The year that was, the bike trail that wasn’t

Walter Nicklin

Could it be that the seemingly most insignificant of issues in 2018 turns out to be, in fact, the most significant and enduring? Not simply for Rappahannock but also, in its symbolic power, for America, indeed the world as well? I’m talking about the “Bike Trail” that never happened.

When late last summer I first glimpsed the protest signs — persistent and prolific — sprouting along the otherwise empty country roads around Amissville, I thought the angry ruckus was surely about something serious: An unwanted pipe line perhaps? Fracking? An unsightly cell tower? A new landfill, or maybe nuclear waste site? Instead, the signs all screamed, “No Bike Trail!”

You’ve got to be kidding! Something like a bike trail should normally unify a community, not polarize it. But my disbelief just showed how out of touch I really was, as made clear by the anger that would soon be on display in Board of Supervisors meetings, letters to the editor, and the local listserv.

Much of the controversy became framed as “come-heres” for the bike trail versus “been-heres” against the bike trail. Which I also found perplexing, since many of the most vocal opponents were newcomers themselves. Moreover, as someone who fancied himself as a bit of an old-timer myself, I couldn’t help but see the controversy as much ado about nothing, if not downright silly. In trying to understand what happened, I now put words to paper.

Born and raised less than 10 miles from the Rappahannock County line in what was then still rural Fauquier, I had always felt like a native. Many of my favorite teenage friends lived here; they hosted the wildest parties; once my best friend got punched out at an FT Valley cabin in a fight. That was over a girl, but politics were never worth fighting about.

Together with its pastoral, seemingly politics-free way of life, the county’s unspoiled natural beauty always enchanted me. Therefore, after my obligatory time in the Army, instead of a home purchase in Big Washington, where I worked, I bought a few acres in Rappahannock — to build a place to call my own. That was 1972, almost a half century ago.

Only in the last decade or so did it occur to me that, by continuing to work outside the county, I had condemned myself to pejorative “weekender” status, near the bottom of the Rappahannock caste system. And now, not much better, I’m a “retiree.”

That “outsider” identity apparently explains my positive reaction to the bike trail — that it was a good thing, a no-brainer. Corrupted by college and Big City sensibilities must also explain why some residents whose roots are much deeper than mine, going back generations, felt similarly. We had violated Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal:

“Our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America,” wrote Jefferson in one of his many letters to James Madison. “When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”

Bike trails are for city folk, e.g., along Mt. Vernon Parkway or Rock Creek Park. Out here, where we have dirt bikes and ATV’s, who needs a bike trail? From that attitude also springs unexpected disdain for this newspaper’s in-depth reporting through Foothills Forum: Who needs some fancy nonprofit to tell us what we already know? City and country collide — perhaps uniquely so because of restricted zoning coupled with urban proximity — in the imagined community that is Rappahannock County.

Like kneeling NFL players, the bike trail quickly evolved from a trivial issue into an “existential threat to a way of life.” That phrase is from an article by the political scientist Michael Vlahos in “The American Conservative” magazine, arguing that the country has always been at war with itself, from the very beginning with the Loyalists battling the Revolutionaries. “Made for Civil War” is how he characterizes the United States and its warring sensibilities. “Otherness” is the enemy within.

Maybe we, like high school cliques, just don’t like each other. Could it be as simple as that?

The bike trail opponents came up with ever more innovative rationalizations for their opposition: liability issues, car exhaust from a nearby highway, the remote possibility that hidden costs would have to be covered by taxpayers in the distant future. Moreover, they proclaimed, the county could use the money for other, more important projects. Though arguably true, the grant money was for the bike trail only; it couldn’t be transferred to other needs.

Even if valid, these concerns alone could not explain the months-long, increasingly angry discourse leading up to the Board of Supervisors final vote on the bike trail. By then it had become clear that the opposition wasn’t so much to the bike trail itself as to the people who proposed it: “Elitists . . . condescending . . . know-it-alls.”

“Now I understand why so many people don’t accept climate change science,” said one bemused bike trail supporter. “They just never liked Al Gore.”

Could it be that tiny Rappahannock’s tiny bike trail is, in effect, ground zero for civil war? Not just for America but also for the world? In the words of foreign affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria: “The fissure between relatively better-educated urbanites and less-educated rural populations appears to have become the new dividing line in Western politics. (People who self-identify as rural) feel ignored or looked down upon and feel deep resentment toward metropolitan elites (e.g., Rappahannock come-heres!). It’s part class, part culture, but there is a large element of economics to it as well.”

If we can somehow heal that fissure here in Rappahannock, maybe Western civilization can be saved after all. That’s a New Year’s hope, anyway.

Walter Nicklin is publisher emeritus of the Rappahannock News

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9 Comments

  1. Some of us do not consider ourselves part of the “unwashed and uneducated”(an unfortunate choice of words IMO)’ but nonetheless agree with what Ben and Richard said. This project was presented to us as the greatest thing since sliced bread,something that always sets off alarm bells for me.The warning about how not to get taken in by scams and con artists comes to mind- “if it sounds too good to. be true, it most likely is.”. Plus the old adage about not getting something for nothing.
    People need to see the wider perspective. Take the phone issue. Understand how people want cell coverage. But then again when I was growing up here my family didn’t have a phone until I was well into grade school, the same was true of many others I knew. In fact, had a TV before a phone!
    I could. consider myself a survivalist, Unfortunate that that concept has come to be associated with a certain unpleasant political ideology which I loathe.. I consider Thoreau a survivalist in the sense I use it. Or the traditional Amish Our the best facets of the 1960s counterculture like the back to the land movement.. Ours was one of “make it do, or do without.” Could be the way to approach some local issues of concern, like public buildings or emegency service. And certainly not rush in and make changes because of a “the sky is. falling” perspective which I detect sometimes in these pages.
    I wonder, and this applies to society in general not just here, that an obsession with comfort and security has been at the cost of a loss of zest, for challenge,for adventure, for risk taking that we used to see.

  2. Mr. Courter,

    The bike trail involved public money and required the taxpayers to be guarantors of
    the project. It was badly conceived and viciously “politicked”. The “fight” over the bike
    trail was an exercise in the people’s involvement in public issues. It is called “democracy”.
    Get over your snotty condescension.

    Ben Jones

  3. Outsiders need to not come here to our beautiful rural communities and want to change it to their liking.Stay where you are and change your area.Too many damn wineries here too,this place needs to stay farm country not booze country.We need our fields for farming real FOOD! Not grapes, enough said.Bike trail discussion should be over by now so ppl.move on now how bout it?

    • Amen ! Teresa Orange is dead on target ! She summed the whole situation in one to the point paragraph. Thank you Teresa ….you spoke for a lot of us here in the County. P

  4. My dear Mr. Nicklin: Tsk tsk. You know better, I’m sure. Tip said, “All politics is local” When you use the word “local” in a place with the history of Rappahannock County, you will need to know and hold close your target audience.
    Let’s face it. The trail proponents didn’t do their homework. It’s that simple. I recommend the services of professional mediators, like the Meridian Institute. 202.354.6440 If it’s important, try again. This time, engage all of the stakeholders, including the descendants. They may not be as stupid as you think.

  5. Very nice to see how you are all fighting over a bike trail. Just imagine if you didn’t have that to argue over?

    • Mr. Courter,

      The bike trail involved public money and required the taxpayers to be guarantors of
      the project. It was badly conceived and viciously “politicked”. The “fight” over the bike
      trail was an exercise in the people’s involvement in public issues. It is called “democracy”.
      Get over your snotty condescension.

      Ben Jones

    • Mr. Courter,

      Your condescension reflects the attitude of those who flacked the unfortunate bike trail
      project. That issue involved public dollars, and would have required the taxpayers to be
      the guarantors of the trail. It would have been remiss for citizens not to have expressed
      their concerns and their opposition to such an unnecessary and unwanted boondoggle.
      It was a public issue and required public debate. You can be as snotty as you wish, but
      this public discourse is exactly how democracy works. Your attitude and apparent ignorance about
      the issue is part of the problem here. We are a small community, and when a large segment
      of long-time residents were treated like ‘red-headed stepchildren” and insulted by the
      proponents of the bike path, the tenor of the discussion was unfortunately intensified.
      It was obvious to anyone who knows the County well that there was overwhelming opposition
      to the idea, but when that opposition was shrugged off, the stuff hit the fan. That’s the
      way grass roots politics works, and the way it should work. Welcome to the Heartland.

      Ben Jones
      Harris Hollow

  6. With Mr. Nicklin’s snobbish attitude it is obvious that he is out of touch and should have stayed in Fauquier.

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