More Than a Line Through the Dirt

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

In September, I grew sick of walking between city trees. I wanted to wander alongside misshapen, varied plants, the kind that I could be sure were planted by the wind or a forgetful squirrel. My housemate Laurel and I set out for a late-summer hike, and we were ecstatic when a cursory Google search revealed a 25-mile walking trail within a few minutes of New Haven: the Shoreline Greenway, a project designed to increase bicycle and pedestrian access to Connecticut’s coast from New Haven to Madison. 

We stepped out of the gravel lot and onto a leaf-strewn trail, where soft soil gave way underfoot. Laurel’s dog Fergus ran ahead, excited to be outside again after a harrowing fifteen-minute car ride. Laurel scooped him up and lifted his front paws into two pockmarks on the face of a glacial erratic, a granite boulder deposited on the edge of the trail.

“He’s a climber,” she laughed.

 We continued down the trail in search of more boulders, but rounding the next turn, we found ourselves in the parking lot of an elementary school. Less than half a mile in, our hike had come to an end. “Maybe it picks up again somewhere,” Laurel suggested. I turned again to Google and searched for the Shoreline Greenway Trail. To my surprise, this short section of trail had a well-designed website, complete with a detailed history of the Greenway project, which has been in development for more than two decades.

Fergus, an intrepid climber. 

In its early days, the prospect of connecting Connecticut townships through a network of foot and bike paths generated excitement all over the state. Siloed along I-95 and virtually inaccessible to one another on foot, towns along the shoreline eagerly adopted the newly proposed trail system. Crews first broke ground in East Haven in 2003. Since then, at least a few miles have been constructed in each of the sites initially proposed as nodes in the trail system: East Haven, Branford, Guilford, and Madison. To get between these stretches, however, would-be hikers and commuters must be comfortable walking along byways and congested city streets dominated by reckless Connecticut drivers.

In the Shoreline Greenway Trail’s 20-year history, it has grown by about five miles, the combined distance of the various sections scattered across Connecticut’s (ever-shrinking) coastal forest. In recent years, Dan Buckley, the Shoreline Greenway Trail’s newest board member, has made a great effort to improve the trail’s online presence. Dan and I connected through a “Contact Us” webform, a feature which he later proudly revealed to have made himself. We arranged to meet for a walk along the trail. We were accompanied by Barbara Brow, a longtime champion of the Greenway, dressed in a floral blazer and practical hiking sneakers. Dan is the Trail’s newest champion; Barbara has been there since the beginning. 

Barbara and I both arrived early to the same parking lot where Laurel and I had begun our original hike. It was unseasonably warm for November in New England; we laughed nervously about climate change as we shook hands, then shrugged off fleece jackets and tossed them into our cars. Barbara handed me a press kit: maps, a commemorative pencil, and a decal that read “WE SUPPORT THE SHORELINE GREENWAY TRAIL” As we scanned the suburban street for Dan’s car, a man on a thick-tired bicycle coasted into the parking lot and popped open his trunk. Barbara’s eyes lit up.

“Out for a ride on the trail this morning?” she asked.

“Yes, I love it! I ride almost every day!” the man called back. 

“Oh, excellent! Well, I’m Barbara Brow. I’m a chair of the Shoreline Greenway Trail. We’re glad you enjoy it. You should go to our website,  Shoreline-Greenway-Trail-Dot-Org. We have walks every first Saturday, and we have talks, too. You should take a look.” As we waited together, Barbara had several similar conversations: with a couple from Guilford, a man out walking his dog, and a young jogger stopping to tie her shoe. Dan soon arrived, and we set out as a group. 

“It feels like East Haven has the biggest team of people,” Dan said. Each of the Shoreline Greenway Trail’s towns has its own board, and Barbara heads East Haven’s.

“Do you feel like there’s a reason for that?” I asked. 

“This powerhouse here!” Dan said with a laugh, pointing to Barbara. She smiled modestly.

“Oh, well, I think I do have to say that that’s it. I do speak at a lot of functions, and I do promote everything. I’ve met so many wonderful people. They’ve really become friends. Even the Boy Scouts that cleared this trail—I have a close connection with them.”

A commemorative bench along the trail.

Throughout our walk, Dan wasted no opportunity to improve the trail. He righted toppled trail markers and pointed out spots to put up new ones. In areas where people might get lost, he applied QR code stickers that linked to a full map of the trail. 

“What do you think of this, Barbara? We could use a three-dot system along the whole trail. Mark the road here, mark the turns.”  

Barbara nodded. “We’ve been working with the town. The police chief is looking into it for me, to see if we can mark the roads, make it a little clearer where the trail goes along this throughway.”

When I asked how long it would take to complete a proposal, Barbara told me flatly that it often takes around eight years. Dan smiled at my startled expression. 

“That’s one thing I was stunned about when I got involved in all of this. In the corporate world, it was all efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Here, with the trail, it’s much slower: the paperwork, the grants, the board meetings. But this—it’s so much more about people,” he explained.

“Trail building teaches you patience and perseverance,” Barbara said. “I say that often.”

The trail sign, with one of Dan’s QR code stickers. 

From the trail, we caught glimpses of the Long Island Sound and its marshy wetlands. Barbara, who has many favorite boulders, pointed out one of particular interest: a long, wide hunk of smooth granite that jutted out over a small inlet. She instructed me to climb atop it so that I could look beyond the tall reeds.

“That’s the Bradford Preserve. It’s beautiful there. The birders love it.” She looked wistfully through the reeds for a moment before gesturing for me to climb down from the rock. “It would be nice if the trail went there.”  

In spite of the sustained efforts of its coordinators, the Shoreline Greenway Trail remains a long way from completion. “The speed is definitely influenced by various factors. There’s Complete Streets, that’s helped us recently,” Dan said, referring to a Connecticut state policy that requires developers to construct new roadways with bicyclists and pedestrians in mind, and provides funding for other bike-friendly transportation projects. Barbara told me that one of the most amazing things about the trail is its bipartisan appeal. However, construction remains slow-going. 

 Walking alongside Barbara, I began to see her vision for the trail. The paint that she wanted to apply to the road by the trailhead, the larger signs she’d like to install at a confusing intersection between the trail and an ATV path, the smoother trail grading she proposed for a particularly steep, rocky stretch—it all made sense as I imagined it through her eyes. 

Barbara keeps a paper trail documenting the earthen one that she’s helped to create. After our walk, she invited me to her East Haven home to see her collection of newspaper clippings, maps, trail route drafts, engineer’s reports, town meeting reports, and personal photos from her years working on the trail. 

I followed her in my car from one East Haven suburb to another, passing several groups of pedestrians out enjoying the late fall sun. When I entered Barbara’s home, she immediately produced a bowl of leftover Halloween candy, and offered me a piece to eat while she retrieved her binders of press coverage. I sat in Babara’s kitchen across the table from her husband, Fred, who regaled me with stories of his years at the East Haven police and fire departments. He told me about the time he rescued a box of kittens that had been left under an overpass. Barbara soon came back with a large stack of carefully preserved newspaper clippings. She set them down on the table with a slight thud. Her bright eyes and wide smile appeared in almost every photo, perfectly recognizable throughout the years.

Barbara, the original Board, and several volunteers after breaking ground in 2003. Barbara is pictured just right of center in a black blazer, holding a shovel.

As I flipped through the pages, Barbara detailed what she remembered about almost every single one. One headline caught my eye: an article from 2012, detailing a plan to extend the trail to the Bradford Preserve, the wetland that she had pointed out to me earlier. I stopped to read closer. For the first and only time, she flipped the page for me. I tried to flip it back; she flipped it forward again, unsmiling.

“Tell her about that one, Barb,” Fred said. 

“No one wants to talk about that one,” she replied, flipping to another newspaper clipping. 

“The trail was going to go through the preserve,” Fred said, turning to me. 

“We worked on it for five years with the Land Trust. Then the president retired, new guy came in, and they said no more trail. Protected sparrow nesting land,” Barbara said. She sighed and pointed to a subsequent page. “This one’s a great day! We finished that piece we hiked today.” Barbara didn’t seem to want to talk about the obstacles she had encountered, and I didn’t intend to press. 

Perhaps someday the trail will be finished. If and when that happens, it’ll be thanks to champions like Barbara, persisting despite the bureaucratic red tape and the unreliable trickle of state funding.The trail does, after all, have victories to look back on—the connection between East Haven and Madison is far more than a line through the dirt. In coming years, the trail will be expanded to reach New Haven’s Farmington Canal Trail, with the help of a grant from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Last weekend, Laurel, Fergus, and I took another walk. I put the decal that Barbara gave me on my car window. I stood on her favorite boulder and looked out towards the sea. 

Barbara would like to invite all interested to the Shoreline Greenway Trail’s First Saturday Walk on March 4th at 10:00 AM. Meet in the parking lot at 82 Elliot Street, East Haven, CT. The Shoreline Greenway Trail is also looking for new speakers for their speaker series—if you would like to give a talk about birds, glaciation, trails, trees, or anything of the like, please get in touch at ShorelineGreenwayTrail.org.

Fergus atop a boulder.

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