Designers of the Farmington Valley Greenway hardly could be faulted for envisioning a simple, straightforward job in 1991; a few of them even figured the 22-mile Rails to Trails project would be completed by the late '90s.
After all, railroad workers had done the heavy lifting more than a century ago.
Surveyors had plotted a flat, direct route into dense woods, over hills and streams, across rivers, through farms and villages. An army of low-paid laborers then toiled for years to clear the path, build culverts and drainage ditches, put down a thick base of crushed gravel, and finally lay the rails that freight trains would use for decades.
So, converting the old right of way -- and an 8-mile spur from Farmington to Canton -- into a walkway and bikeway didn't seem too tough. With the old rail bed already in place, the Rails to Trails folks could simply tear up rotten wooden ties and put down asphalt.
In the 12 years since they began, Greenway advocates have hit enough obstacles to derail a string of freight cars. Clusters of homeowners and even businesses along the right-of-way fought the project, fearing it would invite vandalism, break-ins, litter and noisy parties. Simple grade crossings turned into safety concerns and logistics puzzles. Abandoned railroad bridges became money-eaters and bureaucratic quagmires.
And complications came steadily. Who would've expected that the route led through a washed-out river bank in Burlington, a high-security explosives factory in Simsbury, a sprawling nursery in East Granby that sprays pesticides near the trail, two hunting grounds and a dog-training field?
``Challenging'' didn't quite capture how tortuous the paperwork would be to coordinate efforts among a half-dozen towns, the state Department of Transportation and the federal government.
``We knew there were no major hills or valleys, but we forgot the hill of bureaucracy,'' conceded Stephen Noble of Simsbury, one of the earliest volunteers on the project.
``Back then I thought we'd have it done in five years,'' said Preston Reed of Farmington, who organized the initial campaign for the Suffield-to-Farmington trail. The year was 1991, and Reed had just retired at age 75 as a management professor at the Hartford Graduate Center.
``The railroads started giving up in the '70s and '80s, and were abandoning tracks right and left. People got the idea these would be wonderful resources to make linear parks and multi-use trails,'' Reed recalled. ``We've had delays. But it's going to go through.''
Noble shakes his head, smiles and offers the same response he gives bikers, skaters, runners and walkers who regularly ask him when the trail's fragmented sections finally will be linked. ``It's imminent,'' he said with a chuckle. ``Imminent.''
At the national level, the Rails to Trails Conservancy envisions the Farmington Valley Greenway as one small section of a proposed 2,500-mile trail stretching from Key West to northern Maine. That's a distant goal; merely completing the Connecticut corridor from New Haven to the Massachusetts line above Suffield appears certain to take years.
For now, local volunteers are just trying to close the gaps along the Greenway and its Canton spur, the Farmington River Trail. Ultimately, it will be a 30-mile path running south from Suffield's border with Southwick, Mass., through East Granby, Granby, Simsbury and Avon to Farmington, then swinging west to Unionville and veering northwest through Burlington to Canton's Collinsville section.
Despite the obstacles, roughly 75 percent of the route is paved and open, and it continues to draw more people each year. The longest unbroken stretch, 12 miles, extends from Unionville to southern Simsbury.
But five gaps -- most of them north of Avon, some more than a mile long -- remain.
Those breaks aren't too harmful for joggers, walkers, folks casually enjoying the scenery and fresh air, parents pushing strollers or couples walking their dogs.
Bike riders and some in-line skaters, though, typically seek a long, steady length of trail to enjoy a good ride. And if the Greenway is ever to become a practical commuter route or substantial tourism draw, the full route must be completed.
As an outdoor attraction in the region, the Greenway already ranks near the top, along with the Farmington River, said Nancy Anstey, executive director of the Farmington Valley Visitors Association. The Avon-based association promotes tourism and economic development.
People interested in moving to the Farmington Valley or locating their businesses there often cite the Greenway as an important draw, she said.
If the long-range goal of extending the trail south to New Haven and north to Northampton, Mass., is met, she said, it potentially would be an enormous magnet for tourists -- complete with inn-to-inn bike tours like the ones that draw thousands of cyclists to Cape Cod and Vermont each year.
``I think it's going to be extraordinary,'' Anstey said.
Meanwhile, the trail gets markedly busier as each new section is opened. Perhaps the most dramatic example came in June, when the once-rusted, abandoned bridge over the Farmington River in Farmington was finally renovated. Lined by new, black wrought-iron railings, the 50-foot-high, 400-foot-long span provides stunning views of the river valley. Built-in concrete benches extend over the edge of the deck so sightseers can relax while joggers and bikers pass by unimpeded.
``On weekends it's packed; even weekdays it's pretty busy,'' said Farmington Police Chief Michael Whalen, who details some of his bicycle-certified officers to patrol parts of the trail. ``Since the bridge opened,'' he said, ``there are people who go there just to sit.''
A Granby family, Jim and Barb Blanchette and their four children, biked from Simsbury to Farmington on a recent afternoon just to see the new bridge.
``It's a long ride with the kids, but it's really worth it -- this is fabulous,'' Barb Blanchette said after reaching the span.
``You see kids, older people, families. It's great. Now our parking lot down here on Brickyard Road is always full in the late afternoon or on weekends,'' said Farmington Police Officer Troy Williams, riding bike patrol along the trail on a recent Monday afternoon. ``It's definitely not like this isn't being used.''
Williams is not alone in being struck by the extraordinary range of people who use the trail: hard-core exercise types zipping by on road bikes, senior citizens strolling leisurely, toddlers on tricycles pedaling alongside grandparents, young couples holding hands, speed walkers and joggers.
At mid-day during the sunny summertime, the Farmington River and Collinsville bridges are typically the busiest spots. But even on a rainy morning in May or an overcast, drizzly afternoon during a humid stretch of August, the trail is busy almost everywhere.
At lunchtime on a muggy, late-July weekday, a gray-haired bicyclist slowly carries two sacks of groceries through Avon; a young man wheels a unicycle near Unionville; two teenage rollerbladers skate in East Granby; and a group of Simsbury office workers take a lunchtime walk, their company IDs dangling from shirt pockets.
A team of serious runners from Hartford Life in Simsbury hits the trail most days at lunch break, said Kurt Bauer, a worker there who is a member of the running group. Some even used a measuring wheel to mark off quarter-mile spots along the route.
``Some guys use it for pretty hard-core training sessions. They'll do speed-work sessions, say 12 quarter-mile repeats,'' Bauer said.
``In Simsbury, it seems everywhere you go you've got hills. But the trail is flat. That's great for beginning walkers or runners; it's not as demanding as going up a steep hill,'' Bauer said.
Marlo Hitriz of Bristol, a 27-year-old former environmental consultant turned bartender, regularly traverses the stretch of trail above the new bridge in Farmington to Unionville to the south.
``It's beautiful,'' she said. ``I think they did a really good job.''
Like many users of the trail interviewed recently, Hitriz said she would gladly pay a small fee -- in some states, Rails to Trails users are asked to contribute a few dollars each year -- to help cover the costs of maintenance and sweeping.
The easy terrain of the trail is one reason it draws so many rollerbladers and bikers.
The 19th-century locomotives of the now-defunct Central New England and New Haven & Northampton lines couldn't handle grades over 3 percent, so the rail bed is remarkably level. That's a godsend to athletes coming back from injuries, said Shawn Desjardins, a physical therapist with HealthSouth in Simsbury. The trail practically winds through the center's parking lot, and Desjardins often sends patients out there to run.
``A lot of times we want runners who've had a knee injury, or a foot/ankle injury, to keep off the hills when they start to progress back to running,'' Desjardins said. ``So they just go to the trail.''
Desjardins, athletic trainer at Simsbury High School, periodically runs a few miles on the Simsbury-Avon segment, and often sees field hockey players, soccer players and other Simsbury High athletes there.
``You look around this town, there are a lot of people into fitness,'' Desjardins said. ``So you really see a lot of people out there.''
Just below HealthSouth is the trail parking lot at Latimer Lane. Cecily Vasington, 43, strides by with little time to chat. She's out for a quick 2-mile lunchtime walk before heading back to Hartford Life's headquarters, where she'll shower, change back into business clothes and resume work as a strategic and business planner.
``I like to get out for fresh air at lunchtime, clear my head. ... And it's my attempt at staying fit. This allows me to maintain,'' said Vasington, whose busy family life at her West Hartford home leaves little opportunity for regimented exercise programs.
``Once in a while I'll do free weights, but with kids, there really isn't time. We have aerobics classes at work, but walking by yourself allows you the flexibility to fit it in whenever you can. From the [Hartford's] door to the trail is about 5 minutes. So if it's not snowing, I'm out there. And we've got some hard-core runners who are out on the trail every day, no matter what.''
Preston Reed, the organizer of the original campaign to get the Greenway started, is gratified to see so many people of all ages out on the trail. Now 87, he still bikes on the trail and is optimistic about when the last gaps will be filled.
``Five years,'' he said. ``I could still be riding a bike in five years. But if it takes another 12 years, that's pushing the limits. If I'm still around, I won't be as active.''
It will be finished, he said.
``It's too good an idea, it satisfies too many people for it to be stopped.''