Walking Old Rail Lines

By: Yorgo Douramacos

Having walked the Cardinal Greenway and Monon Trails here in Central Indiana I was only vaguely aware that they were once rail lines. The Cardinal Greenway in particular is remarkable for connecting a 62 mile stretch of Indiana, town and country. But having recently spent an intensive few months reviewing and considering the history of transportation in Indiana, these trails take on a more weighted significance.

If you happen to believe, as I do, that rail is an underutilized and neglected transit option, these trails become similar to grave sites. They illicit a sense of longing and loss. If you merely find rail interesting they might have the resonance of archeological ruins: evidence of some dimly remembered past. The Cardinal Greenway lies on top of the the old Chesapeake and Ohio Cardinal Line. It was the only length of track in the state served by the iconic Chessie the Cat, emblem of the C&O railroad.

The converging horizon lines of railroad tracks have always made for potent visual metaphor. The visible evidence of a blazed trail, a path out, beckoning into the distance is hard to ignore. Yet somehow a blacktopped greenway seems to symbolize residence, an invitation to walk a few miles and then saunter casually back.

I love hiking and biking trails and the Cardinal Greenway is one of my favorites. But they are ostentatious in their way, seeming to say “Our transportation needs are so well served we only need rail lines to serve as recreation.” Yet this is clearly not the case. Our transit systems are sparse and undernourished and require a drastic reordering among our transportation priorities.

I cherish long walking paths. Walking is as close a thing to a core philosophical value as I possess. But I am forced to consider, as I ride in a car to a remote location pre-designated for a long walk, about the priorities behind a 62 mile walking path built over derelict rail lines in a state with so few effective or reliable transit options. This is not meant as a cry against the Cardinal Greenway. Merely a point of mediation as regards its meaning and significance.