When I first see the trail, I don’t know which direction to start in. I’m in Duck, West Virginia, at the northernmost point on the expanding Elk River Rail Trail. I’m parked in a cinder lot, obviously made for trail users, next to what was once a railroad crossing. This lot, I surmise, may have been the town’s station decades ago, when the trains still ran this route. From my car it looks like the trail goes both ways, but I know that I am at the northern terminus of the groomed trail. But, at the moment, I just don’t know which way is south.
It’s not hard to find this spot, you take exit 46 off of I-79 onto Servia Road and follow the signs some 2.8 miles to Duck. It’s that simple, but there are so many twists and turns on the Servia Road that I have lost my sense of direction.
This lot would accommodate around 15 vehicles, but as I arrive, at 11:30 on a Friday morning, there is only one truck on the lot. A couple of nearby houses, but not a soul to be seen anywhere. As I pull my bike from my car, I spot the corner of a building a block or two to my left with an “OPEN” sign lighted.
When I actually get my wheels onto the trail it becomes obvious which way I must go. I try going left and find that the surface is soft there. My wheels sink and I slow to a crawl and I see that this is the beginning stage in creating a rideable surface. This is part of the ongoing expansion project.
So, I do a one-eighty and ride onto the hard-packed, crushed gravel of the groomed trail and in minutes I am entunnelled in the shade of hardwoods, speeding merrily along the banks of the Elk River.
For the first several miles I am averaging about 13 mph, which is pretty good for me on a trail such as this. Almost all of the gradation on converted railroad beds is minimal. You never have to pull hard up a grade and you don’t coast downhill. Very little gear shifting involved.
For the most part, the going is smooth, but I do notice an unusual number of dead branches on the trail. Unusual to me, at least. I have ridden the Virginia Creeper Trail from White Top Mountain to Abingdon and the Greenbrier River Trail from Cass to Anthony in West Virginia. Those trails are the same idea as this one – converted from abandoned mountain railroad beds – but they are more heavily traveled and, apparently, better maintained than this one. The fallen branches I encounter are no thicker than a Magic Marker and can be ridden over, but their frequency requires a greater degree of concentration on the trail ahead than the other trails.
To my left there is a steep, wooded drop-off and then the river. The water is beautiful today. The Elk River is a sandy-bottomed stream, dotted here and there by little islands and rocky spots where it breaks up into riffles and shoals. Today the water is a clear green and in the shallow runs you can see the golden riverbottom. Trouble is, on a summer day like this one, with the overhanging trees in full foliage, the river is pretty well hidden most of the time.
Now and then I pass over bridges spanning the little creeks feeding into the river. These bridges look newly constructed and are very substantial, solid and safe – just as good or better than those on the other trails.
I don’t know where I’m going. The literature on line about the trail is dated and there are no signs along the way indicating what’s ahead and how far. I’ve just decided that I’ll ride 15 miles or so and then head back so I’ll be back home in Saint Albans – about 60 miles away – before the quitting time traffic starts.
Given the limitation of the view, every turn in the road looks much the same. Really pretty, but little variation. Eight miles in, I have seen at least five deer, but not another person on the trail, no cyclists, no hikers, no runners, no one on horseback. Once in a while I pass an old house or riverside camp, almost all of which appear to have been abandoned. There is one such house in particular, right off of the trail, that is intriguing. A two-story, white clapboard house, now overgrown with vines, that was a beauty in its day and must have some interesting stories to tell.
At about the ten-mile marker I come out of the forest and cross a paved road and I see another cyclist, obviously a local, peddling toward a row of houses. “Where am I?” I ask her. “Ivydale,” she responds. I remember Ivydale as being a hotspot for traditional Appalachian music some fifty years ago. The Morris Brothers lived and played here then; I think. But there is no sign of music-making as I pass. There is a line of houses parallel with the trail here. I see a Methodist church and another, larger church with a playground, but there is no evidence of a store or any other commerce in sight. On my right, as I head out of Ivydale, I pass a man sitting on his back porch with his dog. I wave hello.
Then I am back into the forest and back into the same narrow shady tunnel. I ride another five miles and see no sign of any kind, there is no break in the tunnel and so I stop the bike at a random spot and eat my snacks. By now I’ve been on the trail well over an hour and I still haven’t seen another rider or walker going either way. As I chomp my apple the voices of two men waft across the river and I hear cars passing on the highway on the other side of the river.
On the way back I focus less on making good time – I know that I will beat the traffic home – and I stop at places where the foliage breaks enough for me to get a photograph of the river. I see another five or six deer, including a doe with two fawns, and a big turkey, waddling down the trail before it flies off into the high branches above.
When I am within two miles of the trail’s end I at last see a pair of cyclists coming my way. Before I am done, I’ll see one other pair.
With my bike put away I decide to check out the little store down the road. I’m glad that I did, and not just because I got a cold drink there.
I expected a local convenience store. Sort of a mom-and-pop version of a Seven Eleven. But that’s not what I found. This place is Nottingham’s Self-Service Store and it is a true, old-time general store. You walk inside and see old folks sitting around talking and you see the inventory of hardware and fishing gear and groceries. But this store is not a museum, it’s a going concern. There were customers before and after me.
At the checkout I start a conversation with the man who is obviously the proprietor of the place.
“What was this rail line primarily used for back in the day? Coal or timber?”
“More coal than timber, but the main traffic was trains of tank cars coming out of Charleston, carrying chemicals from the plants in the Kanawha Valley to Gassaway and a junction with a trunk line going into Baltimore and other eastern cities. Some of them more than a mile long. There would be three or four trains a day in the busy years. I remember when it was steam locomotives. That old whistle would blow.”
“Was there any passenger service?”
“There was. I remember my first train ride. I was five years old and my mother was taking me to Gassaway. I was scared to get on. Took three or four people to handle me.
I used to get part of my inventory off of the train. I sell farm feed and that came by boxcar. I also used to deal in men’s shoes and I bought from an outfit in St Louis. They shipped by rail and I’d know when the train was coming. It would slow down as it passed here and the man would toss the boxes of shoes out and I’d pick them up and bring them into the store.”
I asked him other questions about the work being done on the trail and he told me the next step was an extension of the trail north to Frametown. He also told me that if I had kept going south for another five miles I would have arrived in the town of Clay. Clay is a county seat and there are accommodations there. If I had known I was that close, I might have kept going.
There are also efforts underway to extend the trail farther south, from Clay to Clendenin. That would make the car trip there much shorter for me and would make the trail more attractive to the population in the Kanawha Valley. This trail is still a work in progress. It’s nice enough the way it is just now, but it has the potential to be a major attraction once it gets closer to the Kanawha Valley.