Three weeks ago my family skinned up and skied down a ski hill about an hour from home. It was a sunny bluebird afternoon. After a peaceful climb through silent woods with fresh snow, a snack break up top where we listened to an owl, and time spent admiring the western Maine hills and mountains, we skied back down.
It was a good day.
At that early point in the COVID-19 pandemic, our state officials here in Maine were actively encouraging people to get outside for their mental and physical health. That advice would change, but at the time skiing felt like a reasonable and enjoyable way to spend an afternoon together.
We drove to the mountain and back (no stops), saw only two other people (from a distance) in the parking lot, stayed easily within our limits on a mountain we know well, and enjoyed some healthy outdoor time together as a family. I called it “PE class” for the kids.
And yet, in the days after I didn’t feel comfortable sharing pictures.
Why not? Way back then, three long weeks ago, experts and state officials were saying “go outside, recreate responsibly, be healthy.” Beaches hadn’t been closed to day trippers. Trailheads weren’t overcrowded. Avalanche forecasters and the Forest Service hadn’t had to shut down entire mountains because of hundreds of backcountry skiers. #curbyourturns wasn’t a hashtag. Not yet.
So, what was the problem?
My life, personally and professionally, revolves around people going outside. I believe strongly in nature’s physical and mental benefits and its value. But, while I was grateful for that afternoon with my family—one of the last we’d spend beyond our town for a while—I knew it wasn’t that simple. It was hard to publicly celebrate the outdoors that wasn’t even an option for millions of other people, pandemic or not.
The afternoon was good. Sharing it felt problematic. I didn’t want to look like I was treating our little outing as a holiday during a global shutdown—nonchalantly skiing my cares away while around the world millions were shut indoors, losing livelihoods, facing serious illness and death, and healthcare workers were girding for a fight.
Pandemics are not the norm, but the coronavirus highlights and exacerbates the inequalities that already exist—who gets access to healthcare, time off, room to social distance, and, as minor as it may seem, access to the outdoors.
Recreating outdoors and social distancing? That looks different depending on where and how you live, and how well you interpret six feet and essential. Even in non-pandemic times the outdoors isn’t an option for many. My privilege was weighing on me, and I kept coming back to a few issues:
- Access: We live in rural Maine, not the wealthiest of states, but we do have a lot of the outdoors. Ours is the least densely populated state east of the Mississippi, and all that space, plus our personal transportation to get to it, is a blessing. We had our small ski hill essentially to ourselves. We also have places to recreate outdoors in our own town, plus a backyard.
- Gear and Know-How: Our family has the equipment and knowledge for four of us to ski, hike, run trails, and more. We’re extremely fortunate. Having the appropriate gear along with the experience and information to do an activity safely is a privilege. Lack of both are costly and intimidating barriers to entry for many, whether an activity requires skis, a tent, or a pair of hiking boots.
- Time: I already work from home, so that hasn’t changed. But not everyone has the luxury of setting their own schedule, or taking time off. And I don’t mean forced quarantine or laid-off time off, but actual free time with options for leisure and recreation.
- Health: I didn’t want to post a ski picture and unintentionally encourage others to go out and risk putting additional stress on our emergency and health care systems or speed up spread of the virus. And that made me feel like a hypocrite.
Even if we’re all social distancing and following the same CDC guidelines, it doesn’t look the same across the board. Not person to person or region to region. Nor do we all face the same risks or repercussions from the COVID-19 virus. One person’s uncomfortable quarantine is another family’s viral anxiety, lost paychecks, or empty cupboards. It’s not equal and the world isn’t fair, but we can try to make it kinder and healthier.
So, back to that bluebird, Instagram-worthy ski day. The outdoors can be a godsend, especially during hard times. Everyone deserves access to it and the joy and benefits being outside brings. That can be skiing down a mountain, hiking through a local park, or walking on an urban trail.
However, I didn’t post those pictures on social media (you can find one above though), and we scrapped future ski plans after that day, instead sticking close to home. While we’re still walking, running, and riding bikes from our house, we’re focusing on the hyper-local, like our own backyard. (The birds have never had quite so rapt an audience.) Priorities have changed.
For now we’ll just have to be patient about when and how we return fully to the great outdoors. I hope when that time comes it’s with a deeper appreciation for small, local adventures and the outdoor access and places we often take for granted. In the meantime, we can use these days and months away from the mountains to consider how other individuals and groups could benefit from increased outdoor access and inclusion, at home and beyond.
I also hope that all of us who find solace outside during this pandemic consider supporting the agencies, organizations, and nonprofits that help protect those special places, create parks and public spaces, build and maintain trails, and get others outside and back home safely.
Green spaces make us all happier and healthier, and those are benefits worth spreading far and wide.