23 April 2012

My morning on the Swamp Rabbit

As much as I love living in the Southeast, and specifically in the mountains of North Carolina, there is one thing in particular that we are lacking compared to our brethren north of the Mason-Dixon line: Rail-trails. Greenways. Bike paths. Bike lanes.

In a word: Infrastructure. Bicycle infrastructure.

Now, don't misunderstand me. In the debate that rages within certain circles, I am not what I'd consider to be an infrastructurist. I do not believe in "separate-but-equal" when it comes to bicycle facilities, because all too often I've seen "equal" devolve into a rubble-strewn, potholed, impassable mess that forces riders out into the traffic they're trying so hard to avoid. Rather, I'm of the mind that you need to mix and match your opportunities: If I'm out for a training ride, I'm part of traffic on open roads; if I'm mountain biking I'm looking for singletrack; and if the day calls for an easy ride, or an afternoon with the family, I'd like to have easy access to a relatively flat, nicely paved, full-of-amenities bike path through bucolic neighborhoods and countryside.

Admittedly, I'm spoiled. My gateway drug to the world of shaved legs and lycra was an early rail-trail along the Fox River Valley in northern Illinois that was built just two blocks from my boyhood home. The Fox River Trail was my escape, as summer day after summer day I would enjoy rides from 30 minutes to more than 8 hours, exploring the world around me on solo journeys that always finished with a nice, big Dairy Queen Blizzard from the trailside stand in Dundee (Brownie Delight with extra chocolate sauce, thankyouverymuch).  I witnessed firsthand -- and at a young age -- the transformational nature of converted railbeds, how a thin ribbon of reclaimed right-of-way could be changed to a paved boulevard of recreational and economic opportunity. Our meager downtown -- like others along the path -- was pretty well left for dead when the railroad left town; as I grew up and as the Trail was built and expanded, I got to see a rebirth "along the path" that begot civic pride, business development and health and welfare in a way I'm not sure anyone fully expected. We redefined "quality of life" before we even knew what that meant.

I now find myself in a community that in some ways is reminiscent of my childhood home. Hendersonville is about the same size as Algonquin when I lived there; like Algonquin, it's surrounded by a fairly sizable and rural county, and like Algonquin, Hendo is an old-time railroad town that has a set of unused, near-abandoned railroad tracks running through it. Quite unlike Algonquin, at the time a sleepy bedroom community that defined the edge of the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area, Hendersonville has a lot of closer-in amenities and things to do -- when I lived in northern Illinois, we measured trips by at least the half-hour, as in, the nearest grocery store was 30 minutes from home; and for a long time the nearest department store (at the mall!) was nearly an hour (two half-hours) away.

By contrast, Hendersonville has a vibrant downtown that has already undergone a renaissance, and it's in close proximity to a host of really cool tourist and recreation destinations. We absolutely have that going for us. Though we're not far from Asheville, we are very much our own, self-contained city. But we're still rural at heart, and the acres of apple orchards that stretch as far as the eye can see to the east attest to our agrarian mindset. And like in Algonquin 30 years ago, that mindset does not lend itself to thinking favorably of nontraditional recreational infrastructure improvements -- particularly when it comes to bike paths.

We have one greenway, the Oklawaha, that is built on the banks of Mud Creek. I'm appreciative that it connects one city park to another, but I have to be blunt: It's pretty pathetic. It's barely 3 miles long. It floods if we get more than a drop of rain. It's shoved off to the side, feeling for all the world like a project that was conceived and executed simply to say "hey, look, we have a greenway."

Over the next 2 years, we'll also get a bike lane that will connect Fletcher (nearby to both Cane Creek and the hospital where Kim works) to the Wal-Mart in Hendersonville. This I can get exicted about -- the road it is on is fun to ride, and this lane will enable bikes-as-transportation opportunities for a lot of people who otherwise have no safe north-south alternative. It will also create some recreational opportunities. But getting to this point hasn't been easy: local advocates had to fight tooth-and-nail to get the lane, and even then it almost cost one transportation planner his job.

The reason I bring all this up is that we have a major opportunity facing us. That near-abandoned rail line I mentioned connects Hendersonville 18 miles west to Brevard, passing through the towns of Laurel Park, Horse Shoe and Etowah and ending at the gates to the Pisgah National Forest. "The Ecusta Trail," as its known, would be a re-imagining of the Norfolk Southern rail line that served the Ecusta paper mill -- a mill that closed in 2002. In fact, the spur that served the mill itself has been formally abandoned and turned over to a developer, who plans to build a middle-density development on the property just inside the Brevard city limits.

What's more, that corridor connects to a greenway that already runs near the property. Brevard and Transylvania County realized fairly recently that their future is likely tied to their ability to market themselves as a great place to live and play and visit. That greenway, and new trails that connect the city to the National Forest, is part of a resurgent Brevard -- a Brevard in which "active tourism"-related activities have become a integral part of their vision of the future.

But still we struggle. Setting aside the obvious acrimony of dealing with the railroad (who still own the corridor and have no plans to formally abandon), what frustrates me most is, quite frankly, my neighbors. One of the main reasons we don't enjoy the same recreational amenities that I grew up with is, simply, fear. This was made clear to me in a public meeting a few weeks back, during which -- despite the organizers erstwhile attempts to keep things on track -- it was made clear that my fellow Henderson and Transylvania County residents are scared of the unknown that a rail-trail represents. They fear the physical manifestation of the trail, they fear a perceived increase in crime, they fear a financial burden. And what's more, they're obstinate: It does not do to present 30 years of positive data in an attempt to persuade them -- because that data is from "not here." That is, I can't describe the changes that happened in downtown Elgin, Illinois, due to the Fox River Trail because Elgin is "not here." What's worse, it's "up North." Or the rebirth of Damascus, Virginia, thanks to the Virginia Creeper Trail -- even Damascus, only a 2-1/2-hour drive from Hendersonville, is "not here." So, for some reason I cannot fathom, it doesn't count.

The organizers took that into account, however, and presented a case that might as well be "here:" That of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, connecting Travelers Rest to Greenville, South Carolina. Just a 35-minute drive down the watershed from Hendersonville, the Swamp Rabbit is a converted tram line that had been long abandoned, splitting Travelers Rest in half and forming a long scar that ran throughout Greenville County. But what was once an eyesore had been transformed, and the planner of the trail invited the hundred-plus folks assembled at West Henderson High School to visit Travelers Rest, to sit on a bench, and to pick out one of the trail users who looked most like us: because rest assured, you will find someone using that trail who is just like you, whether you're a lycra-clad wanna-be racer or a farmer who wasn't too keen on having "those bike folks" ride through your back yard.

So last Tuesday, that's what I did. I had a visit planned to a customer near Columbia, SC, and so on the way I stopped in Travelers Rest.

And I was transported back in time.

All of a sudden, I was a kid again. I was riding an easy pace, wondering at the beauty that surrounded me, riding as far as I could in the time allowed. I was back along the Fox River, only I was really next to the Reedy River, and I was seeing the world through the rose-colored glasses that only a casual bike ride on a pristine bike path can provide. It was incredible, and I can't wait to take Daniel and Kate there, and Kim, and tell them about all the awesome adventures I had on a similar bike path when I was younger. I also can't wait to tell this story, to anyone who will listen, because Travelers Rest is now a pretty little town, Greenville has attracted businesses who look at Asheville/Fletcher/Hendersonville and don't see the commitment to quality of life that they think should be there,* and by God someday I want to be able to ride a bicycle, with my kids, on a safe route from our home to the Pisgah National Forest. There's no reason on earth that shouldn't happen. So let's make it so.

* Thankfully, there has been some major movement with regards to this lately. Both Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing have selected Henderson County and Asheville as their new East Coast homes, and both have cited the recreation opportunities and quality of life as major drivers in their decisions. What we've experienced here too long, though, is that we look like we've got it going on, only to fall short in execution -- it is my sincere hope that both these companies will help spur lasting change in the mountains.

Here's a small taste of what The Swamp Rabbit is all about:

It was pretty cool -- 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, I expected to have the place to myself. And while it wasn't crowded, every time I looked up, there were more people on the trail -- and to my great surprise, it was a pretty diverse audience. That's the impact a project like this can have on a community! 

Small enterprises like "Alleykat's" lemonade stand add an ambiance and an economic driver to a path like this. 

Obviously, not all the neighbors are scared of trail users! 

It was so cool to see this -- I'm used to the old-school metal gates blocking vehicular traffic; a tree is a much more elegant solution! 

In a nod to its rail heritage, The Swamp Rabbit has a couple of old rail cars for the kids to climb on! 

The trail is well marked, with signage and half-mile posts along its length, and has quiet spots to sit and rest every few hundred feet. 

In remembrance of Greenville County cyclists who have been killed or injured. 

Bad photo, but the whole time near TR, you're in the shadow of Paris Mountain. Pretty cool -- make a day of it and go mountain biking too! 

Near downtown, showing how the trail has been integrated into the retail landscape. Imagine when this was a set of unused tracks, how divisive it must have been! 

There are amazing amenities all along the trail, even a pump track at the northern end in the county park where I parked my car! 

... And my favorite photo, a driving range owner who got creative, dug up a bunch of garage-sale bikes, and now rents them out for $10 a pop. That's the American spirit at work, folks!


Alex said...

Here's to more accessible bike paths! The situation has been improving lately, but for the last couple of years, when I've wanted to ride trails, I haven't been able to ride to them! Instead, I throw my folding bike in the trunk, and drive to the trail head. Not a terrible scenario, but I'd much rather be able to ride there.

Steve Courtright said...


A well written and very persuasive piece. Nicely done! If I was stuck on the what-ifs, this would make we want to see with my own eyes what it is like in Greenville. Kudos.