Across the Fourth of July by Bicycle A Letter from the Northern Central Railroad Trail


A few miles north of Baltimore, along a cold, rushing river andbeneath mist-shrouded trees, meanders the Northern Central Railroad Trail. Here, on this historic strip of state forest, thousands of Baltimoreans escaped the sweltering heat and crowds of the city to enjoy their Independence Day.

I spent the day on this exceptionally smooth 20-mile trail to the Mason-Dixon Line and asking the people who live and travel along it what the Fourth meant for them.

Beneath a vivid full moon I wait in Ashland (a few miles north of Towson) for dawn to break. Mist from the nearby Loch Raven Reservoir creates a breathtaking surreal landscape as song birds set the still air into an evocative wilderness symphony. Thus I began my ride to Pennsylvania.

Just north of Paper Mill Road an elderly couple walk hand-in-hand beneath the dark, green canopy of oak and elm, as they probably have for years.

As I pedal slowly, luxuriating in a pregnant serenity, a white-tail buck suddenly explodes across the wide trail toward the reservoir. He stops on a ridge to investigate my frantic efforts to photograph him, then dissolves into the forest.

It is curious to know that though the swelling of human development impacts heavily on the nearby environment, the trail is completely insulated from this reality.

You can feel the history here, from the Native Americans who walked and traded along the river for thousands of years, to the celebrated era when militia marched along here in its successful campaign to gain independence, to the two train rides Abraham Lincoln took: to Gettysburg to deliver his famous address and his final one to Illinois, following his assassination.

And now again, the trail has reverted nearly to the character of its Native American heyday. Of course, back then there wasn't an abundance of toilet facilities and picnic tables.

Shafts of sunlight have begun to pierce the green canopy through the mist, foreshadowing a hot, humid day. Passing Glencoe, once a resort village for Baltimore's affluent (circa 1880), the ivy-shrouded rocks tell the hard story of the railroad's builders.

The forest forms a living tunnel, and out of a misty circle of light far away, a lone figure approaches. But what is more startling is the view from the bridge to the farm below. Several dozen cars are neatly parked on a freshly mowed field.

"It started as a wedding party," says the figure, Richard Hyatt, "and has evolved into an annual gig. They call it 'Kool- Aid.' I came last night with a friend from D.C. and partied all night long. . . . We all brought along some food for the homeless. Part of the admission fee, I guess, goes to the homeless too. I guess that's how the Fourth and this park relates to me."

So off I pedal along lonely roads to investigate. Sure enough, an easily-missed, hand drawn, "Kool-Aid" sign points the way down a sinewing dirt road, at the end of which an ancient stone house, barn and several hundred people sleeping in a tent village or out in the open around a smoldering campfire have begun to awaken.

It reminds me of the "happenings" from the '60s and early '70s, except here there is an aura of sure-footed sensibility, not unbridled energy.

Traveling north again, safely on the white ribbon of the trail, I enter Monkton. A small terrier mix waddles out of the woods and becomes part of the foreground for my photo of the Monkton train station, now the park headquarters and museum.

As the dog trots away and I change lenses, sudden movement catches my peripheral vision. Sgt. Dave Davis, chief park ranger, explodes out of nowhere. The little dog I had just photographed lies motionless on Monkton Road, bumped by a passing station wagon.

With thick but tender hands, the ranger gently scoops up the inert dog into his truck to take it to a veterinarian. When the dog's mistress, a local resident, comes on the scene, her presence apparently snaps Annie, her dog, out of shock. Annie was doing OK at the vet's, I was told.

"That's the Fourth to me," says the ranger later while arranging several flags along his station. "I've had to dispatch deer who've been hit by cars, and it's sad, so to be able to help an animal into recovery makes my day. Come on by later. . . . We'll be having watermelon. And there's a nature walk at eleven." The radio squawks, and he takes off.

The trail is filling with the sound with cyclists clicking through the gears. A two-family group descends on the station, some with training wheels, some with high-tech aluminum ones.

James Sands, father of three, says, "Coming here for the Fourth was a convenient thing to do for the whole family without argument." His younger daughter shuffles uncomfortably. "Well," he admits, "almost everyone."

By now, I've left the Gunpowder River and am following the smaller Little Falls River, which empties into the Gunpowder behind a stand of sycamores.

Further north, the trail is literally buzzing with cyclists, joggers and families on picnic outings. Here the roaring but tree-cloaked river has cut deeply into the hills. Just south of Parkton, Little Falls comes into spectacular view from an overlook replete with picnic tables. The river cascades down some falls into a large pool.

In Parkton, a railroad station, now empty, once served the northernmost point of the Baltimore commuter line. About a half mile north of Parkton, the trail leaves the Little Falls River and follows its tributary, Beetree Run. I'm told this is prime trout fishing area.

It's also resplendent with beaver activity, much of which can be missed by the too-swift cyclist.

Some of the beavers here have brought controversy because of the argument that they are destroying the wilderness by killing trees. Others will say that all this activity is a natural part of a forest's evolution.

Nearby, in Bentley Springs, a natural spring thought to have healing powers drew Baltimoreans to create a health resort. Historic houses abound the roadways out of view from the trail. Here also, the alert traveler will find blackberries and raspberries. To the consternation of trail keepers but to the delight of the hikers and cyclists, this Maryland treat can provide a healthy snack. This part of the trail is also more meadowy and without shade, due in part, I'm sure, to the busy beavers.

The trail also begins to ascend more steeply, to the sound of the rushing Beetree. Steepness is a relative term, though. To the mountain-hardened cyclist, this slope feels absolutely flat. To a family with a four-year-old daughter who has been cycling for 10 miles, it might be murder under the hot sun.

Crossing Freeland Road, I ask a pair of brightly-attired female cyclists how far I am from Pennsylvania. They are sitting in the shade, munching on nuts and washing it down with tea.

"A little over a mile," says the one in orange and black spandex.

"And it's all uphill," says the lady in red.

"But it feels great coming down," says the other.

I find it a relaxing climb, with ever more dairy farms coming into view among these gently rolling hills. The smell of hay and cow dung weigh heavy in the hot air, triggering childhood memories of my uncle's farm outside Copenhagen. The bellowing of cows and the anxious bark of collies add to the evocative nature of my ride.

At the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, the trail instantly changes into a horrible bed of rocks for a hundred yards, then into complete disarray, and seems to disappear into the local farming scene.

Back in Freeland I stop at the Flower Cafe, just on the west bank of the Beetree. Vera Simmons, owner of the cafe and an adjacent nearby snowball stand, says, "For the sake of thirsty hikers and bicyclists, the Fourth for me means we're open. Basically, we're an arts and flower shop, so I wouldn't do much business today except for the cyclists. This January, when I heard them complain about the lack of refreshments between here and Monkton, I decided to accommodate them by stocking an assortment of health snacks and the usual sugar stuff. . . .

"We came to this area 12 years ago," she continues, "to be a part of something more peaceful than what we had before. Now I feel I'm a permanent fixture of the trail."

Southbound, I pass familiar landmarks and familiar people. South of Parkton on Weisburg Road, a group of cyclists earnestly hover over a fallen cyclist. She is bleeding from the head and moaning.

"Do you need help?" I ask.

"No, it's under control," says the woman providing first aid.

I back off to give the group space. A young girl approaches and says, "That's my mommy over there."

"The one who got hit?" I ask.

"She didn't get hit!" she exclaims as if I was supposed to know everything. "She ran into that pole and hit her head. Anyways, that's not my mommy. My mom's helping the girl. My mommy is a doctor."

"Do you like being here on the Fourth?" I ask her.

"Yeah, but now my mommy's working."

Continuing south after the ambulance arrives, I return to Monkton station. There, Sergeant Davis motions me over to a flag-adorned table full of cold, sliced watermelon. "Dig in," he says heartily. "It's free."

He then continues his conversation with a local doctor about the beaver controversy. Suddenly, he jumps up, and assuming his role as a law-enforcer, he chastises a cyclist who failed to walk his bike across Monkton Road and was wearing earphones on both ears. "State law says you can only cover up one ear," he states firmly. After the warning had sunk in, he says, "Want some melon?"

The cyclist nervously follows the sergeant to the stand.

Then I head for Phoenix and points south. There, by a wide swimming hole, a young couple with a child si in the water as they quietly talk. The scene was ever so peaceful, almost Biblical, and thus I leave the trail and head for the hustle and bustle of the hot city, my soul more deeply connected to this land of liberty.

Bent Lorentzen is a Baltimore writer.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad