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’m Ian Mackay, a man living with paralysis from Port Angeles, Washington. I was injured in a bicycle crash in 2008 where I incurred a spinal cord injury. I can’t move or feel anything below my neck. It was extremely tough for the first few years. I finally found solace in going out and exploring the Olympic Discovery Trail. This is where my psychological healing really began. In 2016, I started a nonprofit called Ian’s Ride that focuses on creating a more accessible outdoors. I knew how fortunate I was to have this incredible infrastructure in my backyard, and I wanted to do what I could to help others have a similar experience. Thus, began my motto of “Get Outside”!
Although 2020 was brutal, as plans changed and my mental health was stretched to the limit with solitude, doomscrolling, and fear of infection, I was able to retain my happiness and sanity during this difficult year by getting outside. My preferred venue continued to be the Olympic Discovery Trail. This trail was built on an old railway bed and meanders over 70 miles through countryside, small Pacific Northwest towns, breathtaking views of the Puget Sound, and ancient, mossy forests. The diverse scenery and rich landscapes can all be seen from this paved path, which I have ridden on daily for the past four years. All in my power wheelchair.
Here are five moments that were particularly special for me during the 2020 year.
Trail Moment #1: Sea to Sound
One event that occurred in 2020 that I will never forget was a three-day, multimodal group ride that takes place every August called “Sea to Sound." This event covers the current length of the Olympic Discovery Trail and is designed to support people of all abilities to do as much or as little of the 72 miles distance as they’re comfortable with. There are people of all ages and modes of transportation, including wheelchairs, mobility scooters, equestrians, cyclists, runners and even skateboards. The event was able to be held at a limited capacity with special protocols for aid stations and starting times. Over a dozen wheelchairs participated with many more cyclists and runners out to savor this gem of a trail.
One woman in particular made this event particularly memorable. Her name is Mickey Dickey and she is 100 years old. She joined us on her mobility scooter for the second day of the event and we were all shocked when we realized we had a centenarian joining our group. We spoke briefly and I found out she’s always had an affinity for the outdoors and would really like to join us for a mile or so. I asked if she would lead the pack, and with a sparkle in her eye, she agreed. She donned her visor and facemask and started heading off with dozens of folks following her lead. In that moment I realized how powerful community and getting outside is. This woman had lived over a century and felt the need to join our ragtag group despite a global pandemic. She was out there under blue skies listening to the birds sing and was loving every second of it. She was happy and living life, all in the shared space that we call a trail. I will cherish that memory for the rest of my life.
Trail Moment #2: Time with Papa
My favorite thing to come out of 2020 was getting to spend more time outside with my 83-year-old grandfather. By far, one of the most difficult things about the COVID-19 pandemic has been not embracing our loved ones who are at higher risk. We have had to keep a safe distance from our elderly parents and grandparents. It’s heart-wrenching, but we do it out of their best interest. It was particularly difficult for me not to be around my grandfather, my "Papa," as I call him. I generally visit him daily in his garage where he makes amazing things out of wood and I provide moral support. Anyway, this daily ritual of ours was no longer possible and we needed to find an alternative. He had a small mobility scooter and decided to start joining me on my daily trail excursions. It was wonderful! I could show him the things I noticed on my daily rides, we could talk about his woodworking projects, but most importantly, we were together. I also loved that my power wheelchair was a little faster than his scooter and would tease him about leaving him in the dust if he got snarky. Much to my dismay, he soon upgraded to a faster scooter with more range. He was now leaving me in the dust and just chuckling away as he did it. I never would’ve thought a global pandemic would bring me and my Papa closer, but it did. We now share a passion of getting outside and putting some rubber on our local trail.
Trail Moment #3: My Appreciation of Trails
The most exciting ride I did in 2020 was riding my power wheelchair 272 miles down the Northern California coast over a seven-day stretch. We took the Pacific Coast Bike Route from Brookings, Oregon, to Fort Bragg, California. I loved bike touring before I was paralyzed, and every couple years I try to honor that with a “tour” in my power wheelchair. I had been part of the road crew for a bike tour on this route in the past, and although ambitious, I was eager to see the beauty that this part of the country offered. I was not wrong about the beauty part, unfortunately, the road surfaces, narrow shoulders, heavy fog, frequent logging trucks, and brutal rumble strip made for an extremely difficult and technical ride. Now I’m no stranger to spending long hours on the shoulders of highways–in fact, I’ve ridden across the state of Washington twice in my wheelchair–this, however, was a whole different animal. At times, I felt I was putting myself and my team at too much risk. The route was probably 90% roadway and 10% trail. About halfway through, after the 100th logging truck barreled by me, I started thinking about what I really loved about long rides in my wheelchair. I loved being able to talk to my friends, spending hours riding side-by-side catching up on our lives and commenting on our surroundings. I loved seeing migrating birds and various wildlife in remote places. I loved hearing the sounds of nature and not the constant whoosh of cars flying by me. Ultimately, I loved being on trails. I’ll always love bike routes, and they are tremendously valuable, they just don’t harbor the same safety and peacefulness that a trail offers.
By the time the 101st logging truck barreled by, I decided that my future adventures would be centered around trails, specifically rail-trails. It was a monumental realization. I love the challenge and I really love to show what’s possible when it comes to human will. I feel I’ve done enough harrowing journeys on the sides of highways, now I’m excited to begin a new chapter focused on exploring and highlighting rail-trails around our nation.
Trail Moment #4: Time with Nature
I really feel that getting out on the trail every day made getting through a global pandemic that much easier. To me, getting outside on the trail has long been important; I’ve not missed a day outside since Halloween 2016. My requirement is that I do at least a mile a day, but I average closer to 6 miles per day. I try to do as many of these on trails as possible, but living at a high latitude in the Pacific Northwest means inclement weather at times. If there’s been heavy snow, I just have to find a road that has been plowed. There are definitely times when it’s difficult and not much fun. When your nose and ears are frozen from the snow and wind, or you’re just soaked to the bone from a heavy downpour, you sometimes question why you’re out there. However, I have found that those moments are the most memorable and motivating. I love seeing the seasons change, watching raptors doing aerial stunts, or seeing the new baby cows in the spring and summer. Getting to see these changes and the incredible natural beauty makes me dread missing a single day out on the trail. In fact, my mother was having a tough time at the beginning of the pandemic and decided that she would start going on a ride a day. She is now at 300-plus consecutive days!
Trail Moment #5: Trails as Important Infrastructure
One really fun experience I had in 2020 was picking up the Christmas tree with my girlfriend. We both feel strongly about getting outside and decided that we would take the local trail to pick up our Christmas tree without a vehicle. We donned our Christmas sweaters, strapped a wagon behind my power wheelchair, she jumped on her bike, and we headed off a couple miles to the local Christmas tree farm. We were quite a sight with our colorful red and green ensemble, pulling a tree in a wagon behind a wheelchair. We smiled and chuckled through the whole process. The thing is, I couldn’t have experiences like this if there wasn’t infrastructure that allowed me to move around town in my wheelchair. This is the power of trails. I don’t have to be a passenger in life and get a ride in my van to pick up a tree, or worse yet, stay at home and wait for my tree to arrive. I have the opportunity to do things on my own and feel independent. So often people see trails as a way to get a little outdoor recreation, and yes that’s true. But it is so much more for me, commuting on my own gives me confidence, independence and self-reliability. I depend on people for so much in my life, having a safe trail space where I can go explore my own interests, interact with the community, and run my own errands is monumental to my happiness.
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.