Go Outside and Play

I can still hear my mom’s voice: Go outside and play, but be back for dinner. The street where I grew up was surrounded by woods. A dirt trail — a remnant of a 10-mile, horse-drawn, streetcar track — cut through the woods and gave me hours of outdoor magical fun.

I was a free-range kid. Chances are if you are over 50, you were too.

If you’re under 50, you’ve likely been deprived of free range-spaces. Population has tripled. Eighty percent of us now live in urban areas.

If you’re under 50, recovering paths and discovering woods has been a national movement for your whole life. Inspired by First Lady Ladybird Johnson’s 1960s’ call to Keep America Beautiful, local government planners adopted the notion that neighborhoods and even shopping centers are the doorways to urban off-road open space.

Old as it is, the movement is still gathering steam.

Last month marked Maryland’s first summit on trails, Sharing the Vision; Making the Connections. Under the guidance of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources a couple hundred of us brainstormed how to connect our state’s 1,000 miles of public trails to each other, to towns and to schools. The vision is a network of walking, bicycling, ORV, equestrian and paddling trails that thread their way throughout the state to get people outdoors, reconnecting us with nature and leading us to escapes from the density and intensity of cities and their suburbs.

One leg of the Colonial Annapolis Maritime Trail is the city’s new 1.2-mile trail around the Navy Stadium.

Natural Resources Secretary John Griffin called the summit long over-due and set a goal for a trail system “second to none” in protecting, preserving and connecting outdoor places large and small.

That’s an achievable goal. Maryland’s Program Open Space has given us a legacy of land protection, preserving great patches of open space that make up 47 state parks. Cities planned Parks and Paths for People along old rail and utility right-of-ways as corridors for play.

In our most inhabited spaces, today’s corridors of freedom are likely to include city streets and narrow strips of public right-of-ways. That’s how it is in Annapolis.

Our Capital Trail City

Maryland’s capital is a trail-friendly city. We are the crossroads of two nation-spanning trails: the East Coast Greenway, a long-distance trail that runs from Maine to Key West, Florida; and the East-West Discovery Trail to California.

Here, too, are numerous short community trails for walking, bicycling and paddling. Way back in the 1960s, Annapolis developed a plan to protect its public street ends at the water’s edge for public use. Today a network of 20 street-end parks rings the Eastport peninsula and follows Spa Creek.

In these postage-stamp parks, you can enjoy your early-morning coffee or a picnic lunch, bird watch or find a quiet place for respite out-of-doors with a favorite book, perhaps Harvard professor John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic or Thoreau’s essay “Walking.”

In 1986, the Annapolis City Council created the nation’s first ever Parks and Paths for People Plan, with the goal of providing every citizen trail access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes. That plan led to the city’s premier public recreation trail, the Colonial Annapolis Maritime Trail.

Former Mayor Dick Hillman leads a series of hikes on city trails, including a seven-mile hike he calls the Water’s Edge and Street-Ends of Annapolis. Dick’s hikes are adventures in history and stories, fact and fiction. They are also free (www.amc-dc.org).

“Walking through Annapolis, you get a feel for our rich maritime history,” said Annapolitan Lee Tawney, as Hillman paused on the Eastport Bridge for a story. “The modern boats in the harbor remind me of the 17th century boats that plied our harbor and laid the foundation for our community.”

All Around Annapolis

Inspiring as Hillman’s hikes are, you don’t have to wait for his next one (planned for March, 2011) find your way by foot through Annapolis — and know it better step by step.

A walk around City Dock and the State House and along West Street to Park Place reveals public art and historic plaques that tell the stories of this special city. Story boards, funded by grants from Preserve America and the Art in Public Places Commission, introduce to Queen Anne, who gave Annapolis her name; General Lafayette. who helped win the Revolutionary War; and Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley’s forefather auctioned into slavery at City Dock. Downtown strollers walk on the buried footsteps of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and all the founders of our nation.

Sculptures add to the scenery of the Spa Creek Conservancy.

You’ll find a bit of free-range exploration in the midst of city life on the Colonial Annapolis Maritime Trail, which loops off the East Coast Greenway. From West Annapolis to Back Creek Park, the trail follows paths carved by the city’s young people as short cuts to school. (Short cuts also, by the way, established the historic district’s famous alleys 250 years ago.)

One leg of the Colonial Annapolis Maritime Trail is the city’s new 1.2-mile trail around the Navy Stadium. Along a pathway that not long ago was a recreational desert, rain gardens and flowers now greet walkers.

Across Cedar Park, the trail joins Poplar Trail, a safe, off-the-road, neighborhood walkway to the library or to school and sporting events at Germantown Elementary. Crossing West Street, you follow the trail behind Bates Middle School and Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts through the Children’s Museum. The trail crosses a spur of Spa Creek into Truxtun Park over Bumpers Bridge. The bridge was built and named for my son, who was three when he slipped off a short cut over a pipe into the muck on the way to Grandma’s house.

The Colonial Annapolis Maritime Trail connects to another loop trail around Truxtun Park. On still another loop at Back Creek Park, 19 environmental learning stations tell a story of storm water and its impact on the land and water around us. The woodland trail winds through four different soil areas, climbing to steep banks and descending to wetlands and a lagoon, once covered with phragmities, restored by thousands of volunteers.

The Colonial Annapolis Maritime Trail “winds through the city past the many different environmental projects that have made Annapolis a national model for environmental preservation and restoration,” says Steve Carr, who was the project manager when this trail was developed 20 years ago.

Then by bike or on foot, you can follow the loop as it returns through Eastport and its street-end parks, through the city to Route 450 to rejoin the Greenway Trail or connect to the Baltimore and Annapolis trail to Baltimore Washington International Airport.

No Need to Stop There

After you’ve walked colonial and maritime Annapolis, your next step can be walking the nation. Or biking the nation, as Annapolitan Dan McCrady, a sextagenarian, did in 2009. With his yellow Lab Sadie in a trailer attached to the bike, McCrady adventured 850 miles along the East Coast Greenway Trail to Portland, Maine. His departure date, May 21, was proclaimed East Coast Greenway Day and a crowd in downtown Annapolis cheered him on his way.

As word traveled by cell phone from friend to friend about the biker with his dog, the press in Newburyport, MA; Providence, R.I; Putnam. Ct; and Portsmouth, NH turned out to greet him. Fox TV introduced Dan and the trail to the New England audience. Soon neighbors gathered along the trail to offer a friendly welcome. On June 17, Dan and Sadie arrived in Portland, where he was greeted by the mayors of Portland and South Portland as well as the media and well-wishers.

Dan reports that he’s up for the trail again in 2011.

Street-end parks, like the one at the end of Amos Garrett on Spa Creek

“I would gladly be a 63 year old pulling Sadie to Maine,” he says. “The fact that last year’s trip began in Annapolis increased exposure to our lovely city and a county for which we can be proud.”

On that next trip, he hopes to lead a bunch of trail biking companions thirsty for exploring the great outdoors and remembering the voices that urge us all to go out and play.

Interested? Want to go step out from Annapolis? Reach me at [email protected]