"Finding Freedom on the Santa Rosa Creek Trail," David D. (Spring 2014)

Dodging potholes and stray chunks of concrete with each step, I alternate my glances rapidly between the hazards lying at my feet and those racing toward me from ahead. This is a narrow road, with asphalt crumbling at its edges into drainage ditches containing branches, broken bottles, last week’s roadkill and – weather-depending – a few murky inches of runoff water. With the approach of each oncoming vehicle, I consider my options for survival. Glancing over my right shoulder, if no cars approach from behind, I cross to the other side until the danger has passed. Sometimes, though, I am forced to completely abandon the road, as well as the dignified stride of a long-distance runner, and hop into the debris-strewn ditch to wait for clearance, naked except for my shoes and shorts. When the road clears, I pick up the pace again, eager to wrap up this hazardous and demeaning prelude to my five-mile run.

Finally, the trailhead is in sight, and my tension eases. At the gravel pull-off, carved out of the dense tangle of blackberry vines and riparian trees, there are a few parked cars. They belong to fellow escapees from the obstacle course of the asphalt road. I now take my first strides on the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, where my feet strike with a crackle on its more delicate surface, my eyes awaken under the sparkle of canopy-filtered sunlight, my nose is soothed by the harmonious composition and decomposition of the creek’s abundant plant life, and my body can suddenly propel itself forward without restraint. I am free. For the person moving on foot or bike, this trail is a welcoming corridor in an outdoor landscape dominated by the mass and velocity of automobile traffic. Travelling on this trail offers freedoms and joys that have been lost in our modern transportation system.

The car and other modern conveniences have relegated what was once a basic requirement for survival, self-powered locomotion, to a chore or a pastime for a minority who are motivated to “exercise” their bodies. Our lifestyles are now sedentary by default, physically active either by quirk of certain personalities or by acknowledgement that a body that moves is very much healthier than one that sits. Both personal quirk and acknowledgment of biological reality motivate me to run frequently on the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, and I am never the lone exerciser on it. Power-walkers, joggers, and the occasional Lycra-suited cyclist take advantage of this safer and calmer alternative to the county’s roadways. There is never a need to speed up, and rarely a need to slow down for traffic, let alone come to a complete stop to use a crosswalk. On the trail, the space you see in front of you is unquestionably yours to move through with purpose and determination.

If one just needs to work out in safety and peace of mind, clearly a stationary bike in the basement or a small looped track at the park would serve the same purpose. What distinguishes the Santa Rosa Creek Trail from these spaces, attractive to many of its users, is the great wealth of space filled with natural beauty. The creek supports a wide diversity of animal and plant species, and the trail is the public’s free ticket to this show (or an invitation to communion, for the more contemplative folks). The occasional naturalist can be seen, jotting notes or looking through binoculars at the creek’s variety of birdlife. I recently saw a young man, his bike leaning against a tree, painting a soft-toned, pastoral landscape of a holding pond filled with what I knew to be treated city wastewater. Ducks danced and plunged in the play of afternoon sunlight on shimmering water – what difference did its unromantic provenance matter? I was grateful that he drew my attention to the beauty of this scene.

I passed the artist without comment, but I am sure a few people, finding a socially acceptable excuse to chat with a stranger on a bright winter day, stopped to compliment his work. As intermediaries between unfamiliar humans, dogs on the trail unwittingly play a similar role as the artist’s work. The lady with four Chihuahuas shares many smiles and a few conversations with passing walkers. While this is not a place to necessarily expect conversation, using the trail opens up the possibility of spontaneous social interactions. The trail weaves left and right, but it has a built-in directionality that orients its users, assuring them that they are moving in conformity with others. There is great freedom of movement, but it is gently guided and linear, keeping them in the flow of society, as they move through wilder surroundings. There is an intrinsic, shared, possibly primeval sanity here that cannot be found behind the wheel of a car.

For bicycle commuters, it is the trail’s literal, geospatial directionality that has practical value. While a typical stand-alone park is a destination, the Santa Rosa Creek Trail is like a park connecting people to their many destinations. It is part of a county transportation network, joining with other trails, connecting outlying towns and transecting a large portion of the City of Santa Rosa. It intersects roads with bicycle lanes that carry commuters into areas without dedicated bike and pedestrian paths. For some, like me, biking is an occasional alternative to the car that sits at home for the day, but for other cyclists that I pass on the trail, a car is probably not an option. For carless people in an area lacking good public transit, the road can be a barrier to getting to work, school, or the grocery store, while cycling and walking infrastructure provides a basic, egalitarian utility that aids survival and economic mobility.

Like other trails in this system, the Santa Rosa Creek Trail follows the route of a natural feature firmly anchored in the landscape – a creek – while others were built along old railway lines. These geologic and historical features cut through, without bias, some of the social and economic boundaries in the county’s geography. This is evident as I commute into the city on the trail from my semi-rural neighborhood. Outside the city line, the wide-open landscape is dominated by horse pastures and vineyards, a scattered mix of modest old farmhouses and newer near-mansions visible in the distance. At this point on the trail, its users are mostly Anglo, often of retirement age; unleashed and obedient Labrador mixes and other large dogs trot alongside their owners. Nearing the city, houses and office buildings are closer to each other and to the creek, often with backyard gates opening directly onto the trail. Here I pass a more diverse assortment of people: young Hispanic families, working-class couples, and kids on BMX bikes. In this part of town, dogs are more likely cat-sized and kept on a short leash. The trail and its users follow the ancient route of a creek that flows oblivious to the demographic boundaries we have established.

A diverse cross-section of the county’s population uses the bike and pedestrian trails, and for pretty much every reason that someone might choose to get on their feet or their bike and go somewhere, whether just out and back, or with a destination in mind. The Santa Rosa Creek Trail and others that connect to it, by leaving cars out of the picture, allow for a much broader range of human experiences. The natural world can thrive along the creeks. People can walk, run, or bike with their minds at ease, safe from auto traffic. They can stop on a whim to converse or to observe the world around them. They can visit nearby neighborhoods or towns without the expense of car ownership.  Cars move us from place to place with great efficiency, but so many other values have been sacrificed for this efficiency. Fortunately, these values can be rediscovered on the Santa Rosa Creek Trail.