Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring break 2010: riding the rails-to-trails

I'm back after a brief hiatus, feeling energized by Spring (or the near-ness of Spring).  I visited St. Petersburg, Florida this month which may have something to do with it. Though it wasn't perfect weather for the beach, it was sunny and comfortable enough for a long day spent bike riding.

We set out for the Pinellas Trail, a 34-mile ride which starts in urban St. Petersburg and glides up the coast until reaching Tarpon Springs.

We rode just a tiny quarter of the whole trail, but it was far enough to see the city streets fade into the background, only to be replaced with a series of eerie industrial parks. A few were still working; peddling past, we saw a lone machinated assembly line hoisting mounds of corn or soybeans up what looked like a rickety old roller coaster.  Most of the buildings were abandoned and desolate, their walls covered with graffiti.  Some had colorful large-scale murals painted on their sides, seemingly dedicated to the cultural life of St. Pete - an underwater ocean scene, a violent tropical storm, the Grand Prix finish line (the Grand Prix is held here each year).  Another showed a scene from the movie "Field of Dreams" and, seeing no obvious connection, I guessed the artist must simply be a fan.  The backdrops provided excellent photo shoot material.


 Industrial parks alongside Pinellas Trail

Grand Prix mural

Field of Dreams

 A rusted track of railroad weaved in and out alongside us, appearing for 200 yards or so and then gone.  The bike shop owner had mentioned we would see the old railroad, and that it was pretty cool to ride your bike on top of it.  There were several signs posted along the trail that gave more detail; formerly a 34 mile CSX corridor, the railroad had been abandoned for some time.  The city, in conjunction with a non-profit group called the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy had adapted it into the bike path (although it is still being worked on - the Pinellas Trail website says carefully that the whole vision has not been competed just yet).  This discovery made sense; the industrial parks were probably served at one time by a freight runner, and after passing a red brick building with arched doorways and an engraved "Established in 1918" post over its entrance, I surmised that it must have once been the station. 

Railroads crisscrossed their way across the US in their heyday, connecting city to country and coast to heartland in a more meaningful way than planes do now.  They not only served as a means of transportation, but also as a venue for viewing foreign landscapes and tasting the distinct regional cultures of the United States.  Rather than just dropping in from out of the sky, travelers had a real sense of where they came from, what lands they crossed and just how far and how long it took them to do it.

New York City recently experienced a stunning achievement with the High Line, a green space built along a section of formerly elevated railroad track.  Similarly, the Rails-to-Trails Program has been refashioning derelict railroad track since 1976.  Recognizing the historical importance of preserving America's railroad lines, the organization has worked diligently to create innovative ways of viewing it.  Rails-to-Trails operates throughout the country, and includes paths like the one I road, that are paved alongside a former railroad, and also some called "Rails-with-a-Trail", where the public path converges with an active railroad line.  Ever fantasized of riding with the sound of a frenzied freight train bellowing at your heels? Here's your chance.

Though it may not have been the most scenic bike route I've taken (since we didn't make it to the coast) knowing that we were tracing the path of a former railroad line added a sense of importance to the trip, an earnest curiosity.  What had it been like when it was a bustling web of activity, industry and work? Had vacationing passengers, traveling from the city to the coast, once viewed the same scenes with eager anticipation of their final stop?  Not only was riding on the railroad "cool", but it sparked a connection to what came before, and the pleasure of seeing things the slow way.

For more information on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, visit their website at:  http://www.railstotrails.org/index.html

Pinellas Trail Map taken from the following website:  http://www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide/regions/westcentral/trails/pinellas_trail.htm

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