Nature Is Not Cancelled : The Art of Social Distancing for the Active and Outdoor Community

Updated: Apr 7

Guest Author - Alyssa of Apex Outdoor Sales


Disclaimer : all of the information regarding social distancing practices and shelter in place regulations, as well as the status of both State and National Parks, public trails and community outdoor areas are as of the time this was posted.


Zion National Park
Zion National Park

These are wild times we are living in, and so many people are living in uncertainty. As a member of the outdoor community, my first thought was “How can I help?” So here I am sitting in front of my computer, after interviewing multiple people I have had the pleasure to meet in both the outdoor community as well as other professions relevant to this subject matter, writing to you. I want to facilitate through expert and personal insight the best way to navigate social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic for those, like me, who are accustomed to being active and/or outdoors in a way that does not jeopardize their health, their community or violate mandated social distancing or shelter in place measures.


Six individuals donated their time to be interviewed to give their best advice:

Cristina Schooler is the Austinite owner of the Rooted Method. She is an Experiential Outdoor Educator focused on ‘Rewilding’ for women. She is also a Breathwork Teacher and an Energetic Embodiment Guide. I have known Cristina for several years and have been privileged to witness the power of her practice.


Dr. Julie Premo, PhD. Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing in Anxiety Disorders – a friend of mine since high school, who donated her time to be interviewed and lend her professional insight and guidance in these trying times.


Eliott Kroll is a former Marine turned Outdoor Photographer/General Badass. Eliott and I attended college together and his photography ventures took off when he moved to Gilbert, AZ. He has since relocated to Estes Park, CO and in addition to his photography business is the Resident Manager at the McGregor Mountain Lodge and runs Estes Park Marketing (He likes to keep busy).


Frank Grazier is a retired UFC Gym owner who lives in Austin, we were connected by a mutual fitness loving friend for the purposes of this piece. In lieu of all of the gyms closing down, Frank hosts a daily 30 minute Facebook Live workout followed by a 10 minute bible study each morning. His routine is for all fitness levels and only requires a chair and some form of weights – he recommended canned food or water bottles for those who don’t personally own fitness equipment. Frank volunteered his time for me to interview him to speak to what health and fitness considerations we should take in these unique circumstances.


Eli Cohen is a Training Content Designer at REI. He is a longtime paddle board buddy of mine and is unique because although his job IS remote by nature, he chose to post up a permanent office at one of the REI stores in Austin as opposed to working from home because he loves interfacing with customers and colleagues. Eli is a tenured outdoor enthusiast by way of both land and water sports and has been so kind as to lend some insight for Austin locals about outdoor spaces they can safely visit and enjoy during Coronavirus.


Vanessa Downey is the Principal of Apex Outdoor Sales, aka, my boss, and the woman who inspired me to fight my own anxiety from social distancing by channeling my creativity into this project! Vanessa and her family have endured and recovered successfully from evacuating New Orleans during Katrina and the business impacts of both Katrina and the BP oil spill on the outdoor recreating market. She has, both literally and metaphorically, experience weathering many types of storms and agreed to be interviewed on her best practices in such.


Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park

So what, exactly do social distancing and shelter in place orders really mean?

Social Distancing, according to Johns Hopkins University, is “a public health practice that aims to prevent sick people from coming in close contact with healthy people in order to reduce opportunities for disease transmission. It can include large scale measures like cancelling group events or closing public spaces, as well as individual decisions such as avoiding crowds… The goal of social distancing right now is to slow down the outbreak in order to reduce the chance of infection among high risk populations and reduce the burden on health care systems and workers.”


Many communities throughout the US are also experiencing “shelter in place” mandates, which take social distancing measures a bit further. According to USA Today, “The term ‘shelter in place’ means to stay in your home and not leave unless necessary for one of the designated exceptions”


The designated list is as follows:

• “Engaging in or performing tasks essential to health and safety, or to the health and safety of family/household members. This includes pets. Examples include picking up medicine, visiting a doctor or getting supplies to work from home. • Obtaining necessary supplies or to deliver supplies to others. Things like groceries count here. • Going for a run, hike or other outdoor activity, as long as proper social distancing is observed. * • To care for a family member or pet in another household • To perform work at an essential business or perform minimum basic operations” *Woot! This is our ticket to freedom, my friends! For the purposes of this piece, all of the guidance provided will fall within the stricter of the two measures, so that all of our bases are covered.

Practically speaking, for most of us - social distancing looks like working from home if we are lucky, and in some cases being laid off or having hours severely cut. Unless of course you are employed in one of the fields deemed ‘essential’ in which case, thank you for your service from myself and the entire team at Apex Outdoor Sales! It also looks, for everyone, like cancelled parties, concerts, weddings, events and vacations. It looks like not visiting with your parents or grandparents to protect their health and safety. It looks, well, frankly, lonely.

Loneliness can look different for everyone, but it can most certainly impact all of us. I spoke with Dr. Premo about balancing your need for face to face interaction with your duty to society - it can be tough; every one of us will have a need of some kind, at some point, that we are struggling to meet amidst the challenging restrictions of social distancing. She suggested coming up with a plan now, detailing the level of social interaction you require to stay healthy, and subsequently what you may need from friends and family to achieve that. Don’t be ashamed to ask those who love you for their help.


Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park

I asked Dr. Premo to lend me some insight into what a self check in might look like*. Ask yourself the following:


• Do you find yourself lost in thoughts that are anxiety provoking? • Are you spending hours per day feeling hopeless? • Do you have physical symptoms that are out of the norm for you (sweatiness, fatigue, sleeping more than normal, loss of appetite)? • Are you feeling distracted? Attentional difficulties hurting your capacity to focus?

First and foremost, Dr. Premo suggests giving yourself permission to take it easy. Mental and physical health are closely tied. She suggested trying to continue to impose a structure for yourself. Get up at the same time each day, eat meals at the same time, continue practicing personal hygiene, keep a schedule – in short, keep the basic activities of daily living as a priority. The things you do to upkeep your happiness are something you should continue to practice, even if in a modified way.


*if you are experiencing some or all of these symptoms, it is always a good idea to seek established mental health care in addition to the suggestions given here.

Now - for the real meat and potatoes. Ok, Alyssa, we know social distancing can be emotionally strenuous and mentally taxing but I thought we came here to talk about nature? We sure did.


Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of the information I learned from Cristina overlaps with Dr. Premo. Cristina talked a lot about viewing social distancing as an opportunity to connect, with ones self and with nature. So now that we have made our mental health checklist, understand the steps we need to take in regards to our social circles, let’s talk about our souls.

To begin, please, take a deep breath.


Cristina opened with the question “How can we invite a one on one experience with nature – but locally?” Not everyone has ready access to transit to a state or city park, or lives in walking or biking distance of one. But I bet every single one of you can rediscover your yard, find a healthy patch of grass, or even just a tree.


Found your tree? Excellent. Now what?


Grab a journal and a writing utensil. Bring with you any natural objects that are special to you that symbolize your connection to nature: a rock, a feather, a crystal. Take off your shoes and feel the earth beneath your feet and go to your tree. Greet the tree. This might feel a little woo-woo to some of you, but humor me. Put your hands on the tree. Take a deep breath together. Sit with your back against the tree. Close your eyes, take 5 more deep breaths.


Think about what you need. Is it clarity? Gratitude? To let go of your ego?


While goals are important, that is not what this particular experience is about. This exercise is about taking the goals out of your nature experience. Slow down. Ponder. Ask yourself what you really want from life. Look at this as an opportunity to deepen your spiritual relationship with both nature and yourself. Be grateful for your breath.


Now, journal. Be in the moment and express gratitude.


According to Cristina, gratitude is the most strongly felt positive emotion. I visited this point with Dr. Premo, and she noted that positive psychology supports the idea that gratitude can facilitate people being not only more positive, but more resilient. It helps us better relish in good experiences and ties into our level of mindfulness, which in turn promotes self awareness. See? Not so woo-woo after all.


While Cristina’s practice is extremely powerful and effective for some, there are more traditional methods of approaching your nature experience – I am talking about the kind that makes you break a sweat! Frank and I spoke about fitness in the context of gyms being closed – he noted that they WILL reopen and that its probably a good idea to keep your membership if you’re able. Frank stated that 30 minutes to an hour daily of working out (as opposed to the typically recommended minimum of 20 mins) is what he suggests, given that we are not ‘getting our steps in’ at a level normal day to day activities would allow. A great way to get your fitness fix is hiking.


Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest

Are you a tenured hiker? Grab your gear and GO! If you normally get your workout at a gym, now is the time to look to nature for your exercise. Currently, Texas State Parks are open by appointment only. It’s also important to note that local areas – like the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail in Austin, remain open and are likely the most accessible. Still, it’s important to practice handwashing, cover your face and keeping your distance to those that share any trail with you. Cristina noted that some practices common on the trail should be avoided, like sharing water and carpooling. Bring hand sanitizer if you are able. Stay six feet apart.

Eli and I discussed gearing up for the novice – if you love the idea of playing outside but don’t have outdoor specific apparel, be creative.


Workout clothes most often hold up just fine for these activities – do your best to find what you already own and see if you can put together and outfit, decent shoes, and non- cotton socks and a water bottle. OR, change your game. I followed up with Eli when Austin instituted Shelter In Place order and he had great insight: “Austin has issued a shelter-in-place order which I interpret as staying put minus trips to the grocery store and spending time outside to exercise. Although the Butler Trail and greenbelt are still open, we need to remember to be good stewards and be conscious of trail congestion. Over-crowding - even though it’s not intentional - makes social distancing challenging. I’m fortunate to be able to run the Deer Park section of the Violet Crown Trail. And that’s the beauty of running... you don’t need to go anywhere to do it and you don’t need any fancy equipment. I’d encourage folks to slip on their running shoes and take in a new perspective of their own neighborhood.” If you are in need of some basics regardless of the activity, like rain gear, appropriate footwear, wool socks, reusable water bottles etc., REI.com is still delivering. So is Whole Earth Provision Co. with 7 locations around Texas – Several, shops, including Whole Earth Provision Co. are offering curbside pickup when the city permits, (https://www.wholeearthprovision.com/), as well as Brazos River Supply in Waco (brazosriversupplyco.com) and Good Sports in San Antonio (https://www.goodsports.com/)


Eliott spoke candidly about the healing power of nature experiences. He mentioned a lot of millennials are really starting to hit the incline on their careers, at the age where our positions are becoming more and more important to the day to day operations of our chosen fields. Plus Social media. And now the Coronavirus. None of those things can get to you outdoors. Finding a place of solace with a majestic landscape can make our problems feel small – literally and metaphorically. Pushing yourself in nature can be humbling and give perspective, detaching from the things that stress you out or feed your ego. I personally love Eliott’s perspective – The next step is in front of you. Look around you, experience the magnitude of the place you are in, kill your cabin fever and clear out the mental garbage of being cooped up.


Zion National Park
Zion National Park

I followed up with Eliott as things began changing rapidly from the time I started writing this post until now. I asked him, 3 weeks in, what he thought. “The outdoors over the past few days have felt more peaceful than ever before. The rest of the world is crazier than it's ever been, but the quiet of the forest, the freshness of the air, and the solitude of my surroundings are more enjoyable than ever. There's only so much TV you can watch, social media you can stare at, and online shopping you can do before you need a change. I'm lucky that I get to step outside into the wilderness and see the world keep spinning in a slower way. It's even less scary than it's ever been. The human world is chaos right now, but the rules of the wild haven't changed at all. It is constant. It's peace. I have a deeper appreciation than ever before.”


Lastly, I spoke with Vanessa, and many of her words echoed the other wise voices of the experts I interviewed before her. The main thing she drove home is don’t panic and don’t be afraid – it’s a human instinct we have to work hard to overcome. Rule #1 take control of the fear and focus on what you can control, maintain calm, working together, leaning on your family. Distract yourself from the panic. Reunite with a friend, even virtually. Move forward as best you can and keep a schedule, eat right, take care of yourself. Get outside, exercise your lungs and your limbs. Go check out your own backyard. There is so much you’re normally too busy to stop and hear.


The resounding messaging from the entire crew I interviewed was to use this time as best you can, to reconnect, with nature, with yourself, with an opportunity to slow down. Look inwardly as you stay indoors, and take time to get outside, so that when we are allowed back out, we can come out swinging.


Bibliography

Pearce, Katie. “COVID-19 information and resources for Johns Hopkins University” HUB, Johns Hopkins University. March 13, 2020. https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/03/13/what-is-social-distancing/


Culver, Jordan. “Can you leave home with 'shelter-in-place' order in effect during coronavirus crisis? Yes, under certain circumstances.” USA Today, Health. March 17, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/…/coronavirus-san-fran…/5073397002/


Rizzo, Cailey. “Some National Parks Are Still Open : What To Know Before Heading Out.” Explore, Travel and Leisure. https://www.travelandleisure.com/…/national-parks-closings-…


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