RALEIGH — The quest stretched over 15 miles of asphalt, cutting across Raleigh from west to east, taking me through a bog full of croaking bullfrogs, past a junkyard packed with ruined cars, under a wooden railroad trestle and through eight dark tunnels.
The Walnut Creek Greenway officially opened last week, the newest strand in Raleighs tangle of trails, and Im calling it the best.
The city offers better scenery: the Company Mill Trail at Umstead State Park, the Magnolia Walk in Oakwood Cemetery, the falls at Lassiter Mill. But to me, this greenway shows Raleigh at its most Raleigh beauty spots with the warts.
So I rode it Friday on my wifes red Schwinn, trusting middle-aged legs. In a couple of hours, I bisected the city almost from border to border, traveling from Lake Johnson in the west to the Neuse River in the east. Theres hardly a better way to pass a sunny weekday.
The first surprise is Walnut Creek itself. Its not a body of water many people get to experience. Im guessing only 1 in 100 people realize theyre driving over it on South Saunders Street and that it drops down a little waterfall beneath them.
Its a charming little creek, full of twists and bends, flowing slow with an occasional ripple. Near South Saunders, theres a ruined bridge so forgotten theres not even a road leading to it anymore. Past Garner Road, it turns swampy and green, full of beavers and herons, alive with croaks and chirping.
You pass the Walnut Creek Wetland Center on Peterson Road, not to mention the handy signs explaining that the beavers scientific name is castor canadensis.
In a car, you can hardly see the creek.
The second surprise is Centennial Campus, the high-tech wing of N.C. State University. Walnut Creek Greenway cuts right through the middle, where you see the busy researchers behaving like college students. Theres a Frisbee golf course there. Students go sunbathing on the banks of Lake Raleigh. I never knew any of this. I always imagined the entire student body indoors, hands buried in some kind of circuitry.
The third surprise is the grit this trail puts on display. Ride the Walnut Creek greenway, and youll find out what happens to junked cars, how razor wire can be useful and where bums wash their feet. I passed a row of old tires on the creekbed near Wilmington Street, mossy and green.
As I approached the Neuse, I discovered a string of abandoned school buses parked in the woods. One of them was painted red, white and blue, and according to the lettering on its side, it once carried the flock for Freewill Baptist Church, pastored by a fellow named Rudolph Outlaw.
In all, the ride took me four hours, but I stopped to take pictures and notes, and for a shrimp sandwich at the Farmers Market just off the trail.
I couldnt get a figure Friday for what the entire greenway cost over the years, but the last 4.5-mile leg came with a price tag of $3.7 million. Im calling that money extremely well-spent, and Im proud that my nickels helped build it.
The thing that surprises me about Raleigh every day is the neighborhoods upon neighborhoods tucked behind each other, more of them every time you explore. Streets you couldnt name. Parks your kids have never played in. Were not a big city, but were a really mixed bag a jumble of curiosities best seen on a bike.