The stream slices Baltimore's western side indiscriminately, rushing through villages and slums, past playgrounds and factories, forests and railroad tracks.
And the trail, now running alongside it, is equally oblivious to predetermined urban boundaries, a 14-mile paved path that belongs to Franklintown as much as Rosemont, Mill Hill as much as Otterbein, Pigtown as much as Westport.
The Gwynns Falls Trail, more than 100 years in the making and ready to be celebrated today, welcomes anyone.
"Everyone in the city of Baltimore stands to gain," says Alvin Lee of Cherry Hill, one of the hundreds of people in town who worked, officially and unofficially, through the years to make the trail a reality. "Parks are common ground."
Today at noon, politicians, parks workers, neighborhood leaders and recreation enthusiasts will gather at Solo Gibbs Park in South Baltimore to dedicate the trail, one of the largest urban greenways in the country.
The 10-foot-wide path wraps along Baltimore's west side, a paved invitation for walkers and cyclists. It cost $14 million, money drawn from federal, state and local coffers as well as private checkbooks.
Running a wiggly line from the edge of the city limits all the way to the Inner Harbor, the trail links 2,000 acres of parkland, more than 30 neighborhoods and a selection of cultural attractions. Most surprisingly, it showcases long-forgotten and long-neglected natural pockets in some of Baltimore's harder-luck communities.
"You'll be biking an area and you won't believe you're in Baltimore City," says U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.
Cardin not only helped wrangle as much as $2 million in federal highway funds for the trail, but he has also biked it many times. He celebrated his birthday last year at a trail-side pavilion in Leakin Park. That picnic area has since been named in his honor.
The trail can carry a cyclist, Cardin says, from Security Boulevard to downtown, insulating the rider most of the way from honking horns and exhaust fumes: "It's so peaceful."
Two green organizations, the national group Trust of Public Land and Baltimore's Parks & People Foundation, led what has turned out to be a marathon quest to get the trail built.
However, leaders from both groups enjoy pointing out how the real story started nearly 100 years ago.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, who designed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol and New York City's Central Park, also fathered Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted. The sons were parks gurus in their own right who followed in their father's footsteps to foster green urban landscapes across the country - Baltimore included.
In 1904 the brothers unveiled a plan for a long, thin park to follow the Gwynns Falls Valley through the city. That area, they wrote, "has the character of a wooded gorge; the scenery is remarkably beautiful, of a picturesque and sylvan sort seldom possible to retain so near a great city."
But in the wake of Baltimore's great fire that same year, the city funneled its park money into rebuilding Baltimore. Eventually, development encroached on much that was sylvan.
An idea reborn
In the early 1990s, a curious intern working one summer with Parks & People had the tenacity to blow the dust from the almost 90-year-old plan.
That intern, Chris Rogers, was eventually hired by the Trust for Public Land - and the rest is 14 years and millions of dollars worth of hard-earned history.
"Our mission in life is to undo what has been done," said Jacqueline M. Carrera, executive director of Parks & People. "Here it is 2005. It's been a long time."
The two organizations worked together to raise money, acquire property and pacify nervous neighbors.
The trail's first leg opened in 1999, 4.5 miles from the western end of Franklintown Road to Leon Day Park. The second stretch, connecting Leakin Park and Carroll Park, opened in 2003. And now, with spurs that attach the Inner Harbor and the Middle Branch, the trail is essentially complete. There are plans to connect the trail next year to Interstate 70 and, someday, to draw in even more neighborhoods.
This week Halle Van Der Gaag, a Trust for Public Land project manager, and Bill Eberhart, president of the volunteer Gwynns Falls Trail Council, walked a newer portion of the trail near Russell Street.
"We saw a fox here the other day," says Van Der Gaag.
Eberhart quickly points out to the gray waters of the Middle Branch: "There's an egret out there now."
Who knew that such tranquillity hid just steps from the Greyhound bus station? Who knew woodland animals scampered in the shadow of Ravens Stadium?
Penny Troutner, owner of Light Street Cycles and a Pigtown resident, takes her bike onto the trail and recommends it to anyone who comes into her shop looking for a place to ride.
She's partial to the unpaved portion in Gwynns Falls Park, where flowers dot the forest in the spring and come winter - even better - whiteness blankets the earth and icicles hang from trees.
"The whole thing's in the city," she says, "and you don't feel like you're in the city."
Sometimes, however, what Van Der Gaag refers to as "urban charms" are inescapable.
Take the part of the trail near Wilkens Avenue in Mill Hill, for instance. The trail dips behind an auto scrap yard, past rusting, stripped junk heaps that sometimes, after a good rain, wash right onto the trail.
The gentle splashing of the stream lazily slapping rocks and various avian calls mix with the metallic clang of the scrap yard.
And apparently, purple clover and tall grasses weren't decoration enough for graffiti artists, who spray-paint their marks onto the trail faster than anyone can scrub them away.
All of it adds to the character, and all of it is the reality of Baltimore's landscape, Carrera says - so it's staying.
"We like to keep things very local, very true to who we are," she says, "but improve it just enough that people can enjoy it."
The final trail leg leads to Sharp-Leadenhall, a struggling South Baltimore neighborhood with big redevelopment ambitions. The setting for today's opening ceremony is a neighborhood park the trail cuts through.
It's just one of many challenged communities along the trail, hoping proximity will turn to opportunity.
'Come meet us'
Community President Betty Bland-Thomas wants anyone the trail might lead to her door to see what Sharp-Leadenhall has to offer.
"Come meet us on a personal basis," she says.
Though the Olmsted brothers intended the Gwynns Falls Trail for recreation and conservation, if people change their minds about certain parts of town as they walk or bike through, the architects probably wouldn't be disappointed.
The trail "crosses cultural boundaries, socioeconomic boundaries and, at times, comfort levels," Carrera says. "It's a real opportunity [for people along it] to publicize their neighborhoods."
So with phases one, two and three done at last, Bland-Thomas has her fingers crossed for that elusive phase four.
"Maybe the next step," Carrera says, "will be a means to an even greater end."