The First Freedom (No, not that one)

In popular culture, youthful freedom begins when one is handed a set of car keys (or today’s far-less-romantic equivalent, a fob).

But those of us of a certain age know that the car is only a promotion: Our first real taste of freedom had only two wheels. Bicycling today is a big business, a recreational activity. There are silk riding shirts, too-tight compression shorts, “hydration systems,” pedal-clip shoes, aerodynamic helmets and $6,000 racing bikes destined to carry their annoying riders weaving angrily through pedestrians and Sunday cruisers on the trails that ring Pittsburgh. Before it was an expensive and over-organized activity, though, bicycling was just … a thing people did – especially kids – and required zero accessories: t-shirt, gym shorts, no helmet, no bike lanes. There you go! Good luck, kid!

My first bike was my brother’s hand-me-down gold Schwinn Stingray, with chopper handlebars, a banana seat, and a sissy bar. At first, my parents let me ride only to the end of the street and back. Then, around the block, where they could make sure I was passing ‘Go’ every 10 minutes. Finally, they granted permission to ride through the entire neighborhood, out of their sight but solemnly sworn to respect certain boundaries. Yeah, right. I’m pretty sure the first time I was allowed out of sight I made a bee-line for the boundary and blew right through it, laughing demonically. In some ways, I’ve never looked back.

Who needs boundaries?

I don’t see too many kids out biking by themselves or with their friends today. If they are riding around in my suburban neighborhood, they are girded against mayhem by helmets, knee-pads, elbow-pads … and by moms sitting on lawn chairs out in their front yards overseeing the action. You do see kids on the rail trails, but it’s not the same – they are really just miniatures of their shepherding and well-accessorized parents, conscripted into an adult-planned, adult-supervised activity. Which is great and sure beats sitting in front of a screen. But still …

Back in the days before we knew how unrelentingly terrifying and hazardous the everyday world really is, there was nothing like riding alongside speeding cars and trucks on a country lane. Or playing chicken on the big hills, seeing who would brake first. (There were definite consequences for waiting too long to brake. Your back tire would skid, leaving a long rubber streak – that was neat – but then it would slew and the phenomena of pitch, yaw, momentum and gravity would send bike and rider into a ditch, or a tree, or cause them to make a substantial dent in a parked car … sorry Mrs. Dimmick.)

Today I set out on what figures to be about an 8,000-mile ramble through the U.S. I have practical reasons for undertaking said journey: I’m going to visit my brother in Charlotte, my youngest daughter in Nashville, where she is starting her career in marketing, and my oldest daughter somewhere atop the craggy heights of northern Colorado, where she is a U.S. Forest Service Wildland Firefighter. And, hey, as long as I’m at it, why not clip the northwest corner of Alabama, meander down Mississippi’s Nachez-Trace Parkway, up Highway 61 (I think it can be easily done), across Arkansas, and explore the last three continental United States I’ve not yet visited on my way north to Colorado via the Oklahoma Panhandle, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Million Dollar Highway through Silverton, Colorado?

But I’m also after something else: Freedom. And I am finding it in two ways. Today, I drove back roads down through West Virginia, to a little crossroad hamlet called Marlinton. Down Highway 92 and then further down the ridiculously scenic Seneca Trail (U.S. 219/WV 55). Almost Heaven? Mr. Henry Deutschendorf, aka John Denver, just may have been right about that. Miles and miles rolled by with nary another vehicle. Incredible endless climbs under thick forest canopy gave way to heart-stopping serpentine descents, some of which ended in shrouded hollows as dark at mid-morning as Halloween eve and filled with murky banks of chilled mist that raised goosebumps. We lament our car culture: It’s bad for the environment. It would be better if we had a real rail system like in Europe. We’d live longer if we stuck to walking. But, man, driving on roads like these in a car with a stick, steering into tight winding curves, down-shifting, up-shifting, hitting that perfectly timed burst of thrust on a climb, or gearing down on a big hill to save the brakes – well, let’s be honest: It’s exhilarating.

And it wouldn’t be the same in a self-driving Tesla.

Like an inner figure in some sort of hatchback Russian nesting doll, my bike is crammed into the hold of my aptly named Honda Fit. Today, in Marlinton, I parked at the old train depot, unloaded my bike, and rode a section of the 77-mile Greenbrier River Trail. It’s a beaut, tracing the river’s shore for a mile or two and then curving back across flats where corn and hay grow tall, and then back to the river, over a wooden bridge and into the maw of the Sharps Tunnel — as forbidding as a portal to Homer’s Underworld.

I rode 30 miles and saw not one rider. Not a single bar of signal, either. It’s hard to get lost like that these days. But thanks to rail trails that carry us to places once virtually inaccessible it is not impossible. Just as bikes once carried us out of our neighborhoods into a (slightly) bigger world, the rails-to-trails movement has removed boundaries that have shut us off from huge chunks of the world beyond the figurative end of the street, and from our own pasts, for that matter. Sure we can visit state and national parks, but what will we find there? Order, rules, structure. And thickets of people. Phooey.

Rail lines converted to bike trails offer transit to worlds that live below or beyond the interstates. They take us past water towers that once slaked thirsty locomotives, and the husks of abandoned factories inexorably collapsing back into nature, past random gap-toothed rows of rinky-dink shanties out in the middle of nowhere, once the centers of thriving communities that sprang up atop mines that long ago played out. Mostly what you get on the Great Allegheny Passage, the C&O Canal Towpath, the Greenbriar Trail and the New River Trail, which I’ll ride tomorrow morning on my way to Charlotte, is nature. It’s not the same nature that existed before industry swept up every forested slope and charged down every meandering river, but it’s pretty impressive all the same. And the solitude it offers, the quiet, the birdsong and rush of river ripples is, for me, a welcome alternative to my daily world of gridlock and stoplights and screens and endless nattering electronic voices. That’s the boundary I came to cross.

The rhythm of pedaling, the sheltering canopy above the limestone trail, the unfolding landscape, the quietude, all took me well beyond any geographical destination. On a long passage through a heavily forested valley between Marlinton and Cass, I began to imagine a moment in the past, maybe 150 years distant, when an itinerant worker camped for the night in the dark valley, heard an inhuman rumbling, felt the ground tremble, and gaped as the shadow outline of a locomotive, illuminated only by a trailing comet of orange embers, split the darkness and roared towards home. And I wondered about the people who built the tunnel through which that train then shuddered – built it with nothing more than muscle, sinew, picks and dynamite. I thought about things that seemed to me worth thinking about. And decidedly not about the toxic cloud of politics and political talk that brooks no silence, no reflection, no respite, no peace. I’m practically certain that neither God nor Thomas Jefferson intended us to dwell on politics 24-7 to the exclusion of all else.

I thank them both for West Virginia.

Politics has a funny way of seeping into or out of wherever you go, however. The roads I drove today were once causeways of the Confederate Army. And they followed paths carved by the native Americans who first settled this land. First the Indians fought among themselves. Some engaged in entangling alliances with alternating imperial forces. Then they were all routed and driven out by the invading Europeans. Later still, the Union Army moved into what soon became West Virginia (the region was granted statehood as a reward for rejecting secession and the legitimacy of the Confederacy) in part to deny the South minerals and other natural resources it needed for war-making. Sign after sign marks an HQ of Robert E. Lee, or points to some town that is excessively proud that Lee raided it as he played hit-and-run with the superior Union forces. Today, instead of North and South we have Red and Blue … and some of the geographic lines of demarcation are uncannily the same. Somehow, though, the upheavals of the past are weirdly reassuring. After all, we know for better and for worse, how things panned out.

Trips like this, along the back roads, the roads William Least Heat Moon celebrated in Blue Highways, remind me that this country is far bigger and vaster and emptier and calmer than we imagine. Trails like the Greenbriar take us beyond our binary color scheme. Whether politically Red or Blue, the Appalachian states are mostly green. It’s true that old boundaries have arisen to divide us. But it is just as true that passages like the Greenbriar are testament to our enduring connections.

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