The Baltimore and Annapolis Trail makes connections. Much as the train that traveled the same rail bed into the 1960s did, the 10-foot-wide paved recreational trail connects friends and neighbors, residents with employment, the rural with the urban, the past with the present, and most recently, art with transportation.
Ranked the seventh-most heavily used rail-trail nationally by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the county-owned 13.3-mile linear park brings out a wide range of users from meandering families to cyclists in training and commuters -- nearly a million in all each year.
From the trail's starting point just north of the Severn River's Naval Academy Bridge and its southernmost parking lot at Boulters Way, the B & A passes through suburban communities, wetlands, mature deciduous forest, pastures, meadows and shopping areas before connecting with the 10-mile BWI trail loop at Dorsey Road.
Soon, there will be a ranger station and promenade serving as a new trailhead at the Jonas Green Park 2 1/2 miles to the south on the banks of the Severn River, where a short span of the old Severn River drawbridge remains as a fishing pier.
This extension will bring trail users near the place where the train once crossed the Severn transporting passengers, food and freight to Annapolis. It will also make a connection with the Colonial Maritime Trail In Annapolis.
Together, the three trails allow users to circle a 20th-century International airport, follow a 19th-century converted rail corridor and traverse marked street lanes of an 18th-century Colonial port town.
The 42-mile trail system is the only point on the eastern seaboard at which two National Millennium trails, the north-south East Coast Greenway and the east-west American Discovery Trail, converge.
For a taste of the trail and some exercise, one might sample a fairly busy but beautiful section from the Jones Station Park and Ride Lot just north of Arnold (at the 3.4-mile mark) to the Robinson Road snowball stand nearly two miles north in Severna Park.
A self-guided tour could be enhanced with the Guide to Historical Markers on the B & A Trail by Barry Miller, which is available at the Earleigh Heights Ranger Station (at the 7-mile mark). Don't forget a dollar for a snowball at your turnaround point.
On one Sunday afternoon, Severna Park resident Susan Rush skimmed along in that area on her in-line skates. All summer, she and two Annapolis women, Babette Leshinsky and Leigh Schreitz, have been training for an 86-mile in-line skating marathon from Athens, Ga., to Atlanta to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"The other day, we did 52 miles up the trail around BWI twice, down to Annapolis and back to Marley," Rush said. "My house has become the de facto training center because it's so convenient to the trail."
Down the trail, an increasing number of carefully maintained fiowerbeds were interspersed among the historical landmarks. More than 70 bright and beautiful fiowerbeds stretching along the trail are designed, planted and maintained by the B & A Trail flower Bed Volunteers. Each has a plaque identifying its caretaker.
"One of the keys to the success of the trail is that people pour their heart into it," says Dave Dionne, Anne Arundel County trails superintendent and chairman of the national board of directors of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. "We are famous for building the community into the trail and giving people a chance to love what they own."
Dionne estimates that more than 400 volunteers are involved in some aspect of maintaining, promoting or enhancing the trail on a regularly scheduled basis, contributing more than $1 million in sweat equity. Most people work through three organized groups supporting the trail: the Flower Bed Volunteers, the Trail Blazer safety management team and the Friends of the B & A Trail.
For all they have done to promote, protect and enhance the trail since organizing in 1994, the Friends of the B & A Trail Inc. have only begun.
In 1999, the White House Millennium Council, with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, designated the B & A one of 51 Millennium Legacy Trails nationwide. The recognition gave the group the opportunity to apply for Millennium program grants with a goal of bringing the nation's arts and trails communities together under the theme "Honor the Past: Imagine the Future."
Because of the Millennium grant and others provided by public and private organizations, a committee of the Friends has three major initiatives under way, led by Maryland first lady Frances Hughes Glendening as honorary chair and Friends president Elizabeth Wyble.
A "Planet Walk" scale model of the solar system will present technically accurate planetary sculptures along four miles of the trail between Harundale Mail and Earleigh Heights Road. "You will know how many billions of miles you have walked from the sun," says Wyble.
Educational signs along the route announce the future home of each of the planets. A call for artists has gone out for another Millennium sculpture project. That project will tie together the Annapolis, B & A and BWI trails with at least one sculpture on each.
For its third major project, the group is working with the Glen Burnie Improvement Association to redesign, plant and maintain all the trail landscaping from Dorsey Road to Aquahart Road.
"Through our work to enhance the trail, we are protecting it," says Wyble. "When something is beautiful, people tend not to throw their trash. It causes people to take a little more pride. We don't pay enough taxes for the county to provide this park. It is the volunteer efforts that make it what it is."
Visitors looking for a refreshment break will find Mische's Delicatessen, which along with the Peddle Pushers bike shop and a number of other stores, backs up to the trail at McKxinsey Road.
Severna Park resident Michelle "Mische" Flaharty opened the deli March 10. Mische's daugbter Jackie said about a third of their business, especially on weekends, comes directly from the trail.
"It's a great location," she says. "People come in from the trail sometimes even on their Rollerblades for a snack or to meet friends for lunch. We also get a good weekday lunch traffic."
A short distance away lies the Hatton-Regester Green, a beautifully landscaped park between the Severn School and the trail. "I think of the trail as a necklace that winds through the communities with little jewels along the way," says Dionne, "The Hatton-Regester Green is a diamond- one of the many jewels - along the way."
Among many groups involved in creating the park, the Severn River Rugby Club donated labor to build the bandstand and dig flower beds. Wyble says that whenever she is maintaining the green, people slow down and say, "'It's beautiful what you are doing. Thank you.'"
One of the club's members, David White, was glad to help out. "This is a great community place," says White. "My mom used to ride the train to Annapolis to shop. In the 60s, when the rail line was drying up, I remember small groups of boxcars would come along once in a while. We would run out and put pennies on the track. It brings back a lot of memories."
The snowball stand is a popular gathering place. Bicyclists of all ages, shapes and sizes, runners, people walking their dogs, in-line skaters, but mostly families take a break there, relaxing on benches and lining up for ice-cold refreshment.
Two women from Columbia stopped there recently to cool off from the last leg of an excursion from Marley Station Mail to Annapolis for lunch and back. They were training for the Sea Gull Century bike ride, a popular 100-mile ride from Salisbury, Md., to Assateague Island and back this month. Their ride that day totaled 28 miles.
Their route took them by a varied landscape. They began at a busier, more commercial area, then pedaled though residential areas of Sevena Park and into pastoral settings near Arnold before swooping down past the scenic overlook on Route 450 and crossing the Naval Academy Bridge into historic downtown Annapolis.
Walking along this trail, some almost imagine hearing the train whistle blow, transporting travelers to the next stop. "It's funny, my mom would see friends on the train, just as I now see friends on the trail," says Dave White.
The B & A Trail Park is open during daylight hours and is free to the public. The Earleigh Heights parking lot and restrooms open at 7a.m. and close at sunset. For more information about the trail, call the park offices at 410-222-6244 or log on to www,co.anne-arundel.md.us.
For information about the friends of the B & A Trail or to become a member, contact Elizabeth Wyble at 410-647-6621 or log on to www.friendsofaatrails.org.