Every couple of months Beverly Dickerson of Oakton grabs a pair of clippers and heads to Park Authority trails. There, she joins other volunteers from the Hunters Valley Riding Club in pruning back bushes that are crowding onto the trail. Once that's done, she gets on her horse and rides the trail. If her horse doesn't get tired, she can ride all the way from Oakton to the Potomac River.
The trail Dickerson uses is a segment of the cross-county trail, which will eventually connect Riverbend Park in Great Falls to Pohick Stream Valley, a 34-mile, north-south stretch.
"There are just a few little pieces that have to be improved," said Dickerson. "It's come a long way."
The trail, which is about 85 percent complete, is supposed to be finished by June 2005, said Jenny Pate, the Fairfax County Park Authority's trail coordinator. In the following years, it will be connected to a planned park on the old Lorton Prison site.
Conceived in 1999 by citizen activists, the trail received strong support from then-Providence supervisor Gerry Connolly (D), now the chairman of the Board of Supervisors. He helped the project get funding.
As the project nears completion, those involved with it last week allowed themselves to reflect on the progress made in the past few years.
"I have pride of authorship, but I think it's an important thing to do," said Connolly. "It's very doable. It's not expensive."
The project is expected to cost between $5.5 million and $6 million, of which $4.5 million has already been funded both by the county and by outside grants.
THE CROSS-COUNTY trail is more an exercise in consolidation than construction, said Pate. "This project has sort of happened by putting together pieces that already existed."
The trick was to connect them into a single long trail, which Pate describes as the county's version of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. So the Park Authority has been working with private landowners to secure easements to allow the trail onto their property. The authority has also been working with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to make sure places where the trail crosses roads are clearly marked.
A lot of the groundwork is done by volunteers, said Pate, which saves the county money.
"They come out on a weekend, and they bring out 20 or 30 people with shovels," she said.
Turning the work over to volunteers has another effect: It encourages the groups representing different outdoor activities to get along.
"At one point, the different user groups were all at each other's throats," said Bill Niedringhaus, a McLean resident and a member of Fairfax Trails and Streams, who was one of the first people to dream up the idea of a cross-county trail. "One of the ways the cross-county trail has been successful was to have them all work together."
For instance, the mountain bikers, horseback riders, hikers and some joggers found they all prefer unpaved trails. As a result, the trail in the less densely developed northern part of the county is unpaved, while the section of the trail in more populated areas such as Springfield or Annandale is paved, which pleases the street bikers, the rollerbladers and some joggers.
Berit Kjaer, who manages the Shadybrook Stable in McLean, said the trail makes it possible for her students to ride outdoors rather than going around in circles inside a riding arena.
"It makes so many kids happy," she said. But she added that she would like to see a cement crossing over Difficult Run grooved so that horses can use it.
For John Carter, a Mantua resident, the trail is a great place to go mountain biking.
"I like the fact that it's not paved," he said.
NIEDRINGHAUS SAID the trail will also connect to other regional trails, such as the Washington and Old Dominion Trail.
"We're working on trail connections all over the place," he said.
In 1999, Niedringhaus organized one of the first cross-county hikes, which he repeated last year — in a torrential downpour.
"It was a lot of fun, but we were totally drenched," he said. "We got to the point where if the puddle was 6 inches deep, we just stepped in it."
Right now, the trail is only about four miles shy of completion. But those last remaining miles are some of the most contentious. One of the largest sticking points is between the Park Authority and VDOT over an underpass at Route 236 and Braddock Road. The federal government is also involved because the area is near the Beltway.
"We are in federal right of way, so it's incredibly complicated," Pate said.
The Park Authority is also looking to build better stream crossings on Difficult Run in McLean and Great Falls. But in order to do that, the county has to stabilize the stream to make sure trails along its banks don't erode into the creek.
These projects will involve negotiations with state agencies and private homeowners, which can take a long time.
"If we owned the whole thing and there were no roads and we didn't have to deal with homeowners, we would have it done," said Pate.
Pate added that she hoped to have all the bureaucratic issues resolved by the end of the year in order to finish the trail by the 2005 deadline. She also would like to put up more signs telling users they are on the cross-county trail.
"We're sort of at a point now where we're trying to talk about maintenance agreements with some of the volunteer groups," she said.
To Niedringhaus, the completion is in sight. "It's really got a momentum of its own," he said. "I think the cross-county hikes really helped, because it sort of blew people's minds that you could actually do it."