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Rails to Snails
by Jim Rink

In view of the recent controversy ignited by the "Rails to Trails" project in Leelanau County, I have devised my own solution which has already been heralded as "win-win" by local restaurant owners and gourmands(1).

Over the past few years, northern Michigan has been privileged to host an increasing number of fine restaurants and culinary establishments second to none in dining distinction. To name just a few: Tapawango, Leelanau Country Inn, Windows, Stafford's Perry Hotel, the Grand Hotel, the Manitou and the Flap Jack Shack on US-31 South, across from the Meijer Thrifty Acres in Traverse City.

No less distinct, Rails to Trails is a 12-year-old conservation program that--nationwide--has turned more than 7,000 miles of former railroads into public biking, jogging and hiking trails. Now, they want to do it in Leelanau County, converting Perry Hannah's old railroad bed into a Yuppie causeway where sullen suburbanites can commune with nature while sipping Leelanau Mist, but not too much, because "you need room for an espresso afterwards at the (politically correct) bookstore."

Well, this communing with nature business certainly sounds reasonable enough, but not, apparently, if you're a local property owner bordering the trail. And it's an issue not unique to Leelanau County.

In Crawfordsville, Indiana, Jerry and Linda Howard were out target shooting one day when they were surprised by three mountain bikers. Target Javasite: Online Coffeehouse 108 S. Union, Traverse Cityshooting is exciting enough--but when you're presented with live targets out of the blue like a gift from God, it's too much good fortune to believe.

To their further amazement, the Howards learned the old Conrail track that ran through the edge of their property had become a public trail under a federally subsidized program. According to Rae Tyson, of USA Today, it was then that "the Howards joined a growing, and increasingly militant, property rights movement that opposes Rails and Trails."

Their primary objection--one that causes manure piles and other odiferous objects to mysteriously obstruct the trails--is that they don't want all these people "in my backyard."

Well...this is where my plan comes into play.

Through a fortuitous sequence of events, the eco-system which exists along the trail bed is perfect for the cultivation of two exotic delicacies--snails and shitake mushrooms.

My own father grows shitake mushrooms. They thrive on dead and decaying wood, such as the kind found in railroad ties. And snails--you pick up a railroad tie and what do you find? Snails! Naked snails. Sans shell. You could eat them raw by the handful.

Any restaurant worth its sea salt would kill for fresh snails and shitake. And pay top money. And they would be fresh! Here's how it would work:

Yuppie volunteers would plant the mushroom spores along the track bed in early spring. Landowners would not interfere, because they get a percentage of the shitake/snail take. Plus, the Yuppies would be so exhausted performing manual labor, they would be unable to cause any real trouble, such as trespassing or nude sunbathing. This, then, would be the "trail experience"--planting wildlife indigenous to the track bed eco-system, thereby enhancing the natural beauty of the area. You could even "adopt" certain sections of the track bed for the endangered Sperm Snail.

Later in the season, the shitake and snails would be harvested for sale to the local restaurants. Traverse City, once known as the "Cherry Capital of the World," would become certainly, the "Shitake and Snail Capital of the World." The local wineries would brew vintages especially suited to these delicacies--such as "Shitake Chardonnay" or "Escargot Bordeaux."

T-shirts, obviously, would proclaim the virtues of the mushroom and snail. Pundits and professors would write books about it. Balloon rides--at $75 a shot--would provide a birds-eye view. A movie, starring Jeff Bridges, would be made.

Best of all...everyone wins. A fragile eco-system is preserved. Landowner rights are preserved. Limited access provides die-hard nature lovers with an up-close and personal wildlife experience. And that's just in the short-term. Long-term benefits are irrefutable.

Imagine the day when this stretch of land becomes so valuable--a national resource, in fact--that the Army Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with the DNR, will construct a railroad track parallel to the Shitake/Snail Refuge. This track will support tourist trams, or a monorail, allowing all Americans (and Japanese and Germans) to view the Shitake/Snail Refuge without harming the fragile eco-system.

That, my friends, is the American Way.

(1) Gourmand--it's the word for the day--look it up.

Also by Jim Rink
The General
Are computers the answer to the problem of education?
Christmas Memories Time Warp
Is it just Jim, or is everything comin' round again?
A Condo Runs Through It
More than just rivers are running through Leelanau County
Squishy Uterus
On the books and thoughts of pre-parenthood
Cause Celebre
Madonna moves into Leelanau County
The Piano
Ghostly melodies in Traverse City's Olde Towne Playhouse
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