June 22, 2011
Trains and Trail Inspire 79-Year -Old Florida Cycling Advocate
by Herb Hiller
When I lately thought about traveling from my central Florida home to Simsbury, Conn., I first thought about flying from Orlando, then renting a car in Hartford. As a journalist, I tend to question everything—including myself—and that got me thinking about traveling instead by Amtrak to New York, by commuter train to New Haven, and then by bike the 48 miles up the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.
Trains and trails don't often come up together when people think about long-distance travel, and that got me thinking again: So I looked up the origins of those words "train" and "trail" that look so alike, but that as a rail-trail enthusiast I took to be divergent.
Train, I found, comes from the French "to draw along" (as the train of a woman's gown); "trail" from Latin trāgula, which gives us "pull," as in "somewhere to pull something along," both words anglicized in the 14th century, and overlapping.
I felt like I'd been given the key to the synergy behind the rail-trail movement.
I further warmed to my late-April Simsbury trip when I also learned that Harriett Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, kept a summer home in Simsbury. I had written about her time in Mandarin, a neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla., where she wintered just down the St. Johns River from me. I had biked to her Mandarin haunts and also west to where on Sundays she would sail across the river to a still-standing country church.
(Stowe used Reconstruction winters in Mandarin to write enthusiastically about Florida, her aim to overcome the recidivist urge that after the Civil War still treated freed men as slaves. She implored northerners to relocate to Florida, and once there to overcome recidivism at the polls—"good" redeeming evil by outvoting it.)
I had still another reason for the trip.
In 1977 I had started a program of back-roads touring in north Florida that helped revive the state's bicycling movement after its dormancy of 50 years. That wrapped the second half of my life in cycling, in trails, and also in tourism of a kind that puts people closely in touch with where they find themselves.
For 20 years, I went without a car. Now, in my 80th year, I hadn't biked any distance since 1996.
I began riding two miles to the natural foods store and back. I got up to an eight-mile roundtrip to the Amtrak station. I topped out at 12 along a section of Volusia County's first-rate Spring to Spring Trail. Then I ran out of days.
I like trains, although I think only kids can sleep well in coach. Through the South, trains jerk along on what feel like square wheels. But you get more time than usual to read, to talk to people, doze, walk around and work your laptop (though without train-supplied wi-fi).
My train pulled into Penn Station maybe 45 minutes late. I wheeled my gear onto the 7th Avenue subway. Up on 42nd Street, tourists were clicking images of each other in the happy people grounds that Times Square has become since the city banned cars there. History enrolled me again when a friend arranged a room for me in the original section of the Harvard Club with baths down the hall.
Next morning, among business commuters I walked the three blocks to Grand Central Station, caught an early train to New Haven, changed into cycling gear at Union Station and, exactly as planned, found Mike Gallagher. Mike and I had first met a few weeks before at the National Bike Summit. Now we would ride together, he on his recumbent trike and I a hybrid he arranged for me. No toe clips, but we right away had the wind at our backs, where it stayed the entire way.
We started from the green along College Avenue, joined by Simsbury car dealer Steve Mitchell [profiled in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Rails to Trails] and writer Ann Marie Potter. Had I flown from Florida, I would have been driving a rental car from Hartford for this part of the trip. Too easy, too ordinary. Differently, I was on a great lawn across from the Gothic campus where Yale University began in 1701.
On a cool clearing morning, I quivered with anticipation, hummingbird-eager to sip the dream. I started shakily through streets till we reached the trail a mile on the north side of town. The entry to the trail rung in my imagination as a fanfare. This Cadillac of corridors—the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail—starts with great tapered gate-like pylons of river rock and with car-blocking bollards. After use as a canal, the corridor had become a rail bed, its history summarized in plaques and boards that commemorate the "New Haven and Northampton Railroad: the Canal Line."
I loved the story someone told about this section of trail: that because of its funding through pet-project money controlled by the speaker of the Connecticut House, envious lawmakers sometimes call this the "Trail of Pork."
The trail's look echoes beautiful sections of roadway through this Connecticut-New York region: variously, the Taconic State Parkway, the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Merritt Parkway. It wasn't pork when in the 1930s New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses created these singular corridors by meshing road building with landscape architecture. Now the beauty of this Farmington Canal trail left me uplifted.
Mike and I talked our way through landscapes bursting with spring flowers. Trailsides flamed in forsythia, dogwood and pink magnolia of luscious come-hither petals. Fresh beaver dams blocked streams. A museum sat closed beside the historic #12 canal lock. Mike told me that only snow stops cyclists on this trail, though I also learned from a Simsbury planner that snow plows in Stockholm re-open trails ahead of roads.
The day warmed to the low 80s, while my eyes warmed to kids riding home after school, to moms pushing prams, to old guys taking their time. The trail ran flat, as train riders assuredly know that rail-trails also almost always do.
Mike and I rode two trail gaps in after-school traffic, the longest 9.1 miles through northern Southington, Plainville and southern Farmington. Thanks to advocacy by the 1,400-member Farmington Valley Trails Council (FVTC), this gap and a shorter one through Cheshire might close by mid-decade. Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) and the municipalities are working together on many levels. "Even in this poor economic climate," says FVTC President Bruce Donald, "big efforts are being made to complete this project, which is already one of the finest in New England. Fresh air has blown through ConnDOT. We now have people who believe in bike-ped."
Despite the ups and downs in terrain during the gap, I never got off to push. The last seven trail miles, including the Farmington River Bridge, ran straightaway to Simsbury.
Like the trail, Simsbury, founded in 1670, itself runs so narrowly through the valley that it lacks a town green. Instead of squared in the middle, the town stretches long and tight-shouldered, the same as yesteryear's canal and rail bed. You wonder about Route 10 through town, the kind of road that elsewhere might so easily become four-laned, reducing town commerce to burger joints, gas pumps and chain motels. Or why hasn't the town already become an antiques alley? The Simsbury Commons mall south of town captured many town stores and still out-competes downtown for inquiring retailers.
Yet thanks to its residents, Simsbury is visionary as well as rooted. The town celebrates its listings in the National Register. But Simsbury is also only 25 minutes from Hartford. Many among the town's 24,000 residents choose retirement in their familiar rural canvas. They use the trail. They support local farms. They sell off development rights.
Municipal buildings stay put in town. The chamber of commerce has stayed. So have upper-end shops and restaurants. They're helped by the Simsbury Inn that looks 19th-century but opened only in 1988. The inn scores well with conferences and retreats. Corporate visitors mix with affluent locals at Meadow Asian Cuisine and at Abigail's. Three independent markets do business here. You find a florist, three hardware stores, a bike shop, jewelers, a music store, wine shop, pubs and a row of car dealerships all owned by the Mitchell family.
More retailers will follow the next newcomers. Planning for them began in 1988 when Iron Horse Boulevard paved the old rail bed. Waterfront parks line the way, forming a town "green" for public events and for launching canoes and kayaks. Back-of-store parking went in, and so, too, the first section of trail. Garden-level condominiums alongside the river back up to the trail, and more are coming. To keep the town attractive, residents early this year ordered that whatever next gets built conform to the town's traditional look.
East of the river a high hill called Talcott Mountain harbors the cave of King Philip, whose war of resistance against the English convulsed New England 335 years ago. Less tortured history attends the 165-foot-tall Heublein Tower, built in 1914 by the heir of the once famous Heublein Spirits Company as a love castle for his wife.
Many already in town are shaping its future. Jeweler Bill Selig relocated from built-up Avon. He grew up cycling the American West. He now rides the trail and tends a vegetable garden that supplies his neighborhood. Most revealing, Steve Mitchell of the auto group in town donated part of his car lot to the city to accommodate the trail. Steve sits on the board of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. After he helped with my train-trail plans, he also organized a mass ride for Alliance members up the trail from New Haven to Simsbury.
Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy showed up the day after the mass ride to announce that a new $1.1 million grant would evaluate how to put a trail alongside the entire 37-mile Merritt Parkway. That would parallel the Metro North line in the new world where trains and trails not only share meaning but also corridors.
Writer Herb Hiller is at work on a book about locally resourceful tourism that will include a chapter on his train-trail ride to Simsbury.