Highway Hiking

(This column was first published in the July 17, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    We hikers have been spoiled by the many trails available to us.

    Most readers will have heard of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, but we have, in addition to walking paths in local parks, access in this region to a number of longer developed trails. Running from Niagara Falls to the Southern Tier and skirting the eastern Buffalo suburbs is the hundred mile Conservation Trail. Beginning just across the Niagara River in Queenston is the 450 mile Bruce Trail. And somewhat farther afield are the developing Genesee Valley Trail, the trail connecting Lakes Chautauqua and Erie and the 550 mile Finger Lakes Trail.

    These trails have all been developed and are maintained by volunteers and they all run over mostly private land. Hundreds of landowners generously allow passage across their property by trail managers and hikers.

    All of this provides a rich variety of values: ready access to the natural history of the region, good outdoor exercise, and -- surely most important -- an opportunity to get away from problems, to relax and to enjoy a small measure of solitude.

    Given all that, you would think that hikers would have little to criticize, but that would be too much for human nature. For example, everyone complains about too few blazes marking the trail. Backtracking to find where you missed a turn is not a happy task for hikers.

    But the commonest objection I hear is being forced to hike along roads. Spoiled by walking on the mattress-like soft duff of woodlands and meadows, we don't like the shin-jamming hardness of highways and their compacted shoulders.

    I thought about this complaint as I walked last week what I believe is the longest stretch of highway included on the Finger Lakes Trail -- six miles up Route 121 and back on Route 11 along the Tioughnioga River southeast of Cortland.

    Yes, the pavement was tough on my feet, frequent cars sped past and truck noise from Route 81, a quarter mile away, resounded in the background.

    But it was a bright, sunny morning and walking there had a number of advantages. For once I wasn't either climbing or descending a steep hill: the level hike was a great relief. And the two hours spent there gave dew in the fields I would walk through later time to dry out. Hiking through tall grass in the morning is not pleasant. Your pants get soaked, the water drains down to fill your boots and you find yourself squishing along the trail. Even wearing chaps doesn't solve this problem.

    There was also much to see and even to hear over that irritating background roar. There were many more birds here than in the deep woods, something that comes as a surprise to many hikers. A forest is a monoculture and this road took me past a variety of wildlife habitats: carefully tended yards, meadows, woodlots, marshes and streams.

    The road edge was a rich mixture of color -- pink, white, blue and yellow wildflowers in profusion. I was walking through an untended garden.

    There were things to see on the road itself. Roadkills included a kitten, a painted turtle, an opossum and a barn swallow. An unusual number of snails of at least four varieties had ventured out onto the highway.

    And finally, I had an anthropological concern to think about. I wondered how those housewives who so carefully tended their yards got along with their husbands whose junk -- old trucks and tractors, piles of wood and stone -- was strewn around the edges.

    I've decided that occasional highway walking isn't so bad after all.-- Gerry Rising