What was, what is now, and what could one day be. It sounds like a philosophical mantra, or a visualization technique, but really it describes what the rail-trail "business" is all about.
The before and after photo. The transformation. The potential. The undiscovered future.
This past weekend, within the space of just a few hours, I found myself face to face with both the "before" and the "after" - one community trying to imagine a popular destination rail-trail in their area, and another already living the dream.
On Saturday, the Allegheny Trail Alliance and trails supporters in Pennsylvania and Maryland threw a wonderful party to celebrate the completion of the Great Allegheny Passage, and specifically the finished construction of a section of the trail on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
We already know how popular the GAP is, but it was reaffirming to see the many thousands of riders and trail fans coming out to show their love and appreciation for this remarkable asset.
On our way back to Washington, D.C., my wife and I stayed overnight in the lovely town of Friendsville, M.D., a one main street, blink and you'd miss it type place on the Upper Youghiogheny River. (It's also just off Interstate 68, but a river is a much nicer landmark than an interstate, don't you think?)
Chatting with the very friendly owner of the Riverside Hotel, where we stayed that night, I asked if there was a nice walk to be had around the town, maybe something along the steady-flowing river just yards from the hotel's front porch.
"Well, there's a little trail along the other side of the river," she replied. "It's built along an old railroad bed, so it's nice and flat. It's a bit overgrown in parts, though..."
Turns out just the day before, the community of Friendsville had met at the café next door to try and muster some local volunteers and a coordinated effort to keep the trail in good condition. Although this one trail, named the Kendall Trail after the historic, abandoned community at its terminus, is only two miles long it is a key segment of what could be a terrific system in a beautiful part of the world.
Already popular with kayakers and river-seekers, Friendsville is conscious that adding another reason to stop in town and stay the night would be a great help to the local economy. The Great Allegheny Passage is less than 15 miles to the north. Elsewhere, the nonprofit Garrett Trails is developing hiking and biking connections throughout Garrett County. The potential is enormous.
"Well, but it's only two miles. What can two miles do? People aren't going to visit a town for two miles..." some might say. That's what they said about the Great Allegheny Passage, back in the 80s. Before it was a connected trail, it was random pieces of rail-trail that just happened to share a corridor. Bit by bit, local communities put together their own, short sections. It wasn't until much later that the bigger picture came into focus, by which time, of course, it all seemed so obvious.
But at the beginning it doesn't always seem obvious, and it all has to start somewhere. In Friendsville, whether the locals can believe that investing a whole bunch of time and energy into a short, two-mile section of rail-trail is going to pay dividends some day is a matter of faith. Belief in a future they can't quite see yet.
It's great to see them taking the first steps. I hope they find the courage and conviction to take more.