I’ve been riding the rail trails: biking on old railroad beds that have been repurposed for non-motorized recreational use.
I used to ride my bicycle on the roads. When I was sixteen, I biked from southwestern Connecticut to southeastern Vermont. The way I remember it, back then there was less traffic, less speeding and less road rage. Rail trails are blissfully car-free, and in my corner of the world, there are quite a few old rail beds where the rails and ties have been scrapped, bridges rehabilitated, and parking lots strategically sited.
The West River Trail
Closest to my home is the West River Trail, a five-mile section of the former West River Railroad, whose history is recounted in a book titled 36 Miles of Trouble, which tells you something about the narrow-gauge road where the trains didn’t always roll into the station on time—or at all. The West River Trail serves Brattleboro’s walkers, runners and dogs, as well as the occasional cyclist. It makes half of my twelve-mile ride into town pleasant. But the other half is on narrow secondary roads and a state highway where the majority of motorists interpret the posted speed limit as a minimum rate of travel, so I don’t ride my bike into town very often. But this summer, Tim and I have been exploring other rail trails in the area.
The Northern Rail Trail
The Northern Rail Trail in New Hampshire runs 58 miles from Lebanon to Boscawen on the old Boston and Maine Northern Line. Tim remembers riding this train when he was just eight. His mom put him and his ten-year-old brother on the train in New Hampshire; their dad, who was working in Cambridge that summer, met them in Boston. The train made several whistle stops for what Tim then thought were “old ladies” before it covered the fourteen miles to the first station stop in Canaan. (When you’re eight, everyone seems old.) Anxious not to miss his stop, he asked the conductor, “Is this Boston?” He and Mike repeated this question so often, the conductor finally said, “Don’t worry! I’ll let you know when we get there!”
It took us two hours to pedal to Canaan, where we had a highly satisfactory lunch at the Red Wagon Bakery. We cycled back to the car in half the time, because it was all downhill. We hadn’t realized the ride to lunch was entirely uphill until we whipped by the mile markers every four minutes on the way back. All told, our 28-mile round trip took four hours, lunch included, and ended up at The Dairy Twirl on our way out of town.
The Fort Hill Rail Trail
We again headed back to New Hampshire on our next rail trail outing, to the Fort Hill Rail Trail, in Hinsdale, just a few miles from home. This is a nine-mile trail along the Connecticut River. We passed the Vernon Dam, built in 1909 and still generating electricity. Just upstream from the dam is the site of the former Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, decommissioned in 2014. The trail ends at an abandoned railroad bridge with rotted ties. Maybe someday a local group will do the arduous work of finding funding to repurpose the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians to cross into Vermont.
It was a sultry August afternoon, so the deep shade made up for the rough condition of the trail. We caught views of the enormous delta formed by the big dam, complete with reeds, cattails, blooming water lilies and people having fun in watercraft of all sorts, and we ended our outing at the Northfield Creamee for cones.
The Delaware & Hudson Line
Our most ambitious outing recently was to the western corner of Vermont, where we picked up the Delaware and Hudson Trail in West Rupert and rode north about seventeen miles, through the Slate Valley, to Center Granville, New York, where we turned back. Another day, we’ll explore the northern section of this trail, which starts in Castleton, Vermont. Currently, there’s a four-mile gap between the two sections. On the way back, we stopped at the Slate Museum, where we learned how to split the stone that is still quarried in this beautiful valley and shipped all over the world.
Two miles from the end of the trail, we heard a marching band and joined the hometown crowd to watch the Rupert Old Home Days parade. Instead of ending our ride at a local ice cream shop, we were handed ice cream from a dairy fairy, the perfect end to a thirty-six mile ride.