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Rails to Trails to...Awesome: Michigan's Pere Marquette Bike Path

August 21, 2012 at 3:44 PM | by | Comments (0)

Our roving Midwestern reporter, Lara Zielin, files a report from somewhere in Michigan on a very cool project reusing the country's rusting transportation infrastructure:

My husband recently imagined he was a train. If Iím honest, Iíll admit I felt a little silly witnessing this. I mean, what 36-year-old with a mortgage closes his eyes and pretends heís a choo-choo?

Except, thatís what mid-Michiganís Pere Marquette Trail can do, especially if youíre on a bicycle and youíre speeding up as you pedal over the Salt River, the birds and frogs calling out the way they must have done before loggers and lumber barons arrived in this flat, woodsy place in the 1800s.

The shimmering poplars and twisted oaks and sturdy white pines have returned to line either side of the 30 miles between the towns of Midland and Clare, though of course when this straight, no-nonsense path was first built, the trees were stripped mercilessly, acre after acre. They were shipped out along this rail artery to feed the nationís growing appetite for civilization in the form of desks and chairs and cabinets and floors. Now, this section of what was once the Flint and Pere Marquette Railway has been covered with blacktop and given a nonprofit statusóone of many defunct rail lines across the country that has been converted into a public-use path through the Rails to Trails program.

Itís odd how much there is to watch along this line dissecting what could feel like the middle of nowhere. In the spring, the forsythia bloom in impossibly bright clumpsógolden banners heralding the arrival of warmer weather. In the fall, the wood smoke from a few remote farmhouses mingles with twisting, falling leaves. This land is ground zero for the endangered Kirtlandís Warbler, whose staccato calls or yellow breast can be identified by a trained ear and eye. Here, year-round, a wetland protection sign warns people not to get off the trail and go traipsing through the mud. ďViolators will be toad,Ē a cartoon amphibian cautions.

Not that there arenít are a million pretty bike trails in this country with a million pretty birds and plants to see. There are. But this one gives me a rush not solely generated by endorphins because it exemplifies the best in that tricky marriage of land protection and land use. Itís like that couple you see at parties for years and you think, ďNo, theyíre really not that happy. No one is that happy.Ē But it turns out they are. They actually, legitimately are. This whole thing works, and not just for the poplars and the bikers and the warblers. This trail works for the tiny, emaciated cities where saloons and hotels once thrived and where women in whale-bone corsets walked the streets. Cities that dried up and faded when the trees left.

Suddenly, you want to go to Coleman, Michigan. Youíd never even heard of it before the trail, but no matter. Your legs ache and your lungs burn and the colorful, well-placed trail signs tell you to hang on: In Coleman, there are bathrooms, a convenience store, and benches to sit on and watch other bikers whirr past. After your butt has been in the saddle this long, what wouldnít normally seem that appealing suddenly sounds like salvation itself.

In Coleman, a city of just over a thousand people, is Coleman Auto and Bike, which used to be just Coleman Auto, but they added the ďand BikeĒ when the trail was paved. They nailed a vintage cycle to the buildingís gray siding, and half the place is a bike store now; the other half sells auto parts. One of the owners hosts cross-country bikers in his home through the website warmshowers.org.

In a state where General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler ruled everything for so long, I might be reading a little too much into Coleman Auto and Bike. Itís grassroots change! Itís innovation in a place that should be dying! Really, I know itís just an auto and bike store in rural mid-Michigan, where a couple entrepreneurs are eking out a hard-won living. But I canít help it. I love that itís here, on this trail, in this state, at this time.

I take a deep breath. The roar of the trains is gone, which is why my husband can pretend to be one now and itís not so ridiculous. The history of this section of Michigan is just thatóthe past. The town of Pere Marquette doesnít even exist anymore. Today itís called Ludington, where miles and miles of white-sand beaches and dunes are preserved and protected through a state park. Iím glad that Coleman is still here, though. And that itís stirring in a state that was pronounced dead but is hanging on.

I mount my bike and start to pedal. I donít want to get toad, after all.

[Photos: Lara Zielin & Waymarking]

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