(This column was first published in the October 1, 2001 Buffalo News.)
Within hours after the terrible September 11 episode in New York City my wife and I received a number of communications expressing concern for our welfare. Several of Doris's family members called from Alabama and I received e-mail messages from England and France. They were all affectionate contacts but they expressed deeply-felt concerns.
Remarkably, each of those callers demonstrated a widely-held geographic misconception about New York State. To them Buffalo is a New York City suburb, almost another borough. Happy to learn that we were okay, one correspondent went on to ask if we had seen or heard the explosions.
My Birmingham, England e-mailer was nonplussed when I told him that we were farther from New York City than he was from Paris.
None of these people would have been prepared for the delightful experience I had just days later when I joined Les Johnson and Jim Fincher on their Rails-to-Trails pathway southwest of Mayville. For many miles along this lovely trail we saw no other person, no building, in fact no sign of human habitation except the straight path we followed. Part of the trail took us through a leafy bower, the tree branches meeting just a few feet over our heads to give us the feeling we were passing through a green-encased tunnel. Another section went past an extensive marshland with active beaver houses and dams. We saw schools of fish in the pools they had formed and herons along the shorelines.
Even better than the scenery was the absence of the noise of civilization. I don't mean that it was quiet the way it is in winter when snow smothers all sound. But here there was none of the city banging and clattering or the roar of highway traffic; instead crickets chirped, cicadas whined and birds sang.
The outing provided a temporary but unfortunately not permanent antidote for the disturbing events that have beset us.
I honor Les and Jim and their colleagues for their volunteerism — indeed, their patriotism — in establishing these Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails paths and making available to the public so far about 20 miles of excellent public access to the countryside.
The concept of Rails-to-Trails is straightforward. A hundred years ago railroads played the role that highways do today and maps from those times were spider-webbed with them. Today all but a few main intercity railroads have been abandoned, their rails and ties removed. However, most of those deserted corridors remain, their gentle grades now providing access for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing not only to rural America but to our cities and suburbs as well. Nationally over 11,000 miles of right-of-ways have already been converted to pathways and twice as many miles are projected. While New York State lags behind states like Pennsylvania with its over 1000 miles of these trails, groups like this one in Chautauqua County are fast catching up.
Converting an abandoned rail line to a trail is not as easy as I have made it sound. We are a nation of NIMBYs, the acronym representing "not in my backyard," and access to the former railroad properties requires research and negotiation with the current owners who are often reluctant to allow access through or near their property. But for folks like Les and Jim success breeds success. As landowners see how their neighbors enjoy benefits rather than problems from sponsoring trail sections, their attitudes are turning around.
For more information about Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails, write them at P.O. Box 151, Mayville, NY 14757 or e-mail them. The national organization maintains a Rails-to-Trails webiste website, which lists hundreds of additional trails.-- Gerry Rising