How do you relax during a pandemic?

It’s just ski trails and turkey tracks on McKenzie pass last Tuesday. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Over the last two weeks, I’ve forgotten more than once that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. There are little moments of life that still feel untouched, even as we find ourselves out of work, stuck at home, and trying to adjust to the constant stream of updates and grim news from all around the world.

In light of this, on Tuesday, I did what I normally do when I need a little head space. I went out into the woods to try to put all of this out of my head for a little while. As I skied into McKenzie Pass, though, I found myself feeling something more than that normal wilderness solitude.

Just before I left the house, I had picked up the phone to ask a friend if they wanted to join me on-trail. By the time the call went to voicemail, I found myself stunned that I’d already forgotten that we’re strongly encouraged not to congregate under the present conditions. And yes, skiing with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a week did, indeed, count as congregating.

By the time I got to the trailhead, it was 10:30 in the morning. With half the town furloughed, I figured that I’d have at least a little competition for the fresh snow that had fallen the day before. But there was no one else in the parking lot; not even tire tracks from early-risers.

Along the way, as I hit a particularly wet patch of snow that caused me to stumble, it occurred to me how irresponsible it would be to wind up hurt on the trail now. It was less that I was out there alone with spotty cell phone service; that is always a present risk in solo adventuring. But now, as the Tri-Lakes healthcare system braces for the tidal wave rolling slowly northward, it would be pretty foolish to get admitted to the emergency room because I had chosen to go play in the woods.

At the top of a quick, sweaty climb up into McKenzie pass, I ran into another set of solitary ski tracks that had come up from the Whiteface Lodge side. This crystalized a thought that had been developing over the last two miles of skiing. Here, in the middle of a global health crisis, people were still getting out to play. But more to the point, on a beautiful, snowy day in early spring when hundreds of people throughout the region didn’t have work to go to, I had a four mile stretch of trail just outside of town all to myself for three hours. Why was this? Was I engaging in some positive physical recreation while maintaining responsible social distance or was my presence out there an act of selfish denial?

As of March 12, the World Health Organization issued guidelines aimed at helping preserve people’s mental health in the face of a global viral outbreak which only continues to grow worse. As this crisis comes to be measured in months rather than weeks, healthy outlets are going to become more and more important. I think that the vastness of our wild lands allows us to responsibly alleviate the tedium of our newly self-imposed quarantine. It provides us with an opportunity to sweat out our fears and frustrations for a bit as we think about the new normal; what we’ll do for work, how our families and loved ones will fare, what tolls this virus will take on the country. The solace and perspective offered by wild solitude are sorely needed now.

On the way back out, a few sets of turkey tracks flanked my ski track. They must have been just a little ways ahead of me. There is, at least, a little bit of normalcy waiting for us in the woods still. The birds and the trees are going about their daily business as they have for millennia and there is a great deal of comfort to be taken from that. That second set of ski tracks added a human element to that feeling of normalcy. As we do our best to contend with evolving guidelines designed to protect our communities as this pandemic rages, we can still go, responsibly, into the woods for a bit of space to clear our heads. As long as we keep that word “responsible” in mind as we do so, I’ve come to think that it’s not too selfish after all.


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