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How to ride an iron horse?

Posted in art & image, bicycling, space, environment

I’ve been riding the Iron Horse Trail for years. In 1997 Kitchener-Waterloo drizzled a ribbon of asphalt over an old rail bed connecting the twin cities. Since then, we fine, upstanding citizens have been practicing–ambling, walking, riding, jogging.  I say “practicing” because for some of us this is lifelong learning, and because some of us aren’t especially adept at it. So practice it is.

Some mornings I grumble at the thought that the trail calls. Should a trail “call?” It has friends enough. The neighbors are out there walking, biking, jogging, slicked out in sweats or pooping their pets. Others of us, early or late in life, trot out our iron horses: bikes, wheelchairs, strollers.

trotify-horse-bike-silhouetteI bike. When people ask why, I say “to stay alive, why else?” I mean it. Secretly, I’m lazy. One of my Dutch students initiated the Walk of Wisdom, a circular pilgrimage around Nijmegen. It’s 136 km. I’d never make it. That’s why you have enterprising students students: so they will walk the walk you could only talk.

Unlike the trail up Boulder Creek Canyon, the K-W Iron Horse Trail is flat, reminding me of the terrain around Nijmegen. (Ah, for one of those fine Dutch bikes, which I still can’t afford!) The flatness of the Iron Horse is, I suppose, easy on aging hearts and muscles, but flatness also provokes anxiety. I grew up in the high dry, dusty plains of eastern New Mexico, and I’m not fan of flatitude. In western Canada, they call these level expanses prairies. As a kid, I imagined prairies were places for prayer. Places where people asked God to help them escape to the mountains. Mountains and coasts are holy. The great continental mid-section is safe.

An iron horse is a train. If  you’re not too young, you know this already.

“Horsing around.” Did you use that phrase as a synonym for “play?”

“Ironing:” what we used to do to our clothes before stay-pressed and no-iron were invented.

“Ironing your horse:” nailing shoes on it. By pounding them through an iron shoe and then through the horse’s “nails,” you render the poor beast roadworthy. In the process, of course, you damage the hooves. Take your pick: asphalt damage or nail damage.

I imagine animating the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail. Raising it from the flatlands of the urban imagination.

I revel, conjuring an evening of processing and parading, of candle lanterns and steampunk horses, of kids inventing new kinds of horses.

Steampunk Iron Horse (cut paper) by Phillip Valdez
Steampunk Iron Horse (cut paper) by Phillip Valdez
War Horse by Larry Agnello, Assemblique.com
War Horse by Larry Agnello, Assemblique.com

I went to an Iron Horse Trail town meeting and could find no compatriots. I wanted to reimagine the trail, conjure its spirits, fill it with masked processions, have funeral processions down it, dance down up, have a yearly contest to build an Iron Horse Trail horse. But most participants wanted to enhance safety, make the trail wider, and post courtesy instructions.

Within a few months the trail was widened to accommodate Catalyst137, “The World’s Largest Internet of Things Manufacturing Space. I love technology, even the technology of machine horses. But, damn, I wish we would stock the trail with imaginary creatures. This ain’t Silicone Valley, although the city mothers and fathers wish it were.

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