Finding Health, Healing and Hope on the Trail

Posted 05/13/21 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Health and Wellness

MaShanta Ashmon on Michigan's Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by Rachel Walker | 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 have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media.

“After a long day of being in the house, sitting in front of a computer for seven hours, the only thing I wanted to do was close down my Zoom and go outside and ride my bike. I think that kept me sane. It truly gave me something to look forward to."

—MaShanta Ashmon, Michigan


She scans the brush for deer as she quietly pedals through this swath of greenery in the suburbs of southeastern Michigan, their tawny hides often just perceptible along the trail’s treeline. The graceful animals remind MaShanta Ashmon of her mother, who delighted in seeing deer stroll up from the woods along her property.

Deer along the Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by Dan Pieniak
Deer along the Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by Dan Pieniak

“My mom lived off the Clinton River, so deer would come in her backyard—literally right up to her deck—and my mom would stand in the window and record them,” recalled Ashmon, a resident of Sterling Heights, about 25 miles north of Detroit. “Every time I felt like I had a heavy heart, I would see a 15-point buck out there on the trail, or a doe and her fawns, and I would think, ‘Okay, Mom, thank you.’ I took it as a sign that she was still watching over me.”

Ashmon and her mother were very close—even their birthdays were only a day apart. As her mom battled pancreatic cancer, passing away in July 2020, Ashmon took to her bike to find peace. Gliding along the Clinton River Park Trail, through the tall trees and along the wide river, breathing in the fresh air, renewed her spirit.

From left to right: Waides Ashmon III, Ashley Jones and MaShanta Ashmon on the Clinton River Park Trail | Courtesy MaShanta Ashmon
From left to right: Waides Ashmon III, Ashley Jones and MaShanta Ashmon on the Clinton River Park Trail | Courtesy MaShanta Ashmon

A mother herself, Ashmon also enjoys occasional trail outings with her son Waide, a senior in high school. In one picture she shared, their smiles are as bright as the beautiful mural of flowers behind them in the trail underpass beneath Michigan Highway 53. A favorite spot is Dodge Park, which the southern end of the trail traverses; a footbridge there is so picturesque that Waide even took his senior pictures there.

Michigan's Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by MaShanta Ashmon
Michigan's Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by MaShanta Ashmon

Moments of captured joy like these also helped Ashmon manage the unique stresses and challenges that came with virtual schooling during the pandemic. “I teach at Grosse Pointe South High School, and my school district—we were one of the first to go out once [COVID-19] hit Michigan,” she explained. “What I found was, after a long day of being in the house, sitting in front of a computer for seven hours, the only thing I wanted to do was close down my Zoom and go outside and ride my bike. I think that kept me sane. It truly gave me something to look forward to.”

MaShanta Ashmon with Break the Cycle riders in Hollywood, Florida | Courtesy MaShanta Ashmon
MaShanta Ashmon with Break the Cycle riders in Hollywood, Florida | Courtesy MaShanta Ashmon

In addition to the mental health benefits, the physical impact of biking has been measurable, too. In late summer, Ashmon undertook a 75-day challenge to work out for 90 minutes a day. She used her trail activity to meet this goal, becoming healthier and stronger and losing more than 25 pounds. She’s even recruited two friends to occasionally join her and hopes to start a club for other riders like herself.

“It’s something that’s easy on the knees, and as we get older, we have to start thinking about that,” chuckled Ashmon, who’s in her 40s. “Michigan trails are so awesome because you can get on them and ride for miles and miles and not see a car, or have to stop at a major road, or smell fumes—it’s wonderful.”

Although she goes on these trail adventures on a self-described “crappy bike,” her search for a better set of wheels is helping her connect with people to get advice on a new bike and other places to ride. And she enjoys seeing other “regulars” out on the trail as she settles into a newfound routine of biking three or four days a week.

“It’s really helped me with my healing,” Ashmon said. “It’s very therapeutic because you’re in your thoughts. There’s so much beauty around you that you can’t help but be thankful and grateful to God for the canvas that He has us on. Riding the trails reminds me of that, and that reminds me of my mom.”

Michigan's Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by TrailLink user Brendan Hemker
Michigan's Clinton River Park Trail | Photo by TrailLink user Brendan Hemker

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