Getting lost in my hometown
● By Richard Gaw
In the summer of 1997, I moved with my wife from the Forty Acres community in the City of Wilmington to the end of a private road in Landenberg, for the primary reason that we wanted to live our lives surrounded by the tamed wild of nature.
In the nearly 18 years we have called Landenberg our home, we have observed the flap-flap-soar of a coopers hawk dipping and ascending, enjoyed the confident hop of a lone fox in meadows, and held the sight of a hushed flock of deer at sunset, practically in awe. And yet, sadly, it's all been done from a safe distance – from our back decks, or from a car on our way to an appointment, a meeting – always, seemingly, headed to a destination known as Somewhere Else.
In retrospect, I have admired the natural beauty of Landenberg like a visitor to a museum, and the only benefit of living here is that I don't have to pay admission to feel its presence.
I have seen it, but I have never touched it.
I do not remember the exact moment the thought of this magazine assignment first entered my mind. It's likely that it has asked to be written for the last 18 years; a nagging tug that would force me into the woods and turn by appreciative detachment of nature into a tactile experience. I did not know where I was headed, but I knew who I wanted to experience it with.
Even the most sporadic visitor to the goings-on in New Garden Township is keen enough to recognize that the hard work of the township is done by volunteers, and it could easily be said that the Friends of the New Garden Trails are among the hardest working of these volunteer efforts. At the monthly New Garden Township Board of Supervisors meetings I began to cover for the Chester County Press, I noticed three men serve as the collective voices of the Friends group: Bernie McKay, Don Peters and Chris Robinson. Their energy was infectious; they spoke passionately about building bridges, and clearing brush, and creating trails that connect one part of Landenberg to another, as well as history to the present.
As I began to plan my assignment, I knew that I wanted to explore these trails with these men. To my delight, all three committed to doing so.
* * *
After spending several years excavating and foraging their way through a nearly one-mile-long thicket of wooded hillside of the White Clay Creek Valley, a group of dedicated volunteers known as the Friends of the New Garden Trails officially opened the Laurel Woods Trail in 2009.
Two years later, after similar sweat equity, the Friends officially cut the ribbon on the Mill Race Trail, a 1.2-mile path of inclines and valleys on the now abandoned Pomeroy & Newark Railroad bed. Now, nearly six years after the trails were first opened to visitors, they have served to illuminate the natural surroundings of Landenberg. To date, thousands of residents have admired rare patches of Mountain Laurel in Laurel Woods, gaze down from an observation platform that overlooks the abandoned railroad that once scissored its way through a rock formation. They have fished for trout along the White Clay Creek, or been stilled and silenced so they can watch a busy beaver refashion a tree stump.
Those who have traversed these woods have allowed themselves the rare opportunity in a furiously accelerated world to move from action to reaction, to morph from doer to observer, to turn off the rattle of their head space and quietly, simply – if only for an hour or so – live the lives they imagined.
"This trail system actually started with a request by the residents to create more open space," McKay said. "I was the chairman of the 2005 comprehensive plan for the township. There was survey done of more than 1,000 residents, asking them what they wanted, and the number one response was open space and trails. That led to an informational meeting that invited some Brandywine Conservancy people, some Chester County Planning Commission people, and from that, we got the ball rolling."
As an off-shoot to the comprehensive plan, a greenways plan was then developed, on which was formed a massive dream to create a 15-mile trail system that would eventually scissor through four Pennsylvania townships – London Britain, New Garden, Franklin and London Grove townships. The journey to achieving that dream has already begun; in addition to the Mill Race and Laurel Woods trails, the Friends have completed the first leg of the Landenberg Junction Trail, located directly opposite the White Clay Creek from the Landenberg Hotel & Store. Formerly the Hendrickson property, the trail provides a visitor with a walk through the town's history, when Landenberg was primarily known as a mill town.
I met Robinson, McKay and Peters at the New Garden Township Building on the overcast morning of March 19. Soon after arriving, two misconceptions -- some would call them 'gross inaccuracies' -- were quickly dispelled. One, there are no bears in Landenberg. Two, the trails are exceedingly safe; there has never been any reported incident involving assault or person-to-person attack. In fact, on any given day, visitors are likely to see their neighbors out for a morning hike, or fishermen casting their lines out on the White Clay Creek for trout.
With these myths properly put to rest and my hiking boots laced up, it was time to finally lose myself in my hometown.
* * *
What immediately struck me about the Mill Race Trail was how closely it binds the wilderness and the residential together in partnership. From a small parking lot on Lavender Lane, the entrance to the trail gives the impression of a skinny escape portal that leads the visitor from Suburbia to Nature. At a little more than a mile long, the trail follows the old Pomeroy and Newark Railroad bed, which allows for many wide pathways to walk on. Less than one-half mile into the trail, the outside world -- the one with houses and cars and the chatter of conversation -- had largely disappeared from sight and sound, and although the early spring season had not yet turned the foliage from ashen brown to green, it was good enough.
I was lost, and it felt incredible to be so.
At about 6:10 p.m. on the evening of Friday, Jan. 22, 1904, a locomotive on the Newark and Pomeroy collapsed while crossing Bridge 42 over the White Clay Creek. As the train struck the trestle, the supporting timbers began to give way, and a passenger car carrying one dozen persons, went down in the stream. No one was killed, though several were seriously injured. I saw the concrete remnants of the bridge, as well as what was left of an 18th Century dam that once powered a mill. On any given excursion, visitors to the Mill Race Trail can see mallard ducks, wood ducks, herons and Bald Eagles.
Less than a half-mile into the Mill Race Trail, it became obvious to me that Dave Rickerman of the Rickerman Tree Service has been a godsend to the Friends of the New Garden Trails. At nearly every stretch and bend, McKay, Robinson and Peters pointed to where Rickerman used the tools of his business to remove a stump, level a pathway or transport materials.
"Over the years, there have been more than 100 people who have helped out, and of that, about two dozen who have put in a lot of hours, and less than ten who've put in extraordinary hours. Dave has been one of those people," Peters said. "Dave has truly left his mark on these trails."
"Dave operates his machinery like it's an extension of his body," Robinson said. "It's safe to say that without his dedication to the trails, we would not have been able to come this far."
After we left the Mill Race Trail, Peters took me to Auburn Road and pointed to the thickness of woods ahead. As part of the vision that will hopefully see the opening of the 15-mile contiguous trail, the Friends are making plans that will connect both trails by way of forging a new trail along the abandoned railroad on the northern side of Penn Green Road, which will require the building of a bridge across the White Clay Creek.
As Peters sketched out plans, I began to think about what the natural world once meant to me. When I was a boy growing up in New York State, the ten-acre woods that separated houses and roads in our neighborhood served as a sanctuary for my boyhood friends and me. Thick with old growth trees, a stream, a pond, and rock ledges, "back in the woods" was a place we could be Native Indians walking softly so as not to harm the earth, and little Lewis and Clarks trudging through streams, and archeologists and scientists and tree climbers. There were no clocks, no orchestrated play date time periods, just the limitless capacity of a half dozen grubby boys to invent their very own universes. Often, we were so far gone into our own worlds that the only other humans we would be our mothers, calling us in for dinner.
We never wanted the days to end. Today, more than 40 years after I last left those woods, my memories remain intact. I am still ten years old, my friends have not aged, at a time when even the notion that this would all come to an end -- that our adventures in the woods would eventually be erased through age and responsibility -- was unthinkable. Somewhere along the way, I had mistaken exploration for obligation. Somewhere along the way, the idea of being lost was looked at as a sign of failure, not as the equivalent of being handed a key that opens a door.
* * *
The Laurel Woods Trail is a series of natural and man-made stairs and bridges, offset by stunning vistas that place the visitor high above the White Clay Creek Valley. As part of the work the Friends have done on the trail, there is an observation platform that overlooks one of the key landmarks of Landenberg -- the narrow "cut" between a large rock formation that once enabled the Pomeroy & Newark Railroad to weave its way through the wilderness.
The clear-cut evidence of the painstaking work the Friends have done in order to level out the paths that make up the trail are in plain view, and as I navigated the moderate difficulty of slopes and valleys, I gained a full appreciation for what the Friends have done to carve their gentle legacy into these woods.
I was nearing the end of an incredible walk with these gentlemen, and I wanted to know more about them. McKay worked 38 years for duPont. Peters is a retired professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware, and Robinson is a mapping consultant and a long-time fixture on the New Garden Township scene. All three have earned Volunteer of the Year awards from the township. Their work -- and the work of other volunteers just like them -- serve as the defining backbone of what makes living in Landenberg so unique. With the trails that they have developed, they have permitted us to abandon the cacophony of noise that forms our modern lives and choose instead to disappear into thickets of possibility, so that we may become closer to ourselves.
When Henry David Thoreau looked to understand his place in the universe, he vanished into a patch of woods known as Walden Pond in Massachusetts. There, he lived simply, existing largely in a meditative state illuminated by the natural beauty of forests, streams and wildlife. Eventually, he re-emerged and wrote a book that many experts consider an essential primer on how to live the lives we have imagined.
In "Walden," Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Leaving the Laurel Woods Trail, I thought about something else Thoreau wrote.
"Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves."
If you would like to become a volunteer with the Friends of the New Garden Tails, send an e-mail to: FriendOfTheTrail@aol.com .
For more information about the New Garden Township Trail system, visit www.FriendsoftheNewGardenTrails.org .