I’ve got my water. I’ve got my sun hat. I’ve strapped on my mask. I’m about to hit one of my favorite trails in the world, one hand on the car door, when I’m paralyzed by a familiar moment of anxiety.
On the surface, it manifests as the kind of don’t wanna feeling often felt prior to any exercise. But…I want to hear the end of Marketplace! But…the car is 10 degrees warmer than the outside! (The San Francisco Bay Area’s tendency to drop temperature suddenly, even on a beautiful May day, still feels like an outrage after 20 years here.) But…I should check the trail route on my phone again, even though I’ve been here a dozen times, and while I’m there why not open Instagram and look at everyone else’s hiking photos before taking mine?
But but but…I know what’s really going on. It isn’t the car’s relative warmth so much as its bubble of coronavirus safety. While I’m in it, I don’t have to speedwalk past those maskless dog walkers, the ones I can hear talking loudly to each other. I don’t have to think about the recent experimental study showing loud maskless talkers could launch thousands of coronavirus droplets which can stay in the air for up to 14 minutes. There’s no risk of discovering and being depressed by a lack of social distancing, here in the region that shut down earliest and became the poster child for bending the COVID-19 curve.
And while I’m sitting here I don’t have to think too much about the cop car sitting around the corner from the Seaview trailhead parking lot — a lot that, as far as I can tell, has officially reopened. I’m paranoid about which of the local patchwork of orders is still in effect. Los Angeles County officials announced the reopening of most of its trails last week, but there was no similar announcement in the Bay Area. I’m 4.1 miles from home; might that be 0.1 miles further than I’m officially allowed?
Welcome to hiking in the age of coronavirus: The ultimate balm and an irritant all at once. Out on the trail, you literally breathe easy while the view takes your metaphorical breath away. You get the exercise that has been shown to ward off one of the most lethal COVID-19 complications, and soak up the Vitamin D that two studies have correlated with lower infection risk (though one hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed). And at the same time, you’re on constant alert for fellow hikers — both the coronavirus clueless, and the ones you must pass on parts of the trail where social distance is impossible.
You can make yourself more anxious than Chidi in The Good Place about whether you’re actually doing the right thing in being out here. In those first few pre-mask weeks, the dilemma was compounded by confusion about what we were officially allowed to do. One UK police department tried to use drone footage to shame people simply for walking in a national park, though it came in for widespread criticism for doing so. Facebook meme-makers blared STAY THE FUCK AT HOME without conveying the necessary nuance in shelter-in-place orders.
For all that, I’ve done more hiking in the age of coronavirus than I ever have before, and I would recommend it to anyone. Because once you find yourself perched on a ridge mile from anyone and anywhere, once you let the deep green silence wash over you, you can truly rediscover your connection to nature — one made all the more profound by the fact we’re living through one of nature’s periodic attempts to kill us all.
Down from the door where it began
My coronavirus hiking adventure began way back in what feels like prehistory, back near the beginning of lockdown. While delivering Muse headbands for this year’s socially distant March Mindfulness challenge, I came across a pristine copy of the Bay Area Ridge Trail guidebook in a Little Free Library. I hadn’t even known the Bay Area Ridge Trail was a thing, but there it was: a giant loop that skirts the edges of San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, and Silicon Valley. It doesn’t connect all the way yet, but you can hike more than 250 miles of it.
“Just so you know,” I told my wife while reading the trail guide on the couch the next day, “I’ve decided to hike the whole Bay Area Ridge Trail during quarantine.” My wife raised a skeptical eyebrow, for which I can’t blame her. She’s used to these kinds of grandiose project pronouncements, and in normal times it’s fair to say only a few come to fruition.
But then the next day, out for a run on that favorite trail 4.1 miles from home, I accidentally happened upon a segment of the official route. I crossed a road, opened a cattle gate, and there it was — a Bay Area Ridge Trail sign, bold and blue as the sky. As I ran and walked down a path that descended into a forested valley, then rolled up to a pretty hillside curve with benches and views of Mount Diablo, I had a Lord of the Rings moment: damn, I live in the Shire.
Not for the first time on a trail, I began to hum Gandalf’s little ditty: The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.
Once started, the Ridge Trail habit was hard to stop. I took a week of staycation and planned to do one route segment of between 8 and 12 miles each day. I located a mask, loaded a CamelBak with lemon water, and made my own trail mix at home because we were still avoiding groceries as much as possible. My wife kindly agreed to drop me off at the start of each day and sweep my aching body back up at the end of it.
Meanwhile the world seemed to be conspiring as hard as it could to give me a case of the don’t want. First it rained for two days straight. Then on the third day, the Bay Area shelter in place order was amended to add a distance limit to how far you could officially be from home — a limit we would definitely be breaking later in the week. On top of that, all of the parks in the Marin and Sonoma segments of the Ridge Trail were shutting down.
But the East Bay parks that were next on my clockwise route remained open. Besides, the prospect of transgressing official guidance did a couple of things. For the first time in my life, it made hiking seem like an edgy and alluringly dangerous pursuit. And secondly, it meant I wouldn’t waste time Instagramming the whole thing for fear of triggering a wave of STAY THE FUCK AT HOME comments. I would be forced to have direct experience, unmediated by social media.
Over the course of the next five days and 50 miles, that’s what I got. All the guff parents and elders would say about hiking and nature, all the stuff that would make me roll my eyes when I was a kid; I finally, truly felt it. I had a stupid grin plastered on my face, even in the most painful moments — such as the afternoon a couple of wasps somehow managed to crawl into my cinched-up running pants. Only when it felt like I’d suddenly walked into a stinging nettle did I discover my stowaways. I’ve never screamed, stamped on things and ran away that hard in my life. This will make a great story one day, I reassured myself as my stings and I hobbled through a eucalyptus grove with no cell service.
I was right (and lucky: I’m not allergic to wasps). The good moments far outweighed the bad. Yes, there were one or two suspiciously large groups of people who didn’t social distance, people I ran around while grumbling. And then there was this message, stuck to the back of a trail sign in the Sibley Regional Volcanic Preserve. I’m still trying to figure out if it was a joke, and if so on whom:
But the vast majority were polite and appropriate and mask-wearing. Meeting on a trail, we’d wave ahead of time, then one of us would invariably stand as far as we could off to the side while we passed facing away from each other. I had so many hours where I saw no one at all that I started to think, perversely, more people need to experience this.
Then and now
And experience it they did, while my resolution to keep on hiking the Ridge Trail down in the South Bay (on weekends, at least) fell by the wayside. By the time of that latest anxious hike, the Bay Area Ridge Trail had filled up substantially — at least, in the first mile or so from any given trailhead.
At first I see no one but a masked runner in a Berkeley marathon jersey. We lock eyes, give the little coronavirus era wave: I see you, fellow fragile human. I protect you, I protect us. But half a mile in, there’s a family standing on both sides of the trail at once, necessitating a sub-6 foot zigzag. The man half-heartedly reaches for his bandana, a shrug of a gesture as if to say “eh, you know.” Then comes a posse of teenagers doing the same, then two teenage couples who didn’t even bother with bandanas. How could they; they’re young and in love; they’re immortal.
A maskless man on a mountain bike passes within 6 feet. Twice.
Over the hill of the first mile, I think I’ve found what I’m looking for: sudden, blissful green silence. Then from around a bend, a pair of loud and maskless older women out walking dogs appear, dominating the path. But there, to the right, salvation: The road less traveled, a modest trail spur I’ve never seen until now that climbs up to a watershed. I’m rewarded with a sudden clearing, rolling green hills, one more Lord of the Rings moment.
Finally, with almost no human interaction, I reach my destination. It’s my favorite spot on a trail named Seaview. A hill where the reward is a very rare sight, all three major bridges of the Bay Area (the Golden Gate, the Bay, the San Rafael) at once. There are two benches and someone has already claimed one, but that’s okay; the benches were socially distanced from each other before it was cool.
At your feet, a small labyrinth constructed with stones. All around, birds twitter from every kind of California tree. And on the fourth side, more ridges and reservoirs slope away into a sky that may never be this smog-free again, not for a long time.
I turn and head for home, heading back around another corner, and there’s a little stone wall, tailor-made for a writer to sit and take notes.
I get up just as another hiker approaches, realize my mask is in my pocket, turn away again. “Which way are you going?”, he calls out, but the answer is: It doesn’t matter, whichever way is best for you. I find a grove of trees where I can put the mask on as he passes safely. We work it out. We get by.