WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
photograph by chris brooks
Getting outside helped climate editor Yessenia Funes navigate this strange year. Her bike gave her more access to green spaces and parks. More importantly, it saved her mental health.
When I declared nature as this year’s winner, I was thinking of how it helped me stay sane, too. For context, I live in New York City without a car. Not knowing what was to come, I sold my motorcycle right before the city shut down. At first, it felt like there was no escape—that is, until I got my electric bike. Then, everything became easier; peace felt but an e-bike ride away.
Like nearly half of the country, the pandemic has affected my mental health. I knew moments in nature would help, but I lacked the motivation to get out of bed most days—much less get outside. At the height of the pandemic, fear of spreading the coronavirus gave me so much anxiety that even going to the grocery store felt risky. Eventually, staying stuck inside did, too.
But what saved me was my bike. What saved me were the places it took me: inside myself and beyond.
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m getting a little personal ahead of the holiday. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In this week’s last edition, I’m hoping to illustrate the power our green spaces have on our well-being. The pandemic opened me up to big ideas about the little things—that even a bicycle could spark some hope.
I’ve always loved biking. As a child, I’d frequently ride my bicycle around my neighborhood, stopping at a classmate’s house around the block. Sometimes, I’d visit my elementary school crush, blushing as he’d run to greet me outside. But, in recent years, I abandoned bicycling. I returned to New York after a stint out West and never bought a bike—until 2020. I finally got myself not just any bike—but an e-bike.
Turns out I wasn’t alone in this decision: E-bikes have exploded this year. In May, sales increased by 137 percent (even old-fashioned bicycles faced a national shortage). Months into a pandemic, people needed something fun (and safe) to do. As for me, I needed something to get me out of my apartment. I was gaining weight from staying immobile at home. And I was becoming depressed.
My partner and I discovered an impressive park nearby: Forest Park. It’s 500 acres of trees and trails. You forget you’re in the city as soon as you step in. We made it a tradition to ride through the park at least once a week. Sometimes, we’d step off our bikes to walk through the trails; others, we’d just ride until the sun set. And on the weekends, we’d journey farther to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. When public transit and family visits felt safe enough, we’d hop on the Long Island Rail Road with our bikes and ride them near where we grew up to go visit our family.
Riding our bicycles became one of our favorite things to do. I felt so giddy zooming past him on my e-bike and him racing to catch up. I felt like a little girl again, showing off by riding hands-free. But beyond the nostalgia, I felt excited about the future.
I’d find myself daydreaming on two wheels. I’d think about our future children joining us. I’d imagine a future where we regularly planned park picnics with our kids, teaching them how to ride on the busy streets of New York City. I felt hopeful about our future, which I hadn’t for a while. This year has been hard on our relationship and, consequently, my mental health.
And this wasn’t some random happening, either: Science has examined the neurological impacts of bicycling. Turns out that that simple pedaling motion can help trigger your brain to release serotonin, the happy hormone. My e-bike did a lot more than make me happy, though.
Bicycling helped put my relationship back together. Spending time outside—even in the concrete jungle of New York City—pulled me out of a dark place that felt endless. Spending time outdoors wasn’t something I’d do often before the pandemic because there was always something else to do. But once COVID-19 shut down the city, I had to look outside.
What I found was magical. It was healing. What I found was love.