I had an epiphany yesterday. I was driving from our home in Iowa to Indianapolis for some business meetings and I stopped in West Branch Iowa to get a few quick miles in on a local trail I found through the Traillinks website. Technically, it’s not even a full trail. It’s just a short four mile segment of what will eventually be a longer trail. In it’s current form it’s not going to attract many serious cyclists. Still, it was right off the highway and I wasn’t looking to go long. It was the perfect length to break up the trip.
My epiphany? It isn’t the trail that makes most rail trails special. It’s the towns along the trail and the people you meet while passing through. Case in point…the Big Blue River Rail Trail in Marysville Kansas. I stopped to chat with some folks there one cold December morning several years ago and ended up accepting an invitation to breakfast in their home. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen when I’m in my car or cycling on the street. It’s exclusively a trail thing, and it was special.
So was this. West Branch is a really attractive small town…a real slice of Americana. Approximately 2,300 people live here, so it’s about half the size of Jefferson. It felt even smaller to me.
There were a surprising number of people out on the trail. Storms had come through the previous night and the bugs were bad, but everyone was friendly and seemed to be quite content to be spending a muggy morning on the trail. There was a guy on a bike with a pruning shear. He was cutting low hanging branches so that might have clotheslined an inattentive cyclist. Others were walking with dogs. Children were spending time with parents and grandparents. It just felt right.
I’ve really come to love towns like West Branch. In spite of its small size, I felt a vibrancy here that many larger places don’t seem to have. Maybe that’s due in part to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Visitor Center being just off Main Street. There’s a decent sized parking lot which suggests that more than a few folks from other places get off the highway to have a look.
I wish I could say that all small towns are doing as well as West Branch, but many are not. I’ve driven through more than I can count where there has been no street traffic or vibrancy of any kind. Funny thing is that when a town closes itself off from the outside work and doesn’t give people passing through a reason to stop, they generally don’t.
But small towns like West Branch who welcome outsiders tend to be strong and open and sure of themselves and attractive in a way that these other towns aren’t. They’re not dying…not even close. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that many of these places are trail towns. Trails are naturally welcoming and by bringing new people to town, a bike trail makes the town stronger and better than it would be otherwise.
At least that’s the way it appears to me.