on a rail trail. The Virginia creeper that is slowly covering it tells me that it has been here for a while.
The trail had been widened and the original drainage ditches that were laid out by the railroad had been dug out and looked like they were working well.
I saw a few bicyclists who weren’t having any trouble riding on the now well packed gravel but I spoke with some who said it was terrible at first; so soft and loose that it was difficult to even walk on. Of course many of these rail trails are maintained by snowmobile clubs, paid for by donations, and in January it won’t matter how loose the gravel is to them. Since the rest of us benefit from their hard work and dedication it’s hard to complain about anything they do to improve the trails and keep them open.
When on a rail trail you often don’t realize how much higher or lower you are than the surrounding terrain, so it can be quite a surprise to find yourself 30 or 40 feet above a road you just drove on.
Railroads did all they could to keep the rail beds as level and straight as possible and if that meant filling in low spots with thousands of tons of soil, then so be it. In this photo the rail bed is way up above this tunnel that runs underneath it; just where I was standing in the previous photo. I think they built the tunnel for the road to run through first and then filled in around it to create the rail bed. It was a job well done; this tunnel has been here for well over a hundred years and not a stone has moved. Shortly after it was built the Old Chesterfield Road, laid out in the 1700s, was renamed Arch Street in honor of the beautiful stonework.
You can find the same quality of workmanship out in the middle of nowhere. When a stream was in the way of a rail bed the railroad engineers just bridged it with what are sometimes beautiful stonework culverts. These men took pride in their work and did the best job they could do, not because someone was watching but because of the pride they had in their abilities and the self-respect that simply wouldn’t let them do shoddy work.
This white pine had been hit by something that peeled its bark about 8 feet up its trunk and left a gaping wound that will let fungi, insects, and diseases infiltrate it. If it were me I would have cut the tree down.
Because I was on a bike I didn’t see much of interest in the way of plants but I did notice these pinesap plants (Monotropa hypopitys) when I took a break. Pinesap looks vaguely similar to Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) at a glance but a close look shows that they are more honey or amber colored and have multiple flowers on each stem instead of the single flower found on Indian pipes. Their common name comes from the way they like to grow under pine trees, but I find them under hardwoods too. Neither Indian pipes nor pinesap have chlorophyll and both get their nutrition in part from the mycelium of certain mushroom species.
I saw many other interesting things besides plants, like this old switchbox lying beside the trail. Fellow blogger Jim Corner from the Country Corners blog warned me last year when I did a post about this place that switch boxes like this one were often full of asbestos, so I look but don’t touch.
This one looked pretty clean but those asbestos fibers are tiny and it could be full of them, ready for a good breeze to come along and blow them around. I don’t suppose that you ever really know for sure.
Eventually you come to the end of what was the original rail bed. From this point on it becomes a “deep cut” through solid rock and is very wet, as if the drainage ditches have filled and failed. This is what all of our rail trails would look like without regular maintenance so I’ll say again that we who use them owe a debt of gratitude to the people who work so hard to keep them open. In my opinion a donation of a few dollars each year is money well spent.
The redirected trail goes up hill around the deep cut and you can see down into it from up here. The hill wasn’t much fun going up but it sure was fun flying down it on my bike. It was only afterwards that I realized that hitting a patch of soft gravel at this point probably would have sent me over the handlebars and into the woods.
Rail trails go on and on and never seem to really end but the end of this improved section ends at Hurricane Road in Keene. From here if you cross the road and continue on you can see what the trail looked like before the improvements.
And here it is. The forest is closing in making it very narrow and rain has washed away parts of it here and there. In fact the entire trail has sunken below grade and is now in a U shape, and the drainage ditches have grown over and can no longer be seen. The condition of this section of trail is a good illustration of how important regular maintenance is.
I keep coming back to the rail trails because they are where my two favorite subjects, botany and history, come together in what are sometimes surprising ways. There’s really no telling what you might find on them; I’ve seen plants that I didn’t know existed in this area and by researching the railroads for posts like this one I’ve learned more about how they were built than I ever thought I’d need to know. If you’re looking to see parts of the landscape that you wouldn’t normally see, a good taste of local history, or just a pleasant stroll or bike ride, they can all be found on rail trails.
To wander is to be alive. ~Roman Payne
Thanks for coming by.