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