Chris Pauley took over as manager of the Washington and Old Dominion trail, part of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, in April. The trail, sometimes called "the skinniest park in Virginia," runs from Shirlington near Interstate 395 to Purcellville in Loudoun County and is built on the bed of the former Washington & Old Dominion Railroad. Pauley, 35, an Ashburn resident, sat down last week in Leesburg's Raflo Park, just off the trail, to talk about the new job with Washington Post staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman.
Q So what does the trail manager do?
AWell, we have to maintain the trail. That takes a lot of effort and a lot of scheduling and a lot of preparation. We maintain 40 of the 45 miles. Arlington County maintains the last five miles for us. . . . We have a lot of neighbors. What that breeds is a lot of encroachment issues, property-marking issues, right-of-use issues.
What's an average day like? Are you on the trail every day?
I try to see a portion of the trail, at least a portion, every day. . . . Today I'm going down to Falls Church, checking in with our maintenance crews. There's a particular issue with some grass that should or shouldn't be cut.
We have almost 2 million users in a year. It's not unusual to come into the office and have anywhere from 40 to 70 e-mails in a day. Something as simple as particular trail hazards, you know, "There's a tree down in Paeonian Springs." Or it could be: "I got run over by a bicyclist on my rollerblades yesterday. What do you guys do to maintain safety on the trail?"
Do people often get run over on the trail?
Being a multiuse trail, you have everybody from mothers pushing baby carriages to serious cyclists who are training for races and want to get in miles and miles, and they usually do that at high speeds. We try to promote proper trail etiquette. Things like staying to the right if you're walking; if you're stopped, you need to move off the trail. A lot of times people will just stop their bikes right in the middle of the trail. If you've got someone doing 30 miles per hour behind you, it's a difficult proposition.
We have a very active trail patrol with close to 40 members. . . . They do everything from lending first aid to directions to fixing flat tires and give safety reminders.
Power lines run along most of the W&OD trail's 45 miles, but not along the stretch from Leesburg to Purcellville. Dominion Virginia Power Co. is looking for a route for a new line through western Loudoun and owns easements to build along the trail. Residents have been fighting to keep that portion of the trail power-line free. What do you think of the controversy?
The park authority's stance has always been we don't want power lines on the trail, period. Overhead or underground for that matter. . . . We don't think it's over, though we were not on [Dominion's] initial route when they proposed it to the State Corporation Commission. We still feel like we need to be on the watch. . . .
Dominion Power has said they don't want to use underground technology. If they did use overhead lines like they have in the past, quite simply there would be 26,000 trees that would be taken down. That's a direct quote from Dominion Power themselves. If you've ever been on the portions of the trail west of Leesburg, it's as picturesque a place as you're going to ever find. It's literally a cathedral of trees out there.
In May, the park authority and Dominion signed a new agreement governing when the power company can cut trees that threaten its power lines. Can you explain that agreement?
It's not a legally binding agreement, it's a memorandum of understanding. . . . It basically says put the right tree in the right place. It keeps an active dialogue between Dominion Power and the park authority. If they need to come in and trim a tree or if they have a question about a tree that might be threatening one of their lines, we get together an advance team. . . . We would go out and assess objectively the needs and if it really is a problem that needs to be taken care of.
It also lays out guidelines as far as spraying herbicides. It'll keep Dominion Virginia from going in every three or four years and doing these clear cuttings. Once they cut a tree down, they'll treat only the stump area, and that will stop growth. . . . It'll be a guy with a backpack. There's not going to be any widespread spraying. I think that had been a concern originally.
Last year, trail managers announced they would spend $1 million over five years to improve the trail. How is the effort going?
There's a lot of rough surface bridges that we're looking to transform into a little bit of a smoother ride, especially through the Ashburn area. There are several in particular that are basically plank boards. They're very rough.
We're always looking to pave the trail. The trail was eight feet wide. As we repave the surfaces, we're extending it out to 10 feet wide to make it more safe and more comfortable.
Do you use the trail recreationally, or do you go elsewhere for fun so you can get away from your work?
I do take my daughter out there on occasion, but I'm usually looking at issues on the trail rather than enjoying the ride. . . . I say, "Why isn't this mowed?" Or, "The guys were supposed to take care of this piece of split rail fence that's down!"
What's the most unusual wildlife you've observed while on the trail?
We get frequent reports from people who come across black snakes on the trail. They can be anywhere from three feet to 61/2, seven feet long. Somebody who's not necessary used to being out there, they come across a six-foot black snake, and they cower in a little bit.
What are the strangest e-mails you get?
I have people who would like to set up lemonade stands on the trail. . . . I do have people call to report they saw a snake on the trail. Which, you know, it is a park. That's why we have these types of areas. That's where the snakes like to be.
Every now and then you hear about cases of indecent exposure and other crime on the trail. What kind of security is there?
For the most part, I think the trail is very safe. . . . But, unfortunately, with the access the way it is on the trail, you can get on the trail just about anywhere, walking out of the woods. It certainly provides the wrong person with maybe an opportune place to do that. Of course, the authorities do patrol. It's not unusual to see the police officers on the trail. I've seen bike patrols on the trail. Certainly, it's important for people who use the trail to make sure they're taking the precautions they need to. You wouldn't go walking on a street late at night by yourself. We kind of feel the same way about the trail.
Do you know any good stories about the trail and its history?
We have a historical DVD, and it talks about one of the ladies in the western end, either Hamilton or Paeonian Springs. When they were going to disband passenger service [on the train, which used to run the length of what is now the trail], she was writing letters to all her local politicians, saying if they did this, that mothers and grandmothers wouldn't be able to ever see their kids again, because she used that to travel east to visit family and vice versa.
Of course, four presidents used the railroad at some point in time. This used to be a vacation spot out here in the Leesburg, Hamilton, Paeonian Springs area. Grover Cleveland would come out and fish in Goose Creek. He'd take the train out on a fishing trip.