In the process he heard of two steam locomotives left in the Maine woods 100 miles from the nearest railroad and 40 miles from the nearest town. He wrote, "It is an almost uncanny sight to emerge from a dark narrow trail into the sunlight and find yourself looking at these two giant locomotives left in solitary seclusion where they were abandoned over 40 years ago." They were brought into the woods across the ice and used to haul logs over a short line between Eagle Lake and Chesuncook Lake. The locomotives are still there should any hiker want to check them out.
Many American wilderness paths are remnants of old Indian trade routes, following ridge lines between watersheds. Even the easiest generally involves strenuous ups and downs. A railroad grade rarely runs to more than 3%, perhaps 150 feet in a mile. "These railroad rights-of-way are...ideal for family hiking, for the older hiker and perhaps for the hiker not in the best of health," Nielsen wrote in Right-of-Way, a Guide to Abandoned Railroads in the United States (published by Maverick Publications, Bend, Ore.).
Outside Rochester weeds rarely push through the packed gravel and cinders of the roadbed, so the path is generally clear. It may even be smooth; rains level the places where the ties have been removed. But on both sides the underbrush springs up in tropical abundance as soon as the right-of-way is abandoned. A hedgelike thicket forms, broken here and there with miniature forests whose growth nearly arches over the track—ready-made bird sanctuaries. In some of the miles of abandoned rights-of-way that Nielsen has explored, there is a surprising variety of scenery in reach of a leisurely Sunday hike—a high-fill through a swamp, a curving track around a quiet pond, a long stretch through pastures, half a dozen old station houses. At the opposite extreme, outside Portland, Ore., a pass follows an abandoned roadbed above the Willamette River, with mossy cliffs on the other side. A countryside that seems dull when glimpsed from a train window possesses its own interest when seen at close hand by a walk on the track.
It is an ancient and well-known fact, this hobo's view of America, so if you want to be a wilderness hero, savoring the silence and grandeur of a wild region where no one has ever been, discarded railroads are not for you. There is not much �clat to be gained in a Sierra Club meeting if you mention that you have been hiking through the pastures between towns where the Cowlitz, Chehalis and Cascade once ran. On the other hand there are a great many people who would like to get out in the open without feeling required to storm the heights. These cautious explorers of fresh air—perhaps the majority of us—are intimidated by hang gliders, ignored by white-water canoeists, regarded with raised eyebrows by mountain climbers and sky divers. But for the more sedentary, the promise of tranquil afternoons sauntering or cycling along an old railroad is an attractive one. And it is impossible to get lost on the straight track of a railroad.
At first, Nielsen received many favorable replies from government officials, but little was done. However, even before the Railroad Revitalization Act was passed, the atmosphere had changed. New York is acquiring several rights-of-way—one from the Penn Central for a hiking and cycle path along the Mohawk River, another from the Lehigh Valley for a scenic trail near Cazenovia and a third for a long trail in the Catskills near the Delaware River. More than a dozen New York counties and towns are establishing their own projects.
In Colorado it is easier to promote a hiking trail over a highly scenic mountain railroad's right-of-way than in the East. Even Nielsen is occasionally hard-pressed to say what you can do along some stretches. He mentions collecting old bottles, insulators, railroad spikes. No, the real appeal of railroad hiking and cycling is a subtle matter. There is something sociable about a railroad track. You can never forget that trains passed here. Sometimes the sense of them is so strong that you find yourself looking around half-expecting to see one coming along. If hundreds of thousands of people rode over these roadbeds, thousands also walked over the ties. A family picnicking in the evening with a fire going beside the track suggests the jungles of the hoboes who plodded along where hikers now walk. Cyclists racing through tunnels and past empty depots make you think of what an insatiably restless people built these railroads, the heroic folk of Sandburg's The People, Yes, whose questions were:
Where to? what next?
Something of the same spirit remains in the appeal of railroads converted to footpaths. It is not that they provide a way of getting anywhere. It is simply that they seem too freighted with common associations to be abandoned and too promising in what they offer not to be used. These smooth and gentle paths wandering through the mountains or along river banks may be the simplest, least expensive and most practical recreational asset in the country.