By John Hanson, correspondent
With no specific destination and no time we had to be there, the place just became halfway.
We were out for a family bike ride. I also was out to reclaim the road.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were bicycle makers. They later used those skills to take flight in North Carolina. First, they spent their formative years in Cedar Rapids, ages 10 to 17 for Wilbur and 6 to 13 for Orville. I want to believe some local sight, sound or teacher may have provided them their mechanical inspiration.
At the turn of the century, bicycles weren’t just popular, they were the thing. Consider these words from author Stephen Crane in 1894, “Today in the 1890s everything is bicycle.”
Bicycles allowed people to transcend space-time. A walk of an hour could be reduced to 15 minutes. And a bicycle could be just put away when done unlike a riding horse.
Bicycles were serious adult gear. A bike was liberation, speedy and personal transportation. Bicycles laid the groundwork for the car.
Early bicycles shared the road with pedestrians, carriages and wagons. As biking grew in popularity, riders pushed for city streets and country lanes to have “side paths.” These narrow strips paralleled the main road so bikers had a predictable hard-packed path, whereas the rutted road was left to equine transportation. By 1900, Cedar Rapids had a 20-mile bicycle path — built at public expense.
Cars were a different beast. They were bullies of the road. After 1900, automobiles demanded more from the roads. The side paths were casualties when roads were widened to accommodate more cars. Except for the desperate, or the intrepid, cars drove off walkers and bicycles. Bicycles were relegated to the playthings of children.
All these years later, bicyclists are reclaiming their freedom of movement, as well as freedom from fear, on stand-alone paths.
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Our modern side paths are often former railroads, built for the iron horse and then abandoned. Two-wheeled vehicles came to fill the void, for if you build it, something will come.
The Old Creamery Trail, the Grant Wood Trail, the High Trestle Trail and more are bicyclists’ substitute roads. I don’t expect to reclaim Ely Road so I can bike on it to Solon. But now I don’t have to share it either, as a safe, paved, and non-motorized path connects the Cedar Valley Trail to the home of the Athenian statesman.
The abandoned railroad right of way is now yours — technically the Johnson County Conservation Board’s — open and free for bicycles, like the roads of old. Where the railroad bed couldn’t be reclaimed, a side path took its place.
This road for bicycles was just about perfect on an early summer afternoon. The traffic on Ely Road was a constant background noise, a reminder of the danger. The grins on oncoming cyclists were constant, too. I counted 22 by our five -mile mark. Unlike shared roads of old, this was a smooth ribbon of concrete and free from horse apples.
Most riders wore helmets. Some played amplified music, high school students from the 1980s were in charge of the playlist — 1989 must have been a good year. I kept track and there was no correlation between helmet-free riders and those projecting the hits.
It was decided five miles was enough, Solon would have to wait. Reversing course, we peddled back to Ely. If you have a sweet tooth, then you’ll find it easy to bike to Ely.
Here’s to more trails and more connections, as people get to reclaim their roads.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.