April 13th is opening day for trails across the country. This means communities all over have events to celebrate the rail trail that runs through their town. I was recruited to this particular event in Salem, WV for a specific purpose: to help assess the interaction between the town and the trail.
We scoped out the trail conditions and found some major problems just outside of town. Water runs in ditches on either side of the trail bed, which is now much lower than when the railroad ran trains on it. When the railroad pulled out, the company tried to make as much as it could from all the components that once made up the tracks. Railroad ties, steel rails, and even the ballast that supported them were sold off in truckloads.
The lack of drainage creates some serious issues for the trail surface. It was swampy with mud and completely impassible in places. The water has created a path of least resistance, at times directly bisecting the trail.
We also saw quite a few unnatural “waterfalls” along the way, such as the pipe above that spews soapy water into the trailside ditch. We stopped when it became clear conditions weren’t going to improve, but not before seeing this collection of barking dogs. They remain fairly intimidating despite the chains that tie them to their individual houses.
Someone bought the house below to open a trailside store, but it never materialized.
The bright spot in town is the Dairy Queen, which also happens to be the site of my very first job. That’s right. At age 16 I learned to make a kickass Blizzard and a cone with a perfect curly cue on top, all while wearing a monogramed visor. My childhood babysitter, who we called Zippie, managed the store when I was in high school. It was the cleanest fast food restaurant you’ve ever seen in your life. On slow nights, she’d put me to work scrubbing the bathroom walls. I believe she owns the place now, and she still runs a tight ship.
They have nice new picnic tables outside, some open air and some under a covered patio, as well as a bike rack and a place to tether your horses. The onion rings are still delicious.
This beautiful house sits on Main Street, which is largely boarded up and closed now.
There were a few nice touches, such as this little courtyard surrounded by daffodils. and a quaint little bridge to access the trail from the sidewalk on Main. But otherwise, the downtown is largely boarded up and closed.
For such a tiny town, I could not believe how many kids on bikes showed up to participate in the bike rodeo.
The best part was, the “rodeo” was a simple course laid out with a sack of flour and some orange cones. The kids had these determined little looks on their faces as they threaded their way through the course.
We rode east out of town all the way to this tunnel, which is not in good shape. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, and the ground was muddy and filled with puddles. We decided millions would be needed to fix all the issues there. Can you imagine? For just one tunnel. But the goal that the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is working on right now is connecting the trail from Parkersburg, WV to Pittsburgh, PA. And to do that, not only will they need to acquire additional property to bridge the existing gaps, but they’ll have to address these infrastructure issues as well. It’s a big job.
It was pretty inspiring to meet all these people who drove several hours to support this effort in a community that isn’t even theirs. I tend to think it really meant something to all those determined little cyclists.