The Essential Outdoors: How One City-Dweller Gets Her Nature Fix Amid COVID-19 Restrictions

January 4, 2021
Lesley OswinUrban hiker and cyclist Laura Melamed hikes the Jones Falls Trail in Baltimore’s Mount Washington neighborhood.

It was too risky to organize in communities, our boss said in a briefing she gave from her home in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was March 13. We were at the office. “I’m laying you all off,” she continued. From the sound of her voice, it wasn’t a message she wanted to deliver. We were welcome back, she added, once it was safe.

Before the pandemic I worked outside all week, hiking around Greater Baltimore’s neighborhoods and knocking doors four hours a day as a community organizer with the nonprofit Clean Water Action. On weekends I’d get dirty in a community garden for two hours with 30 people. I’d hike or bike every day as part of my commute. Then COVID-19 began to spread in the early spring. Stay-at-home orders here in Maryland followed on March 30.

I was stunned at my boss’s announcement. Clean Water Action sent us out in everything. We were like mail carriers for the environment. We carried a lot less paper but we went out in snow, rain, heat, and dark of night—and health disasters, I would’ve thought.

The work kept me outdoors almost all day. I’d felt like I was hiking for a living, even though we were in the city or suburbs. Sometimes there were long stretches between houses and steep inclines or steps cut into hills leading up to people’s front doors. I walked 40 flights one night, according to the activity tracker on my phone. Sometimes we walked only 2 miles. Other times it was five-plus. I wore a mix of hiking gear and regular clothes.

I hiked in hail, through woods, to hidden houses, tucked away in twilight. I hiked against freezing wind. I hiked through hot, steamy summers. I hiked through the cool relief and early dark of fall. I hiked through blossoming spring, long days, tall grass, and warming weather, blissfully peeling off layer after layer under the benevolent sun and breezy, balmy air.

What would I do now?

I gathered most of my stuff together to leave the office that fateful day but I left my hiking boots where they lived under a bench there when I wasn’t out canvassing on a wet or snowy day. It was sandal season, now.

“I’ll be back,” I told the office manager. Was I reassuring him—or myself?

I pedaled home 3 miles from the commuter train. The familiar route felt strange. It was the end of the world and I found myself angry I probably wasn’t going to be employed for Bike to Work Day, celebrated nationwide in May. I bike commuted every spring, summer, and fall; it was a huge part of my identity. I felt a gaping sense of loss as I rode home. I brought my bike inside and sat in a chair by the front door. I watched the sky grow dark.

In winter I was a “hike commuter.” Who was I if I wasn’t out braving the elements to save the world? That was a gigantic part of my identity. And honestly, walking around outdoors was massively therapeutic. It calmed me. Stress dissipated with each step I took. I used to get migraines a lot until I started working with Clean Water Action. Then I rarely got one and if I did it went away while I was out canvassing. The more I moved, the better I felt. Paying attention to the terrain while I was outdoors was essential and that focus helped me feel grounded. The sunlight reflecting off the sidewalk on a winter day boosted my mood. Birds darted around—a relaxing, natural chorus to the melody that was my hike, my shift, my workday.

I thought wistfully of my favorite neighborhood to hike through and organize in—Mount Washington, in northwest Baltimore—with dappled sunlight on broken sidewalk under old growth trees and earth-friendly yards owned by people gung-ho to help Clean Water Action, always eager to sign petitions and donate funds to aid our environmental advocacy work. Wait. That neighborhood was five blocks away. I had to go through it to get to the community garden.

I could still hike there.

Then bad news alerts started coming in like driving hail and I was dodging the pellets. Humanity seemed to be in serious trouble. I was anxious, waiting for the other hiking boot to drop.

Walking hilly back roads with my friend Emiko after our shift at the garden, where we now met in groups of 10, she pointed out there was good news too—air pollution had plummeted. That sounded pretty awesome for humanity to me.

Then stay-at-home orders were announced. With a chill I pictured a room full of shadows and sunlight taunting me from behind dusty windows. My apartment wasn’t that bad, but somehow that creepy image came to mind.

So, I was supposed to hike around inside? Jump on the couch?

Panicky, I called my boyfriend and searched for “stay-at-home orders” on Google.

“You should be able to get outside for your own physical and mental well-being and go for a walk…” Governor Hogan had said in a press conference.

Did everyone know that?

I shared the news on Facebook.

“My neighbor told me I could get arrested for taking a walk,” my friend Bridget commented. “Thanks for the information.”

***

For my own sanity, I took walks by the stream down the street. I hiked along the water to the Mount Washington neighborhood and got on the Jones Falls Trail (JFT), which runs through Baltimore City and is also part of the East Coast Greenway. I used to commute on the JFT but now I was staying close to home, getting exercise or going to the grocery store. I took photos of nature and selfies with sidewalk in the background. I posted them with taglines: “Essential Walk” and “Essential Hike.” I’d found a new way to be an outdoorsy activist.

I tried to keep focusing on the positive.

Desperately seeking any opportunity to celebrate, I asked my friend Carol to bike on Earth Day. I’d first met Carol when I knocked on her door with Clean Water Action, and then she turned up at the community garden. I just discovered she’s also a member of AMC. On Mother’s Day—another reason to celebrate—Carol and I rode 7 miles, got breakfast, sat on church steps in the sun, 6 feet apart, and ate. We rode 7 miles back, uphill. I had my bike legs back. I wasn’t commuting, but at least I was a cyclist again. I biked to outdoor yoga classes. I biked to the garden.

Around us, streets filled with families on bicycles. It was a renaissance.

When I’m outdoors, hiking or biking, my blood sings. Even in extreme weather—as I fumble to keep my balance in ice-covered drifts, hearing sounds like sleet against snow can be a meditation—and once I’m back I’m glad I went. I’m still stomping around close to home. Clean Water Action isn’t sending out the field canvassers yet, but I ride my bike on warmer, sunny days, and I walk the hills of Mount Washington three times a week. I have to stay fit if I’m ever going to go back to Clean Water Action—and anyway, I love these essential hikes and bike rides. I’m happier when I’m outside, calmer. When the sun moves across the sky, the light changes, and the shadows shift across the ground, I feel like I’m really alive. Like I’ve really experienced a day—even if it isn’t a work day.


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Laura Melamed

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.