From Battles to Bicycles
Photos courtesy of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Warrior Expeditions
In the summer of 2021, five veterans set out from Washington, D.C. with nothing but bikes and bags. Their destination? The other end of the country. The veterans were on a trip put together by Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit outdoor therapy program that helps veterans transition from service to civilian life. They hike, bike or paddle thousands of miles, processing trauma and making new connections along the way.
“By the time you see folks at the end, it’s like someone’s turned a light switch on,” said Sean Gobin, director of Warrior Expeditions. “Life has returned to their eyes.”
The five cyclists were the inaugural Warrior Expeditions team to travel along the Great American Rail-Trail®, a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy vision to connect 12 states with 3,700 miles of existing and future regional trails when completed.
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is a partner in establishing many of the existing and future trails along the 465-mile route through Iowa from Davenport to Council Bluffs (see map at bottom). INHF continues to help fill in the gaps, including recently purchasing land needed to complete the connection between the High Trestle Trail and the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
As more pieces of the Great American Rail-Trail are connected and routes are moved off of busy roads, the riders can more fully immerse themselves in the quiet serenity of America’s natural landscape.
But the Great American Rail-Trail doesn’t just connect these veterans with nature – it connects them with people, too. The trail takes them through communities that open their campsites, restaurants and homes.
“You experience the worst of humanity in combat,” Gobin said. “Meeting all these wonderful, supportive people along the trail helps reestablish that basic faith in humanity.”
Jay Waters was one of the veterans invited to go on the Great American Rail-Trail ride in 2021. Waters served as an army human resources specialist, and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Liberia during his 30 years of service. Once he retired, he found himself adrift without the structure and support of military life.
The trail took him through 12 states, but Iowa made the strongest impression. The D.C. native found the landscape beautiful, but it was the kindness of the people that stuck with him.
At the end of the High Trestle Trail, a woman who connected with Waters through a Facebook groupwaited with home-cooked fajitas, vegetables, beer and watermelon. Three farmers invited him to ride a combine and see how it worked near Grundy Center. Someone else bought him breakfast and let him and his fellow bicyclists stay at a campsite for free.
“I really found the people – all across the United States, but especially in Iowa – very friendly and very helpful,” Waters said.
This summer, another team of veterans completed the second annual Warrior Bike expedition, passing through Iowa in June.
When completed, the Great American Rail-Trail will have nearly 50 million people living within 50 miles of it. And while the trail can be enjoyed by anyone anytime, veterans biking the trail each summer will be connected with a sixth of America’s population that, through acts of ordinary kindness, can help them heal and grow into this next chapter of their lives.
Those interested in supporting the veterans on their next ride through Iowa can reach out to Sean Gobin at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Great American Rail-Trail, visit www.railstotrails.org.