The James River through downtown Buchanan in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

In 1921, Benton MacKaye was grieving the death of his wife. A forester, the first graduate of Harvard University’s forestry school, he tried to immerse himself in his work. He wrote an article for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, not the usual reading for foresters, in which he proposed a trail that would connect the highest point in the north (Mount Washington in New Hampshire) with the highest point in the south (Mount Mitchell in North Carolina). He even gave it a name: the Appalachian Trail.

Sixteen years later, in 1937, the trail opened, and it was even grander than MacKaye had proposed, stretching from Maine to Georgia.

Now, all that was so long ago – MacKaye’s original paper is now more than a century old – that all those dates blend together in a gray, distant past. However, let’s try to add some context here: If MacKaye were proposing that trail today, that means it would come to fruition in 2038.

So what kind of things should we be proposing today if we want to be sure we have them in 2038? More to the point, what kind of trails should we be proposing?

I ask about trails specifically for a reason. One of the great economic transformations we’ve seen in this part of Virginia over the past decade or so is the realization that our topography is not an obstacle, it’s an asset. For the past decade or so, the Roanoke Regional Partnership – the main economic development agency from Alleghany County to Franklin County – has pushed the notion that the Roanoke Valley is no longer a railroad town, it’s an outdoors town. This required a psychological shift on the part of some people, but it has been a significant part of the region’s new understanding of itself: that all those greenways and blueways aren’t just there because they’re fun, but because those outdoor amenities are actually good for business because, in the new economy, a region’s “quality of life” balance sheet is what helps attract and retain (or not attract and not retain) talent.

We see recognition of this pretty much all over. The big metros in this part of Virginia – Roanoke, Lynchburg, the New River Valley, Danville – all have extensive trail systems. Martinsville and Henry County are working on an 11-mile-plus trail system that would connect to Fairy Stone State Park. Farther into Southwest Virginia, there’s the 34.3-mile Virginia Creeper Trail from Abingdon to Whitetop and the 12.5-mile Mendota Trail from Bristol to Mendota in Washington County, both built on former rail lines, so part of the “rails-to-trails” push. There’s also the Spearhead Trails, a very different sort of trail network; it’s dedicated to all-terrain vehicles. And there’s interest in more. The Virginia Department of Transportation is studying what it would take to connect four existing trail systems – the Roanoke River Greenway, the Huckleberry Trail in the New River Valley, the Riverway Trail in Radford and the New River Trail State Park – that someday could run 100 miles from Galax to Greenfield in Botetourt County. (The Roanoke Valley greenway system isn’t all the way out to Greenfield yet, but that’s a destination someday.) In Gov. Ralph Northam’s outgoing budget, he proposed $243 million for outdoor recreation, including developing some big, new trails (we’ll see what the General Assembly finally winds up with it finishes work on the budget, ideally this week). In the Shenandoah Valley, there’s a push for a 50-mile rails-to-trail route from Broadway to Front Royal. In the Richmond area, there’s the proposed 43-mile Fall Line Trail from Petersburg to Ashland. On the Eastern Shore, there’s a proposal for a 49-mile rails-to-trails path from Hallwood to Cape Charles. All across Southwest and Southside are proposals for shorter trails. And then there’s Pulaski County, which is looking at creating a park for mountain biking. 

All of that was rattling around in the back of my mind when I spoke recently with Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County. He had a different project in mind: He was talking up a flood control project for the oft-flooded town of Buchanan and how the nearly $228 million the state has collected through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative might be a good source of funding. He also mentioned, almost as an aside, how if Buchanan could get its flooding under control, then maybe it could even have a riverside walk along the James River, say from Limestone Park outside of town into downtown. That seems a great idea to me. Buchanan is a charming little town with a lot of possibilities. It’s got the river, which Twin River Outfitters has found ways to commercialize. It’s got that spectacular (although scary) swinging bridge. It’s got a nonprofit movie house, the Buchanan Theatre. In short, if Buchanan could find other ways to commercialize the river – and turn it from a liability into an asset – then the town could easily become “Damascus on steroids.” (I’m thinking of the Washington County town that cashes in on the Appalachian Trail, not the war-torn Syrian capital). If you’re some remote worker who likes drifting down the river on a summer weekend, Buchanan would be the place to be.

But why settle for a mile-or-so-long trail from Limestone Park to downtown? In the spirit of Benton MacKaye, whose project took 16 years to happen, let’s think bigger. What trails should we be thinking about now, and starting action on so that come 2038 we actually have them?

I’ll start the bidding.

How about a trail along the James River, say, from Clifton Forge (where the river technically is the Jackson River; the James isn’t formed until the Jackson and the Cowpasture converge at Iron Gate) to James River State Park in Buckingham County. If you want to really think grand, imagine a riverside trail from Clifton Forge to Richmond, or even farther beyond where the James empties into the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about 88 miles from Clifton Forge to James River State Park, a route that would, of course, go right through Lynchburg.

Danville is proud of its Riverwalk Trail. “The Riverwalk on the Dan may define the City of Danville for the 21st century,” the city’s website proclaims. What if that riverwalk could be connected to some larger series of trails? Is there a way to create a trail that would connect to Smith Mountain Lake – about 56 miles away? Or eastward to Kerr Lake – about 51 miles to Clarksville? Or both? Imagine a lake-to-lake trail!

Or how about an even grander vision: Maybe that Danville-to-Clarksville trail could be part of a trail that stretches all the way across Virginia’s southern border, from Virginia Beach to the Cumberland Gap, about 426 miles or so – or slightly less than one-fifth the length of the Appalachian Trail.

These distances are large, but, except for the last one, not out of line with some of the trails already being proposed. The main obstacles, as always, are topography and landowners. I don’t claim to be an expert on either. Obviously a rails-to-trail project is easier because the route is already laid out and under somebody’s control – it’s “just” a matter of transferring the ownership. (Yes, I’m skipping over lots of details, but you get the point.) It’s a lot more difficult when you essentially have to start from scratch. To close a 1-mile gap in the Roanoke River Greenway, Roanoke had to endure a sometimes acrimonious five-year dispute with the owner of one business, which wasn’t keen to part with a strip of riverfront land.) Maybe it’s simply not possible to build some of these proposed trails, but just because we can’t have one of these trails doesn’t mean we can’t have some piece of it.

All I know is that if we don’t start making plans now, none of these will happen.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at