Reclaiming My Health and Community Connection on America’s Rail-Trails During the Pandemic

You will find this published story on the Rails to Trails Conservancy Blog.

Riding these trails has been so impactful; it has brought me a healthy way to work out the stresses of life—and a peace of mind. Two more bonuses have been improving my physical condition and learning more about my local businesses.

Like many Americans, I was furloughed and on unemployment for the first time in my life as a result of COVID-19. Within what seemed to be a week’s time span, the world was in a pandemic, and my company alone had lain off more than 10,000 employees nationwide. If it wasn’t for the government’s stimulus package, I would never have been able to pay my living expenses in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. These were unnerving times indeed.

Lesson Learned

There had been another similar time in my life that caused me great anxiety, insomnia and an overall feeling of unease; this was during my divorce 12 years ago.  I was a personal trainer and had a client who was a pharmacist. I had asked my client (and friend), “Can you suggest a good anti-depression medicine?” She told me, “Anamaria, you don’t need to take anti-depression medicine for what you are going through. You need to do cardio every day and get those endorphins up. They will naturally elevate your mood and set you on a different mindset.” As a trainer who focused on weights, I added 40 minutes of cardio into my daily routine. Game changer.

It did wonders for my mental health. With a good cardio session that elevated my heart rate, I was able shed those worrying feelings until they eventually went away. 

So I knew I had to do the same this time.

As I contemplated how to incorporate a good cardio routine into my life, I challenged myself to create a structure that would not only help me and inspire others to stay committed, but also helped those more severely impacted by the pandemic.

Blog Beginnings

Hence, my blog Ride Bikes. Eat Local.  was born.

With the blog I had two goals:

  1. To regularly get out on my mountain bike, ride hard and explore the local trails so I could share what I learned.
  2. Connect with a local community food establishment, highlight them and encourage support from my readership. My stomping grounds are Southeast Wisconsin and the region near the southwest suburbs of Chicago.

Rails to Trails

A pattern formed as I wrote about local trails; many were converted from old railroad lines. It was interesting to me that the same way the trains connected people to neighboring cities—making it possible for them to explore the countryside outside of their immediate communities—so too do the rail-trails; they offer the same respite. Families were walking, hiking, biking and running on these trails where, just a century ago, others were chugging along on a train, taking in the scenery before their next stop.

Following the abandoned Chicago, Milwaukee, and St.Paul railroad line.

The beautiful thing about these trails was that they were accessible to anyone wanting to get out and enjoy nature. As a tepid mountain biker in my 50s, I was not out to hit new, challenging single-lane track terrain and push myself to the limits. I wanted to be able to enjoy the scenery with a wider trail and bike fast without worrying about crashing. These trail conversions all had that element in common, and it has brought me real happiness to learn more about them.

A Little History

On one such trail, the White River State Trail, I uncovered the story of John W. Jones, known as “Jack,” from Lexington, Virginia, who was born in 1893. He served in World War I, during which he became a Corporal. One of his first jobs he had after he and his wife, Etta, moved to Milwaukee in the 1920s was as a dining car porter for the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad. He would porter on the very same line that I was riding my bike on that day.

He eventually found himself doing dental laboratory work, and in the 1940s he opened his own business, the Jones Dental Laboratory, where he provided dentists with dentures and orthopedic products. A photo album that they kept from the 1920s to the 1960s—which was preserved by the Milwaukee County Historical Society—tells the tale of their life as a Black middle-class family in Milwaukee.

A trail discovery

Another adventure I had was on the Pelishek-Tiffany Trail. This was another trail that began as a section of the old Milwaukee Road and was transformed into a rail-trail in the late 1990s. Two local residents bought the land when this section of the line went bankrupt. Through their hard work as well as that of the community, they were able to rebuild and salvage this 6-mile stretch that begins in Clinton, Wisconsin.

These biking adventures, soon led me to seek out others doing the same. A local bike and coffee shop supported a local bike group, the Treadheads. They host rides three times per week. Now I meet many people that have the same spirit of getting out on trails as I do. 

On one particular ride, I learned that there was an actual organization that focused specifically on rail-trail development and advocacy. That same organization created the TrailLink app that I have been using to research some of my trails. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has been fighting for the preservation of these former railroad lines since 1986!

This was such a delightful find; It’s motivating to find other like-minded souls and to learn about different experiences happening across the country.

Riding these trails has been so impactful; it has brought me a healthy way to work out the stresses of life—and a peace of mind.

Published by Ride Bikes. Eat Local.

Just a soon to be empty nester mom that is looking to enjoy a healthy lifestyle and share it with others.

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