Once upon a time, you could take the train from our little town straight into New York City. No old-timer I’ve talked to remembers the train or how long it took to get from here to the City. It was a short enough commute that the local dairy tycoon would ride it every day to his Manhattan office and back. That’s close to a hundred years ago now and tycoons worked shorter hours in those days. He probably sauntered into work—another sort of tycoon might have strode into work, but the dairy tycoon was really a farmer with a lot of cows and a condensed milk factory, and so I imagine he sauntered—he sauntered into his office at ten or eleven and called it a day at three or four and was back home on the farm before the cows came home.
The train stopped running out of here in the early 1950s when the state demolished a “scalping” bridge between here and the next town over—trucks with drivers who couldn’t read the warning signs or didn’t believe them kept getting scalped as they tried to make their ten foot tall ways under eight or nine feet of clearance. No one thought to lower the road bed or elevate the bridge. Why bother? Who needed trains anymore when we were only a decade or two away from having flying cars? I don’t know when hey tore up the tracks and tore down the station or how long the old railbed was left to be reclaimed by the woods. But in 1994 someone got the idea of turning the old line into a hiking and biking trail. A good idea while it lasted. Whoever was supposed to maintain it forgot about it over the years and by the time we moved here in 2003 it was completely overgrown. I tried to walk it one time and was pretty soon up to my waist in brambles and brush and had to turn back.
The trail opens on our main street into town so I passed by it pretty much every day. For a while I would look down it hopefully, expecting that the town or the Boy Scouts or some private citizens with a chain saw and a backhoe and a lot of time on their hands had returned to clear it. Over time though I got used to its being a short walk into nothing and stopped looking. Eventually, it became as invisible to me as the driveways and lawns of the houses along the way, there but not there enough to register anymore.
But one day last fall something grabbed my attention as I passed by. Probably I saw light out of the corner of my eye where I was used to seeing shade. I paused before the opening of the trail and looked down it and realized I was looking a long way down. The trail had been cleared. I was in a hurry or else I’d have explored it to find out just how far down it had been cleared. I made a note to come back but didn’t follow through until yesterday morning when I set off on my bike to see what I could see. What I saw was about three miles of interesting.
For about half its length, the trail runs through woods, deep in the shade of oaks and maples. The other half of the way, the first half as you head south from here, is more open, shaded in spots at ten in the morning by free-standing ashes, thin lines of young hawthorns, aspens, and birches no bigger around than my wrist, and the occasional tall-growing sumacs. The train ran along the river, and the tracks were laid between bottomland and what are still working farms and those farms are the reason for that first mile and a half of sunshine. The tall hardwoods that would like to move in and turn the whole neighborhood back into forest don’t have the room to spread out. What’s green along this stretch of land tends to be short, the saplings I mentioned and thickets of shrubs and bushes including lots of honeysuckle whose flowers were past their first bloom but were still perfuming the air in patches that I rode in and out of like bands of invisible scent-fogs.
Landscape like this, neither woods nor field, is what the nature guides call an edge for the plain and simple reason that that's where you'll find one, at the edge of some place, a field, a woods, a road, a development. Small animals love them. Birds love them. If you're a birder, edges are interesting but unsurprising places. They're full of the usual suspects, sparrows, finches, wrens, some of the bolder warblers. But if you're a bird-lover they're delightful places, because they are full of the usual suspects going about the kind of business they don't spend a lot of time on when they're visiting your backyard feeder. The usual suspects aren't as usual to me as they once were since we've never put up a feeder here. Yesterday, it was almost a novelty to see so many goldfinches, dancing butter yellow blurs in the air, and even the robins and cardinals looked bigger, brighter, wilder. There were more than backyard visting-types too. Hawks glided overhead. I saw a kingbird on a telephone wire as I pedaled out and a redwinged blackbird as I rode back. At one point something very big for a bird with a very red head swooped across the trail to a tree where it took up a woodpeckerish perch, nothing more exotic than a red-headed woodpecker, most likely, but I'll never know. By the time I caught up to that tree the bird had moved on. And I passed what I took at a glance to be a large species of white-backed dragonfly hovering over some flowers that it dawned on me later could have been a ruby-throated hummingbird.
The birds I was happiest to see were the catbirds. I don't know why but catbirds have always been among my favorite birds. They're all gray, except for a black cap and a red rump you can only glimpse when they flutter away, but it's a handsome, dignified, charcoal kind of gray. And I like their boldness. You can't scare off a catbird. They'll sit there on a branch and stare you up and down before they move on, having evidentally dismissed you as a threat but decided that you aren't the least bit interesting. Kind of like cats, when you think about it. Catbirds actually meow, which is why they're called catbirds, naturally. They also creak like rusty gates. They sing but they don't have their own songs. They borrow notes from other birds, like mockingbirds, to whom they are cousins.
Brown thrashers are also cousins to mockingbirds and catbirds. I saw a couple of those yesterday too. At least I'm pretty sure that's what they were. They were brown and they thrashed. These two rusty brown robin-sized birds landed on a thicket and then disappeared under the branches and vines and thrashed around in the leaf-litter below before I got close enough to get a good look at them. Some birds are more aptly named than others.
Wish I had photos to show you of my ornithological observations. But I'm not fast enough with my camera and I don't have the patience, especially when clouds of flies and bees decide to investigate my stalled presence on their turf. I did get some pictures of a couple of deer grazing in one of the pastures but there's no point in posting them because the deer are just small brown interruptions in the green that if you squint are vaguely deer-shaped. My next camera's going to have a real telephoto lens.
The farmers didn't plow from horizon to horizon. Their fields are dotted with groves and glens of tall shade trees. The railbed was built up because the fields on the one side and the bottomland on the other are really the same piece of geography, flood plain. Streams cross the fields making their sinuous way towards the river and as they go they pass, deliciously cool-looking, through these oases of shade. I didn't stop but once upon a time I would have because finding such spots was the point of the many walks the blonde and I used to take through the woods. There's one sweet-looking grove out there where the water runs fast and is crossed by a low wooden footbridge that in our younger and more alive and more brazen, because we were so gosh-darned prettier back then, years would have drawn us to it on the run to go wading.
Yes, that kind of wading.
What, you kids think you invented skinny-dipping?
I could tell you stories.
I could tell you a story in particular about coming out of the woods on a hot day in July and finding an apparently abandoned house with a still working garden hose.