Richard DesChenes: The Saga of the Archer Braid Trail

Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 5:16 p.m.

As I drove up and down Archer Road over the last few months, I observed the conception and birth of the Archer Braid Trail: snaking its way from the railroad tracks near the water tower in Archer, and undulating its way down to the traffic lights at 91st Street. Once the skirmish as to where the trail was going to be built was over, and the pre-ordained route was anointed, things moved very quickly.

Overnight, orange construction warning signs appeared along the roadsides: at the beginnings and ends of the project areas. I watched the surveyors stake the trail's route along the old Florida Railroad's right-of-way; after which buried utilities were flagged. Then, offending trees and underbrush were felled, burned, and the root plows gouged their remaining vegetation from the earth. This was followed by huge rotary tillers making several passes up and down the new route: assuring us that there was nothing growing in the exposed soil.

On one of my numerous rides down Archer Road, I hastened the trip of a gopher turtle evacuating the construction site, to a spot on the other side of the road. Then there were the cow birds, vultures, and crows, eating their way down the buffet line in the newly exposed earth: clearing the area of exposed bugs and critters. In the narrow bike lane, at the edge of the road, was the daily migration of ubiquitous traffic cones: popping up wherever men were operating their earth-moving machines. Alert drivers and cyclists had to dodge orange cones splayed into the road by the vortices created by the school buses and trucks zipping down Archer Road.

As the pan scrapers, dozers, and motor graders removed the high areas, and filled in the low spots, some of the topsoil was loaded into 30-ton trucks, then carted away. One day, as if by magic, fabric silt fences appeared. Exposed limestone boulders were excised and hauled off, and those low areas were filled, then re-graded. Buried utility issues cropped up, and mitigated with vaults and metal access panels at grade.

Daily, a 3,000 gallon water truck saturated the newly exposed soil, and again, motor graders evened out the path: followed by heavy rollers compacting the earth. Subsequently, 30-ton trucks dumped hundreds of yards of lime rock road base on the path; which was again graded, watered and compacted. This was followed by a layer of sand over the lime rock base: again, the ritual of grading, watering and compacting. Yet, another several inches of lime rock were added, then graded, watered and compacted. It was as though the path had an insatiable thirst and appetite, and force fed to meet its ravenous demands.

All the while, orange and neon-green robed men, bearing their cadastral stadia rods, levels, and theodolites, gave the new trail their blessing. After which, out of specification sections were adjusted with the fine edge of a motor grader. And again, the water truck spewed its contents, followed by the rollers compacting the earth: a seemingly endless rite. Finally, each section of the trail received a healing bath of chocolaty road oil and a dusting of sugar sand. The edges of the trail were dressed by motor graders, and men with shovels and rakes.

Then rolls of brownish-green sod were unfurled along the trail's edge; some seed was spread in the still-exposed sand and ditches; the open scars were covered by a layer of hay; and again, more water. Thus, where grass, wildflowers, brush, and trees once grew, lay a variegated ribbon of chocolate, green, ochre and ecru: surrounded by a bright green field of blooming phlox. A trail some 6 miles long lay basking in the sun; soaking in some rain; and getting a respite from the many trucks and heavy equipment that had been driving on it.

During all the construction activity, it was interesting to see the many little mounds of dirt that rose up overnight in, and along, the new trail. Those elusive critters, that love to burrow in our yards and fields, weren't aware that there was a construction project in progress. Like in "The Great Escape", they made their break in the wee hours of the morning. Subsequently, the trail's protectors were dispatched to undo those efforts, and re-compacted the offending areas. In the last months of the assault, a parking lot was gouged out of the earth from in front of the water tower in Archer; water lines were moved; culverts and driveways were installed for the entrance and exit to SR-41/27; and the trail was extended to greet it. It too was subjected to the ritual of the motor graders, lime rock fill, compacting rollers and water trucks.

All was quiet for a few weeks, save for an occasional water truck and survey crew: with their regalia, making sure the path had not moved, and was still within specifications. The critters were still tunneling, but moved their activity to the soft edges of the heavily compacted and oiled trail. With the rising sun, workers with shovels and rakes were seen beating those new mounds of dirt into submission. One morning there was a two-man crew, in orange robes, walking along the oiled path. As they walked, they tagged its northern edge with splotches of orange graffiti: a dotted line for the machines to follow.

Later, came a fleet of trucks, loaded with hot macadam, and a steaming paving machine. As the paving machine inched along from 91st Street, toward Archer, sucking up the macadam spewed from the 30 ton trucks before it, it excreted a 10' wide black ribbon of macadam. Trailing the paving machine were steaming-hot compacting rollers: making it all even and smooth. The air was alive with the smell of kerosene, diesel fuel and tar!

Behind, and alongside, the machines was the ballet of orange-robed workers, with shovels and rakes: dancing to the drone of the slow moving instruments coursing down the oiled path. As the troupe of workers and machines moved along, the Archer Braid Trail lay behind them: glistening in the hot sun. As if it were giving out a sigh of relief, a breath of steam could be seen rising from the black macadam surface that replaced the center of the variegated ribbon of earth it once was.

From my vantage on Archer Road, it appeared to be a well engineered and orchestrated effort. During the months of construction, it survived the onslaught of the battalion of men and machinery that rode over it, and should last for many decades. Had they chosen cobblestone, the same material as the Romans did when they built their Iter, it would be around for centuries. While it was under construction, and since its completion, the trail has seen some traffic. I have observed people walking, some with their strollers and with dogs, others jogging; pelotons of speeding bicycles, and some at a leisurely pace; transients with their bedrolls, bags, carts and backpacks: hiking to their encampments; skateboarders and roller skaters; a couple of errant scooters and mopeds; and an ATV: zipping from one side street to another.

Eventually, all the cyclists on Archer Road will figure out that the new trail is a much safer place to ride. There was even one anxious driver trying to get into the idling traffic on Archer Road. They used the trail as a shortcut to the next cross road, and got on there: when I let them into the morning traffic inching along behind a school bus. It is also a better place for some kids to stand while waiting for their school bus.

As for myself, and the majority of the people in the area, the trail will serve no real purpose. We don't ride bikes or hike into town to work, the doctor's office, school, UF games, movies or for shopping. The trail is now just another part of the scenery, and does not offer a sensible alternative to the automobile on the road: especially if you have groceries or children. My hope is that whomever uses it, for whatever reason, appreciates the effort that went into making it happen. The Archer Braid Trail is a bold testament to the visions of the people who planned and implemented it. Now, if we could only get that same effort into the roads that we drive on.

Richard DesChenes lives in Archer.

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