Ralph Gardner Jr.: Empire State Rail Trail is a linear vacation

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GHENT, N.Y. — The Empire State Rail Trail, a 750-mile trail that runs from Manhattan to the tip of Lake Champlain and from Albany to Buffalo, doesn’t open officially until December.

Unofficially, it’s open right now. I took my long-awaited inaugural ride along a portion of it this week.

My other bike routes — two approximately 10-mile loops heading either left or right out of our driveway — offer steep climbs and bracing descents, relatively speaking. We’re talking the Hudson Valley, after all, not the Swiss Alps.

Also, given my age and equipment — my clunky bike is approximately the weight of a motorcycle without the helpful assist — I’m routinely lapped and hazed, at least that’s how it feels, by people in jazzy bike shorts and jerseys traveling at double and triple my speed.

But, I’m willing to suffer the humiliation in exchange for the exercise, the cheap thrill of occasionally breaking the 30 mph speed barrier and to enjoy the scenery along my route — ponds, fields of wildflowers and grazing beef cattle.

On my most recent ride, I amused myself with the thought of purchasing an electric bike — a friend had invited me to test-drive his — but as long as I can complete the journey without encouraging a cardiac event, I’m determined to try. A feeling of unassailable virtuousness is one of the perks of a journey successfully completed under your own steam.

My possible transition to electrically enhanced locomotion has been further delayed by the Empire State Rail Trail, a few minutes' drive from our home in Kinderhook, N.Y. Among its many allures, perhaps the most profound, is that it’s largely flat.

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Massachusetts riders of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, which runs 12.7 miles through the towns of Cheshire, Lanesborough and Adams, will appreciate the advantages of repurposed railroad tracks that don’t surprise you with heartbreaking changes in elevation.

Nonetheless, my wife and I purchased a bike rack in anticipation of many hours and miles to be spent on the Empire State Rail Trail in the future. Perhaps a real man, or woman, for that matter, would suffer the few miles to the trailhead and back on his or her bike. But, one has only so much energy in the tank, so why squander it by playing chicken with the traffic on County Route 9H when you can arrive ready and rested?

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Parts of the Empire State Trail, proposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017 — it links to existing trails such as the Appalachian Trail and eliminates the gaps between them — have yet to be completed but will be by the end of this year. So far, 400 miles are accessible in disconnected segments. I didn’t discover that until I was pedaling along, fantasizing that I wasn’t mere miles from my house but on a bike tour of Holland, only to be rudely awakened by a trail closure or a traffic island awaiting completion.

Even when it’s finished, the trail won’t exactly be uninterrupted. The reason it’s able to pull off the achievement of running continuously from one end of the state to the other is by traversing everything from small roads to highways.

I encountered a newly installed push-button traffic light on 9H in Stuyvesant, N.Y., but I preferred to make a run for it when the coast looked clear. Hint: You won’t risk falling off you bike in the clamor to cross the road before you get creamed by oncoming traffic if you walk it across instead.

I took the route south from Kinderhook to Stuyvesant, an 8-mile round-trip journey that wended past commercial orchards, residential neighborhoods, sweeping cornfields and even a waterfall. The sensation of biking across the Netherlands wasn’t completely fantastical. I passed a historical marker that declared that the land I was traversing was the site of a 3,000-acre “bouwery,” or colonial farm, established in 1659 by Jan Martense van Aelsteyn. It included the lands of Lindenwald, the estate of a future president, Martin Van Buren.

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I suspect one of the challenges of establishing the rail trail was getting the buy-in of people whose homes happen to be along its route. There are signs at regular intervals reminding users to stay on the trail and respect private property. Nonetheless, it must occasionally feel as if you’re onstage as you power wash your siding or try, unsuccessfully, to get your weed whacker started, two activities I witnessed as I passed by.

Also, certain properties had an overabundance of “No Trespassing” signs, suggesting that not all property owners are excited about the new amenity in their backyard.

However, they should draw some satisfaction from the knowledge that they’re contributing to the realization of an unequivocal public good, one of those public works projects where a combination of natural beauty and enterprise unite to create a great recreational asset where none existed before. I passed the occasional bicyclist. But, just as many users were pedestrians of a certain age out for their morning exercise and young families pushing strollers. And come winter, if there’s snow, the rail trail should make for ideal cross-country skiing.

Such a resource is all the more precious in the middle of a pandemic. If the virus has taught us anything, it’s that, until we come up with a safe, effective vaccine, being out in nature is as close to a remedy as we have. And it’s free. All that’s required is that you walk or ride a bike and display the initiative required to pry yourself away from your phone, TV or computer.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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