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Biking the East Coast's 3,000-mile trail

Don Carey, Princeton University Class of '51, returned to his alma mater for his 60th reunion last weekend. Carey, 81, a retired physician, and his wife, Barbara, 82, traveled from their home in Gilford, N.H., a distance of 540 miles - by bicycle.

Don Carey, Princeton University Class of '51, returned to his alma mater for his 60th reunion last weekend. Carey, 81, a retired physician, and his wife, Barbara, 82, traveled from their home in Gilford, N.H., a distance of 540 miles - by bicycle.

This was the fourth time the Careys (no relation) pedaled to a reunion at Old Nassau, but this trip was different because they followed the East Coast Greenway, which bills itself as the nation's premier intercity long-distance trail. The 2,900-mile-long Greenway spans 15 states and links 25 major cities between Calais, Maine, and Key West, Fla.

"It's an urban sister to the Appalachian Trail," says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, headquartered in Durham, N.C. "It's an emerging American treasure."

The trail was conceived in the early 1990s as an interstate highway for walkers, cyclists, skaters, skiers, wheelchair users, and equestrians. Over much of the last two decades, it has been assembled largely by connecting scores of local firm-surface trails, knitting the gaps with sections of road and highway.

"Our goal is to make the route safe and accessible so that the 40 million people who live in communities along the Greenway can use it for recreation, to commute to school and work, and to express their environmental values through transportation choices," Markatos-Soriano says.

The ultimate aim: to make the Greenway 100 percent off-road (not likely to happen for a decade or two) and to create a model in the East that inspires other parts of the country.

Currently, 26 percent of the Greenway is off-road; 74 percent is on roads, bike lanes, and highway shoulders. The Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, boasts the most off-road Greenway - 40 percent. More good news: $16 million of a 2010 federal grant will be used to design, build, and improve the Greenway in Philadelphia, including a segment along Spring Garden Street that will link the Schuylkill River Trail with a trail that will run north along the Delaware.

"Several amazing partners are working together to create these pieces, which we're connecting as quickly as we can with already completed pieces," says Andy Hamilton, a Doylestown planner and landscape architect who chairs the Pennsylvania Greenway committee. "The Greenway is gaining a lot of energy, traction, and focus in Pennsylvania."

Markatos-Soriano, 31, who has a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, says he loves the Greenway and loves his job. Unlike in other realms of public policy, every day brings tangible progress. He speaks about the "three pillars" of the Greenway: the health benefits of active living, the economic benefits of low-cost transportation and ecotourism (visitors from Germany have flown to Miami and biked the trail to Boston), and the environmental benefits of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and improving air quality.

When Markatos-Soriano learned that the Careys were planning to use the Greenway, he was ecstatic. He had the perfect poster couple.

"If the Careys can do it, that shows that a lot of people can," Markatos-Soriano reasoned. He invited other Princeton alums to do likewise. There were a dozen or so takers, most of whom cycled 27 miles from New Brunswick, N.J., to Princeton on May 26 on the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath, arriving in time for a "Sustainability Open House."

Markatos-Soriano says he is confident that this pilot effort will become more popular. In fact, he says, he hopes the idea will spread to the more than 100 colleges and universities along the Greenway.

The Careys, who in 1984 pedaled across the United States and, more recently, the 400-mile length of the Erie Canal, spent 18 days cycling, averaging about 30 miles a day. In the afternoon, they took a nap and had tea, and they stayed in motels so they could keep their bikes in their room.

"It's wonderful," Don says of the Greenway, "but it'll be absolutely nice when it's all off-road. Riding in traffic is not very much fun."

Adds Barbara: "It was a challenge for us, and it's nice to be able to complete a challenge. We met an awful lot of nice people. So many said to us, 'God bless you,' and 'Oh, you're an inspiration.' "

Don carries a business card that identifies his wife and him as "humanists." It also announces his motto: "All travel is dull exactly in proportion to its rapidity."

"On a bike, you see so much more than in a car," Don says. "You're moving at a pace that enables you to absorb the grit and texture of a place. You're more likely to stop at historical markers and to savor the scenery. A person on a bike is very approachable, so you have all sorts of serendipitous encounters. Speeding by on an interstate, you miss all that. Everything looks the same."

Watch a video of the Careys talking about their bike trek to Princeton on the East Coast Greenway at