A new six-mile biking and hiking trail was dedicated Friday in the right of way under a Pepco high-voltage line in Montgomery County. It connects Muddy Branch Stream Valley Park to South Germantown Recreational Park. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

On Friday morning, Dagnija Kreslins stood beneath a Pepco high-voltage power line near her house in Darnestown, Md., and held a protest sign that read “HELP — Everyone looks in our windows.” She had mixed feelings about a new mountain-biking and hiking trail that was being dedicated in the power line’s right of way.

On the one hand, the packed-dirt trail looped right in front of Kreslins’s house, close enough, she thought, to allow strangers to peer into her kitchen. On the other hand, the mere fact that the trail was built vindicated the decision she and her husband made 30 years ago to buy a house right next to a skein of high-voltage wires.

Friends told them they’d never be able to sell their home.

“Now that there’s a nature trail under the line, it’s a message that it’s safe,” Kreslins said.

The six-mile trail connects Muddy Branch Stream Valley Park to South Germantown Recreational Park and is a result of cooperation among Pepco, Montgomery County’s parks department and Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE), a bunch of mountain bikers eager to spin their wheels in new places.

The trail snaked into the distance on either side of Colton Lane, where tents and a podium had been erected for a ribbon cutting. How do you make a path, anyway? Bob Turnbull, the county’s natural-surface trail construction manager, explained: Crews tilled the soil and then went over it with a narrow compactor, twice, pounding it hard.

The new trail illustrates the power of perseverance. Montgomery County has lagged behind other area jurisdictions in using the wasted space under power lines for recreation. There’s a bike trail below Dominion Power lines at Lake Accotink in Fairfax County, Va. The W&OD Trail in Falls Church, Va., is in the shadow of wires. In Columbia, Md., pedestrians can get around under BG&E high-tension lines.

Pepco had always rejected entreaties to allow trails, citing “safety and liability considerations.” Then Exelon wanted to buy the utility, and trail boosters saw an opening.

“We told Pepco, ‘We would support your merger if you would allow trails under your power lines,’ ” said Dave Magill of MORE.

It helped that the state passed a law granting immunity to landowners in cases where people were injured while using their property for recreation. On Friday, it seemed like that law might get tested. Less than an hour after the new trail was dedicated, a woman took a hard fall off her bike. An ambulance was summoned to take her to the hospital.

It isn’t only cyclists who expect to use the trail. Gretchen Bolton was there for the ribbon cutting in a shirt that read “Puck Favement.” She’s active in a group called My Muddy Shoes, which celebrates running on dirt.

“I got tired of the road,” said Bolton, who has run in 24 marathons.

A trail is easier on the knees, and the view is usually nicer. Trail running does require that you pay attention, lest you misplace a foot and go flying.

“It used to be every time I came out of the woods I’d be holding up one arm, bleeding,” Bolton said. “I’ve gotten better. My feet have gotten intelligent.”

After the ribbon was cut, Kreslins said Pepco officials assured her that they would push the trail a further 20 feet away from her property line. That meant Turnbull would have to do the only thing harder than making a path: unmaking one.

The great escape

Whenever I see a high-voltage power line right of way — the wide-open area stretching off into the distance like an inviting road — I’m reminded of my father. That’s because he was a U.S. Air Force pilot who flew in the Vietnam War. Before being sent there, he had to attend survival school, where crews are taught what to do if they crash in enemy territory or have to eject.

Part of their training is in evasion: how to avoid the enemy while making their way to safety.

“Don’t travel where things are man-made,” my father remembered when I called him recently. “No roads. No power lines. And you’re supposed to travel three-quarters of the way up a mountain range or a hill. I remember that was a test question.”

If you walk along the ridgeline, you’re an easily spotted silhouette. Walk down in the valley, and you’re likely to encounter unfriendly people.

“You’re all beat up from landing in the trees, and then you have to climb up the mountain,” Dad said. “It’s better than being caught, I guess.”

Fortunately, he never had to put his training into action.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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