Tom Gill, right, and his cousin, John Hamilton, end their two-month East Coast Greenway journey in Calais last spring. Tom Gill photo

Last year, when Tom Gill and his cousin, John Hamilton, told a Florida waitress they were riding their bikes on the East Coast Greenway from Key West to Calais, Maine, she didn’t believe them. Such a trip sounded daunting at best. Also, she’d never heard of the East Coast Greenway.

She patted John’s leg and told them seriously, “Y’all going to die.”

They did not.

“We had enough fun that we’re going to try it again,” said Gill, 56. Their next trip starts tomorrow.

The East Coast Greenway is a 3,000-mile route of roads and an increasing number of dedicated off-road trails from Florida through Maine. Think the Appalachian Trail but less rugged and more diverse, with room for runners, walkers and cyclists, as well as cross-country skiers, horseback riders and others in some spots.

In Maine, the Greenway runs 367 miles from Kittery to Calais, including the Eastern Trail that runs through Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough, Lewiston Riverside Trail, Lisbon Trail, Topsham Trail, Androscoggin River Bicycle Path in Brunswick and the Down East Sun Rise Trail in Washington and Hancock counties.

Map courtesy East Coast Greenway Alliance

The entire Greenway recorded more than 15 million visits last year, about one million of them in Maine.

And, yet, you’ve probably never heard of it.

‘RIGHT IN MY BACKYARD’

The East Coast Greenway started in 1991 with a handful of people who were creating trails in Boston, New York, Washington D.C. and wanted to stitch them together.

“The vision became throughout the whole eastern seaboard within a short time,” said Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the nonprofit East Coast Greenway Alliance. “And we’ve been working at it ever since.”

Today, the Greenway stretches from the southern tip of Florida to the northern tip of Maine, running through 15 states and Washington D.C. It’s composed of dozens of smaller, individual trails, some created specifically for the Greenway, some created for a different reason but located in just the right place to connect the larger network.

The Greenway is still a patchwork in progress. Users currently go off road for just 35% of it. The rest of the time they’re routed to streets, bridges and, in a few cases, ferries.

The Alliance replaces more than 40 miles of Greenway road routes with off-road trails each year. The goal: Make the 3,000-mile course 100% off road.

In Maine — historically a trail-friendly state — Greenway hikers and cyclists are more likely to have off-road options than the Greenway’s national average.

“And that’s a hard task because the Maine route is one of the longest routes of all of our states,” Markatos-Soriano said.

Sometimes, Maine users don’t even know they’re on the Greenway.

Michael Wilson, 26, lives in Eliot and often runs on a trail not far from his house. It wasn’t until he started looking into the East Coast Greenway that he realized his favorite trail was part of it.

Michael Wilson on a section of the East Coast Greenway near his home in southern Maine. Michael Wilson photo

“It’s amazing it’s right in my backyard pretty much,” he said.

Because the Greenway is a patchwork of trails, it’s easy for people to stick to short sections, like Wilson’s running path.

It’s also pretty easy for those who want to go some distance.

Gill wanted to go all the distance.

“I called up my cousin, John. He was just starting to wind down his job into retirement and I said, ‘Hey, John, do you want to ride a bike up the East Coast?'” Gill said.

Gill, an engineering consultant who lives in Albany, New Hampshire, first heard about the Greenway 10 years ago. A mountain biker, he thought it would be cool to ride the length of it, someday, maybe when all the trails were off road, maybe when he retired. A decade later, Gill realized just a third of the Greenway’s paths were off road and he probably shouldn’t keep waiting for someday.

Tom Gill, left, and his cousin, John Hamilton, start off their journey from Key Wast to Calais on the East Coast Greenway last spring. Tom Gill photo

So with his cousin along for the ride, Gill planned a two-month cycling trip from Key West to Calais last spring.

Their Florida waitress predicted doom.

“We ended up calling that the ‘Key West biker blessing’ because we had no issues,” Gill said.

Well, no issues aside from multiple flat tires, two broken bike frames and a GPS system that kept sending them into dead ends. But that was all part of the adventure.

“I think the biggest concern, never having done anything like this before, was the embarrassment of not making it very far. Getting two days into it and saying, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do this,'” Gill said. “But once we got about a week into it, we knew as long as we didn’t get sick or injured, we could make it.”

The two men pedaled six hours a day for 48 days, with liberal breaks and days off. Because the Greenway winds its way through towns and cities, Gill and his cousin were able to spend their nights in hotels, eat many of their meals at restaurants or roadside stands and regularly treat themselves to ice cream. Gill chronicled their trip on Facebook every day.

“It was awesome,” Gill said.

Like some other long-distance users, Gill and his cousin didn’t stay on the Greenway the whole way. They hopped off and on as they encountered a path they liked better or an attraction they wanted to check out, or if they missed a turn.

“It gives you a baseline to start from,” Gill said.

They’ll use that baseline again this month. The pair plan a month-long bike ride from Ellsworth to Newfoundland, Canada, using the Greenway between Ellsworth and Calais.

IT’S A THING

Nearly 30 years after it started, the Greenway continues to stitch together a network of trails, with supporters hoping one day for a seamless off-road route from one tip of the country to the other. That takes work and, in some cases, new law.

Recently, three bills in the Maine Legislature had the potential to affect the Greenway here.

One proposed directing the Maine Department of Transportation to build a trail from Topsham to Gardiner. Another proposed extending the Down East Sunrise Trail from Ayers Junction to Calais.

Both bills have been tabled.

A third bill would prohibit rail corridors from being converted into trails without first being evaluated for passenger rail service. In late May, the Transportation Committee voted that it ought not to pass.

Dick Woodbury, an Alliance board member and Yarmouth cyclist who uses the Greenway, testified in opposition to the rail corridor bill. While he’s a fan of trains, he believes the Greenway has the power to be”transformative” for the communities that have a section.

Dick Woodbury, right, and his son Sam, ride the Down East Sunrise Trail, part of the East Coast Greenway. Dick Woodbury photo

“Everybody’s heard about the Appalachian Trail,” he said. “If there were a Greenway, a bike and walking trail that went through the urban centers all the way across the east, including the Maine segments, I truly do believe it would be the most visited park in America every single day.”

He thinks the East Coast Greenway will get there — from 35% off road to 100%. It will just take more work.

And some promotion.

“The vision’s really inspiring, but I think there’s some public relations that need to happen that make more people realize that it’s a thing,” he said.

For those people who want to try the 3,000-mile journey — or just part of it — experienced users have some advice.

Research the route beforehand so there are no road or trail surprises.

Bring the right gear. That means correct footwear for runners, off-road-capable bikes for cyclists and reflective clothing for everyone.

Stop and smell the apple pie. Or falafel. Or whatever else is cooking. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, which is heavily wooded, the Greenway winds through the heart of towns and cities, making for easy stops for food, lodging and entertainment.

And don’t wait a decade to check it out.

“Just do it,” Gill said. “Just go as far as you can. You don’t have to do every damn inch.”

A map of the East Coast Greenway, from Florida to Maine. Map Courtesy East Coast Greenway Alliance

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