By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — I scratched an itch and found four goslings. I peeked at what had long piqued my curiosity and spotted a pair of spring-plumped robins. I followed my instincts and discovered a white-tailed deer just before she discovered me and fled.
All on my recent first journey along the Inter Urban Pathway.
As I pedaled past patches of wetlands, red-winged blackbirds flitted among dried remains of last year’s cattails. Stan Tekiela writes in his Birds of Michigan Field Guide, “It is a sure sign of spring when the red-winged blackbird returns to the marsh. Nests are usually over shallow water in thick stands of cattails.”
And so they were.
They called to mind lyrics from Canadian folk singer David Francey:
Thought I heard a red-winged blackbird,
Red-winged blackbird down my road.
He’ll be there beside the river,
When winter finally breaks its bones,
He’ll be king among the rushes,
He’ll be master of his home.
Also spotted during my first few forays: Two swans and a dozen Canada geese apparently unperturbed by those of us bicycling, jogging, dog-walking, scootering and just-plain walking the Inter Urban. A mallard stood in mid-pavement. A trio of rabbits scattered into the brush.
The Inter Urban in Ingham County isn’t majestic. It’s not on lists of the best non-motorized pathways. It lacks the renown of the C&O Canal Trail running for more than 180 miles in Maryland and Washington. It’s not a mecca for birders building life lists.
Among Michigan’s rails-to-trails projects, it’s a blip on the landscape compared to the 34½-mile Kal-Haven Trail in Van Buren and Kalamazoo counties.
The Inter Urban in Meridian Township is only 1¾ miles long. One segment opened in 2009 and the other in 2011. And yes, it took me a decade to explore what was so close to home.
It runs along a stretch of the Michigan United Railway Co.’s former 33-mile route between Lansing and Owosso, past the popular recreation spot that’s now called Lake Lansing.
Admittedly, the westernmost piece isn’t scenic. That’s along the back side of the East Lansing-Meridian Township water treatment plant with its huge sludge pond. You can hear the occasional horn of a passing freight train. And those geese leave yucky reminders of their presence on the pavement, forcing walkers, joggers and cyclist to navigate around them.
Modest though it be, the Inter Urban plays a role in plans to link up with the Michigan State University campus and the Lansing River Trail near the Capitol. It could all be part of a route connecting Lansing’s historic Turner-Dodge House with Lake Lansing Park.
The itch, curiosity and instincts I mentioned come from the countless times I’ve driven past an Inter Urban access points. The western entrance is closest to my front door, 0.8 of a mile by odometer, 4 minutes by watch – or just one stop sign, one traffic circle, two rights and two lefts.
I may not have recognized it over the years, but each access sign or cyclist I saw entering the Inter Urban may have contributed to that subconscious itch, whetted that unrealized curiosity and stirred those unstirred instincts.
That’s true in much of life: Time after time our eyes glimpse something of potential interest, but our minds fail to register it until later, if ever. That’s even truer in a familiar local setting where we move around on autopilot.
The trigger, my resolve to bike the Inter Urban, was a recent walk past that entrance. A few mornings later I hopped onto my bike.
I used to do a lot of cycling, sometimes 2,000 miles a year, but that number tumbled due to work commitments, travels and visits to children in other states. Last year I didn’t even bring my bike up from the basement.
I had better intentions this year, even before deciding to explore the Inter Urban.
I carried my Trek into the garage and wiped off the dust. My motivation was the coronavirus-induced long-term stay of out-of-state grandchildren and the need to keep them occupied.
I may seem dense, but it wasn’t until my fifth time on the Inter Urban that I registered the pathway’s other connection with the COVID-19 pandemic – the importance of locality.
Maybe it took so long because my mind focuses elsewhere when I cycle. As a journalist, I use that time to write parts of my stories in my head. As a professor, I use that time to plan lectures and assignments.
Maybe it took so long because Francey’s lyrics distractingly kept playing in my head.
Thought I heard a red-winged blackbird,
Red-winged blackbird down my road…
Safe as Moses in the rushes,
Builds his home on the river wide,
Every time I hear him singing,
Makes me feel like spring inside….
He’ll be in there singing his heart out,
He’ll be telling me stories too,
Of where he went to winter last year,
Of how he’s going back there too.
Restrictions on travel and access to public places like beaches, parks and woods had kept me close to home since late March.
Under such circumstances, we pay more attention to escapes and opportunities close to home and rely more on our immediate environs to connect with the world outdoors.
Nature essayist Tom Springer of Three Rivers says cycling the Inter Urban more frequently may provide an intimacy not found riding the famous C&O Canal Trail just once while on vacation.
As for local, I look out my window and see deer that jumped the chain link fence to chow down on my hostas and rose of Sharon, leaving pellets behind on the lawn as a reminder of their intrusion.
Chipmunks scamper across my deck. Agile squirrels raid my “squirrel-proof” bird feeder, finding black sunflower seeds as appetizing as do the cardinals and blue jays it attracts, while voles scavenge below the feedee. Rabbits squeeze under the wooden gates. Birds nest in handmade birdhouses painted by a grandson.
My granddaughter delights in the myriad squirrels that navigate the telephone wires. I delight in the sound of woodpeckers in nearby trees
The opposite side of my block includes a 24-acre landfill-turned-park with a solar array, wooded micro-hill for sledding and cross-country skiing, wild blackberries and the site of the fort my son and friends built. It’s good for Frisbee-tossing, kite-flying and dog-walking.
And it’s only a 2-minute pedal down the road from the Inter Urban, the goslings and the red-wing blackbirds.