COLUMN: Nature is our final safe haven

Let’s face it: This COVID-19 pandemic is a real kick in the teeth. 

I’ll admit, at first I didn’t take this seriously. I thought it was another thing blown up by the mainstream media like the other viruses I’ve lived through. Sure, every new flu or major illness that circulates through the human population should be taken seriously, but after being inundated with breaking news flashes every two minutes I began to wave it off without a care. 

But folks, this coronavirus business is serious. Every day we learn of new states and cities implementing lockdowns, shelter in place protocols or more. The number of sick people in our country keeps rising, and now fear is beginning to take over a lot of us. 

That doesn’t have to be the case though, and it shouldn’t be. We’ll come out of this just fine, but right now we need to hunker down and listen to what the medical experts are saying. 

One thing folks aren’t talking about on the mainstream media, though, is getting outdoors. This past weekend, my girlfriend and I needed a break from the COVID-19 junk, so we packed our backpack, loaded our coonhound into the car and began our journey to Davis to explore Dolly Sods. 

The Dolly Sods Wilderness trailhead. The hardwoods were covered in a thin layer of snow that was slowly melting in the rising temperatures. (Andrew Spellman/The Dominion Post)

It was breathtaking. I hadn’t been to the Canaan Valley area since I was in undergrad at WVU. It had just snowed the night before and the firs were covered in slowl melting snow. Little streams had formed from the snowmelt and cut apart our trail, and the sounds of birds in the trees were alive: Singing songs of the soon-coming Spring. Before we hit a microclimate change at 4,000 feet elevation, a large snowmelt had formed what resembled a creek. Water was rushing down the steep hill – something our dog, Jillian, loved to use to clean her paws and grab a quick drink – that made it seem slightly treacherous should we lose our footing. Luckily, we only got a little splashback from stomping through the water en route to the middle point of our hike. 

In the new climate, the thick hardwood cover split into an open field with sparse trees, pockets of blueberry bushes and heath barrens as far as the eye could see. We stopped to catch our breath and look at the neighboring ridges – I was also scouting for turkeys – and took in the immense beauty that is largely untouched by man. It was a moment of zen for me. I could have stayed for hours on that ridge, letting the fog roll over me while I glassed the surrounding area for turkeys and planning in my head where I would camp for the upcoming season, but daylight was dwindling and we needed to get back. 

Red spruce trees rise above different plant life at the higher elevations in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. (Andrew Spellman/The Dominion Post)

Five miles later, we were back in the Canaan Wildlife Refuge and heading down the hill to go home. 

Since that day, I’ve been pulled to go back. Don’t get me wrong, I love listening to the ducks and geese talking on the Cheat River down the hill from my house but there’s something magical about the backcountry. And this is why I’m writing this, this crux of this lengthy anecdote: I believe nature is our final haven in this crazy time. First off, we’re still allowed to hike, walk our pets and hunt and fish in certain areas of public land. And of course, it should be obvious that, as long as you keep the group size small, you’re not breaking the 10-person limit from the social distancing guidelines. Plus, it’s natural that you’re a few feet away from someone when you’re hiking, whether it be because you’re slowing down from being tired or you’re taking your time looking at the wilderness around you. 

Jillian the coonhound rests before taking on a 7-mile hike in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. (Andrew Spellman/The Dominion Post)

I believe that we should all be taking advantage of our public lands – and private if you’re lucky enough to own some acreage. There’s something called “grounding” that’s been circulating on my social media feeds since this coronavirus intensified in the states. Some of you may know what it is and write it off as some hippie mumbo-jumbo, but for those not versed in the practice, it is essentially a technique that “electrically reconnects you to the earth” by walking barefoot outdoors, lying on the ground or submerging yourself in water. Whether it’s a crock of pseudoscience shit or some legitimate, under-researched form of therapy, I can speak for myself that just being immersed in nature heals my mind and soul. I don’t walk around barefoot or roll around in the grass, but just existing among the trees, rocks, animals and plant life do something for me. 

And I believe it can benefit the rest of you, too. 

So get outside. And when you return from your adventure, make sure you wash your hands well, disinfect high-traffic devices well and don’t panic until there’s a legitimate reason to. Stay healthy, friends – we’ll get through this. 

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