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Return to the Rail Trail

For the first time since early in the pandemic I decided to take a walk on the Windham Rail Trail after work. I figured at dusk most people would be wrapping up their time on the trail and heading home. I figured wrong. I nodded a greeting to those who made eye contact, ignored those who didn’t, and held my breath many times for the unmasked swarm of humanity that passed by in close proximity unmasked and unconcerned. I’m not a germaphobe, but at this point in the pandemic I’m informed enough to limit such risks whenever possible.

You notice a lot of things when you walk a trail often: The change of seasons and how that impacts the trail, the increase in traffic, encroaching development, the casual disregard for others by the relative few who dispose of bagged pet waste on the side of the trail, and the ebb and flow of wildlife. My six mile walk was informative. Comparing it to the fall of 2019 at a similar time of day it was much busier, with many more bicyclists than you’d see a year ago. More walkers too, but not exponentially more. No, it was the swarms of bicycles that were noticeable… and notable. Headlines like “Bicycle sales skyrocket during COVID” come to mind. Here is the proof, relentlessly zipping past me one after the other. While I prefer quiet walks, I can’t complain about the benefits of a healthier society overall. Still, I make a mental note to walk the trail in the rain next time.

Exactly two months ago I did some damage to my right ankle on the descent of the Old Bridle Path from Mount Lafayette. I’ve largely pretended it wasn’t injured and would cinch up my hiking boots tighter during hikes, but I have tried to nurse it back to health. During this walk I was generally pleased with the progress of the ankle and pushed on past Mitchell Pond in hopes of getting a photo or two of the foliage reflecting on water in the late day sun. But with the drought the water has receded far from the rail trail, with muddy pockets and rotting logs replacing the shimmer of water that used to greet me on this stretch of trail. The heavy rain earlier in the week was a welcome relief for the wildlife that relies on this water. A lot more would be welcome. Like many of us, I expect they’re longing for a return to normal.

My walk was six miles out and back. I was running out of daylight and didn’t want to deal with bicycles speeding along on dark trails. It was nice to get reacquainted with the trail, but it felt a bit less special than at other times. Instead of an intimate conversation with the trail and the wild spaces that it dissects it was more of a shouted exchange in a busy venue:
“Hey, good to see you again!”
“Good to see you too!”
“Can you believe all this?”
“I know! What a crazy year!”
“How have you been?”
“How have you been?!”

Anyway, stay well, we’ll catch up again when its a little less busy.”

And so I left the trail thinking about how parched it looked and how many people were using it. But I was grateful for having it there for them and for me when we needed it most. We all need to get outside and get more exercise, and rail trails serve as an entry into a safer world away from automobile traffic. Even if I like the trails more when they’re quiet, I still value having a place to go close to home. More utilization means there will be more investment in similar trails in the future. And that’s a win for all of us.

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