Well, it is Labor Day and here in the northeastern United States we are taking those end of summer walks, paddles, and swims. It is a celebratory holiday, with the hint of melancholy that endings always bring. For me, it is always a happy time as we start the new school year and enter the season of apples, cinnamon, and changing leaves.
The hint of the crisp weather to come was in the air last week, and I was prompted to get out my bicycle to take a ride on a nearby rail trail. Rail trails have been an ever-present part of my adult life. When my children were young, my husband and I would pack them up, first in bike seats on our bicycles, then on little bikes of their own, and eventually, setting them free on proper bikes, training wheels gone, and streamers flying. The rail trails offered our family a safe, car-free space for our adventures.
Yesterday, my husband and I rode the Dutchess County Rail Trail from Hopewell Junction to the Walkway Over the Hudson. It’s a lovely ride, but that is not my point. What was great about the trail, which I have watched emerge over the last 20 years, is the community values it represents. Like all parks and trails, it required local time and money, community investment and labor, an occasional grant, and a vision of the positive impact it would have on Dutchess County. People joined together to make something that would improve the quality of life for those around. This, is a wonderful impulse.
The Walkway Over the Hudson (an old railroad bridge, now a pedestrian and cycling route) offers spectacular views of the Hudson River and has become a destination all by itself. From a derelict and scary structure to this vibrant park, some intrepid folks had enough imagination to move it forward. Not only is the resulting structure beautiful and generally packed with people during the warmer months, but on either side, small businesses have popped up. This investment has surely resulted in some monetary returns as it draws tourists to experience the views.
But the rest of it, the winding trail, with bridges over highways, and parking spots for shorter and longer loops, brought something more than a monetary reward… it brought an improved quality of life. As we pedaled along yesterday we passed people of all ages–newborns in backpacks, small children with training wheels, dog walkers on roller blades, people in wheel chairs, and senior citizens taking a slow stroll. On this rail trail I passed people of many colors and sizes and I believe I heard at least six different languages spoken. This wonderfully democratic experience, with no admission fees, brings cultures together in the most positive ways.
Now I could talk about property values (probably improved by this investment) or the other potential business that may result, or the actual health benefits of trails and parks as they encourage people to get up and move about, but I am most impressed by they way these things represent our commitment to community. Time spent and funds raised on building these come from people who see the value of the experiences the trails will provide without seeking a financial payoff. Families and neighbors then volunteer to help with the upkeep, representing a continued commitment to making the world a nicer place. When we do these things, we all demonstrate care for our friends and neighbors and even those visitors from far and wide, dreaming of that common good for all.
So, it’s Labor Day, the perfect day to think about commitment to the common good. The work of labor unions in creating a reasonable standard of living for all is a clear representation of that commitment. People came together for the betterment of the whole, rather than advocating for the one. That work improved working standards and created better living conditions for the many. Our willingness to invest in transportation, healthcare, and education also represent that commitment. These things are a bet on the idea that we all have better lives when everyone has access to these essential things.
And parks of all kinds are really just that….a bet that we all have better lives when everyone can share in the beauty of the outdoors in a safe and accessible way. This seems like an excellent way to spend Labor Day. That, and a picnic of course.
Enjoy the holiday.