Tuesday, October 04, 2005


We Will Glide, Starry-Eyed

Most of the local railroad lines that scale the Appalachians have fallen into disuse. it is worth recalling the massive effort, relying on comparatively primitive technology, that was involved in constructing the gently graded path on which they rested. Ravines were filled in, chasms bridged and peaks rounded before gravel was laid as a bed for all the lumbering ties and rails. And all performed on the hopeful proposition that once you build it, they will come.

The former C&O train line, that crosses that little corner of the map where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina meet with Kentucky not far away, was closed in 1977. Trucks now transported to market the Christmas trees for which the region was famous, and the tracks became idle.

Twenty years would pass among the impressive local Baptists churches and not always so impressive local homes before someone had an idea. Others listened and agreed, and soon another large, strenuous, hopeful, multi-year endeavor was launched, as yard by yard the tracks and ties were, this time, pried from their gravel bed, the gravel itself scooped out and the dirt beneath patted to a smooth dirt trail.

And so it is that today tourists like my wife and I flock there from distances great and small, unified by what they have strapped to the backs of their cars.

Mountain bikes.

Five different shops in Damascus, Virginia will for around ten dollars slide your mountain bike into a bike rack bolted to the bed of an open trailer, and usher you yourself into the converted special-ed style school bus towing it, for a winding ride past kudzu-coated forest to the top of Cold Mountain, a high point in the converted railroad's path.

The ride down is three to four hours of breezy pleasure, a steady glide along a narrow strip cut through plain nature, punctuated by the sudden vistas that arise with each of over 30 bridges, before one is plunged back into the shade-dappled glade.

The builders of the original trackbed could never have foreseen this, especially if they had been asked during the what must have been dispiriting interregnum between the shutdown of the trains and the opening of the trail. But a door closes and a window opens, and only faith will allow you to perceive the winding trail formed by the progress of a free people.


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