Hitting the trails this weekend? You might be walking or biking on an abandoned railroad.
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State Farm

Along the Missouri River, there are 26 rambling trails where you can walk or bike through soft marshlands, towering bluffs, pleasing pastures, and thick forests.

Those trails make up the Katy Trail State Park — the longest public area in the United States that was formerly train tracks.

Built on the corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, there's also quite a bit of history to be found on any outdoor excursion in this state park. Most trails go past restored historic depots and former railroad towns. It's no surprise all 240 miles of this park were added to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame in 2008.


Katy Trail State Park. Photo by Kim Horgan, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

But trails like this weren't always so pleasant.

In the 1950s and '60s, there was dramatic decline in train use. By 1966, less than 2% of intercity commuters were using trains to get from place to place. That left a significant number of train lines defunct and a whole lot of miles of territory in disuse.

Aside from not looking too pretty, these rail lines, including what's now Katy Trail State Park, were just taking up unnecessary amounts of space without serving any purpose.

By the 1980s, "you see Congress starting to get concerned, because they were looking at the permanent loss of these rail lines," explains Amy Kapp, editor of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s magazine and blog.

Photo via succo/Pixabay.

So they amended the National Trail Systems Act to create the Railbanking Program. This allows people to preserve inactive corridors for future rail use while providing interim trail use — aka turning them into walking trails and bike paths.

But it’s often not easy for communities to launch large-scale trail projects on their own. They don't have the money and manpower, or they simply do not have any idea where to start.

That's why David Burwell and Peter Harnik founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy — an organization that's been helping to create outdoor paths for the public since 1986.

David Burwell and his wife (left) and Peter Harnik (right). Images courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

By helping convert old railways into public lands like the awesome Katy Trails, the conservancy is giving back to local communities by providing more places to go outside, which in turn may help people feel better physically and mentally. More walkable, bike-able trails also means there's more of America's natural beauty for people to enjoy.

Trail in Washington, D.C. Photo by Milo Bateman, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Over the last 30 years, RTC has been a great success.

When they opened their doors, there were 250 miles of known rail-trail. Today, there are over 22,774 miles available to communities all over the country and 2,035 known rails have been converted to trails.

It's really quite remarkable when you realize all those trails were once just miles and miles of unused land.

David Burwell passed away in February, but thanks to his passion and skill — and over 160,000 RTC members — his work will live on long after him.

Anacostia River Trail in Washington, D.C. Photo by Suzanne Matyas, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Currently, RTC is helping to build eight large-scale regional trail systems across the United States.

One particularly significant project is called the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan, or Active Plan for short.

Historic Battlefield Trail in Brownsville, Texas. Photo by Mark Lehmann, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The Active Plan is based in Cameron County, Texas, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. A 428-mile trail network is on the docket to provide locals with safe travel routes and encourage exercise and outdoor recreation.

These outdoor trails could make life so much better for locals.

The Ortiz family on the Historic Battlefield Trail in Palo Alto, Texas. Photo by Mark Lehmann, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Being closer to trails could save Cameron County millions of dollars in medical bills.

The community's economy should see a huge uptick too. A plan is set to create 453 new jobs for locals and increase tourism revenue by $40 million. For a county with more than a third of its residents below the poverty line, that’s no inconsequential figure.

Ohio and Erie Canalway Towpath Trail. Photo by Bruce Ford, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Rails-to-trails conversion starts on the community level — which means that there are lots of ways for people to get involved and maybe even help spearhead a project in their own community.

In fact, RTC's website is a great resource if anyone interested in jumpstarting more trails, providing an online toolbox that's filled with information on railbanking, acquiring and financing projects, planning and trail designs, and how to navigate the railroad and community guidelines.

In addition, RTC is also always looking for volunteers to help advocate for them and their work. After all, it is thanks to those volunteers that we have beautiful public trails weaving through different communities, linking them together, and bringing people back to nature  — they are the ones helping make  Burwell's dream a reality.

"My dream is that one day you could go across this entire country — old or young, handicapped or able — on flat, wide, off-road paths," he once told the RTC publication. "I want rail-trails to be America’s main street."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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