How a Rail-Trail Helped Save My Life and Redirect My Focus

Posted 08/06/21 by Shawn Gossman in America's Trails, Health and Wellness

Photo by Shawn Gossman, graphic by RTC

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 impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.


“That first time I rode on the rail-trail, I fell madly in love with it and cycling. I also found my first hiking trail while riding the trail."

—Shawn Gossman, Hiking with Shawn


As I’ve watched outdoor recreation interest explode among new users during the pandemic, it’s made me reflect on my own journey and how a simple bike ride on a rail-trail saved my life.  Before I explored my first local rail-trail by bike, I was experiencing my own health crisis.

Nearly ten years ago, I realized I wasn’t very healthy. I smoked several packs of cigarettes every day. I drank too much alcohol. I ate poorly and chose the wrong kinds of food. I was alone. Depressed. I couldn’t sleep. Life was not at all worth enjoying in that moment. I realized this and it scared me, so I made a small change in hopes to get a little better. I bought a bicycle because I was not motivated to work out in a gym.

I didn’t feel safe riding on the road at that time, so I found out about a local southern Illinois rail-trail called the Tunnel Hill State Trail. The Tunnel Hill State Trail is a 45-mile bicycle and pedestrian trail that was once a railway connecting the “Big Four” Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis rail lines. Along the route, other major trail systems merge into, connect to, or cross the rail-trail, including the River to River Trail (R2R), the American Discovery Trail (ADT), the US 76 Bicycle Route and the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

Breeden Trestle on Tunnel Hill State Trail in southern Illinois | Photo by Shawn Gossman
Breeden Trestle on Tunnel Hill State Trail in southern Illinois | Photo by Shawn Gossman

The trail features many passes through national forests and state public lands, including quite a few trestles and a 543-foot tunnel. Trail users pass through several hamlets, nearly ten towns and even a few ghost towns, showing remnants of the railway that once stood in its place. Each town has unique mom and pop shops, lodging and dining opportunities that make them worth the visit.

That first time I rode on the rail-trail, I fell madly in love with it and cycling. I also found my first hiking trail while riding the trail. I then started hiking and eventually created a YouTube channel to show friends and family where I hike and bike.

A short walk to the tunnel from the Tunnel Hill State Trail trailhead | Photo by Shawn Gossman
A short walk to the tunnel from the Tunnel Hill State Trail trailhead | Photo by Shawn Gossman

My YouTube channel started growing in popularity and I’m now a local figure in outdoor recreation. I’m frequently on the news promoting our natural resources. I am a board member of nonprofit organizations that support federal and state lands. I’m credited in a natural resource and wildlife guidebook. And I often get recognized by fans when I am out doing something as simple as buying groceries.

All of this had led me to quit smoking, quit drinking as much, start eating healthy and enjoy fitness. Because of my YouTube adventure, I have met and now live with the love of my life, Michelle, who joins me on most of my bike rides and hikes. I feel like I owe my life to this rail-trail and it is my mission in life to promote it and the outdoors so more folks can experience their benefits.

A tunnel trail for walkers and cyclists on the Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by Shawn Gossman
A tunnel trail for walkers and cyclists on the Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by Shawn Gossman

We live in troubling times where health, wellbeing and fitness priorities are more important than ever. Our communities, mom and pop businesses and natural resources  depend on us. Your local natural resources and outdoor recreational facilities are where all of this can happen. You just have to make the choice to get out there and start enjoying every bit of it.

I hope to see you on the trail!

Peering out of the tunnel on Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by Shawn Gossman
Peering out of the tunnel on Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by Shawn Gossman

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