A Long Journey on the Trail
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Paul McCray can recall the history of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail from memory. Deeply involved in shaping it for more than two decades, he has amassed a load of knowledge about the trail, the people who travel it and things that happen there.
McCray, 51, took his first job with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority when he was 16 and began working on the W&OD Trail 12 years later, in 1985.
"I was a little leery at first because it was so different than any of our other parks," he recalled in an interview at his Fairfax Station office. "I just started going out, stopping and saying hi to people. . . . Everybody I met, I gave a business card. People got to know me, and they knew they could call me if they saw something or just had an idea."
The W&OD Trail, which runs through the heart of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, was established over several years in the mid-1970s and '80s after its namesake railroad was closed. Since the first test mile in Falls Church in 1974 generated enthusiastic public response, the trail has expanded in size and popularity and is widely used by joggers, bikers and those who just want to enjoy nature.
"There is not a single site along the W&OD Trail that Paul McCray doesn't have some idea as to its background," said Brian Bauer, marketing and communications manager for the park authority. "He's absolutely the foremost word on anything involving this trail."
McCray can tell you about the group of women who biked in from California and decided to do the last portion of their trip along the trail naked. (He didn't actually see this but heard about it from a tipster, who witnessed the stunt and followed the riders for a while before calling to report it.) Or he can tell you about a runner who happened to work in the airline industry and found a plane's cargo hatch in Ashburn, around mile marker 25, near Dulles International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration came to claim it for investigation, but McCray said he was never told precisely from where -- or what -- it had come.
"We're hoping that's not repeated, that the airplanes that fly over the trail hang on to all their parts," he said.
Trail anecdotes encompass life milestones, too. From childbirth to death, McCray has heard it all.
Several years ago, a woman who lived right off the trail in Falls Church near mile marker 6 went for a walk to help her labor progress. It worked a little too well, and soon her baby was born on the side of the trail.
Years later, the woman contacted McCray with a request: She wanted to bury the placenta, which had been stored in her freezer, on the spot where her daughter had been born. McCray checked with the health department -- apparently, no rules on the books barred this -- and granted her permission.
"I didn't feel this was something that needed my supervision," he added.
The path is lined with benches and rest areas, many of which are memorials to patrons of the W&OD. Bobby Utterback, who suffered from heart disease and whose legs had been amputated, started riding his wheelchair on the trail after doctors warned him exercise was the only way to extend his life.
McCray started seeing him out there day after day, at first "white as a ghost, really straining to go even a little ways." Soon it was two or three miles from his home in Leesburg, then 10.
Utterback became a fixture on the trail over the years, keeping his exercise routine even after an implanted defibrillator had to restart his heart during a ride. Utterback, who died during a second bypass surgery about seven years later, has four benches in his honor.
He was not alone in maintaining his dedication to a daily trail routine. McCray got a call in 1995 from a colleague and friend of longtime biker Joe Schwind, who told McCray that Schwind had passed away near the trail after a heart attack.
"A lot of people knew him on the trail. . . . Anytime I was going east in the mornings or in the afternoons, I would see him," McCray recalled. There was a service for Schwind on the trail in Herndon, where several benches were placed and maple trees were planted in his honor, near mile marker 18.
The woman who called McCray to make the arrangements for Schwind's service turned out to have had her own trail experience -- her husband proposed during an early-morning workout.
This 45-mile stretch of pavement, which passes through downtowns and bucolic stretches, is not immune to crime. McCray said that although incidents are rare, the W&OD has been the site of scattered assaults over the years and, in the mid-'80s, the body of a missing woman was found near the trail. A man who had been stalking her later confessed to the killing, he said.
More recently, there was a gang-related shooting in the Herndon area. But McCray was quick to point out that crime on parkland is a small fraction of what happens in the region. "The trail is a reflection of the communities it runs through," he said. "Whatever that area is like, that is what the trail will be like. It's the same people."
McCray is also well versed in the early history of the W&OD, from when it was a railroad line. He has collected 2,000 or so images from that era, as well as historical artifacts and documents. (The money for this comes from the nonprofit group Friends of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, not tax dollars.) Signs and displays dot the path and provide a window into its past.
After 20 years on the W&OD, McCray stepped out of the role of trail manager in 2005 to become the park authority's director of park operations. Yet years spent walking and talking on the W&OD imprinted a map of the trail on McCray's mind: For a long time, he said, he could picture every mile of it in his mind's eye.
In the past few years, since he stepped back from the day-to-day operation, the intricate details have started to fade: "I discovered the other day that I can't picture all of the trail in my mind anymore. . . . It was a scary thought."
But the trail is still near and dear to him. Driving along it, he will still stop to greet locals enjoying a sunny spring day or politely request that loose dogs be leashed. As he reflected on 35 years of service, McCray always came back to one factor that he said has made this job worthwhile for so long: "Working with the people is really what kept me here."