“Trails are a literal escape from the monotony and existential angst of 2020. I am grateful to have rail-trails nearby, and thankful for our park staff and volunteers for keeping them in such nice condition.”
This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and true trail voices around the country, and how trails have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media.
I’ll never forget March 13, 2020 as it was the first day I started working from home. Like so many others, I packed up the essentials in my office and brought them home to set up shop in my living room. Also like many others, I told myself that it would only be for a few weeks. Now I spend my workdays in virtual meetings and phone calls from my house in Columbus, Ohio. I teach at Ohio State University remotely and am a part-time Ph.D. student taking classes online. I spend 8+ hours a day in the same chair at the same desk in the same room. Even though we are several months into the pandemic, I have yet to fully adjust. It feels like there are no boundaries between the different areas of my life.
I am coping with all of this by pursuing the three hobbies I love best: birdwatching, bicycling and being outside. Thankfully, these are all great hobbies to pursue during a pandemic, because it is easy to maintain social distancing—and they give me the opportunity to leave my house. These activities have brought me peace of mind, renewed my spirit and rekindled my sense of adventure. As I soon discovered, a rail-trail is the quintessential place for these hobbies to converge.
Birdwatching is my favorite hobby. The best time to be a birdwatcher in Ohio is during the spring migration, from late April through mid-May. Normally I would travel all over the state, scoping out as many different types of birds as possible. However, the COVID stay-at-home orders quashed my travel plans this spring. I started thinking, what else could I do that would allow me to search for birds? That is when I decided to combine birding with biking.
I set a personal goal: identify as many birds as possible in Madison County in 2020—but only while riding my bike. Since March, I have identified 81 species of birds by sight and sound, all while riding my bike through the county on rail-trails, such as the Camp Chase Trail and the Roberts Pass Trail.
The rail-trails in my area wind through farm fields and former prairies, with woodlots here and there. There are many places to find neotropical migratory birds, such as orioles, indigo buntings and warblers, and grassland birds like vesper sparrows, dickcissels and meadowlarks. I even discovered a Bell’s vireo, which is a rare species in Ohio. One morning I heard it singing its unusual mumbly-jumbly song from some scrubby brush along the Prairie Grass Trail in London, Ohio. I hit the brakes and whipped out my phone to capture a recording so I could report the sighting to the “Rare Bird Alert” Facebook group. To everyone who stopped to ask if I was okay when they saw me jump off my bike and go running into the bushes: thank you, yes, I was okay, just a little excited and a whole lot nerdy.
Birdwatching requires you to pay close attention to the world around you, which is how I started noticing the other beauty and wildlife surrounding me during my rides. My excursions on trails enabled me to identify and photograph dozens of varieties of wildflowers. This is how I discovered that purple is the color of May (spiderwort, phlox, delphinium) and yellow is the color of September (goldenrod, sunflower, prairie dock).
As these adventures continued, my wheels kept turning and the miles went by. All told, I have ridden my bike more than 600 miles on the rail-trails since the pandemic began. I shared my photos and findings with a Facebook group called the Social Distance Cycling Club, which has members from all over the world. Reading other cyclists’ stories inspired me to keep riding. The more I explored, the longer my trips became. I recently completed a personal best 83-mile ride, all on rail-trails.
The outdoors always brings me pleasure and relaxation, but this year it means more than ever. I explored new places and identified new flora and fauna. I developed a better appreciation for the natural world in my part of the state. Through the Social Distance Cycling Club, I was able to connect virtually with other riders in my area whom I had not previously met. Hopefully, we can ride together at some point in 2021.
Trails are a literal escape from the monotony and existential angst of 2020. I am grateful to have rail-trails nearby, and thankful for our park staff and volunteers for keeping them in such nice condition. I know the pandemic will not last forever and, at some point, I will be allowed to move back into my physical office at work to return to some semblance of a usual routine. When that time comes, I will no longer be able to take a quick bike ride before work, but I do think I will continue my birding and biking adventures. I am thankful that my excursions on the rail-trails have enabled me to make some positive memories of this year and look forward to future rides.
Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.