More than 22,000 miles of rail-trails—and growing—crisscross the country, leaving stronger, healthier communities in their wake. This movement grew from the ideas and sweat equity of ordinary people who championed trails and their benefits to all who would listen (and many who would not). Their triumphs laid the groundwork for a future where trails are at the heart of thriving communities. Their passion was catching, motivating thousands to get involved and make a difference for trails.
People like naturalist May Thielgaard Watts—inspired by the Appalachian Trail and the footpaths of Great Britain—would be among the first to publicly lead the charge for trails, biking and walking in the 1960s. Since then, countless others—some prominent and some just really passionate—have used their own inspiration and a collective vision to make their communities better through trails. These five heroes of the trail movement inspire us thanks to what they’ve overcome and what they’ve accomplished. Through their stories, we hope you’ll find their passion as catching as we do.
1He Had an Idea and Was Convinced It Would Work (It Did)
It was a family bike ride on the Illinois Prairie Path that planted the seed for John Yoder to create a rail-trail in his home state of Indiana. With no experience at all in trail building—he was on administrative sabbatical from Goshen College at the time—John came home, gathered some friends and organized. He launched the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail and fought to preserve a corridor that he knew would be invaluable to the region.
“John had an idea and was convinced it could work,” says local business owner Mike Landis. “Everything that comes to pass needs somebody like that.”
When word got out about John’s and the group’s plans, so did the opposition. There were lawsuits and broken relations with neighbors. But the group held its ground, and today, the stunning 17-mile Pumpkinvine Nature Trail connects urban areas, small towns and one of Indiana’s largest Amish communities. In addition to offering a commuter and recreational path for 80,000 users annually, the completed trail has boosted the local economy and supports business.
2She Took Back Her Community … And Gave It New Life
Inventor, entrepreneur and former pro volleyball player—Toody Maher knew a lot about perseverance and hard work when she started walking all 56 miles of trail in her home of Richmond, California. One thing she knew virtually nothing about: park and trail development. But that quickly changed as she added miles to her count, and began noting the trails’ need for improvement and their potential to revitalize the city.
After a self-imposed study of the other trails that have served as vehicles for community revitalization, such as the High Line, Toody launched the nonprofit Pogo Park, which develops vibrant, community-driven play areas for children. Pogo Park fixed its attention on the Richmond Greenway, a short, linear greenway running through one of the city’s most underserved areas.
Through Pogo Park, Toody collaborated with local and national partners to map the route’s existing projects and amenities and identify gaps, leading to the creation of multiple Pogo Park projects and a trail expansion project scheduled for completion in 2017. Now, what was once known as “El Baldio” (the abandoned place) by residents is being transformed into a community hub, providing children and local residents a vibrant and safe place to play and spend time together.
Will you grow the trail movement and support the actions of trail heroes like John and Toody? You can become a champion for trails by making a gift that builds and protects their legacy. Donate today.
3He Opened a Door … and Built a House
Scot Benton—who was, to use his words, “a very unsuccessful, hardworking” bicycle racer—was standing on the side of a street in Boston when he was struck by a car in the late ‘80s. The accident put him in a coma for three months. After living with his parents for five years, it was hard for Scot to see a way forward. It was his father who inspired his next move.
Scot took that direction literally, opening the door to Bicycle House—a community hub that has become a bike repair shop, training center, "build-a-bike" program, community development organization, trail cleanup group and part kitchen/overnight space for travelers on the "Southern Tier" route from California to Florida.
"I had a little money, and I just put that into the building, the bricks and mortar, and the tools. We had no idea what was going to happen," Scot remembered.
Now, through Friends of Lake Elberta Park, Scot and fellow passionate locals are advocating for the continued development of Lake Elberta Park (less than a half mile south of Bicycle House) and the addition of a trailhead that will connect the park's pathway to the northern-most section of the 20.5-mile St. Marks rail-trail. Scot’s focus is on strengthening the blighted community surrounding the park and enhancing recreation opportunities for the entire city. You can check out the current plans for the trailhead facility here.
4She Busted a Myth and Inspired an Urban Biking Movement
When Veronica Davis road through her southeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood one summer afternoon in 2011, she was surprised to hear a little girl yell to her mother, “Look, mommy! Look at that black lady on a bike!”
Veronica was motivated to share her story and she began to tweet about her cycling experiences—on a whim, she created the hashtag #blackwomenbike to capture the conversation she had started.Through the hashtag and through discussions with other black women in the D.C. region, she discovered many of them were having similar experiences. It was time and they were ready, she said, to bust the myth that black women don’t bike.
In 2011, Veronica founded Black Women Bike DC with two other women she found to be equally motivated, Nse Ufot and Majeema Washington. The group focuses on making cycling accessible, providing women and children in the region the tools and experiences they need to feel comfortable riding bikes for all sorts of reasons—to be healthy, get around and have fun. While they’re at it, they’re changing perceptions of bicycling in the city.
5She’s Making Her Town Square a Living Room
It was nostalgic passion that led Puget Sound resident Maureen Hoffmann to start WABI Burien (Walk/Bike Burien), a nonprofit that promotes walking and biking in Hoffmann’s local Washington State community. “I had just moved back from living in Italy and had loved getting around by foot, bike and train while there,” she said.
Maureen—who is a graphic designer by trade—launched monthly Walk-n-Talks to encourage active living and discuss how to make the Town Square as common place and inviting as a “living room” for residents.
“I just printed some cards and dropped them off at local restaurants, and sent a notice to a local blog. And people just showed up.”
Through their walks and their time spent in the community, the group also noticed the lack of bike racks around town—their first formal call to action was found. In less than a week, they fast-tracked a grant submission that resulted in 41 new, custom-designed bike racks for the town, making it easier for people to use their bikes to get around.
Tremendous projects in scope and scale like these can seem daunting to any one person. But consider this: Without the idea of just one person in one place at one time, these projects—that grew the trail movement—would never have even happened. And without the support of friends, family or neighbors, these trail heroes would not have been able to achieve the amazing things that they did.