image of the Eastern Trail web page mastheadThe Outsider: Meandering Along Old Railroad Trails on a Bike
This article was apparently originally published in the New York Times on March 30, 2001.

Sitting on Joe's Bench (Joe Rossi) on my way back from Washington Crossing (George Washington), I decided that I might have to change my thinking on bicycling.

I haven't been a big fan of bicycles as an adult. Maybe it was the Lycra that put me off, or the idea of shoes that attach to the pedal. Or maybe it was the way serious road cyclists travel in groups, like platoons of marauding personal trainers in aerodynamic helmets.

I know that I should think: how wonderful that these men and women are exercising instead of eating cheese steaks. How beneficial for their health. But what I actually think is: what if they surround me and criticize my percentage of body fat? And why don't they look happy?

I liked bicycles well enough during their age of innocence (which, as far as I can tell, coincided with my own), when foot brakes and one gear seemed sufficient. But then bicycles went through a period of accelerated evolution. Composite frames appeared; 21 gears became commonplace; new species and subspecies proliferated. There are racing bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, bikes to do flips and twirls on a half-pipe. They even interbreed. What else would explain what is now called a hybrid?

That's the kind of bike I had propped against Joe's Bench. I think of it as a bike-path bike, somewhere between mountain and road. I had been cycling along the former path of the Belvidere Delaware Railroad in New Jersey from just north of Lambertville down to the historic spot where Washington brought 2,400 troops across the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776 and prepared for the battle of Trenton.

The Bel-Del, as it was called, is gone now. In its place is a nice flat cinder path, bordered on the east by a feeder canal that connects to the Delaware and Raritan Canal farther south and on the west by the Delaware River.

The nearly 30-mile path built on the old railroad grade is part of the 70-mile-long Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. It was on this path that I had been rediscovering the pleasures of bicycling, weaving back and forth, trying out my old "no-hands" technique, making believe I was Paul Newman showing off to Katharine Ross in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." The broad river on the right, a favorite of shad fishermen later in the spring, gave way to fields and then reappeared as I rode south.

The canal, straight and clean as a rail bed, was dotted with pairs of mallards and Canada geese and marked occasionally by remnants of railroad history. One old rail drawbridge showed some of the rusting gears that operated it.

In the long stretches with water on both sides, I had the luxurious sense of floating along the path. Of course, the grade was slightly downhill at the time.

Apart from making sure that I didn't absent-mindedly ride into the canal, I had no worries. (You don't need to be a good bicyclist for this trail, but you do need to remain conscious.) I felt as if I were 11 again, riding around with friends, looking for the chance to cause trouble. The trip made me remember that what I liked most about bicycling when I was young was that you could get far enough away from your own neighborhood to be unsuspected when you committed some mischief.

But when I stopped to rest, I had been pedaling more than 10 miles and I had also rediscovered how wrong the shape of a bicycle seat is. I have no idea who Joe Rossi was, or why someone was moved to set up a bench in his memory, but I'm glad it was done. The Delaware River and the sun were at my back, ducks were swimming in the canal, and, sore as I was, I was still thinking that this particular railroad didn't die in vain. Maybe bicycling wasn't so bad after all.

I suppose there's a kind of melancholy symmetry in the decline of one form of transportation promoting the use of another, the technological equivalent of young plants growing in rotting trees. Over the last 15 years thousands of miles of old railroad grades have been transformed into trails. They're not just for bicyclists, although that is one use for which they are perfect. They also serve, depending on the trail, joggers, walkers, people in wheelchairs, in-line skaters and horseback riders.

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that promotes turning railroad grades into trails, there were 255 such trails in the country in 1986, when the organization was founded, covering a total of 2,439 miles. Now, the conservancy says, there are more than 1,000 such trails covering more than 11,000 miles. The conservancy, which provides assistance to groups trying to turn old railroads into paths, has fostered the growth of trails, as has federal legislation that provides money for non-motorized transportation and eases the process of creating rail trails.

Many of the rail trails are just a few miles long. Some are covered in asphalt. Some are in county or city or state parks. Hugh Morris, research director for the conservancy, said the urban paths were among the most important, like the Capital Crescent Trail, 11 miles of asphalt connecting Bethesda, Md., and Georgetown.

Mr. Morris enumerated, as a research director should, seven benefits of rail trails, including improved health of users and improved air quality for communities. He did not list the simple pleasure of getting outside and strolling or cycling. He recognized that it existed but said, "I don't think anybody has ever sort of tried to quantify that benefit."

What all the trails have in common is that trains do not like sharp turns or steep grades, so rail trails are gentle. Their geography is democratic. You can amble or run, ski or stroll. The wheels you use can be on your skates or your wheelchair. But ease of access can mean crowds. The path I took is very heavily used once the weather warms up.

Another benefit of these trails is that they tend to go through towns. You can stop in Lambertville and have lunch or go antiquing. Just leave the rail bed itself and pedal on the east side of the canal to go through town. And watch out for the geese; I passed through two gaggles.

I don't think most people understand the nature of geese. A little real-time, face-to-face interaction with a goose can be illuminating.

When a goose stretches out its neck, opens its mouth wide to reveal what passes for a tongue among goose- kind and hisses, you know that there are aliens among us, and they have not come in peace. Not that you need to worry about taking your children along.

I emerged unscathed. And when I did stop to stroll around Lambertville, I found a wine shop offering a complimentary tasting. This was better than Joe's Bench. There's always a catch. All the wines were made in New Jersey. Nonetheless, the five I tasted (to make it a scientific sampling) seemed pretty good to me. And I'm sure that the thirst I developed riding against the wind for the last leg of the trip had no effect on my judgment.

I even bought a Riesling to take home. I plan to drink it soon. But just to be on the safe side, I'm going to bike a few miles on a rail trail first.

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