On the Sunset of the Sojourn Series, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Looks Back on Its National Impact

Posted 11/05/18 by Tom Sexton in America's Trails, Trail Use

Mansion House Bridge Dedication Ceremony on the 2018 Sojourn | Photo by Wendy Palmer
Susan Alexander, the winner of the 2018 Sojourn Talent Show. | Photo courtesy RTC
Susan Alexander, the winner of the 2018 Sojourn Talent Show. | Photo courtesy RTC

Last June, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was honored to bring together 300 riders from 33 states on our 2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn to explore the exceptional D&L Trail. Over five days, we biked more than 160 miles, visited trailside communities, experienced the unique cultural and natural heritage of the region, and made new friends and everlasting memories. (You can get a feel for how genuinely special the ride was in the reflective poem below courtesy of Susan Alexander, the winner of the 2018 Sojourn Talent Show.)

It was the rail-trail adventure of a lifetime—and it was the perfect sunset tour of our Sojourn Series

Since 2001, RTC has been leading these special bike tours on iconic trails in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida, New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Together, the sojourners—a group of nearly 5,000 bicyclists, campers, adventurers, volunteers and trail lovers—have ridden more than 3,700 miles and explored numerous communities. Though each tour was different, the camaraderie, spirit and love for trails never changed. Our mission for the Sojourn Series remained constant as well: showcase amazing trails and their transformative impact by providing a truly unparalleled, on-the-ground experience.

The trails featured on these rides were specifically chosen because they are, or are part of, developing systems or networks. We toured the trails and their developing connections to give our sojourners a glimpse of their enormous potential.

By riding the trails, the sojourners would not only fall in love with the finished sections, but also become some of most energetic cheerleaders and advocates for completing the full trail systems. The insight and understanding the sojourners walked away with, however, was equally as important as what they left behind: their dollars.

Over the years, the Sojourn Series has been a tool for demonstrating the dollars as well as the sense of creating and maintaining long-distance trails. Sojourners were encouraged to explore and be patrons of the places that give each trail its signature character—such as eateries, attractions, historic sites, shops and landmarks. Then, after each tour, we totaled the sojourners’ tourist spendings and presented the data to trail groups and decision-makers. What was a fun time of deliciousness and discovery for the sojourners would become proof of the trails’ positive economic impact and justification for why the trails need ongoing (and often additional) investment and support. 

Sojourn Slam

By Susan Alexander

It kind of started on a whim - my sister wrote me: “Are you in?” Well, I don’t know… I’m not that strong; I’ve never gone that far or long…I let the months go by, but made some more ambitious tries, And then one day I clicked the link; I read the ride; I saw the elevation guide. (Wouldn’t you agree it lied?) Four days of coasting. Piece—ofcake! I signed up for the restful break.

So now we’re in a blinding rainfall, churning through a gravel stew (I’m gonna learn a thing or two)! Gears seizing, fingers freezing, squealing brakes, or no brakes at all...My sister can get really mean when she hasn’t had enough caffeine-John Wayne would certainly admit- We’ve brought new meaning to True Grit!

But Monday’s sun was therapeutic, almost like a new beginning. Fresh and fit we lined the byways of Jim Thorpe to be the change we want to see: Rivers spanned, trails connected, despoilment banned, nature protected. As we gained the farther bank, we gave our local kin our thanks.

And now the sojourn starts in earnest: placid waters, bucolic scenes, hills in all varieties of greens, water stops with nuts and fruit magically appear to fuel our route, as Hank and George propel our barge, we learn about the evolution that stoked the American Industrial Revolution: Coal to iron to rails to- trails. Dixie cup to Crayola crayon. Seeking a more perfect nation.

Now there’s just a day to go. So glad to have finally come, so sorry it will be the last, I’m such a newbie, I don’t know the past, but I know this: Someone posed a noble question, And that person was Tom Sexton: How do we make them start to care, when they don’t even know what’s there? So thank you TomI’ll drop the micNow where do I pick up that bike?

Riders making new friends on the 2017 Sojourn | Photo courtesy RTC
Riders making new friends on the 2017 Sojourn | Photo courtesy RTC

“The sojourn is a biking tour with a purpose. We celebrate newly opened trails—a new segment, a new bridge, a new tunnel … and by arriving in large numbers, we often make an impression on decision-makers that helps result in their completing the trail within their community.”

— Tom Sexton, director of the Northeast Regional Office and the Sojourn Series

In 2018, our ride along the D&L Trail generated $107,448 for the region. As of the week of the tour, the beautiful trail was roughly 90 percent complete, but when finished, it will stretch an impressive 165 miles and connect five counties and dozens of communities. On the ride, the sojourners were lucky enough to celebrate the closing of one of these critical trail gaps during the Mansion House Bridge Dedication Ceremony in Jim Thorpe. Sojourners were among the very first to cross the highly-anticipated bridge over the Lehigh River, which now links an approximately 60-mile stretch of trail and three counties, and we know that many others—locals and tourists alike—will follow in their footsteps.

Hopefully, the awareness brought to the trail by the sojourn, and the impressive dollar figure it produced, will excite local leaders and make them realize the full economic potential that could come with year-round use. We hope it inspires them to become champions for the D&L Trail’s completion!

Our 19 sojourns in six states and Washington, D.C., infused the regions they toured with a total of approximately $2 million—helping to fuel trailside businesses and powering the local economies.

Can you imagine the transformative impact of connected trail systems and networks all across the country?

This bright future, where trails connect the nation, is the vision RTC is working to achieve. We are teaming up with local trail groups, public officials and communities to lead the development of trail networks for people to bike, hike, walk, get around on and enjoy. Already there are eight of these regional trail networks on the ground—RTC’s TrailNation™ projects—which are serving as a paradigm for many yet to come.

Riders celebrating reaching the Eastern Continental Divide during the 2013 Sojourn | Photo by Cleo Fogal
Riders celebrating reaching the Eastern Continental Divide during the 2013 Sojourn | Photo by Cleo Fogal

Like each of the sojourns, the purpose of these projects is to connect people with amazing trails (only on a much bigger scale!). And all the valuable lessons we learned from hosting the Sojourn Series will be applied to these various projects and shared with our partners so that millions of people can access trails and make their own unforgettable memories.

As we close one trail adventure and embark on another, we would like to give a heartfelt thanks to the participants, trail groups, volunteers, vendors—to all the sojourners—who have been a part of this incredible journey with us. We couldn’t have gone on this ride without you.

We’ve put together some of the many wonderful moments from the Sojourn Series in these albums. We hope they bring a smile to your face and inspire you to forever be an ambassador for trails and trail networks!

See photos from past sojourns!

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