There is this wild idea being bandied about — wild in several respects — to create an off-road (and highway), scenic trail that would link Washington state to Washington, D.C. via abandoned railroad corridors.
Think of it: nearly 4,000 miles of crushed granite, gravel or paved trails far from the madding crowd of vehicular traffic.
Sure, you can get from Seattle to D.C. in five hours via airplane, or in two days, 17 hours via train or in three days or so on good ol’ Greyhound. But where’s the fun it that?
Where’s the adventure?
Where’s the physical challenge?
Where’s the sense of accomplishment, the sense of getting to know the country, its geographic contours and geologic diversity, its regional quirks and quirky individuals?
Though we may not expect it any time soon, the national nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has begun work on linking a series of regional systems on mostly erstwhile railroad tracks that would traverse 12 states so that hardy folk can hike, run, bicycle or ride a horse from one end of the continent to the other.
The start (or terminus, depending which direction you proceed) will of course be our own 285-mile Palouse to Cascades Trail, better known to us locals by its old name, the John Wayne Trail, and it would incorporate already-existing paths such as Cardinal Greenway in Indiana, the Ohio to Erie Trail, as well as the lovely Headwaters Trail System spanning the rivers in Montana where Lewis and Clark famously trekked.
America is a land of Big Ideas and cottons to the lore and romance of the road. From Horace Greeley to Jack Kerouac, rugged individualists have alighted to the territories. Heck, this is an idea that Yakima’s most famous native son (sorry, Raymond Carver and Kyle MacLachlan), the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, would have full-throatedly supported. In his aptly-named biography, “Go East, Young Man,” Douglas extolled the virtues of being ambulatory, saying, “Hiking a ridge, a meadow, or a river bottom, is as healthy a form of exercise as one can get. Hiking seems to put all the body cells back into rhythm. Ten to twenty miles on a trail puts one to bed with his cares unraveled.”
Lest anyone think a dedicated nationwide trail would be a folly for a few, costly and little used, think of the scores of people you see exercising on Washington’s state own rail-to-trail gem. At times, in the late spring and summer, the portion of the Palouse to Cascades Trail up near the Snoqualmie Pass that includes a cool two-mile trek in a tunnel is almost too crowded. Ellensburg residents, both equestrians and hikers, have long cherished their section of the old John Wayne Trail, even though there’s an annoying detour around Central Washington University.
Linking these regional trails, adding connectors where necessary, will give people more outdoor options in their own areas. The Conservancy estimates that the trail would run within 50 miles of 50 million people.
But don’t discount the lure of long distances that lurks in the hearts of people. Every year, brave souls set out on journeys, almost-spiritual quests, to traverse the length of the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Self-supported bike trips, too, are an eco-tourism staple, and that activity will seemingly gain in popularity if there were a dedicated path, as opposed to dodging big rigs on lonely interstates and lesser highways.
Of course, the aggravating factor that might derail the Conservancy’s plan is money. It’s going to take considerable funding to fill in the gaps between existing trails and repair damaged parts of said trails, and the Conservancy is said to be eyeing federal and state grants as well as hitting up state legislatures and city parks departments for some financial help.
The group said it will release details on funding needs on May 8 but – spoiler alert – it won’t be cheap. The Washington state segment seems the least of the Conservancy’s worries, but there is repair work to do. Gov. Jay Inslee has included in his budget $5.1 million to repair the trestle at the Beverly Bridge, spanning the Columbia River. There are two other spots on the trail — from Malden to Rosalia (grading trail) and renovating the Tekoa Trestle — that need work, and the nonprofit organization Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition has been lobbying hard in Olympia for budget consideration.
Granted, the Legislature has more pressing budgetary concerns — funding for schools and mental health heading the list — but, if money can be allotted without hurting more urgent programs, playing a part in the realization of a nationwide trail would be a lasting legacy that would make William O. Douglas and Elvis Presley proud.
Yes, Elvis, who in one of his movies crooned, “I’ll find adventure while I can/To say the least, go on, go on East, young man.”
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis