This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of Rails to Trails magazine and has been reposted here in an edited format. Subscribe to read more articles about remarkable trails while also supporting our work.
In June 2021, my husband, Pat, and I began our trek on the Great American Rail-Trail in Seattle, Washington, at the western end of the 3,700-mile developing route. We cycled over mountains and past deserts and farmland. We rode through cities and countless small towns. We crossed over or cycled along dozens of rivers. Whenever we needed help, someone always extended a hand. On Aug. 24, when we reached the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., we stood in silence, honoring our accomplishment and those whose foresight led to the creation of the Great American.
Amish Country Friends
One of our favorite experiences actually took place toward the end of our trip. Thanks to a helpful stranger and the expertise and generosity of an Amish family in Glenmont, Ohio, what could have been an all-around disastrous day became one with unexpected treasures. We gained a better understanding of Amish culture, forged new friendships and were able to complete our journey on the Great American Rail-Trail.
On a steep hill outside of Glenmont, Shevonne’s bicycle refused to shift, forcing her to push it for miles. This wasn’t the first time her bicycle had faltered, and she was in tears. A passerby took us to a local Amish-owned bicycle shop, whereupon the owner quickly identified the problem. “You need a new cassette, which I can replace. It isn’t the correct one, so cycling uphill might be challenging.”
Given predicted thunderstorms, he invited us to camp there overnight. That evening and the following morning, we shared time together with him and his family—learning much about their customs. In turn, they were curious about how we happened to come to them that day. “It all began when a tree fell along our route on the Holmes County Trail, and we had to detour!” said Pat. (And what a lucky detour it was!)
Learn more about Ohio’s section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
Just Follow the Tracks
On the NorPac Trail, after cycling on the trail in Idaho to the top of Lookout Pass (elevation 4,710 feet) at the Idaho–Montana border, we were ready for 14 miles of coasting into Saltese, Montana. Inside the ski lodge at Lookout Pass, we asked an employee about the route down, which includes a section that travels through the Borax Tunnel.
“The U.S. Forest Service closed the tunnel yesterday because it’s in danger of collapsing. Your only way down is to cycle on I-90,” she said.
“I am not going to cycle the Interstate while semis thunder past me,” Shevonne said, to which the employee replied, “Well, then you’re stuck.”
Another employee suggested we attempt to find the correct ATV trail shortcut (there were many) to guide us around the tunnel safely. We opted to give this plan a try. As we slowly cycled on the rock-strewn trail, a family of ATV riders, in full gear and helmets, appeared from the opposite direction. We flagged them down and asked if they went through the closed tunnel.
“Oh, no,” they said. “We followed the tunnel detour through some other trails. Our tire tracks will still be visible. Follow them and you will be fine.”
And in the end, we were fine—and exhausted.
Learn more about Montana's section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
Small-Town Charms … and Emmys
Along the 285-mile Palouse to Cascades trail in Washington, the town of Rosalia was a gem. We camped in a beautiful town park and had lively conversations at the Red Brick Café. The park featured mature trees, a ball field and a swimming pool. In the evening, a girls’ softball game brought out the entire town.
While eating breakfast the next day at the café, we heard horrific stories about the recent Malden wildfire and met more new friends, including Rudy, a kind gentleman in his 90s. “I won two Emmys for a television program I produced,” he said. “I traveled back roads across the country, interviewing folks.” Moments later, he went to his truck and brought in his two (dusty) Emmy awards!
Learn more about Washington's section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
(Big) Bulls and Birds
After cycling on the T-Bone Trail in Iowa, named as such because farmers once rode with their steers to market on the former rail line, we arrived in Audubon. We first stopped to admire Albert, known as the world’s largest bull. He is 28 feet tall and made of 45 tons of concrete.
We cycled to the town center, which commemorates John James Audubon, the famous ornithologist, artist and painter. Here, we found statues of Audubon prominently displayed in the town square. Several of his “Birds of America” illustrations, replicated in ceramic tile by artist Clint Hansen, line the brick sidewalks.
Learn more about Iowa’s section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum
On the eastern side of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho, Wallace’s railroad history came alive for us at the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot Museum, which once served as home to employees of the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. We saw the railroad agent’s room, talked on a real telephone from 1908, and learned that men’s and women’s waiting rooms were separate because behaviors society attributed to men back then (e.g., smoking, profanity) were considered offensive to women. We also saw the only remaining flag from President Teddy Roosevelt’s visit to Wallace when he arrived on the Northern Pacific and left on the Union Pacific.
Learn more about Idaho’s section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
A Taste of Huckleberries
In Harrison, Idaho, we were introduced to the huckleberry, a round, purple tart fruit that grows at higher elevations. We purchased muffins from two women selling huckleberry products as a fundraiser. “Huckleberries were once everywhere in Idaho, growing after our forested lands had been clear-cut,” they shared, adding that since clear-cutting is no longer supported, there are now far fewer berries.
South Cle Elum Depot
At the South Cle Elum Depot in Washington, one of three crew-changing stations on the former Milwaukee Road, we uncovered more railroad history. After dining outdoors in the mid-day sun on smoked pork ribs and cornbread from the depot’s restaurant, we walked through the former railroad yard, reading interpretive signs and admiring the former residences of the crew and substation operators.
The Constellation of Starke, the Prairie Trails Club and the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum have added a unique feature to the North Judson Erie Trail in Indiana. It was intriguing as we cycled to find our solar system on signage that has been set up in scale, to the actual planets’ sizes and distances between them, as they are separated in outer space.
Learn more about Indiana’s section of the Great American Rail-Trail.
Riding Through History
This 90-mile trail follows the route of a historical canal, constructed in the 1820s, where mules towed barges on the Ohio River from Portsmouth to Cleveland. We cycled past several former locks, had lunch in the historic town of Bolivar and traveled through the site of Fort Laurens, the only Revolutionary War fort located in what would become the state of Ohio.
We arrived in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Capitol eager for a photo to commemorate our accomplishment. We asked a tall young man dressed in yellow shorts and blue running shoes if he would take our picture. “Where are you from?” we asked. “Moscow,” he answered. As we wrapped up our journey, we reflected on the diversity of the Great American—a route that truly unites all of us.