Social Distancing

By Cecilia Travis © 2020

“Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt in solitude, 
where we are least alone.”
~ Lord Byron

I have always preferred social distancing while hiking. My treasured outdoor memories are mostly of solo hikes, my companions limited to rocks, trees, flowers and possibly a few animals. 

orange lily on black
“Orange Lily on Black” © Kent Taylor, Hon. Men. Flora Category, RMOWP 2019 Photo Contest

Now that I am old, I am constantly warned not to hike alone, which might as well be, “Don’t hike!” I tried a group outing of fellow slow hikers a few years ago. They were a friendly bunch of people who jabbered all the way in and all the way out. I longed for solitude.

But now, with the corona virus pandemic raging, many of us are escaping the confines of our dwellings for a little time in nature, and that is bringing new challenges such as the stay-six-feet-away-from-everyone rule. This morning’s experts were quoted in the Denver Post as saying that six feet away is probably too close!

How do you stay six feet or more away from other hikers on a mountain trail? This rule for “social distancing” to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 is a sensible practice that will be impossible to implement. 

Many trails are narrow cuts on steep hillsides. Even if you do find a spot to step to the side, other hikers are likely to be no more than three feet away at best. When I see someone approaching on a narrow path, I nod, but these days instead of greeting them, I hold my breath until they are well away, hoping any expired viruses have dispersed.

In flatter, more open areas, hikers are achieving this distance by edging along the outer perimeter of trails. This, coinciding with mud season, will turn trails into wide swaths of trampled, dying vegetation. 

But what instead? Bushwhack? Go off the trails entirely, hoping we don’t do too much damage? We are too many for that. Damage is inevitable. 

Because of the pandemic so many hikers, all coming in cars, have created such a problem that now most of the national parks have been closed and many national forest trail heads are cordoned off. At first the closures seemed primarily related to traffic and potential damage to the trails, but now it is apparent that park employees have no way of controlling the crowds without endangering their own lives. We are urged to stick to local parks and trails, but these, serving denser populations, are dangerously overcrowded. 

The strain of staying at home is creating some hard feelings. One Summit county resident wrote a letter to the Denver Post telling Front Range visitors to stay away. “…this is not your backyard. Please stop using the mountains as your weekend getaway.” He goes on to say that the mountains are his home, and we are not “entitled to be a tourist when all other aspects of the tourism economy have shut down.” He says we will be welcome when businesses are open, in other words when he can make money off us. 

I owned property in Summit County for forty years, but never in that time did I think I had an exclusive right to the surrounding federal lands. I started paying state and federal taxes with my first job in 1956. The federal and state parks and forests ARE my backyard. 

We really do need to stay away, but not because this man can’t take our money right now. My friend Maryann puts it well, “The real reasons Summit County is discouraging visitors is because a backcountry emergency might expose rescuers to coronavirus and because our small hospital can’t handle a lot of patients at a time. I think it has 35 beds. Those reasons are pretty valid for people staying away from the backcountry where I live. Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Open Snow’s Joel Gratz are requesting people stay closer to home and minimize risk if they do ski.”I am lucky. I live in a house with a yard and can step outside, feel and smell spring’s approach. I can walk to the closed golf course nearby and hear the spring territorial songs of the redwing blackbirds and robins. I can choose unpopular hours to walk my relatively wide neighborhood streets. I am hungry for nature, but not yet starved. I look forward to returning to my larger backyard when I can do so without endangering other people. Social distancing and its attendant solitude will once more be by choice.