In case you lost your measuring stick, the average distance between railroad tracks is about four and a half feet. But don’t let this fact get you mixed up with “Four 1/2 feet,” the latest project by artist, rail-trail enthusiast (and former RTC employee!) Lisa Conrad.
How does an 11-day rail-trail marathon come to be considered art? To find out, I interviewed Conrad at her home studio in Oakland, California, where she updated me on the status of her most recent work.
The goal of “Four 1/2 feet” is to use rail-trails to draw a metaphoric line across the continental United States to provide people with a new look at the American landscape. GPS tracking, GoPro footage and a series of high-definition aerial shots by the critically acclaimed photographer Michael Light documented Conrad’s 11-trail, 443-mile ride that started on Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail and finished on the Route of the Hiawatha around Pearson, Idaho.
Inside Conrad's minimalist, open-air art studio, I viewed wall-to-wall prints of Light’s aerial shots of the ride. I then peered into the corner of the room and observed something that resembled a flag. Conrad explained that the riders on her team affixed these large white pennants to the backs of their bicycles for the entire duration of the ride. Viewed from hundreds of feet above, the pennants help locate the riders—miniscule white dots—in relation to the magnificent landscapes they must attempt to navigate.
“It was really tough,” Conrad said. “There were a couple segments of the route we chose that were difficult to navigate. We biked along one section in central Washington that led to the edge of a cliff where a bridge had collapsed, and we could see that the trail continued on the other side of this riverbed. Parts of the trail were impassible by bike, so we ended up bushwhacking around certain sections just to link back up to where we could ride again. Luckily, it didn’t rain on us too much.”
While the enduring nature of the cross-country expedition took a physical toll on Conrad (and her bike), it was also rich in moments that her team will never forget. “My favorite part about the ride was finally having the opportunity to visit parts of the country that most people never think to go to. Because who thinks to spend their one week of vacation in northern Idaho, right?” she remarked.
Conrad learned that the experiences these places offer couldn’t be farther from what people tend to associate with their isolated nature. Because they aren’t typical vacation destinations, they offer serenity unmatched by any other place. Conrad’s top trail out of the 11 she traveled was the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The 73-mile thigh-burner traverses scenic mountain ranges along Idaho’s chain of lakes region leading up to the foot of the Rockies. The area was rich with Native American activity until the explosion of mining and railroad interests that later developed in the region. Conrad said this complex history made the ride even more meaningful. She also noted a memorable 7-mile downhill section on this trail, calling it a “roller coaster ride.”
Throughout the entire 443-mile ride, Conrad was thankful she could reliably follow the Northwest’s robust regional trail network. In fact, only 20 miles of the entire trip had to be completed on a highway or road. This is a testament to the miles of well-maintained trails that line Washington State and the Idaho Panhandle. The next section of the ride, Conrad explained, will be much trickier and potentially more exposed than the first. Before she can reach the trails of the Midwest, she will have to cross a literal “dead zone” across Montana, which currently has few bike-friendly travel options.
Throughout her career, Conrad’s art has focused on humans’ impact on the planet. To her, the trail is not only an outlet for recreation and solitude, it’s also a platform to create art that sheds light on bigger-picture issues like urban sustainability, natural conservation and American history. The significance of railways is not just that they got people from point A to point B quicker than ever before, but that they fundamentally altered the patterns of westward migration and urbanization throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. A ride back east along these same tracks, Conrad hopes, metaphorically reverses this process while providing her audiences with a completely new way of viewing America.