The clever way Indiana is resurrecting its old, rusting railroads.

When I was a kid, I went on a lot of nature walks with my mom.

We lived in the country in Central Texas and had a little plot of woods all to ourselves. We walked around big, ancient oaks and twisted, gnarly mesquite trees. Sometimes, we'd find a tree covered in big, ropey mustang grapevines and I'd climb up into the trees, pretending I was in the Swiss Family Robinson.

Other times, we went looking for animals. My favorites were the green anole lizards that lived on trees and flashed their red neck flaps at you.


Technically, it's called a dewlap, thank you very much. Photo from R. Colin Blenis/Wikimedia Commons.

There were also tiny black-and-white beetles with rock-hard shells that lived on fallen logs. If you touched them, they played dead until they thought you were gone. And sometimes we even saw deer.

Nature walks are a good way for families to bond. And they're pretty healthy too.

Science shows that spending just a little time outside (walking, looking at the trees, or even catching Pokemon!) can be good for you — it reduces blood pressure and improves mental health. There are even studies that suggest spending time in nature together can help families get along.

But here's the problem: Not everyone has access to nature, even (and especially) in rural areas.


Does this count as nature? Not really. Scott Olsen/Getty Images.

It's easy to imagine how someone living in downtown Chicago might struggle to find nature. But living outside a city doesn't guarantee access to trails and forests, either.

For example, imagine living in farm country. Though you're definitely not in the city, miles and miles of corn fields are just as much an artificial creation as any apartment building (plus the farmers probably wouldn't be happy with you trying to picnic in the middle of their fields).

This is actually a significant problem, so two researchers (University of Illinois professor Ramona Oswald and doctoral student Dina Izenstark) recently examined the lack of nature access in rural America. They found that although a lot of parents may know how great a nature walk can be for both your mood and your body, long distances or costs keep them from getting their families into nature.

“The moms in this study know about health and what to do to be healthy,” Oswald said in a press release. “It’s not a lack of education. It has to do with barriers and access to resources."

But what if we could erase these barriers? Enter the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit that's giving people access to nature in a cool way: by reviving old railway lines.

Photo via Rails-to-Trails Conservancy/Eric Oberg, used with permission.

You see, the United States is criss-crossed with old railway lines.

Photo via iStock.

Many of them are still in use, but many have been abandoned.


Photo via iStock.

But just because they're abandoned doesn't mean they can't still be useful.

These abandoned lines can have new life breathed into them. Take the Cardinal Greenway in central and eastern Indiana.

Way back in 1993, the nonprofit Cardinal Greenways bought 60 miles of abandoned railroad in eastern Indiana and, after teaming up with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for logistical help, began the hard work of turning it into a nature trail. (Rails-to-Trails support projects all across the United States.)

Photo from Cardinal Greenways, used with permission.

Tearing up a big metal railroad to make a nature trail might seem like a lot of work. But the railroad is already set up for nature walking success.

Most railroad tracks are already built up off the ground (so they don't flood), and they can support a lot of weight. Even better, trees don't grow on railroad tracks, so there's less vegetation to cut back to make a trail.

Cardinal Greenways' first 10-mile stretch opened in 1998.

They also added updated features like new bridges, benches, and informational signs.

Photo from Cardinal Greenways, used with permission.

There is also a playground and exercise equipment. You can even borrow a bike. It's free, too. Cardinal Greenways relies on volunteers and donations to maintain and expand the trail.

Today, the Cardinal Greenway runs for 62 miles, winding through more than 10 small towns as well as nature preserves and parks.

Photo from Cardinal Greenways, used with permission.

Families can walk or bicycle it, giving them easy access to nature and a safe place to exercise, no matter whether they're urban or rural.

A lot of different places have hit on replacing old railway lines with nature trails. Chicagoans might recognize the Bloomingdale Trail, for instance.

Photo from Victor Grigas/Wikimedia Commons.

The Bloomingdale Trail is a greenway that runs for about three miles in Northwest Chicago. You might never guess it used to be an old elevated train line.

In fact, your favorite running trail may have started its life as a railroad track. The Gloucester Township Trail in New Jersey, the Shelby Farms Greenline in Tennessee, and Mississippi's Tanglefoot Trail all started as old train lines, too.

Projects like this give both urban and rural families access to nature — using resources we already have.

Nature walks with my mom are some of my fondest childhood memories, and I'm sure those walks are part of the reason I'm still in love with nature today.

It's awesome to see projects like this making sure everyone has access to those memories like I did.

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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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