Riding along memory lane

Or in this case, a rail-trail.

I spent much of this Memorial Day weekend on my bike. The original motivation came from “traveling” back to some of the places I grew up in using Google Street View. As I zipped around various locations in Pontiac and Sylvan Lake, Michigan, I came to the end of Benvenue Street, where there used to be train tracks and then the gate into the playground of my elementary school. The tracks aren’t there anymore, replaced by a section of the Clinton River Trail, a rail-trail that runs from Sylvan Lake to the Oakland-Macomb County line at Dequindre Road.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the captain of the AAA Safety Patrol. In addition to my spiffy orange cross belt, I also proudly wore a silver and blue captain’s badge. Along with my trusty lieutenant, Lenny, we had to check each of the safety patrol posts each morning and afternoon, and if needed, fill in if someone was missing. One of the posts was the Grand Trunk Western railroad track at the end of Benvenue, just southeast of Avondale Avenue in Sylvan Lake.

Even though the tracks went behind my neighborhood in southwest Pontiac as well (they ran along the old city landfill, which was a marvelous place to play growing up – yes, I played in a dump!) and we sometimes saw the occasional hobo who had set up temporary camp in the old landfill (again, hard to imagine but true), where the tracks went once they disappeared out of my sight was never completely clear. More than once I imagined hopping onto a boxcar and seeing where the train might take me, but being of reasonably sound mind, I never actually attempted this.

Flash forward to 2017, and my discovery that the old tracks were now legally accessible. Pulling up TrailLink.com, I found a place to start my ride in West Bloomfield Township. The trailhead for the West Bloomfield Trail is at Haggerty Road, just south of Pontiac Trail (though there are only four or five parking spots there – many more are available a few miles east on Arrowhead Road, again just south of Pontiac Trail). I parked in the lot of a restaurant across the street, unloaded my bike from my truck bed, and started up the trail.

The West Bloomfield Trail, like the Clinton River Trail it connects to in Sylvan Lake, is a packed dirt trail with very fine loose gravel over it. This surface is generally very good to ride on; it can be a bit sketchy after a heavy rain, but overall it drains well and is mostly easy to ride on. There’s also very little elevation change along this route, so it’s good for just about any skill level.

Typical stretch of the West Bloomfield Trail.

About 7.3 miles in, the trail crosses Orchard Lake Road for the fourth time and becomes the Clinton River Trail. Following it along the southeast side of Sylvan Lake, I eventually came to the end of Benvenue Street, where I’d guarded the railroad tracks for kindergartners and fourth and fifth graders over forty years ago.

Looking east along the Clinton River Trail, at Benvenue Street in Sylvan Lake, Michigan.

End of Benvenue Street. The sign used to read “Road Ends” (still faintly visible under the red paint). Gate to the old Whitfield School playground in the distance.

The kids would cross the tracks here, then go through the gate to enter the playground of Daniel Whitfield School. The school was demolished over a decade ago and the land has remained vacant ever since. It used to look like this from Orchard Lake Road:

Daniel Whitfield School, circa 1946-47.

I walked up to the gate and stepped through onto the former playground.

The gate.

The former playground. Used to be two baseball diamonds to the right, used by the Little League in the summer. Main building would have been straight ahead, a one-story annex was built in the late 1950s and would have been behind the larger trees in the right of the photo. Looks like someone has been using the field for soccer practice recently. Orchard Lake Road is in the distance.

I didn’t spend much time there. It was many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it was fun to finally cruise “along the tracks,” past where I’d spent so much time in my youth. I continued into Pontiac to Beaudette Park, not far from the neighborhood where I grew up, then turned around and started back to West Bloomfield. A nice day, a nice ride, a nice memory.

(On a somewhat related note: When I started in radio in 1982, I first used the name “Tom James” because one popular choice for an airname was to use your middle name and I’m Thomas James Kephart. But “James” was a pretty common choice, obviously, and there was also Tommy James and the Shondells, of course, so I decided to change pretty quickly. In order to come up with something more unique, I chose my elementary school’s name – Whitfield – and became “Tom Whitfield” for the rest of my radio career. Thanks to Daniel Whitfield for the inspiration!)

Author: Tom Kephart

Actor, director, writer. Social media guy. Higher ed drone. Sings for beer in karaoke bars.

2 thoughts on “Riding along memory lane”

  1. Thanks for taking me down memory lane! As you walked through the gate I could envision recess. But, only after the delicious lunch we were fortunate enough to have. Mmmmm, those puffy, pillow like rolls!

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