Old Pond Railroad Trail / by Greg Westrich

It was a sketchy day for a hike, dirty clouds were piled up like discarded clothes in the corner of Henry's room. The uncertainty of spring blurred the outlines the world as I drove down to Hancock—or maybe a veil of fog had slid in under the cloud cover. As I neared the trailhead, the fog thickened and dripped off every surface.


I remember the first time I was in a cloud. I was eight or nine. My family was driving to the Smoky Mountains form Cincinnati. Back then I-75 wasn't completed, so we spent much of the day either fighting through construction or wandering on two-lane roads. We got distracted by sights along the way—the destination taking a back seat to the world outside the car windows. It, too, was a day of uncertain weather, threatening rain that never fell.


We drifted east to Cumberland Gap. In the park, we switchbacked up Cumberland Mountain on a narrow mountain road. Into the clouds. At first the moisture in the cloud that clung to every surface sharpened the colors of the evergreen forest. Gray trunks became ebony; faded pine needles were a green as a warm lawn.


As we climbed, the edges of things began to blur and shift.


When we arrived at the top, I tumbled out of the car into a magical place. I was on a mountain. I was in the sky. It wasn't raining, but drops formed on my arms.


As I pulled into the Old Pond Railroad Trailhead parking a half mile off US1, I was seeing the woods like I had as that excited boy. The trail dropped through a drooping forest. The happy sound of numerous rills hung almost visible in the air. I bounced from rock to root to soggy, needle-covered ground. On a good day, hiking wasn't about getting anywhere; it was about the walking itself.


I turned left onto the railroad bed, a needle-covered avenue through evergreens. The crumbling remains of railroad ties marched through the woods. Off to the right, through hardwoods on lower ground, the tide shushed against the rocky shore.


Two miles on the trail emerged from the woods and crossed Old Pond on a levee. A stiff breeze blew inshore between forested islands. Bright white gulls wheeled overhead, keening on stiff wings. The gray-green water lapped heavily at the rocky levee.


The fog had mostly gone. Overhead the clouds were shifting and brightening. But I still felt warmly wrapped in a fog. I was right where I was supposed to be. Like the white pines towering over their spruce neighbors. Like the three mergansers bobbing in the salt pond. Like the crooked, leafless birch trees waving in the wind, their twig ends going red with emerging buds.


I don't know what you'll see along the Old Pond Railroad Trail. Just over three miles from one end to the other. A lot can happen in three miles.